A taste of Vietnam

We've been here for almost a week now. Both my wife and me are are sick, we happened to show up right in the middle of monsoon season so it rains everyday, and not the Southern California sprinkle but the soak-you-to-the-bone-in-three-seconds rain. The soaking happens even sooner on a motor bike, and we happened to be on the way to auntie's house (on a motorbike) when the big stuff hit. Then we sat and visited for 2 hours in soaking wet clothing and then got sick. But it's been fun.
I've had a ton on my mind as far as things to blog, but it will all have to wait. For now, I'll just give you a taste of some of the food we've eaten.

Our first meal in Vietnam - bánh mì from a road-side stand.

This is not from War of the Worlds, this is dried squid. Some people love it. Most people don't.

Here's our dim sum, half-way consumed, as a primer for fish noodle soup.

Here's some pho we had at a little place called Pho 24 in Quan 3. The interesting thing was that this place was quite fancy (they even plucked the basil for you!) and most of the logo stuff was in English only, even though it was far from the tourist center.

And this was lunch today, pad thai at a place called Highlands Coffee on the top of Tax Plaza downtown. Looks beautiful but left my tongue with much to be desired. But I met an old friend there who was on a volunteer trip to the Mekong Delta. Small world!


Time to go and Thoughts on the Packing Ritual

I'm sitting here at work but my head is anywhere but at work. In a few short hours I'll be boarding a plane to Vietnam, unless my friend jinxed us last night by telling us that her sister had to wait a full day in the airport because their flight was delayed.

We finished most of the packing last time, i.e. stuffing stuff into big boxes with the intent on distributing it to family members and needy people once we get there. For those of us who grew up in America, the things being sent are very... mundane. Sundry items one might find in a thrift store - a maternity dress from the 80's, a sparkly fiber optic flower with music, boxes of dầu xanh, toothbrushes, gloves, and don't forget the Fuji apples and seedless grapes.

I think it's a type of ritual. All of this stuff being send back, much of it second-hand clothing that is intended for the "huddled masses" in the Northern region of the country, seems to satisfy a longing in the sender more the recipient. Without making too broad a generalization, I think that many Vietnamese left their war-torn, famined, destitute homeland 25 - 30 years ago, but that image has never left them. I believe there might still be a hint of survivor guilt in those living here, especially when there are still family members living in "Vietnam." The urge to gửi đồ về, the constant drive to send things back to Vietnam perhaps originates from that guilt and a desire to redeem oneself from the sin of leaving Vietnam and not bringing the rest of the country with them.

I don't think this ritual stems out of need. On a comparative basis, my relatives-in-law in Vietnam live "better" lives than we do: a maid to cook and clean, frequent vacations around Asia, and an army of people in America ready to send "American" merchandise at the drop of a hat: candy and chocolates, Levi and Old Navy, Legos for the kids. Although there doesn't seem to be a "need" for these things, the expectation is definitely there. From what I hear, some families don't want all of that stuff, they just want American cash. Lots of it.

So the ritual of packing a bunch of stuff every time someone goes back to Vietnam might have two purposes: a cleansing of guilt that all travelers must pass through in order to be fit to enter the "homeland," and a tribute to those "stuck" in Vietnam.


My Graduating Sisters

(pictures forthcoming)

Sometimes I regret missing the "growin' up" years of my sisters and brother. For two years, I was serving the Lord in Orange County and since then, except for a 4-month trial run of being an RM in Utah, I've been living in the very area I served as a missionary. I don't regret for a minute the experiences I had during my missionary service or subsequent community service among the Vietnamese Americans here (heck, I married one :) but I do wish I could have been around while my family was growing and maturing. It's a bit of a paradox.

