Some years ago, I did the touristy thing. I went to see the Cu Chi Tunnel in the Tay Ninh Province of Vietnam and found myself in a van full of American vets. A few of their friends had died while trying to find the headquarters where the Viet Cong operated during the war. For them, it was a powerful moment. At the entrance of the famed tunnel, one of them openly wept.
Dug up two decades after the war ended, the tunnel was initially intended for malnourished Vietnamese guerrilla fighters. It was once a well-hidden, tight crawl space with entrances submerged underwater. The new version, however, was an open cave and widened considerably to accommodate extra large Westerners. The underground headquarters for the National Liberation Front (where guerrilla tactics were planned against the south) had, in peacetime, turned rather capitalistic and kitschy, all for a tourist dollar. The new version came with a shooting range nearby for those who, emerging from the dank and the dark, wished to shoot an AK-47 or an M16 at some target or another. The price was somewhere around a dollar a pop.
The middle-aged vets teared up gazing at an old war wound, but the young tour guide was all smiles when she and I chatted. Like the majority of her countrymen, she had no direct memories of the war. She readily confessed that, for her, the tunnel was a relic about which she knew nothing until she got her job. She reminisced with me about a friend’s son, a third generation San Franciscan who scrambled for history lessons for his summer job as a tour guide of the city’s famed Fisherman’s Wharf, a tourist trap he had long avoided.
“So you live in California?” she whispered, barely containing her excitement. “My dream is to go for a visit. I have friends over there.” The young woman crawled through Cu Chi 2.0 with foreigners on a regular basis to save money for her own adventures. She rattled off dreamy destinations: Disneyland, Universal Studios, the Golden Gate Bridge, Yosemite. If given the opportunity, she would like to study for an MBA in the United States.
For some the tunnel runs toward the bloody past. For this young woman, it leads toward a cosmopolitan future. The middle-aged men saw war and trauma and senselessness, a bloody memory that bore unfinished grief. This young ambitious woman saw a particular light at the tunnel’s end: The supposed Magic Kingdom.
But for me, where do I stand? I straddle the cave’s mouth as if an indecisive time traveler….
Born in the middle of the war to a military officer who served in the South Vietnamese army, I reached puberty in California a few months after the war ended. I was a refugee boy who quickly transformed into an American teenager. My voice broke that first summer in Daly City, south of San Francisco. I learned English fast enough to start devouring American novels by the second. In time, and with some struggle, I became an American journalist and writer. I traveled the world…
… and it was only then, standing at the far end of the cosmopolitan continuum, that I fully accepted that in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, the two countries are no longer separable for me. The ocean had become a nuisance in my imagination. California (where I spent the bulk of my American life) and Vietnam (my once lost homeland) had both deeply intertwined themselves, fusing, changing, melding, battling for my soul. They offer no final resolution.
Vietnam and the Myth of California
During my first few years in America, I learned many English words. My favorite was that odd, yet open-ended conjunction, “whereas.” I learned it in the eighth grade when I had to write compare and contrast essays.
The Vietnamese take holidays on Emperors’ death dates. I was told on my first school year in Daly City, at the southern end of San Francisco, that students get a day off for Washington’s birthday. Poor Vietnamese were reed thin, whereas poor Americans were hefty and meat eaters. Vietnamese don’t look at you in the eyes unless it is intimate or confrontational, whereas Americans expect eye contact, unless you appear to be untrustworthy. Americans talk about their apparent vision of the future. Vietnamese prayed to their ancestors’ spirits nightly. Americans say, “What do you do?” at cocktail parties, whereas Vietnamese ask, “Are you married?” and “Where is your hometown?”
California was geometrically sound with clean lines for borders, whereas Vietnam was all frills, a convulsed “S” with its messy borders that spoke of aggressions from and losses against China, Laos, Cambodia, and other ancient kingdoms. Vietnam was dirty and damp and its sidewalks were uneven. Its walls mildewed and rooftops curved and caved, its landscape pockmarked and cratered by bombs, whereas California was endless highways and full of concrete and glassy high rises. Its agricultural lands emulated a checkerboard pattern, like math.
