Hello Vietnam

First impression and feelings as I arrived on July 1st, 2016.

After a day flying across the Pacific Ocean and having about five airplane meals, I finally stepped my foot on Tan Son Nhat Airport. It was 11PM when I arrived, and it took me about half an hour to get through the custom and get my luggage. Perhaps the fact that I got a Vietnam passport and an acquaintance working at the airport made the custom process go through smoothly. It was about 11:30PM when I eagerly walked out of the front gate. To my greatest surprise, I saw hundreds of people packed tightly outside, all waiting for their friends and families. A little separate from the crowd were four of my aunts and uncles waiting for me. I was so happy seeing them after five years long. Beside my parents and my sister’s family, they are my closest relatives. I started giving them hugs and soon remembered people in Vietnam don’t do that, even though I know they all appreciated my affection as much as I their presence. After asking me if I was tired and if the traveling was alright, everyone quickly hopped on an empty Mai Linh(1) taxi because it was rather late and also to avoid the heated and crowded atmosphere. I regretted to not capturing this memory with photos, though.

If the sky was not dark, you would not realize that it was almost 12AM in Saigon. The streets were busy and lit up with thousands of motorbikes’ lights. I was excited to see motorbikes everywhere for the first time in years. Of course I have watched scenes and impression of Saigon’s traffic on YouTube in moments where I miss this place, but nothing could describe my feelings when I see motorbikes and mopeds millimeters apart. A mixture of anxiety, thrill, annoyance, confusion, and familiarity twirled together inside me. It did not bring me to tears, though, because I was also busy looking at my aunts’ and uncles’ faces and listening to their voices and feeling that I was truly home somehow, despite my parents, my sister, and my adorable niece and nephew were now half a world apart from me.

Waiting at my youngest aunt’s house was the first item that began the series of delicious food and drinks: bánh mì, one of the celebrities in Vietnamese cuisine that is world-famous. For those who have not got the chance to try it, bánh mì is a sandwich comprised of a variety of ingredients, including slices of Vietnamese pork sausage, strips of pickled carrot and white radish, cilantro, cucumber, all placed on paté spread and mayonnaise sauce, between two halves of a 6-inch baguette, an influence from the French during colonial time. Mine was delicious. There is a Vietnamese saying that goes, “Căng da bụng, chùng da mắt,” which is roughly translated as, “When your belly skin is stretched, your eyelids relax,” or more frankly, “When you’re full, you’re sleepy.” It was right, but at that moment, I would like to add one more clause to the saying: “When your belly skin is stretched, your eyelids go down, and your mouth corners go up,” because I was definitely smiling while thinking about the next one month and a half.

(1) Although there are a lot of taxi brands in Vietnam, Mai Linh and Vinasun are the most trustworthy ones. Other companies’ drivers can take a much longer route, go to road with heavy traffic, or do other scams to take your money. So please be aware when you have a chance to visit Vietnam

On my grandparents’ house:

The next day was a Saturday, so we all went to my grandparents’ house. Although my grandparents passed away years ago, three of my dad’s siblings and their families still live there together. The house is located at the dead-end of an alley. Built in 1969, it has seen many people from multiple generations living here, leaving, coming back or visiting. It is where we always gathered on the first day of Tết (Vietnamese New Year), whether my grandparents were present in person or now in spirit. As I walked along the narrow alley, flashbacks of me being squished at the tip of the motorbike’s seat and my mom sitting behind my dad, who was weaving through people and dogs, rushed through my mind. Everything looked and felt amazingly familiar, even though I had been distanced from it by a complete different life in the United States.

On me not being ideal for Vietnamese standard beauty:

People’s impressions of me, as they say a lot about Vietnamese standards and expectations for beauty, especially for women, remind me why I have always paid particular attention to certain features of my body. As I had expected, my relatives questioned why I still look the same even after years living in the US. Then came the rhetorical question that I’d anticipated in half farcicality and half gloominess: “Have you not been drinking milk or playing sports in the United States?” Like an instinct, I blurted out the response matter-of-factly: “Yes, I do drink a lot of milk and I do exercise sometimes but I have my mom’s gene.” I was prepared because I knew this question or something similar would come up again and again during my time here. Second to comments on my modest height—one OB/GYN I would be shadowing called me “đẹt,” meaning “a body that is squeezed/tiny”—were those on my skin complexion and style. “Oh, you’re from the US but you look so simple,” or “I thought you’re just a normal Vietnamese,” or “Don’t you use whitening cream in the US? You look so dark!” After that comment, another nurse was trying to save me some pride by saying: “But Americans love to get tanned, don’t they?” These judgments are very common here, and as I’m getting used to them, I hope I won’t get too snappy.

Unlike other stereotypical Western features (e.g. tall nose, big eyes, double eyelids) desired by many East and Southeast Asians, the obsession with white, pale skin had already existed hundreds of years ago: fairer skin was an indication for higher status because people from rich and powerful families did not have to work in the field under the burning sun. Now, the obsession intensifies, only for women, though, as people believe they can whiten their skins through efforts: Korean cosmetic products, plastic surgery clinics, and recently, TV shows featuring makeovers sponsored by Korean surgeons, have gained popularity. A complete set of traveling gears that would protect one woman from the dreaded sun and pollution include: the legally required helmet, a cap or a sun hat, sunglasses, a (surgical) mask, a jacket, gloves and leggings or socks, and/or a leg-length piece of rectangular fabric that wraps around the waist when a woman wears a skirt or a dress. Key: skin = not seen

hinh bit kin mit

On food, drinks, and entertainment:

I’m lucky to have my wonderful mother, who is one of the best Vietnamese home cooks in this world, as I wholeheartedly believe. So unlike many students abroad, I did not die waiting to come back for the food. However, I have to say, nothing can compare to eating Vietnamese food on the streets of Saigon. For my friends who have never visited Vietnam, no matter who you are, you would fall in love with at least one food item here. From take-away stalls, tables and stools on the pavement to high-end restaurants, from authentic Vietnamese dishes to other nations’ food, from rice dishes to noodle soups, I promise you will find something good. Prices have gone up significantly (two or three-time increase) from five years ago, but they are still cheap. For example, a decent bowl of phở typically costs 60,000 VND (2.70 USD), bánh mì 20,000 (90 cents), and a glass of coffee 15-25,000.

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A bowl of phở, special size (55,000 VND) at Phở 99 – 214 Nguyễn Trãi, Bến Thành, Dist. 1, Hồ Chí Minh

Five years ago, sushi and udon seem to be luxuries (xa xỉ) that were only to be served in high-end restaurants at the center of district 1. Now, I can spot a Korean or Japanese restaurant every 5 minutes, and the prices are quite affordable. Boba tea and Starbuck-style coffee shops spring up everywhere and have become the favorite hang-out spots for young people and students. It is not hard to notice the multi-story shopping malls, supermarkets, and bookstores, where lots of people enjoy the cool air for free and look at thousands of stuff. Since its completion in April, 2015, Nguyễn Huệ Pedestrian Street, which is located at the center of Saigon, has been a popular attraction for tourists and locals alike. Groups of performers come here to show their talents to others, while tourists want to get a full picture of the French-built Ho Chi Minh City Hall, which is at one end of the Street. Its main sell-point, though, is hoverboard rentals. In the evening, hundreds of people come here to try hoverboarding for the first time or to strengthen their skills.

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All in all, the food is cheap and delicious, but you have to make sure to avoid unclean, ill-prepared food. There are a lot of things to discover in a city that never sleeps, and despite a few cultural disappointment, I’m excited for the next few weeks to work, eat, and play in Saigon.

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