Three VCU students posing in front of the Golden Bridge at Ba Na Hills.
Robertson School strategic PR graduate students Carice Coleman, Chenelle Laroche, Jacqueline Van Dao stand in front of the Golden Bridge at Ba Na Hills. (Courtesy photo)

New VCU class takes students on media and culture study of Vietnam

Over 10 days, students visited historically and culturally relevant sites and international tourism destinations in Central Vietnam.

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As part of a newly designed two-week study abroad trip to Da Nang, Vietnam, seven Virginia Commonwealth University students documented their experiences in a shareable multimedia format for future travelers and scholars.

The class, offered through the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences, brought together students from the school’s advertising and public relations tracks, as well as a VCU da Vinci Center graduate student who studies media innovation.

“If you want to see the intersection of media and culture, go to Vietnam,” said Joshua James Smith, faculty instructor for the trip, public relations faculty and PR sequence coordinator. “It’s completely foreign to anything you’d see in the U.S., and that’s a good thing for scholars. You don’t have to be there long to see the obvious connections between religious, culinary and political influences on the media landscape.” 

As guests of The American University in Vietnam, the VCU students explored cultural and historic sites, participated in culinary and hospitality classes, met industry leaders in mass communication in Vietnam, and documented their experiences in the style of a media influencer to share with future travelers and scholars.

As part of a global collaboration, the university provided the students with housing, meals, access to key guest speakers, transportation and translators. AUV’s board chair and chancellor, Binh Thy Nguyen Tran, welcomed students the first day of class in Vietnam with an invitation to see and do everything Da Nang has to offer.

“About a year ago AUV approached us and started the conversation that led to this trip, which would not have been a success without their hospitality,” Smith said. “There’s so much opportunity for collaboration between both universities, and even though we’re on opposite sides of the globe, collaborations like this help bring people together to learn from one another.”

Over 10 days, Smith and staff from AUV led students through historically and culturally relevant site visits and international tourism destinations in Central Vietnam.

Just south of Da Nang, students took a day trip to the Marble Mountains, a series of five limestone and marble formations each named for a natural element. The caves beneath the mountains are home to an assortment of ancient Cham, Hindu and Buddhist shrines hinting at the region’s complex religious past. The mountain chain, once mined for its iconic veined marble and namesake, is now protected by the Vietnamese government for its historic significance, especially as an American outpost and airfield during the Vietnam War.

“Our main project for our study abroad class was to focus on a specific area that was interesting to us and fully understand it through the lens of a media and culture student,” said Kevin Nguyen, a senior studying creative and strategic advertising at the Robertson School of Media and Culture. “Each of us had to pick our own topic to explore, and my topic was food. … Picking a topic that’s as fun as that really forced me to go out of my comfort zone and pushed me to explore more of the places that we traveled to. The best part of traveling anywhere is getting to try things that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to, and there were definitely some dishes that I had there that I’ll never forget.”

Nearly an hour east, in the mountains of Da Nang, students traveled up the longest, highest cable car in the world to reach the top of Ba Na Hills, a highly promoted tourism destination in Southeast Asia marketed to neighboring countries like Korea, Japan and China for visiting families. Here, history and culture divide to make way for a newly designed theme park that sits atop a mountain overlooking Central Vietnam.

Three hours north of Da Nang, through the famous Hai Vân Pass, students visited the Imperial City of Hue, home to the ancient Citadel and figures from the country’s rich and complex history of dynasties, French occupation and liberation.

“Before I arrived in Da Nang, I planned on focusing on the subject of religion and spirituality, mostly because my dad grew up Buddhist near the Hai Châu District, while my mom was raised as a Catholic in Bien Hoa,” said Vy-anh Nguyen, a senior advertising student at the Robertson School. “With personal ties to the topic, the study abroad trip was also a tool for self-exploration. After days of observation, I learned of the influence that Buddhism has on Vietnamese culture and lifestyle, which I was able to compare to my own experience as a Vietnamese American.”

Students also took part in a half-day cooking class taught by the four-star head chef from the Royal Lotus Hotel in Da Nang. During the cooking class, students were shown how to create local dishes such as Goi Cuon (spring rolls) and Banh Xeo (Vietnamese crepes). Included with the cooking class, students also were educated on guidelines for hospitality in hotels and restaurants in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

In the second week of the program, students were featured by news station DRT TV in Da Nang after meeting the station’s general manager, who helped define the emerging and complicated role of media in Vietnam. The segment showcased the uniqueness of the program and the students’ willingness to study the media landscape in Vietnam.

“My main focus was on health and beauty in Da Nang,” said Jackie Van Dao, a graduate student in the Robertson School’s Strategic PR program. “The media components I chose were picture and video, and shared them via Instagram and YouTube. To my surprise, thousands of people in Da Nang are up at 4 to 5 a.m. on the beach working out, or in some way getting active, to start their day strong. While we were at the Da Nang TV station, I also learned that beauty is a popular topic in the city, whether it’s makeup or skin care products.”

The Robertson School's study abroad to Da Nang, Vietnam in the summer of 2020 is currently in development. Interested students should contact professor Joshua Smith to learn more.