Vietnam and California are both long and coastal. They both hug their own continent, framing the Pacific from opposed ends, seeming cursed to serve as one another’s opposed ideas in my child’s mind. If one represented sadness and loss, a country riddled with poverty and warfare, the other offered hopes and dreams—the freedom to remake.
Among the first few American songs I heard living in Vietnam during the war was “California Dreaming,” by the Mamas & The Papas, its cadence full of longing. It slowly dawned on me that even when you are an American living elsewhere, California still represents a dream-like destination. No wonder the Vietnamese had begun to dream the California Dream as the war raged on. In my mother’s “English for Today” textbook, which she studied intensely, she paid special attention to a lesson about San Francisco. My brother, sister, and I pored over her shoulders. She taught us about the gold rush and how it was gold that drew people from around the world. We learned that gold was so abundant that it fell out of pockets of drunken prospectors, and Chinese laundrymen collected gold dust in their jeans when they washed them. The Chinese even called it “Old Gold Mountain.” Gold made the place. I recall the first time crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on my seventh grade field trip. I was sorely disappointed when I was told by my teacher that no, it was not really made of gold.
Vietnam and California are both long and coastal. They both hug their own continent, framing the Pacific from opposed ends, seeming cursed to serve as one another’s opposed ideas in my child’s mind.
Stories told of California during my Vietnamese childhood bordered on the mythic. As a child, I imagined America as a world full of options. I saw it through the “31 Flavors” Baskin Robbins poster brought back by my visiting cousin, who was already living in San Francisco. One colorful scoop stacked on top of another, all on top of a single sugar cone, reaching an impossible height. The salivating child stared in wonder at those painted scoops of ice cream beyond possibility.
The family chauffeur, whom we called Uncle Phuoc, saw California as an open road. “Xứ Cali is so big that you can drive down this freeway,” he would tell us on those humid nights with nothing to do but tell tales. He referred to California as Xứ Cali, which is short hand for the nation of California. He’d never been out of the country, but Uncle Phuoc did business with American GIs on the streets on Saigon, buying and selling American stuff. Plus he saw photos. So for us, he was an expert: “And you can stop and pick an orange from an orchard or an apple to quench your thirst, and no one cares. Such a rich place.”
The Vietnamese word for country is Đất nước, a combination of two elements: Earth and water. Put them together and what do you get? Mud, which is to say where rice grows. The paddies for millennia thus held the Vietnamese soul captive—bent back and conical hats and cyclical life, live and die by the land, something both at once essential and sacred. Even to this day, rural folks still bury the umbilical chords of their newborns in the land, a kind of spiritual registration. Ancestor’s graves still dot rural landscapes, even in the backyard of farmers’ homes. An old ethos: Live and die by the land. Vietnamese pray to the dead. We talk to ghosts.
Alas, cyclical life gives easily to fatalism, imbued by a profound understanding that human suffering and loss are as inevitable as a norm. One accepted one’s fate. No happily ever afters, thanks. Children learn it early on: Vietnamese fairy tales often end tragically. The princess dies. The hero fails to marry the princess. The abandoned wife holds her babe in her arms and waits for her husband on a mountaintop nightly until both mother and child, pitied by the heavens, turn into stone.
The dead princess’ heart turns into a red ruby, refusing the cremating fire. The grieving king had it carved into a tea bowl. Whenever tea is poured into it, the image of the lone fisherman on his boat appeared, floating to and fro. He didn’t know. How could she have loved such a lowly commoner simply because of his singing voice? So he came back, too late, of course. But he cried. The fisherman’s tear fell into the bowl and it melted back into blood. It shimmered into nothingness.
