The GoGlobal Blog

Tree Lined Streets

Tree Lined Streets

Saigon paints a deep and intricate portrait of the past; it just takes looking a little closer. The streets, as in other Vietnamese cities, are typically named after heroes and heroines that contributed significantly to Vietnam and its history. Of the 3,600 roads crisscrossing Saigon, many carry fictional stories of ancient utopian cities, while others detail significant women warriors. Even the countless trees that line the city blocks have stories to tell. Looming over nearly every street in Saigon, they create a unique canopy that frames the hustle and bustle of the city perfectly. Originally products of French imperialism, the trees were planted to contain the disorderly environment and were an attempt to give the cities structure. The shards of glass that haphazardly poke up from the walls throughout district 10 are also reminiscent of French domination – a solution to wanting to keep unwanted people out without using barbed wire. Cities like Da Lat and Hanoi show powerful reminders of French imperialism through city planning – with the goal being to make Vietnam the ‘pearl of Southeast Asia’. In Da Lat, for instance, the French replaced large swaths of the jungle with tall pine trees. On a 6-hour motorbike tour of Da Lat, a city initially developed in the 1900’s as a resort by the French, I felt a strange mixture comforted by the pines and disgust with the echoes of colonialism represented by a luscious jungle on one side of the valley and tall pines on the other. In Hanoi, the city squares and romantically styled buildings can still be seen today. The old French buildings that once belonged to a single regime are now conserved and used by the Vietnamese, exhibiting a careful and harmonic combination throughout the city.

In contrast, learning more about how deeply the US impacted the development of Vietnam left me wondering how I was ever supposed to fit in. Being a foreigner here is unlike any other experience I’ve had; the language barrier is so strong I am often unsatisfied with the depth of interactions I can manage. Settling into a routine is one thing, but being accepted into a community is another altogether. Having my host partner walk with me and simply speak a mechanics shop owner, Ha, opened a whole new world gave the hint of life to a city that seemed so impartial to foreigners. Ha’s story was certainly a hidden gem, without a translator, it might have never been found. Ha fled communist China only to enter Vietnam’s version of it early on; she speaks Chinese, Vietnamese, and has been taking English courses for the past 2 years. Within the first 10 minutes of meeting her, we were welcomed with open arms and offered dinner. Hearing Ha’s story added a fresh perspective on the people I interact with, how many amazing stories will I never hear because of such a strong language barrier?

In contrast, the littlest interactions show how Vietnam is clinging to traditional ideals. For instance, Confucian gender roles still play a large part in the functioning of Vietnamese society. Confucian tradition holds that men should be the ones handling a majority of money and dealing with transactions. In daily life, this means I get flustered when the bahn mi lady disgruntedly waves my 20,000dong aside and gestures to her husband, who mutters something while grabbing my change. Understanding the reasons for why the interaction plays out the way it does fails to make it any less unsettling. Similarly, the refusal to simply not add beef/shrimp/egg on a traditional dish like ‘pho’ because then it simply isn’t ‘pho’ reflects a perplexing resilience to small changes. You don’t change pho and still get to call it pho.

Despite all of this, the country shows its eagerness to transition into a major player in southeast Asia, readily adopting laws and measures that would make it more friendly to tourists. Two weeks after outlawing food carts on sidewalks, the district 10 I have come to know and love has already changed. Countless Vietnamese earn their livelihoods through food carts and stands scattered throughout street corners or being pushed along the roads. For tourists, the added appeal of finding the noodle lady, or risking a long night on the toilet for the dare that comes with eating street food adds a unique allure. Street food gives tourists and locals alike a chance to build community, to rub shoulders over a bowl of noodles swimming in chicken broth. Food carts are now more mobile than ever, police cars send people sprinting at breakneck speeds to hide their carts in order to avoid fines, and the rapid busyness of the streets are slowing down. The banh mi lady that knew my vegetarian order every morning on the way to class now has two family members keeping watch on the street corner, while she hands me my Banh mi’s from behind a bush.

The whole appeal of coming to Vietnam was because it is, in a sense, shrouded in mystery. Even saying the name of the country left a bitter taste in the older generations’ mouths, and the question of, why? Why venture into a country that divided the nation and brings up vague images of substance abuse, PTSD, and the shame associated with using Agent Orange? As an American studying here, I am not only reminded of how much the US shaped the country, but also the long reactionary history of the Vietnamese. I was expecting to be met with far more animosity and distrust, how could I be accepted in a nation the US worked to destroy. Talking to Vietnamese students, however, gives a wide range of reactions. Many students feel the need to globalize and reach beyond the borders of Vietnam. In fact, many Vietnamese students closely followed the US presidential race and were interested in sharing their thoughts about it. Outside of my dorm, reminders of US intervention comes in various forms, from wacky t-shirts sported by Vietnam’s youth to singing slightly outdated songs like “Impossible,” “Just Give Me A Reason,” or “Everytime We Touch” in karaoke bars and on blasting from speakers on street corners. Although younger generations readily accept the call to globalize, the country as a whole is struggling between yearning for modernization and keeping their tradition.

Learning more about my home for the past three months has certainly added perspective and given me more empathy for why things are the way that they are. The feeling of being ‘other’ lessens the more I learn about Saigon, and district 10. There is a certain element of comfort that comes from being constantly uncomfortable all the time. There are many ways to make a place feel like home, to make it familiar to the point of never wanting to leave. Tying experiences and memories to landmarks is one way; for a place with a time limit like this, finding out more about the streets I walk regularly and the trees that loom over them was my method of finding comfort in an environment that isn’t easy to navigate. Dig a little deeper into your “normal,” even if you’re not sure you’ll ever find it.


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