Exploring the Wonders of Vietnam

January 12, 2006
Ho Chi Minh City

The scene at the Ho Chi Minh City airport was surprising and very moving. After making our way through slow, crowded lines at the immigration desk, baggage claim, and customs, we emerged from the airport into the bright, humid warmth of late morning in the former Saigon.


Arranged in neat rows on both sides of the path we walked from the exit to the parking lot (where a bus awaited our party), were orderly rows of Vietnamese of all ages, six or eight deep, intensely watching every traveler who emerged. Many held flowers or balloons, and on almost every face was a mixture of emotions -intense concentration, anticipation, worry, love, and, finally, joy. The joy came in bursts as each family group spotted a loved one who had just arrived. It's Tet, the lunar New Year, and family members are coming back to Viet Nam to celebrate.

Had we thought about it, we might have known what to expect. Our Singapore Airlines Boeing 777 from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City carried many Vietnamese families. Across the aisle from me were a man and woman with three young children. They were from Lancaster, Pa., and were coming "home" for the fourth time since 2002. Another family nearby was also from Pennsylvania. Just behind us were two elderly Vietnamese women. All were coming back to their homeland, where families would be reunited - at least temporarily - for the holiday.

At the terminal, the baggage belts disgorged our suitcases. Each of us had one, but the returning Vietnamese had mountains of luggage, no doubt stuffed with goods from America for their relatives in Viet Nam. One extended family ahead of me had at least a dozen pieces, including two huge mover's cartons held together by miles of tape. Harried customs officers merely x-rayed all of these items; I didn't see a single bag opened for inspection. Then the happy reunions began, spilling all over the arrival area.

All of the Swarthmore travelers arrived in good order from their various starting points. My roommate, Koof Kalkstein '78, had flown via Hong Kohg from his home in California, arriving late Wednesday night. (It's now Thursday in Viet Nam; the time here is exactly 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time at home.) Koof is writing a blog of his own, which you can find at http://kooftravels.blogspot.com. Our first formal meeting occurred at the famous (and now completely modernized) Caravelle Hotel, where we heard a detailed and interesting lecture on Vietnamese history and culture from Prof. Duong Ngoc, whose life had taken him from South Viet Nam to college in the U.S. in the 1950s, to a captaincy in the South Vietnamese Army (he trained in counter-guerilla tactics at Ft. Bragg, N.C.), to his current position as principal of a middle school in Ho Chi Minh City.

As fascinating as Prof. Duong's experience and lecture was, many of us had to work hard to stay awake to listen to it. We were like a bunch of Swarthmore students who had pulled one too many all-nighters, in our case on two overnight flights in a row. After dinner and a good night's sleep, we'll be ready to explore Saigon, a bustling city of 6 million.

About This Site

In January 2006, a 40-person contingent of Swarthmoreans is traveling to Vietnam as members of the Alumni College Abroad. The trip, led by Associate Professor of Religion Steven Hopkins, will focus on the history, religion, and the vibrant culture of contemporary Vietnam. A smaller contingent will accompany Hopkins to Cambodia, including a tour of the famous temples of Angkor Wat.

Jeffrey Lott, editor of the Swarthmore College Bulletin, has joined the trip to write about it for the magazine. This site is a series of reports filed by Jeff from Vietnam and Cambodia during the trip. Your responses are invited.

Vietnam 2006 Itinerary

List of Travelers

Respond to these posts

Blog Entries

Leaving Tomorrow: Jan 9, 2006
From 35,000 feet: Jan 11, 2006
Ho Chi Minh City: Jan 12, 2006
Museums of Vietnam: Jan 14, 2006
Temples and Tunnels: Jan 16, 2006
Stories and a Poem: Jan 17, 2006
Skipping School: Jan 18, 2006
Dateline Hanoi: Jan 19, 2006
Three Days in Hanoi: Jan 20, 2006
Winding Down: Jan 26, 2006
Poor Phnom Penh: Jan 27, 2006
Chuc Mung Nam Moi: Jan 29, 2006