Pati ergo sum? We suffer, therefore we exist. Tragedy followed Vietnamese narratives like Grimm, like Greek. To be acknowledged, to have one’s love requited, no matter how modest, how minuscule, a tear in a teacup was enough as a pay off. To be true to oneself was more important. Virtue was measured in term of stoicism, in endurance, which defined one’s characters, and wherein lived the divine. The rest? Up to fate. For a country invaded, steeped in warfare and losses, it was a luxury to think of happy endings.
One perhaps thinks why in the aftermath of that bloody embrace do the Vietnamese quickly shrug off the old fatalism (like the tour guide wanting her magic kingdom), and shift their gaze fixedly toward America. America’s powerful allure was self-evident through the story of progress of those who arrived in earlier waves, like those of my family.
Take my mother for instance. The letters and photos she diligently sent back home to relatives and friends, along with the care packages during the impoverished cold war years in the war’s aftermath, unwittingly became a powerful propaganda for Uncle Sam. They tell a story of wealth, progress, and transformation.
Sister, see my kids, see how they’ve grown!
Aunty, we bought a five-bedroom house with a pool…
Just came back from Paris to see Aunt D. Here we are at the Eiffel Tower.
Those photos and letters were siren songs. Vượt biên—to cross the border, to escape overseas—soon became a powerful verb, upending the Vietnamese sedentary nature. The old narrative faltered: Goodbye water, so long land; no more bent back, blazing sun, mud. A new migratory ethos was born on the back of boat people, with the birth of the Vietnamese Diaspora. What America had offered as possibilities, as opportunities, as dreams, over time became far more potent than any bullets and bombs.
Evolution of places, of movement
A community was born from both memory and ambition. And if I dance at the far end of that migratory story, so many of us now live up and down its streets.
Shh, listen! That man committed cannibalism when he vượt biên. A friend whispered this into my ear while we were eating pho in Orange County’s Little Saigon sometime in the late ’90s. My friend was a local resident. I stole a peek: The man looked just like everybody else in the restaurant, but he was marked. He was on an ill-fated boat stranded on a reef, crowded with people. It was abandoned by an American naval ship. After providing the boat people with some food and water, the American ship left for its mission, promising to pick them up upon its return trip. But it did not. A few days later, the stranded people ran out of food and water. People started dying. The boat’s captain and his squad, out of desperation, started killing the weak. They started eating human flesh and drinking their victims’ blood in order to survive. It’s a story that was featured in a 60 Minutes segment many years ago and later in a powerful documentary called Bolinao 52 by filmmaker Duc Nguyen.
The man, the cannibal, so my friend told me, owned businesses. His children grew up to be tall and smart. They all prospered. That night, going home, and upon rereading an essay by Joan Didion about her California, it got me thinking: These pioneers—the Nguyens and the Trans of our modern time—those who risked death to find new homes, and those who crossed all sorts of boundaries and borders, who is to say that their stories do not rival that of the Donner Party?
Often survivors of a political fallout from another country become builders of another. Refugees and migrants have always helped themselves. It takes a special spirit and resolve, after all, to maneuver across boundaries and borders, risking death to reach the promised land. Given the right opportunity these people transform the world they enter. He walks across desert sands, she sails out to sea with her children, the teenager fleeing violence hops on a train and goes northward with nothing but a small backpack. Eventually in the new country, children are born, businesses prosper, and in time a community begins to form.
It is no exaggeration to say that California, home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam, has been radically altered because of the Vietnamese Diaspora. Up and down the coast, Little Saigons bloom, transforming the California landscape.
Just on taste alone: Take a look at my mother’s garden. Back in the ’80s, in her new suburban home at northern edge of Silicon Valley, she creates herbs from seeds and roots she got from friends who came later from Vietnam by boat. Now imagine that little garden spreading throughout California. Refugees and immigrants don’t just leave, they take seeds and roots with them, along with their culinary traditions and taste, and over time Southeast Asian tastes too come to be like the American taste. Go to a farmer’s market these days and see for yourself: Buddha fingers, lemongrass, mountain yam, coriander, bitter melons, mint, amaranth, buffalo spinach; even the air smelled of Southeast Asia.
