In 1978 my family moved from suburban Maryland to New Orleans. Compared to our previously homogeneous environs, the Big Easy was a veritable melting pot, a simmering gumbo of exotic races and ethnicities. One of the largest minority groups I encountered at school was the Vietnamese. As a 10-year-old, I didn’t necessarily understand the significance of their presence, but I heard rumors that they had come on leaky boats from a war-ravaged land. I remember stealing quick glances at their scar-covered arms and faces. My mind would conjure images of distant jungle battlefields where I imagined bombs and bullets had inflicted these wounds, enduring reminders of an ugly chapter in both our nation’s histories.
For the most part, my Vietnamese classmates kept to themselves. They were not shy; they just preferred to hang with kids who spoke their own language and shared their traumatic history. They were refugees from South Vietnam and thereby officially allies of the US, but our teachers treated them more like enemies. To this day I have a vivid image of one particularly nasty lady, Mrs. Gallagher, screaming at them on the playground, “I don’t care what you did where you came from, when you’re in this country, you’ll speak our language.” So much for empathy.
After a little research yesterday, I learned that my classmates were undoubtedly part of a relocation program implemented by the Catholic Church after the fall of Saigon in 1975. French Catholic missionaries had a long history in Vietnam. In fact, as I write, I am only blocks away from an imposing Gothic cathedral, one of Hanoi’s landmark buildings and the site of regular masses throughout the week. Thousands of South Vietnamese refugees were sponsored by the Church in Gulf Coast communities that shared similar a climate and industries as their homeland. I am thunderstruck when I realize that my classmates had lived the entirety of their short lives in the midst of a war only to be transplanted halfway around the globe in a completely foreign environment.
Today 2/3 of Vietnam’s citizens are under the age of 30, born after the conclusion of the American War. They are taught about their country’s history of conflict but have no first hand knowledge of it. They didn’t run for cover from bombs or feel the burning effects of napalm on their skin and lungs. They did not hide from gun-toting soldiers or live in underground tunnels. The world they know is radically different than that of their parents or my former classmates.
Our tour guide on last week’s Halong Bay trip was 27 and a proud member of this huge demographic segment. He used our 4-hour bus ride north as an opportunity to lecture his captive audience on modern Vietnam. While many of our new friends were bored or perturbed that he kept waking them up with his microphone monologues, I whipped out my trusty notebook to capture some of the magic that was Luan.
Luan was difficult to understand at times. He had the unusual habit of adding a -ch to the end of 75% of his words, punctuating every pause in his speech with a dramatic “however,” and repeating each sentence at least four times. Despite these curious communicative annoyances, much of what he had to say was fascinating. His most urgent desire was that we understand the plight of the modern Vietnamese man in winning a wife. According to Luan, a young man in this country requires three things to be marketable to a potential spouse: First, he must be handsome, which Luan explained, he is not. Second, he must have a steady job, which because he is a seasonal worker, Luan does not. Third, he must have a motorbike, which Luan does. Unfortunately, it is worth only a few hundred dollars, and in a land where a motorbike is the ultimate status symbol, the babe magnet models run anywhere from $2000-7000. (Mind you, Vietnam’s annual household income is $550 per year.) Poor Luan.
This is novel information, but it gains added significance when considered in the context of Vietnam’s tumultuous history. During what Luan described as “feudal” times, which ended with the cementing of Communist rule in 1975, the ultimate sign of wealth and thereby attractiveness to the opposite sex was a water buffalo. Things changed slightly under traditional communism from 1975-85, and a man could hope to win the attention of the ladies by owning a bicycle and/or a radio. Since the initiation of Vietnam’s economic “open door” policy in 1986, things have changed radically. Vietnamese men can now expect to own their own motorized means of transportation, choose from a variety of professions, and win a wife based on charm and good looks rather than possession of livestock.
Vietnam’s official goal is to become a “developed” country by 2020, a lofty ideal Luan thinks is far beyond reach. He remembers the days not too long ago when most people could expect meat and milk only twice a month on government handout days, and when jobs were nonexistent. He knows that foreign investment is the key to Vietnam’s continued growth and hopes that visitors like us will help to fuel the process. In the meantime, he’ll continue to regale tourists with his “woe is me” spiel and perhaps save enough tips to buy the macho motorbike he needs to settle down.