By An Truong ’17 & Hai Anh Pham ’17
Apart from the plethora of Pho puns and the basic textbook knowledge of the Vietnam War, much of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam still remains an enigma to the rest of the world. Since the reunification of North and South Vietnam in 1975 and Vietnam’s WTO entry in 2007, the country has enjoyed peace and rapid economic growth, but of course not without some major hiccups here and there regarding bureaucratic corruption, violations of basic human rights, and territorial disputes with China in the East Sea. Culturally, the country owes much of its past, customs, and traditions to Confucianism and Taoism. In addition, the 54 ethnic groups scattered across the S-shaped strip of land contribute to the diversity of cultures and lifestyles in Vietnam.
Yes, we’re one of the very few self-proclaimed Communist countries left on Earth. But no, we are not deprived of Facebook and Twitter access. Yes, crossing the streets in Vietnam can be a life-changing experience (if you make it out alive). But no, not everyone rides on motor scooters; the number of cars on the streets is increasing at an impressive rate.
Alright, let’s take a look at the most commonly asked questions, founded on misconceptions, that Vietnamese students tend to encounter during their time abroad.
1. Do you eat Pho everyday?
This is like asking Americans if they eat burgers everyday. Even though Pho is considered the national dish of Vietnam, it remains a specialty to the average Vietnamese person. This is because making Pho is an extremely arduous process that requires assembling all the different yet necessary ingredients as well as simmering the broth overnight. Of course there are Pho restaurants or stalls that you can frequently find in Vietnam, but a home-cooked meal triumphs over all others. In addition, Pho is primarily served at breakfast time for early-risers on their way to work; if you see someone eating Pho for dinner, don’t forget to take pictures – it’s a rare sight. While on the topic of staple dishes, rice is actually the nation’s hero. If there’s one thing that you constantly see on the table, regardless of what meal of the day it is, it is rice. To accompany the white rice, we usually have a meat dish, a vegetable dish, and a soup – it is a party of colors, textures, and flavors.
2. Do you speak Chinese?
Americans don’t speak American, Indians don’t speak Indian, Brazilians don’t speak Brazilian, so there is a high chance Vietnamese don’t speak Vietnamese, …right? And because most people in Asia speak Chinese, it is safe to assume that Vietnamese speak Chinese too, …right?
Our apologies but, in this case, we can’t give credit to your wonderful deduction skills. Unexpectedly, most Vietnamese, including the two authors, speak Vietnamese as it is our mother tongue.
That said, with 54 ethnic groups, Vietnamese is not the only mother tongue that people can possess. Just on the outskirts of the capital Hanoi, for example, you can find people conversing in Mường language. Or if you have the chance to visit Sa Pa, a beautiful town in the northern mountainous area known for its breathtaking rice terraces, you can encounter four or five different local languages. And, to be fair to people who have asked this question, there are minority groups who are ethnically Chinese as well. Many still hold on to their heritage and speak different dialects of Chinese, depending on where they come from.
3. I also heard that a lot of people in Vietnam speak French. Is that true?
We do appreciate your attention to world history. It is true that with roughly 100 years of being colonized by France, there is a generation of Vietnamese people who know French as a result of colonization. However, these are mostly old people who had the opportunity to receive formal education back in the day, which is to say, not the majority of the population. So, if you ever feel the urge to practice your French while in Vietnam, you might have some luck striking up a conversation with an intellectual-looking grandpa or grandma. You might.
After the colonial period, French was no longer a compulsory part of the education system. As time passed, other foreign languages became trendy instead: Russian, when the USSR was most powerful, then replaced by English, which remains the most common foreign language in Vietnam today. Some Vietnamese decide not to go mainstream and study other foreign languages instead. Chinese, Japanese, German, and yes, French, are some examples. You tried your “Parlez-vous français?” with an old man you saw in a cafe and was met with a blank stare, but you still have that inexplicable urge to practice French? If you are in Hanoi, taxi your way to the French Department of the University of Languages and International Studies; plenty of French speakers to converse with! Alternatively, just go to any souvenir shop in the touristy Old Quarter; the shopkeeper can greet and bargain with you in 10 different languages, French included.
4. Do you guys hate America?
Often times, mentioning Vietnam in America can incite a certain knee-jerk response such as “Don’t you hate us?” as if Vietnam was still stuck in 1975. Despite the rough patch in the past, the current generation, constantly being exposed to American culture – movies, pop culture, technology, etc., sees an America that is different from what we’re taught in school or vaguely remember from our grandparents’ war stories. For many, talking about America now means talking about freedom; the young, educated, and eager generation looks to the West for a better quality of life. Of course, we will never forget what America did to us, but as life goes on, we move on. If anything, America has become more of an ally to Vietnam not only in trading and economic cooperation but also in creating a countervailing force against China’s influence in the Southeast Asian region, especially with recent territorial disputes. However, despite the benefits of foreign investment and geopolitical partnership, some intellectuals still voice their concerns about America’s meddling in Vietnam’s internal affairs and attempts to push for democracy in the Communist country. Nevertheless, if you’re an American that wants to travel to Vietnam, you can discard your worries.