However, the Lord hasn't left me hanging. Since I couldn't be "there" for my own siblings, he's blessed me with other brothers and sisters - with whom I cannot claim blood relation but who I definitely claim as family. This concept hit me like a brick this past week while I stood at Van's graduation and realized that my Morgy's graduation was just two weeks ago. Could it really be true that they are the same age, that they were going through the same trials at the same time, that they're both moving beyond high school in the same year and starting on the same road of opportunities? My goodness, it still shakes me up to think that all this time I hadn't even made the connection. My Utah life and OC life still run parallel paths in my head, yet to intersect at any meaningful crossroads, so it never crossed my mind that my two "sisters" who I feel are so far separated might be more-closely related than I imagined. Now I can't help but think, all those years I've been geographically distant from my Morgy (I didn't even email her for crying in the mud!) but in constant contact with Van, perhaps through some channel of karma or flow or "what goes around comes around" or just God's tender mercies, I've been there for both of my sisters. I sure hope so. And either way, they're both graduated and moving on, so I need to do the same.


Just a thousand words - taking pictures in Vietnam

I read an article in the most recent Non Sông issue as my wife was preparing lessons for her summer tutoring program. It was the first time Non Sông editors have published a feature on a few of the young Vietnamese American photographers in socal, and each picture seemed to speak to me. I'm kicking myself for not bringing the article home, or finding that issue on my bookshelf because I know I took one at Hội Tết last February, but I do remember one photographer and his websites so I'll post him here and do the rest later. If I get around to it, that is.

Loc Nguyen is the only photographer I know personally, we both went to UCI and worked with VietACT when it was just taking off. I love his nature shots. I see him as a down-to-earth person, never talking too much but packing meaning into his words, just like his pictures. He can be found at http://locnguyen.smugmug.com/

A feeling I've been tossing around resurfaced while looking at those pictures last night. My last trip to Vietnam was strictly for leisure, đi chơi according to my Viet friends. This time around, we'll be visiting relatives and stuff like that, but I feel like I need a purpose to be there. Vietnam is a world too full of meaning for me to just take another "fun trip." Part of me wants to sit on the street corner every morning and just take pictures of people walking by, but I'm not at a zoo. Last time, a minority woman took advantage of my desire to candidly capture her daughter's face(this link will take you to my photo album) by charging me a dollar after the shutter clicked. Who said Vietnam isn't capitalist! Anyway, I do think focusing my lens on the more mundane side of Vietnam, the stuff that walks or rides or crawls by me everyday, may appease this underlying urge to "capture Vietnam." If that's even possible.

UPDATE - 06/16/07

Ok, I've got the issue here so I'm going to write up about a few more of these people:

Phi Dong has a very cool website (it's called "phidong.com" if that's any indication) with a blog and everything. Lots of photos of cars, but I like nature better so I'm posting this one. Take a look here: http://www.phidong.com/gallery/

Denny Le has a knack for catching the beauty in architectural forms as well as nature. Although his site doesn't have a huge number of images, the ones there are worth a look (the one to the right is actually a picture of Cat Ba Island in Northern Vietnam): http://www.dennyphotography.com/Portfolio


VIETNAM!! and communal couriers

You know that one part in Home Alone where the mom is on the airplane and finally realizes what she's missing and sits upright in her chair and screams "KEVIN!" Yes, well, that's about what I did this morning when I realized that in one short week I would be boarding an airplane for Vietnam. But I screamed Vietnam instead of Kevin.

I can't believe it's already time to go! I'm so stoked to go back - hopefully I'll have time amid all the traveling to visit some of the friends I made back in 2004. But all of my excitement and forward-looking is kind of on hold while we do all the mundane packing and stuff. And because of a subtle tradition in Vietnamese America (and diaspora in general, I hear) that will not believed unless/until experienced, I am waiting for someone to ask me to bring something back to Vietnam with me. I call it the "communal courier" tradition.

Full disclosure: With a week still to go, I am happy to announce that this trip is not too influence by the communal courier tradition. Yet. But to put it in basic terms, my understanding of this tradition is that there is this large vacation detector in the sky that records all of the trips made to here and from there, and then transmits that info via ham radio or bullhorn to the inhabitants of the earth who are looking to send a gift or medicine or money or the kitchen sink, who then find the trip-taker and approach them with the following pick-up line: "Hey, I hear you're going to ___________? Sounds great! Hey, I was just wondering..." and they proceed to invite you to carry their item with you and deliver it to someone in the land of destination. It's that simple. Why pay international postage when you can send it with someone for free? But is it really for free? The eerie part of it is that there's also a large karma detector up in the sky that has entered into a contract with the vacation detector to keep track of all those who have invited their friends, family members, co-workers or total strangers to bring something along with them, and sooner or later the inviter turns into an invitee and the cycle continues until the original trip-taker has the favor returned to them. Am I making sense? I hope not, but I don't understand a lick of it. But somehow, the whole city knows when we're going to Vietnam and many of them seem to have things they would like to send to Vietnam, without hassling with the postal system. Phew!

Looking at the amount of stuff we have to prepare for the trip (as this is my first introduction to much of my wife's family back in Vietnam and they all expect pictures :), I probably won't be blogging until I'm in Vietnam proper. See ya'll then!


Social Control

I am agog. That in itself surprises me because ever since I've been involved in the Vietnamese community, I've heard horror stories of journalists and religious leaders being arrested or put under house arrest because of their pro-democracy efforts in Vietnam. And I've heard stories that the social control in Vietnam is enough to keep most of the people "herded" into the same ideological corral. But now it's happened to someone I know, and that makes a world of difference.

"Hôm nay, em muốn nói cho anh biết là nếu bây giờ anh vào blog em sẽ không thấy entry nào cả." I got this email a few days ago and I'm still a bit shaken up about it. "Today I need to let you know that if you go to my blog you won't see any entries at all." At the request of her parents, the young Vietnamese blogger deleted the entire contents of her blog. Her blog is - or was - a delightful mixture of the introspective diary stuff that started the blogging trend and light political commentary. So light that we calloused Americans wouldn't even notice the inferences she made to government slip-ups or overlooks, but nonetheless considering alternative options for the way Vietnam is being governed today. Her second to last entry was about a terrible train wreck (see here for a more in-depth article): a bus carrying a load full of students was hit by a train. The bus was crowded so the boys crammed in the back to give the girls room in the front, and it was the back end that the train slammed into. 5 students died (at last count) and many more were seriously injured. After expressing her deep sorrow for the families involved, giving her condolences and encouraging all to keep the victims' families in our prayers, she asked one question about the safety standards mandated by the State for railroad crossings. The question I can not quote for it is now gone for good (I've searched high and low online, including Google's cached pages, to no avail), but the gist of it was this: "Most people blame the bus driver for not paying attention. But the railroad crossing was only marked by a siren. How would things have turned out if the State [Vietnam] required that safety bars be required at all crossings?" As I said, the implication here is light and directed toward a policy, not the system. In fact, some of her other posts dealt with "nước ta" ("Our Country") in a much more judgemental manner. But apparently this article was the tipping point. Her next and last entry mentioned that some friends found issue with her treatment of the State, and some even criticized her for being too "bạo động" (lit: "to rise up, uprising," basically saying she was too revolutionary). Her email detailed what happened next: big sister caught word of the nature of her blog and read it. Sister brought it to mom and dad, who immediately "asked" that it be removed. All of it. The very hand and mind that clicked those words into being became the hand that erased them forever.

Given the political situation in Vietnam right now, I don't blame her parents for being too careful, but I'm so sad to see such a young, intelligent voice smothered so quickly, or in current overseas Vietnamese community lingo, bị bịt miệng. Although the free-speech atmosphere in Vietnam has improved greatly over the years, the rumors of political dissidents being arrested or mysteriously lost has produced a strong mechanism for social control of young "free-speakers," much like our parents telling us to eat up because "there's starving children in China." Whether it's true or not, and regardless of the actual ramifications of such actions among Vietnam's youth, the notion that the government arrests those who speak against it holds much of the population under control, much more than the official propaganda spread by the government itself. And why not use it ("it" being the arresting of "political dissidents"), if it effectively dictates the actions of the majority by making a public example of a few? Many of the youth in Vietnam enforce this social control among their friends, as is the case with this situation. It goes to show that freedom is not only dictated by the current political regime, but also by the society in which it exists.

This particular blogger said she bawled her eyes out when she had to delete her blog. Her parents were making an executive decision for the welfare and safety of their still-under-age daughter, and we can't dispute their motive in ordering the blog's demise. But the difficult thing for me to swallow is the identity that was washed away with it. We live in an age of virtual identities, and especially for Vietnamese youth who "waste hours a day chatting on Yahoo messenger" these identities are very salient and precious. To delete a blog, full of personal expression as well as other readers' comments, is to squash a certain part of one's self. I just hope she'll get back up and keep questioning. Hopefully she'll find the "happy medium" where observance of social dictates and expression of personal quandaries can co-exist in Vietnam. And I hope that Vietnam starts using safety bars for their railroad crossings.

travel log
  • 02.13.08 - to the temple with Luan and his mom, good to be back
  • 02.14.08 - Mẫu's alive! and staying for the weekend
  • 02.15.08 - floor hockey and Thái food makes for some strange dreams
  • 02.17.08 - frisbee and swamp monster at the park: fun but I'm pooped!
  • 02.19.08 - just read Triết's response to my last post - game on!
  • 02.20.08 - raining and expected to continue through Sunday - thank goodness!
  • 02.21.08 - 3-hour nap is a bad idea right before bed
  • 02.23.08 - to the beach to watch kites, a baptism @ 5pm, and homemade bulgogi - what a day!
  • 02.25.08 - just gave myself a haircut - woo, cold head!
  • 02.26.08 - 75° and spring cleaning - couldn't feel better
  • 02.27.08 - fed the elders bún đậu tonight - think it's their first time
  • 03.01.08 - working on new background...
  • 03.02.08 - finalized javascript to change background without muffing up my other scripts
  • 03.03.08 - fhe: "In his strength I can do all things" (Alma 26:12)
  • 03.07.08 - some decisions are harder than others, but some are downright excruciating
  • 03.08.08 - there is life after work... i almost forgot
  • 03.11.08 - the distance between good and bad is much shorter than between better and best
  • 03.12.08 - conversion is sometimes a gradual process, so much so that we don't even notice
  • 03.14.08 - for some reason everything was a little harder today, looking forward for bed!
  • 03.15.08 - last night after blog reading, I missed OnlyBlue, today I find she's back
  • 03.16.08 - best day of my life!
  • 03.19.08 - "Pray for the answer that they've been looking for"
release notes v1.0 - FINALLY DONE!
  • 12.07 - first thought of starting a new blog
  • 01.08 - busy with election stuff but blog design still on back burner
  • 01.13.08 - first idea to imitate jk rowling with the "desk" theme
  • 01.28.08 - start sketching current design, breaking down development into phases
  • 02.02.08 - election only days away but still drafting final plans
  • 02.04.08 - v0.6 LAUNCH
    • main components (blog body, sidebar, header, etc) designed and implemented
    • styling for font, links, drop caps, etc. finished
  • 02.07.08 - v0.8 LAUNCH
    • image style to imitate polariod
    • moveability - post-it notes and static clings can be repositioned by drag and drop
    • release notes styled and written
  • 02.16.08 - travel log (beta) added in hopes of catching the mundane
  • 02.22.08 - lightbox 2.03 reinstalled and working fine (hopefully - let me know otherwise)
  • 02.26.08 - v0.9 LAUNCH
    • travel log seems to be working, so I'll keep it
    • lightbox also seems to have passed the test, so it's a keeper
    • some credits/info added to bottom (will expand)
    • keeping old Viet terms in archive for future viewing
  • 03.18.08 - v1.0 LAUNCH
    • installation and testing of time-sensitive background completed (for now)