What is love, in the Vietnamese context? A successful relationship must be seen as a social contract, practical rather than romantic.
What have I learned after nearly two years in Vietnam, and six months exclusively with the same partner?
“Love” is not about romance. It is perhaps never about romance. It’s about what is practical.
Anh has stunning good looks and the to-die-for body of a yoga instructor, which she is. She learned all the tricks of gourmet Vietnamese cooking from her mother and especially her older sister. She is fastidious, if occasionally quirky, in her everyday habits. Her knowledge of preventive medicine and herbal remedies is not lost on a partner a full generation older than she is.
“You are lucky,” she often reminds me. Yes, I am. But what’s the trade-off? What does she get from me?
Companionship, I suppose. Apart from her yoga community, Anh doesn’t have many friends. And we take care of each other: I pay her a modest sum for daily private yoga lessons and I buy our groceries.
She doesn’t ask for much, although she did suggest that I “will have to” buy a house should I choose to remain in Buôn Ma Thuột for the long term. That ain’t happenin’. Neither my limited resources nor my travel agenda will allow.
All you need is love
Does she love me? I think so, but she never tells me. My attempts at affection are inconsequential. Although she frequently snuggles with me in front of the television at night, or drapes her legs across my lap, she offers no response to a gentle kiss on the nape of the neck as she cooks, or to a squeeze of her hand and a “Drive safely!” request as she heads to the market on her motorbike.
In moments of frustration, I wonder if I’m merely fulfilling a role. In traditional Vietnamese society, I (and my expatriate friends) have observed, there is an enduring perspective that a woman’s job is to serve a man.
Of course, that includes sex. Not for female pleasure, heaven forbid. Sex is merely a part of a woman’s duty to the family line (to reproduce) and to the masculine gender (to provide relaxation and stress release). Growing up, Anh was never led to believe that a woman could also enjoy sex. She says she doesn’t understand why sex is such a big deal — in fact, she doesn’t really like it.
She never expresses desire, let alone lust. She would rather wrap her fingers around her cell phone than, well, you get the picture. It’s no wonder that an unrestrained display of emotion is so stifled in this culture.
My landlord has just notified me that we may have to relocate from our lovely three-bedroom house at the end of this month. Bich told me she needs a home for her two children, who will be returning from their father’s house to attend school in Buôn Ma Thuột in October. Anh can move back into her sister’s house, where she lived previously; but unless I can negotiate an arrangement with Bich, I’ll be seeking a new residence, perhaps a hotel room, in very short order.
That won’t be easy during the Covid-19 lockdown, at a time when I’m still waiting to receive my first vaccination. But Anh has a solution: Why not marry the owner, who is, after all, an attractive divorcee?
If this were a girlfriend in the United States, I would give her a smirk, knowing that it was a joke. But here in Vietnam? She is serious.
“She’s beautiful,” said Anh. “She’s rich. She has a lot more going for her than I do.”
Let it never be said that Vietnamese women are not practical.
In six months of dating, I feel that I know remarkably little about Anh — far less than I would expect in a dating relationship with a Western woman. That feeling is magnified, no doubt, by our communication challenges. Neither of us speaks the other’s language well: Thank goodness for translation apps.
But there’s an underlying sense that Anh really doesn’t want me to ask a lot of questions. As a journalist, that’s what I do. I am left with the thought that she has a lot of secrets. Might my queries open a door to things that I really don’t want to know? I know she was a teacher in her 20s, an accountant in her 30s. But the woman doesn’t even have an email address. What is she hiding or hiding from?
She is fearful of introducing me to her family, although they live nearby. Could it be because I am much older than her? Or because I am a foreigner? That’s never been made clear. At 45, she is the middle child of five sisters and a brother, and one of two who never married. Although her parents are long deceased, the eldest sister, whom Anh describes as “fierce,” is regarded as the matriarch and the force behind a family catering business. Revealingly, Anh calls her “Móm.”
I have met one of her two younger sisters and a 13-year-old nephew. Family salutations have gone no further. If I dare to cross the invisible line to meeting big sister, well, “It wouldn’t be fun anymore,” Anh said. There must be something more than Confucianist filial piety going on here.
She told me five years have passed since her last relationship, which she ended because the man, a Vietnamese, wanted to exert too much control over her life. “I must have my freedom,” Anh insisted. Yet since that time she has lived under Móm’s authority.
There may be nothing that Anh has said that gives me greater concern than when she told me she has no dreams. “Dreams are for young people,” she said.
I must have been speechless when she uttered these words. I told her I dream every day and every night. I told her I would not have traveled the world, would not be in Vietnam right now, were it not for my dreams.
Was there a time when her youthful dreams were shattered?
Finally, she caved. “I dream of doing yoga in India,” she said. Hey, that’s a good start. Anh hasn’t articulated a lot of interest in travel or fine dining, which can be a major obstacle for someone dating a food and travel writer. In the past, she traveled a small amount in Vietnam, and once (on a yoga trip) to Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
I am a man with a passion for life, for travel, for great food — for new and varied experiences. I’m not at all certain that passion is a word that is well understood in Vietnam.
To be fair, I’ve seen flashes of it in small packages. Anh is passionate about yoga. Oanh is passionate about ballroom dance. Nguyen is crazy for soccer. A great many women are obsessed with posting selfies of themselves on TikTok, Instagram and other social media. That’s not passion. That’s narcissism.
What is normal? I don’t know. Even in my own country, one person’s normal is another’s aberration.
I’m a romantic. I’m not a flowers-and-chocolate romantic, but I easily romanticize places and people. In the Vietnamese context, I am very clearly not a practical person.
How could I be practical? I’m still looking for love.