No wonder the American taste buds demand more nuance, as some liking it hot, and others liking it even hotter. This is why Iron Chef competitions sometime make Vietnamese the Banh mi sandwich. And why David Tran became a multimillionaire, making a chili sauce from his Saigon memory in Southern California, calling it Sriracha. So popular and ubiquitous now that it inspires copycats around the world, and even threatens to usurp ketchup.
I, for one, do not underestimate the power of immigrants’ nostalgia. In the Golden State, it often has ways of becoming retroactive. Buddhist temples now waft incense into the streets of San Francisco, San Jose, Westminster, Long Beach, Sacramento, and Los Angeles. So much longing for home changes the new landscape.
So here too are the familiar rags to riches theme to go with the Vietnamese Californian narrative: The family that started with one modest Banh Mi sandwich truck in Silicon Valley, hoping to serve Vietnamese Americans working as assembly workers turned the business into an international chain. A man who was a rice farmer in Vietnam discovered that he could start his own company assembling electronic boards and so he started a corporation. A Vietnamese woman who sold used clothes on the street of Saigon married an American who worked in the Foreign Service in Vietnam. In San Francisco, the once used clothing seller on the streets of Saigon helped her husband shepherd in a multibillion-dollar investment fund.
So many stories of transformation overseas indeed ends up transforming the erstwhile Vietnamese sedentary soul.
California in Vietnam
“A brand new country,” a reporter friend from Vietnam recently rattled off to me the other day when we spoke. The once isolated country is fast in becoming the most wired, and the highest user of cell phones. “The hottest market for iPhone sales, far surpassing sales growth in India and China….”
“Facebook entered Vietnam’s market six years ago and at one point it was adding a million signups a month… It is expected to have thirty-six million users this year, that’s out of forty million Vietnamese who even have access to the Internet!”
“The average age of the Vietnamese is below thirty.”
Therefore, it’s a country of amnesia. Three out of four don’t remember the Vietnam War. Its gaze is forward and relentless. A Pew study in 2014 found that of forty-four countries, Vietnamese were the most optimistic about their future. Whereas Vietnam was once a country made up of poverty and isolation, plighted by wars and bloodshed, it is now expressive—a beginning of cultural renaissance.
Vietnam finally emerged out of the old war to be deeply wired, running on high gear toward cosmopolitan life. Vietnam cleaned up and repaved its broken sidewalks, like their wealthy Chinese and Japanese counterparts, beginning to travel overseas—no, not to vượt biên, but to shop. And to study and invest. Meanwhile high rises spring up virtually overnight in Saigon and Hanoi and Danang. A few months ago in my newsroom in San Francisco, an intern fresh from Vietnam came to improve her English and learn American ways of doing business so that she could get into an MBA program and start her own media firm back home. She seemed to capture that world wariness of the new generation when she commented that, “At first I was impressed with San Francisco, but a few weeks here and it feels, well, nothing special. Just the same as Saigon.”
Just the same as Saigon…
Once upon a time the ocean was treacherous and leaving Vietnam once meant a risk of death, or starvation, or drowning, or falling into pirate hands. Once it took three to six months to send a care package home, and with a government officer reading the letter before it is distributed to the addressee. Today, coming to America for many is a matter of purchasing a ticket on an airplane, and instead of marveling at its grandeur, the wary traveler begins to see America, as the intern sees it: “not that big of a deal.”
An inverse effect is taking place. San Francisco has more pedicab drivers than Saigon, which had gotten rid of them, and so a juxtaposition can be seen along the Embarcadero: Young, strong white people pedal tourists up and down the sidewalk—many of them from Asia. San Francisco has more homeless than its sister city, Saigon, which has cleaned up its streets. The poor/rich gap in the Bay Area is staggeringly third world and the cost of living is stratospheric. One out of three residents here ponder departure.
“You just have to realize that to vượt biên these days—the crossing of borders—doesn’t have to be outside of Vietnam,” a friend commented as he and I sat and drank artisan coffee in my hometown, Dalat, a few years back. Increasingly the dream can also be had at home. These days even middle class Vietnamese fly overseas to shop.
