New Viet Nam Studies Initiative

With a population of 92.7 million, 70% of which are under 40 years old, and a literacy rate of 97.3 percent, Viet Nam – the fastest growing nation in Southeast Asia – has moved rapidly in international economic ranking, with the goal of becoming a ‘middle income’ nation in the next 10-20 years. The signing of international trade agreements and visits from heads of states begs the question of how increasing open trade and warming of relations with superpowers will strengthen Viet Nam’s economy while maintaining its sovereignty. Additionally, with environmental concerns looming, most notably the dramatic climate changes and factory chemical spills (and the devastating loss of marine life as a result), issues of health protections and sustainable growth have reached an important juncture. These and many other pertinent research questions will have practical consequences for Viet Nam and its widening global reach. American knowledge production on Viet Nam, however, has not been sufficient enough in answering inquiries about current issues affecting Viet Nam, because writings in the English language have focused almost exclusively on the geopolitics and military history of the Viet Nam War and its consequences for Americans. There is an increase in scholars engaging in research on contemporary Viet Nam, but they are scattered across the US and throughout the globe.

Given this ripe climate for research, UC Davis created the New Viet Nam Studies Initiative (NVSI). NVSI promotes research in the sciences and social sciences on contemporary Viet Nam – domestically and internationally – with focus on economic and political development in addition to arts and culture. We bring together scholars, industry experts, government officials, activists, and artists to lend their knowledge of the many dimensions that comprise contemporary Viet Nam. This includes collaborative research, symposia, conferences, forums, performances, curricula, and publications.

The New Viet Nam Studies Initiative has worked on the following projects:

  • Expand on existing virtual space for research, collaboration, and exchanges regarding Viet Nam’s development.
  • Organize events that engage multiple disciplines on the most pertinent issues regarding contemporary Viet Nam and its diaspora.
  • Host International Symposia and events to; facilitate scholarly inquiries; provide networks for scholars to connect transnationally; and facilitate mentorship opportunities for students
  • Host international scholars, government officials, and delegations at UC Davis and surrounding areas for the collaborative exchange of information and projects.

The Viet Nam Studies Initiative is moving towards these endeavors:

  • Create white papers for policy recommendations.
  • Offer Vietnamese language courses to bring in new and deepen current scholarly endeavors. This is done with the anticipation of expanding curricula that will lead to a minor in Viet Nam Studies then a Viet Nam Studies Group with courses, faculty affiliates, and major.
  • Developing online media and online journal outlets for the research established at NVSI to expose to a broader global audience the current scholarship within New Viet Nam Studies.
  • Provide a physical space in the form of a Center to facilitate the projects stated above.

Since its inception in 2015, NVNSI has been largely run by undergraduate and graduate students, guided by me as the director. Students help set the agenda, procure funding, and represent the core of all organizing activities. This model is intended to mentor the next generation of scholars, and industry and community leaders so they can design the course for research and innovation into the future.

NVNSI hosts quarterly symposia, often incorporating STEM, Social Sciences/Humanities and international panelists (with attendees ranging from 50-200 at each event). In Spring of 2015 we helped organized the first Cham Conference at a major university, along with Southeast Asians Furthering Education (SAFE), Asian American Studies, and Native American Studies, “reGenerating Champa: Transitioning Identity from Past to Future.” Topics included grave issues of genocide and environmental justice. The international panelists were received by nearly 400 attendees and made history as the first university to host a Cham conference of this magnitude. In the spring of 2016, NVNSI addressed the issue of Agent Orange dioxins and the on-going damage to Viet Nam’s environment and people from multiple perspectives, “The Legacies of Agent Orange and Viet Nam’s Renewal,” with a screening of the 2015 Academy nominated short documentary, Chau Beyond the Lines, featuring director Courtney Marsh. Other panelists included Vance Fong, who has been working for over 15 years on the effects of Agent Orange as well as clean-up of the dioxins for the USEPA; Professor Fraser Shilling who had a hand in the research and restoration of the contaminated lands in Viet Nam; and US Veteran and activist, Paul Cox, the author of the Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2015, which provides assistance for the many men, women, and children who live with the effects of Agent Orange today. Over 100 students, faculty, staff, and community members were in attendance.

NVNSI has also actively hosted important diplomatic and research delegations from Viet Nam. For example, in the spring of 2018, NVNSI hosted five scholars from Viet Nam who were recipients of a multi-national grant researching on alternative media. They included deans and professors of communications, journalism, and politics and public administration. NVNSI organized their meeting with Facebook copyright experts on the Facebook campus; the social media expert for the mayor’s office and multimedia artists from co-op spaces, both from the City of Oakland; scholars on media at UC Davis and off campus; Global Affairs, and UC Davis social media division. They have continued to develop these connections, written reports, and presented at conferences advocating for more liberal policies on social media.

NVNSI also had an international conference, jointly funded by the University of Danang and University of California, Davis, which I organized in collaboration with and support from faculty, staff, and students from both universities. “From Possibilities to Vision and Action: Preparing Viet Nam for Its Next Phase of Growth,” brought together academics, industry experts, government officials, leading cultural producers, and youth to discuss the question of Viet Nam’s development in the 21st century. The conference featured an international group of 15 panelists from countries such as South Korea, Germany, Cambodia, the United States, and Vietnam, discussing diverse issues such as education reform, the impact of street fashion, and innovative bomb-disposal units. The conference was designed to facilitate a deep discussion about how best to accelerate progress towards a prosperous Viet Nam, driven by sustainable and inclusive economic advancement. It opened a meaningful dialogue that is mostly forbidden in an authoritarian state, necessitating many months of intense planning and deep political maneuvering. I appeared on national talk shows to promote the conference, spoke with ministers about the importance of the endeavor, and even negotiated with local police. Ultimately, it was a success, showing that productive discussion about the well-being of the nation and its people can bring about positive change. We have been following up with panelists and it is my intention to produce an edited anthology from the papers delivered and calling for more with the theme of alternative sustainable development. With programming like the conference and numerous symposia over the years, I feel my focus can move towards the other main goal of NVNSI, which is to promote publications.