I am an American-born Vietnamese, or goc viet (having Vietnamese roots). That’s different from a viet kieu, which is someone who’s left Vietnam, like my parents. Until this trip I’ve always called myself viet kieu, but then I learned goc viet — and there is a difference.
My reason to travel to Vietnam, on my “own” and for so long, was to learn more about my heritage and culture. My first and only visit before this trip entailed me following my parents around, staying at nice hotels and having a private bus (there were 20+ of us), maybe speaking a word here and there. I never felt like I’ve been to Vietnam, if that makes sense (and yet my American friends know how much I love everything Vietnamese). To fulfill that, I felt I should experience it myself to really be a Vietnamese.
Have I done that in my one month here? Not quite, exactly. I realized I can’t be one of the Vietnamese; I’m a goc viet. It’s not home to me like it is to them, where so much has changed in their single lifetime. But from this trip, I do understand them more. I assimilated and connected as much as someone of my level of Vietnamese and background could. And at times, it felt like home to me.
But other times, it was uncomfortable! When I arrived, I struggled. They treated me differently, singled me out, which was exactly what I didn’t want. “Hello”, “Madame”, “Moto-bike?”, “Em di dau vay (where are you going)?”. Why do you assume I am foreigner? I can speak the language! I have relatives here, and I know and follow tons of Vietnamese traditions. I ignored all their requests and hollers and tried to act local. You remember: I picked a battle with the taxi drivers (and lost) at the Saigon airport from the get-go. All this attitude while Ben (my “white” husband) was at my side.
So there were frustrating — infuriating even — moments. They stare. They touch you. How much for a bowl of soup? To the taxi drivers: no way is that main road closed and nor will I take a xe om (motorbike) with my luggage instead. That’s ok, I’ll sit here till you find change to return to me. They walk into you. Why do I have to move out of the way? Did you stop your bike right in front of me, on purpose? It’s because I’m a Westerner, isn’t it? I’m making an effort here, why can’t you? All these thoughts ran through my head.
But at some point, I learned to let it go (LTG, as our friends say). I realized speaking Vietnamese and eating on the street does not make me a local (duh! what did I think the word means?). I don’t know when it changed for me. It could have been Ben, who told me to not take it personally. Or Kimmy, who says she’s just used to it, but does have her moments. Or all my conversations with several locals, where I realized how hard their life is and how they idolize America (while here I am, a sight-seeing American). My mom said she could feel it through my blog entries: my views and expectations changed as time went by. Soon the trip become more enjoyable and less of a fight.
I like how alive the country feels. I’m not a big city person at all (I love Portland, remember?), but there’s a hustle and flow in each town (big or small) that combines survival and community. It’s work all day. People don’t go strolling on the street; besides, walking means you’re poor because you don’t have a motorbike. It’s a competitive market all over (neighboring restaurants, taxis looking for business, her quality is better than the rest), but they depend on each other. Shop owners, open 12 hr days, do their grocery shopping by buying from the women who walk around, selling produce balanced on their shoulder. It’s always business, no friendly service or exchange — they don’t have time for that. But they help each other. The more well-off are surprisingly generous with the poor. They believe in karma. Put that all together and it looks like chaos, but actually it’s hard-working people not breaking from routine.
The Vietnamese are curious about us. One woman said Vietnam has too many poor and sad people. Many could never afford to emigrate overseas (though more nowadays can) and hear stories of success. They like your (not my) nose. They wear sleeves, gloves, pants in the 85 degree + humidity, to stay fair and not look like someone who works out in the field all day. They’re surprised I can speak Vietnamese, because to them, it’s either you’re Vietnamese or you’re not. This country is not used to diversity yet.
A lot reminds me of home, even though it’s so far from my suburban upbringing. All the grandmas exercising in the park; I used to watch mine do the same stretches in her back yard. The playful screaming and yelling like my uncles’; I explained to someone on our tour that our bus driver actually wasn’t angry at us. The language: it’s simple in grammar (no conjugations), probably hard for Westerners to pronounce, but has so many expressions that simply can’t be translated but have perfect use.
And the food. Oh, the food! Many times the Expats have said it’s often the food keeps them going. Best cuisine in the world (no bias here! I will challenge anyone to that). It’s light, has excellent flavors (don’t be scared by the name “fish sauce”, it’s crucial), lots of fresh herbs and vegetables, and a huge variety. I fear what will happen because the younger Vietnamese generation does not need to cook with so much deliciousness, instantly and constantly available. Hot noodle soups of all kinds, sauteed vegetables, caramelized meat, grilled meat, 50 cent sandwiches (banh mi), and rice everything: flour, paper, rolls, noodles, plain, sticky. I miss it already.
Yet, I could not live here. There is too much pollution (they are no where near to thinking about the environment); I need the fresh outdoors. The push and shove all day wears me out. I like fixed prices, customer service, and letting my guard down. I want to be left alone and not singled out. Plus the mosquitoes would leave me no choice but to walk around covered in a net (no one does this, but I seriously would). But I ended up loving my trip and would go back easily. Why is that so?
One woman I met on the Mekong tour had just traveled nine months in China. She was born in the U.S. and had a very Westernized upbringing: no Chinese, no chopsticks, pasta. But what really surprised me was that she didn’t go back to China to discover her roots; she was just looking to travel, picked a place, saw it and left. How could she not be curious? How did she not feel any different after visiting her native land? And why was it so important to me?
Because, I realized, Vietnam really did feel like home. A different home than my life in Portland, but such a familiar one that I don’t want to lose. Having family to hang out with made a huge difference, and to me, that is part of home. The people’s faces, the smells, the traditions, the stubbornness: all of it made me sentimental. Plus I love speaking Vietnamese, and I never want to forget it.
Someone on our tour said that Taiwan was like Vietnam 25 years ago, and now Taiwan is like Japan. It’s great that this country is moving forward (tourism is a huge help), but it made me a little sad that some of the charm — that you love or hate — could fade away. I guess I’ll have faith in the (stubborn) Vietnamese to keep some of their old ways. In any case, I recommend seeing it now rather than later.
My mom gave me this expression: “Di mot ngay dang, hoc mot sang khon.” One day’s travel will bring you a wealth of wisdom. This phrase says exactly what I was looking for.