Whereas once Vietnam stood in contrast to America, to California, today it is running on parallel tracks, with its multi-strata and multi-class society. The once old echoed ’90s phrase, “Vietnam is a country not a war,” has now become an old cliché. Vietnam hasn’t been a war for many years, but it’s more than a country. It’s becoming a global entity, a major exporter of rice and coffee and seafood products, a major tourist destination.
Vietnam is a country, but it has taken on various shades of California. Vietnam wants to become the opposite of its former self—it wants to be globally connected, cosmopolitan. It has run fast and furious from war to peace and so like bamboo shoots spring up after the rain, cityscapes in Vietnam looks more and more like SOMA here in San Francisco. Vietnamese cities exist in a new world dotted with Starbucks and McDonalds. Remember those wondrous scoops of Baskin-Robbins? They too have made their way to Vietnam. In his wildest dreams uncle Phuoc could never imagine freeways being built with overpasses in Vietnam, and high rises that radically change Saigon’s city scape.
So be warned: The more you long for California, the more it comes to you. Turn on the TV and see what I mean. A rural teenager appears; she’s nervous, full of self-doubt. But when she sings, a golden voice. Judges swoon. The audience tears up. Soon, a month or so, she has been transformed, grows in confidence and beauty. The awkwardness replaced by the studied gestures of shyness and elegance. She gives a flawless performance. The audience roars with approval. A new princess is born. In the back stage, her yokel mother hugs herself and weeps.
Welcome to Vietnam Idol. Or Vietnam The Voice (The Voice of Vietnam). Or Vietnam’s Got Talent. Regardless of which reality show it is, a golden thread of optimism runs unmistakably through. The new “happily ever after” motif has eroded old world fatalism, and shifted the collective psyche. The Emcee of Vietnam Idol seems to say it all: “We will transform your dream into reality!”
Why was it that I ran so far and so fast from the parochial, the sadness? For some years after the war, after migrating to America, I failed to speak Vietnamese. I failed to form Vietnamese sentences that would shock my younger self, the chatty kid who talked endlessly in his schoolyard in Saigon among his classmates. The child sang the South Vietnamese national anthem with fervor each morning. But the teenager fled from his Vietnam memories, and even changed his name along with his preferred tongue, and read so voraciously that he even began to dream in English.
Only in adulthood did I come to realize that the English language was not one to be used to escape; but instead, to fully claim wholeness, English needs to be applied to commemorate and to grieve. I began to write. I now tell stories about my lost childhood, the lost country, and about the painful exodus out of Vietnam. I began to travel. And I began to go back.
As so did many others.
Victor Luu, who fled Vietnam a day before Saigon fell to Communist tanks on 30 April, 1975, has become a successful software engineer who participated in several start-ups in California’s Silicon Valley. In 2006, he returned to his hometown and founded Siglaz, a software company with more than fifty employees. In his new office in a tall building in an electronic corridor area near the airport called E-Town, where many Vietnamese American expats open their high tech businesses, Luu could see, when he turned around from his desk, the runway from which his plane full of panicked refugees took off decades years ago. “I fully believe in Vietnam,” he added. “The future is here. And I want to help it happen.”
Diep Vuong, a cum laude graduate of Harvard University with a degree in economics, left Vietnam as a boat person in 1979, but came back a decade ago to help fight human trafficking in An Giang, her home province in the Mekong Delta. “I always remember once we came to America my mother saying to my sisters and I that we were born Vietnamese for a reason, and it is up to us to figure out what that reason is,” Giang said. Hers is that she can protect at-risk young women being sold into slavery. “Increasingly, Vietnamese Americans are playing central roles in the philanthropy sector,” she said. “As for me, I can’t just sit and do nothing. Any of those girls being sold to Cambodia or China could be a cousin or a child of an old friend.”
