While everything is still fresh in my mind, I thought that I would report on the Engaging With Vietnam – An Interdisciplinary Dialogue conference that was held last week at the University of Oregon. The Engaging With Vietnam initiative was founded in 2009 by Phan Le Ha (then at Monash University, now at the University of Hawaii). This past conference was the sixth time that this conference has been held, and the first time that it has been held in the continental US (previous conferences have been held in Vietnam, Australia, and Hawaii).
The Engaging With Vietnam conference currently enjoys the continuing support of the University of Hawaii, but it partners each year with another supporting university. For this sixth conference, Tuong Vu of the University of Oregon served as a co-organizer, and the University of Oregon generously co-sponsored and hosted the conference.
The Engaging With Vietnam conference has created a niche as a “mid-sized” conference. It is big enough to be interdisciplinary and to deal with multiple topics, but small enough so that people from different disciplines can actually interact and learn from each other. Further, the format of the conference is somewhat unique in that it mixes several keynote sessions (which all of the conference participants are encouraged to attend) with breakout sessions. The keynote speakers are encouraged to address the theme of the conference, which this year was “Frontiers and Peripheries: Vietnam Deconstructed and Reconnected,” and the idea is that by bringing people together several times over the course of the conference, a “dialog” can be created between the disciplines, and that ideas that are presented during the keynote sessions can be referred to and brought into play in the breakout sessions.
I would like to report briefly here on the keynote sessions (I obviously could not attend simultaneous breakout sessions, and therefore, it would be unfair for me to only report on the ones I attended).
The first day had an emphasis on historical scholarship. The first keynote session featured Chris Goscha and Tuong Vu. Chris Goscha spoke about the new historical survey of modern Vietnamese history that he is writing, while Tuong Vu presented his own narrative of the Vietnamese past. Both of these scholars presented what one might call “counter narratives” to the way that Vietnamese history has long been presented in both English and Vietnamese language histories.
Later in the first day there was another panel that focused more specifically on the 1950s and 1960s featuring Peter Zinoman, Nu-Anh Tran and Nguyen Tuan Cuong. Peter Zinoman re-examined the Nhan Van Giai Pham affair from the perspective of sources that he recently discovered in the archives. Nu-Anh Tran examined the anticommunist narrative that emerged in South Vietnam in the 1950s. And Nguyen Tuan Cuong discussed Nguyen Dang Thuc’s promotion of Confucianism in the context of decolonization in South Vietnam between 1955 and 1975.
The second day began with a keynote session on contemporary issues. Eric Harms presented his research on the new urban zone of Phu My Huong. Kimberly Hoang presented a paper that examined ways in which different aspects of the sex industry in Vietnam connect to perceptions of Asian ascendancy and Western decline. And Angie Ngoc Tran looked comparatively at the labor migrations of Vietnamese, Khmer and Cham to Malaysia.
Later on the second day there was a keynote session on education. Dang Van Huan analyzed why it is that there has been a lack of radical change in higher education even though many conditions for change exist. Phan Le Ha, meanwhile, examined the position of Western universities in Vietnam, and highlighted some of the contradictions surrounding the promotion of “Western education.”
The second day then ended with a presentation by Janet Hoskins on the role of Victor Hugo in the Cao Dai religion, and a presentation by William Chapman on the French archaeologists of the EFEO as “adjuncts of empire.”
These comments here of course do not do justice to the complexity of the ideas that were presented. Nonetheless, I hope that these brief comments will at least make it clear that these were stimulating and enlightening presentations, and that these scholars all presented ideas that we can certainly say are on the “frontier” of our knowledge about Vietnam.
There were more keynote speakers this year who presented on historical topics than has been the case in the past. Next year the conference will hopefully be held in Vietnam, and there will likely be a different emphasis in the keynote sessions at that conference, as this conference does not aim to repeat itself, but instead, to always welcome change.
As one of the co-organizers, I would like to thank once again the other co-organizers, Phan Le Ha and Tuong Vu, as well as the supporting universities, the University of Oregon and the University of Hawaii.
Finally, I look forward to seeing many of the people on this list [VSG] at a future Engaging With Vietnam conference.
The full program can be found here:
Liam Kelley (University of Hawaii at Manoa).