Before I left to go to Vietnam the first time around in 2002, about a year after I graduated from college, I remember being at a restaurant where some Vietnamese people convened regularly on a Sunday morning. Some of the women found out that I was going to move to Vietnam, and they laughed because they claimed I would hate it there because I wasn't very Vietnamese, I was single and I was a woman. I'm not sure why they felt that because of the aforementioned reasons, I would not enjoy living and working in Vietnam. Maybe it was because it was the Vietnam of their memories that they thought I wouldn't like. But there Vietnam is certainly not the Vietnam I learned to love and cherish.
I didn't know that much about Vietnam, even though my parents are Vietnamese, before I went there to do an internship with the United Nations Development Program in Hanoi. I didn't even have a strong preference as to whether I should be in Hanoi or Saigon. After doing some research, it was the French architecture in Hanoi and the spattering of lakes throughout the city that lured me to Vietnam's capital. I fell in love with Hanoi for a variety of reasons, but mainly because it was a place where I was able to do a lot of soul-searching, and a city, even though it is difficult and challenging on a number of friends, nourished me in a variety of ways. I sometimes can't explain to people how much my experience in Vietnam has shaped me.
The Vietnam that my parents knew is quite different from the Vietnam that I know, and the one that the young Vietnamese people have grown up with. My generation and those even younger than me have grown up without the memories of the war. To many of us, Vietnam is what we create there - the experiences we have and the people that we meet. I traveled back and forth to Vietnam from 2002 - 2010 and lived there three times during my 20s which had a profound impact on my personal and professional development. My closest friends are people I've met in Vietnam, many of them Vietnamese Americans, much like myself, who wanted to see what it would be like to explore this country of our origin.
Over time, the country has become part of my soul. Before going to Vietnam, I had no idea how special Tet could be, and even if my parents would have taught me the significance of the Lunar New Year, it is not the same as experiencing the holiday feeling in the air, especially in Hanoi, where the weather during Tet is often cloudy and cold, but the Tet celebrations warm your insides. I long to spend Tet in Vietnam now, and feel a sense of nostalgia now that I'm away.
I've befriended a number of Vietnamese people, who have taught me a lot about life, love and sacrifice. I've watched how hard some of my friends have worked, how much they strive to improve themselves and to better their situation through hard work, rather than believing that they are entitled to a good fortune. And I've also watched both Hanoi and Saigon change drastically as cities over the past few years, and sometimes not in a good way. It is inevitable that the country will change as it modernizes and as people's income increases, they will also begin to consume more and traditional values might not coexist as easily with rapid modernization.
I understand the love that my parents feel for their country, and the curiosity about its growth and development. I believe that I also have a similar love now. And while they may feel that they lost a Vietnam, I'd like to assure them that the country still has the same soul, the same resilient spirit, that keeps her progressing regardless of what may get in her way. Like a human being, the country grows and changes and develops, and it is a pleasure to anticipate what she may become.