A San Jose born Vietnamese American, known as Giay Giay, went back and married a local boy in Dalat. “Whenever I hear a chicken crow in the morning I get nostalgic for California. My mother raised chickens in the suburb.” Vietnam’s culture has moved toward an open sexuality, she told me, a new sexual revolution. Little Saigon continues to practice its conservative values left over from the time of the war. “The young here don’t care about history, about the past,” she said, “whereas I come back and I am obsessed with it. I want to know where my mother came from, the way she lived.”
The refugee becomes immigrant and then, it seems with opportunities, he, in the twenty-first century, turns into a cosmopolitan—someone who participates in multiple spheres and languages and cultural-geographical affiliations. It’s inevitable, too, for many Vietnamese abroad to take the journey home at some point.
In truth the Diaspora has always played an important role in Vietnam’s economic life, long before the Cold War ended, long before the return trip was possible. But over time, as borders became porous, as the forces of globalization swept over Vietnam after the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR unraveled, the Diaspora began to—individually, collectively—reach back to its homeland, investing, providing technological know how, sharing cultural knowledge, sponsoring others to come, repatriating, and performing philanthropic work, all forming a complex transnational network, becoming a bona fide global tribe.
In middle age, I too long to return. But each time I go to Vietnam I have to contend myself with several versions of my homeland.
There’s the visceral—that long lost country at war time, a world of clanship, intimate connections, of smallness, of a charmed and quiet provincial life of walled villas and servants, a childhood of slow rhythm in the tropical world, and romantic music Joe Dassin, Françoise Hardy, Silvie Vartan, Johnny Halladay, Christophe… and of little school kids in uniform streaming into the old lycée, and the distant echoes of bombs in those quiet Saigon nights after the rain. Even now, typing these words, I still yearn for all that—a world long gone, the fear and the wonders, and retrievable only in the recalling.
One refuses the singular narrative, marrying instead ideas and languages, living with many reference points. To return, one goes forward.
Then there’s that raging river called Vietnam, and it’s full of young, ambitious people wanting to transform the country and improve their lives. It’s consumerist. It’s hardworking. It’s highly wired and growing in sophistication. It’s a world of go-getters. It’s a long-dormant nation waking up, rejuvenating, it roars with sounds of millions of motorcycles toward an unknown future.
Do not get me wrong. Injustice remains. Human trafficking is a scourge. The rich/poor gap widened. But I also wish to tell you that it is a country made up of ambitions and an increasingly globalized landscape. And it’s an unknown country.
And here’s the third home—a landscape made of one’s invention and many points of connections. The only way back is therefore in going forward. One cannot go home again, not to relive the long lost world, or capture the past, but one can take up mantle in that familiar, yet entirely new country. One learns to see the many dimensions of the world simultaneously. One refuses the singular narrative, marrying instead ideas and languages, living with many reference points. To return, one goes forward. One marries opposed ideas and creates points of synthesis. One hears a new symphony over the cacophony. One commits all to memories. One is open to the flux, to change.
Last year in Saigon, not far from where I used to live, I went to a karaoke party with some friends. Not much of a singer, I nevertheless was, after a few beers, coaxed to sing. I selected “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone, which I know by heart. As friends watched in astonishment, I belted its lyrics out with gusto, especially this verse:
And this old world is a new world
And a bold world
Because, well, that’s how I felt about new Vietnam, and it does feel good.
 “52” refers to the number of those remaining from the one hundred ten people who survived their saga in a boat on the high seas before being rescued by Filipino fishermen from the seaside town of Bolinao, the Philippines.
 Peter Fimrite, “One-third ponder leaving Bay Area amid costs, congestion,” SF Gate, 2 May 2016, http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Cost-of-living-traffic-have-a-third-of-Bay-Area-7386717.php.
Andrew Lam is the author of two books of essays, Perfume Dreams, Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, and a collection of short stories, Birds of Paradise Lost. He is a recipient of Creative Work Fund to write a series of stories exploring the relationship between Vietnam and California.
Copyright: © 2018 Andrew Lam. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.