Twenty-four years after its publication, a book by a visiting Viet Kieu — an overseas Vietnamese — suggests the culture hasn’t changed much in the subsequent generation.
I have been living in Vietnam for 3½ years now. The cultural challenges that I face on a daily basis haven’t diminished. Those that at first seemed daunting may now appear less so, but others are more evident. And judging from what a Vietnamese American man wrote more than two decades ago, I shouldn’t expect otherwise.
Known as Pham Xuan An when, as a child in the late 1970s, he escaped as a boat person, this author returned in 1997 as Andrew X. Pham. His book — Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam — was published in 1999 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Pham was struggling with self-identity, like many Asian Americans of his generation. Armed with a college degree but no real profession, he would often leave his California home on extended solo bicycling trips. His parents struggled unsuccessfully to understand him, and they were even more frustrated and baffled by his gender-challenged siblings.
When Pham returned to the country of his birth, he quickly realized it wasn’t the place he thought he left. To start, he was not accepted as Vietnamese. He was now labeled as a “Viet Kieu,” an overseas Vietnamese, and his Americanized lifestyle — from clothing and diet to accent and simple mannerisms — immediately told Vietnamese that “he’s not one of us.”
Fresh off the boat
I shared Catfish and Mandala with Vin Vu.
Like Pham An, Vin is a Vietnam-born American. Like Pham, he left the country of his birth as a youth, albeit a couple of years earlier. When he was 12, his family of 11 boarded an empty cargo freighter in the Saigon River to flee the “reunification” of Vietnam. It was April 30, 1975, and the passenger load of 2,000 refugees became known as the original “boat people” of the Vietnam War. Eight months later, after stops in Singapore, Subic Bay (Philippines) and Wake Island, they disembarked ion San Diego.
The Vu family never looked back. Vin’s father found a job and a family home in Spokane, Washington, and there Vin has remained for 48 years, never leaving. Until now, that is, in his 60th year.
I was privileged to play a small part in that experience. With a mutual writer friend in America as the go-between, I welcomed Vin to his boyhood domicile on the afternoon of his arrival at Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport. We walked to the gates of Independence Palace, which North Vietnamese Army tanks had crashed as his freighter floated down the river, and to the Nôtre-Dame Cathedral, where his parents had often celebrated Catholic Mass. We passed the central statue of Hô Chi Mính, founder of the modern Vietnamese communist state, en route to the precise platform on the Saigon River from which he had departed Vietnam in 1975. After a proper Vietnamese dinner, he called it a night.
Vin was on an independent one-week tour. The following day he went searching for some childhood memories, then continued to Da Nang and Hanoi before returning to Washington state. I wonder if some of his experiences matched those of Andrew Pham.
‘Smile and lie’
What did Pham discover? First and foremost, perhaps, he learned that, in Vietnam, anything goes. “Vietnamese have a saying,” he writes: “‘A thousand years of Chinese rule, a hundred years of French subjugation, and ten years of American domination, but we survived, unified.’ Survive. That’s the word. Survive at any cost.”
I get it. Survival justifies everything — the petty and not-so-petty corruption, the obsession with capital gain at the sacrifice of human dignity, the lack of awareness of basic courtesy, the ability to only hear what they want to hear.
There’s another common saying here: “Smile and lie.” Don’t let the other guy know what you’re thinking. Pham admitted to being awkward with Eastern sensibilities, so: “I lie — the typical (and acceptable) Vietnamese thing to do.”
“My Saigon was a whore, a saint, an infanticidal maniac,” he confessed. “She sold her body to any taker, dreams of a better future, visions turned inward, eyes to the sky of the skyscrapers foreign to the land, away from the festering sores at her feet. The bastards in her belly — tainted by war, pardoned by need, obscured by time — clamored for food. They laughed, for it is all they know.”
And this: “Sometimes it is as though every Vietnamese is seeking a godfather, a sugar daddy, a saint. In the stark neediness of their lives, dignity doesn’t ride shotgun to opportunism. But again they learned to separate both eons ago.”
‘A barbarous joy’
Pham writes about many things with which I easily identify. His family home, in an urban alley, “is narrow and long, … a two-floor cell block, each residence sealed with a massive sliding steel door of mesh wire and bars.” That description could very nearly apply to my last three apartment residences in Ho Chi Minh City.
His description of traffic is as true today as it was 25 years ago: “Nobody gives way to anybody. Everyone just angles, points, dives directly toward his destination, pretending it ís an all-or-nothing gamble. People glare at one another and fight for manuevering space. All parties are equally determined to get the right-of-way — insist on it. They swerve away at the last possible moment, giving scant inches to spare. The victor goes forward, no time for a victory grin, already engaging in another contest of will. Saigon traffic is Vietnamese life, a continuous charade of posturing, bluffing, fast moves, tenacity and surrenders.”
Pham’s ultimate description of Saigon sounds like P.J. O’Rourke’s Holidays in Hell, and I, for the most part, find it hard to disagree: The city “is a collage, a vanishing flavor, a poison, a metallic tinge, a barbarous joy, strange impressions unconvictable in usual ways.”
It’s all true. This is the Saigon where I live today, in 2023. And why do I live here? Because in spite of its severe warts, it is unrelentingly fascinating.
The Bite of the Lotus
I have one other friend who departed Vietnam in 1975, and who also wrote about it.
Carl Robinson was a green-at-the-gills 21-year-old college student when he arrived in Vietnam in 1964 and found work with the US Agency for International Development (USAID). By the time he was ordered to leave (one day before Vin Vu), he was 32, an Associated Press war correspondent and photo editor, a married father of two, and a heroin and opium addict. He shared the sometimes-harrowing details in his memoir The Bite of the Lotus. (First published in 2019 by Wilkinson Publishing in Australia, it is now undergoing revision.)
Robinson’s Saigon experiences were, naturally, very different from those of his younger Vietnamese counterparts. Pham’s and Vu’s memories were those of children; Carl was older, an (arguably) mature adult. Eternally disillusioned with U.S. policy, he shared wartime Vietnam with writers and photojournalists like David Halberstam, Peter Arnett, John Steinbeck IV and Sean Flynn, the estranged son of actor Errol Flynn who disappeared on a motorbike trip in Cambodia in 1970.
Carl did not return to the United States to live; instead, he and his family settled in Australia, where they reside today. He will turn 80 this fall. But he and Kim-Dung, his wife of 54 years, return at least annually to Ho Chi Minh City and the adjacent Mekong Delta region, where she was raised.