I conducted a media workshop in Ho Chi Minh City a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to go around since I was there for work. But just being there surrounded by all those crazy motorcycles and eating delicious Vietnamese cuisine (especially the very filling Banh Mi) was more than enough to satisfy my wanderlust.
Except maybe for more high-rises and malls, nothing much has changed since the first time I went to Vietnam eight years ago. Motorbikes still rule the streets, mini-food stalls are still set up by the roadside, and the Vietnamese are as polite as ever. This got me to thinking about the first time I came to this wonderful country in 2003. It was the end of January and the Vietnamese were about to celebrate Tet.
Tet Nguyen Dan or simply, ‘Tet’, is the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. It is by far the most popular holiday in Vietnam, much like Christmas for Pinoys.
Tet usually lasts for three days but the preparation takes a little longer. There is a general feeling of busyness and excitement as people rush to do last-minute shopping and decorating.
Houses are usually decorated with flowering plants such as Cherry Blossoms (above) or Hoa Mai (below). These are believed to bring good luck for the rest of the year.
No wonder people insist on buying a plant no matter how difficult hauling it home would be. People also pay their respects to their ancestors during Tet and make it a point to have a get-together with their family.
That first trip years ago began my love affair with this beautiful, but often misunderstood country. It is, as I would often say, one of my most favorite places in Asia and I would always welcome a chance to spend even just a couple of days in this place that has welcomed me with open arms.
But there’s a more profound reason for my special affinity with Vietnam and the Vietnamese people. You see, a few months after graduating from college, I taught ESL (English as a Second Language) at the Philippine Refugee Processing Center in Bataan. My students were Vietnamese refugees who were preparing for their new life in the US.
Young and idealistic, I enjoyed my short stint at the camp. I had an offer to work for a multinational company but turned it down. I preferred to do development work and never regretted my decision.
Eventually, I became very close with my students. They would invite me for dinner, picnics, and once, to ride the tsubibo (ferris wheel) at the local perya (carnival). It was with them that I had my first taste of Pho (that wonderful Vietnamese rice noodle soup) and Che Dau Xanh or sweetened Mung beans. Life in the camp was tough but they were such a happy bunch that I was just glad to help them in their journey.
This was more than twenty three years ago! (Oops, did I just carbon-date myself? as a friend would say :)) I wonder whatever became of my students? It would be nice to see them again, even just to say hello. But then again, they could be in the U.S. now, enjoying the life they’ve worked so hard for all those years in the camp.
Last week’s visit to HCMC was my fourth of hopefully a dozen more. Perhaps one day, I might just bump into Tuan or Ming who, in their playful and affectionate way, have unwittingly taught me what meaningful cultural exchange is all about.
Here are the rest of the photos scanned from my First Vietnam Trip album, all taken with a Canon FM10 film camera.
You might want to read: