On Turning Thirty* In Vietnam

Birthday Flowers
Big: birthday flowers from my guesthouse. Little: jewelry box from close friend

I was born on the 9th of July, 1982 and as of today I have officially owned a birth certificate for twenty nine years. It sounds simple enough, but calculating my age—or, more appropriately, discussing my age—in Vietnam has been anything but easy since I first arrived in 2004.

Love, culture, and age: three topics of conversation that always end in playful arguments with Vietnamese friends. The reason age has become such a contentious point of disagreement among locals and me is because I have not yet conditioned myself to view age as a function of years,—the most important elements of my birthday have always been the 9 and July—while they see no point (outside of official documentation) in viewing age as a function of days and months; they only care about the 1982.

What this means is that by the 3rd of February, 2011 I was already 30 years old in Vietnam but still technically 28 in the United States. I felt it didn’t make any sense at all to tell people I was two years older than my official Western age and I simply wasn’t psychologically ready to accept being thirty earlier this year, so from exactly one year ago I began telling people I was twenty nine years old. Complicated, I know.

To keep from going utterly mad in Vietnam I have decided to add one year to my Western age at any given moment that I’m asked about it. Yesterday I was 29, today I am 30, and I will be 30 for precisely 364 more days before I am willing to say that I am 31.

The reason I do not follow my Western age exactly is because I live in Vietnam, which is anything but a You/Me/I society. There are certain parts of my culture and Western upbringing on which I am not willing to compromise because they give me meaning and a sense of connectedness to friends and family in the United States. Age is not one of those.

What I ended up doing today isn’t all that noteworthy or important, really. I woke up late, went for pampering at a spa, and followed it up with a meal at one of my favorite restaurants in Hanoi. Outside of close friends and family I didn’t mention in advance the day to anyone. I’ve been trending towards the non-birthday birthday for several years now; sometimes there’s nothing better than sneaking away from the world for a day and spending it with my thoughts and dessert.

On Huế / On Oversensitivity

It occurs to me that I’ve traveled to Hue at least once per month this year, twice for the sole purpose of acting as an amateur tour guide for a best friend and family member and once for the sole purpose of spending time with VIA friends. My next trip to Hue won’t come until June, when Phu Bai airport reopens.

Last week’s trip was especially nice, notwithstanding Hue’s terribly nasty weather. My brilliant, beautiful grandmother and I—along with a friend from university—went on the tomb circuit, shopped for incense, and visited Thien Mu Pagoda. Between fighting back “been there done that” feelings and extreme laziness brought on by wet feet and warm blankets I did enjoy Hue again.

There’s something about the place. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s one of the few locations in Vietnam that I talk up. Hue denizens are among the most graceful folks in Vietnam, good food there is never hard to find, and in terms of culture Hue comes second only to Hanoi as a place that oozes history and tradition.

Yellow Incense
Yellow Incense Sticks in Hue, Vietnam

One of the byproducts of all this recent travel, though, has been what I can only call my growing oversensitivity to negative comments about the Vietnamese.

I usually sympathize with visitors who gripe about trash on sidewalks, civic pride, traffic conditions, noise pollution, and procedural inefficiency. But I also find myself becoming extremely defensive with tourists who bitch and moan about getting ripped off, Vietnamese service industry workers who don’t speak English, airport employees who have bad attitudes, or anything that even remotely suggests a collective character deficiency in the Vietnamese.

It’s silly, and I know it is, to get so tense about criticisms that at the end of the day mean nothing to the Vietnamese and nothing to me. Locals and foreign expats have lives to live; we certainly don’t spend all of our time occupied with tourists’ unoriginal takes on idiot drivers or men and children who urinate in public spaces. We have our own issues with Vietnam that usually run much deeper than current pricing for boats, trains, or planes.

But, still, there’s a part of me—underneath the sarcasm and aloofness—that so badly wants for friends, family members, and strangers alike to enjoy Vietnam. Vietnam has been more and more of my home since 2004 and I feel like the moment I decided to become an expat was an implicit statement of purpose to in some ways defend Vietnam’s idiosyncrasies against uninformed, foreign opinions.

The danger of course has always been and will always be falling victim to Vietnam worship. There’s room for improvement here, and lots of it. To pretend otherwise would be just as offensive as Vietnam bashing.

But there’s a nuanced way of criticizing the country, its people, and its culture, one that usually begins with the questions ‘Why?’ or ‘How?’ Instead of growing angry at a waitress for screwing up an order of “salad with no carrots and dressing on the side” I’d rather an English-speaking foreigner ask himself how he could have phrased the request differently. Instead of issuing the blanket statement “the Vietnamese can’t seem to get anything right” I’d rather someone question her expectations.

Another part of this is the lopsided nature of the relationship between the Vietnamese and visitors. Vietnamese people are almost always in the position of serving; foreigners are almost always in the position of being served. It makes fussing by tourists seem awfully bourgeois. Unless someone lives in Vietnam for a very long time or is fluent in Vietnamese, it’s incredibly difficult for him to see Vietnamese people as people. All of this just seems to create a natural tendency towards griping and crankiness on the part of visitors. Fetch me another bia Tiger, boy, and make sure the ice is clean.

Ultimately, I don’t think these feelings will ever end. I want people to like Vietnam because it’s my home, but I also need to come to grips with the fact that people always bring their cultural and economic biases with them wherever they go in the world. It’s not always Vietnam that people don’t like; sometimes they just don’t like different. Nobody can fix that and I really shouldn’t be losing sleep over it.

Huế Incense

The following photos were taken during a visit to Hue with my grandmother, who was visiting me in Vietnam for the second time. The shop we visited not only had incense but also other small souvenirs. I thought different colors of incense would mean different “flavors” of it, but I was sadly mistaken.

Chùa Thiên Mụ

Thien Mu Pagoda is one of my favorite temples in Vietnam. Every time that I travel to Hue I visit it. If you happen to make a trip to Hue, be sure to visit the pagoda and walk to the very end of it. It borders a graveyard and near the back of it are many trees with nice messages written on them. I took these photos during a tour through Hue with my grandmother, who made her second trip to Vietnam to visit me.