It all started in 2008 when my old boss in the USA asked me to travel to Vietnam. I didn’t realize it at first, but I worked with 6 other Vietnamese staff. So for over a year we would become very good friends and I learned how they talked and acted.
I guess I was sheltered and stuck in my own element. I had no idea about Vietnam other than the war and that it was poor and dirty. Andy was my boss and he told me he had family in the countryside – Ben Luc, Long An to be exact. I honestly had no idea where that was. Heck, I didn’t even know about Saigon or Hanoi until I arrived.
Andy begged and begged me to come. Finally, I gave in and arrived for Tet holiday. I remember the long flight and since it was my first time really leaving America, it was also my first flight over 5 hours. I remember stopping in Anchorage, Alaska first, then onto Taipei, Taiwan and finally arriving in Saigon. The total trip was about 24 hours.
My first steps out the airport were scary. I was really out of my comfort zone already. I saw nothing but tiny little Vietnamese people staring at me. There were so many and I really didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Andy didn’t prep me – he just dragged me to Vietnam and I had no idea or clue why. Out of nowhere people started shouting (really just talking loudly).
Apparently Andy and his immediate family had 40 family members waiting at the airport. They all hugged each other and I kind of said nothing. I was nervous and extremely shy. Nobody could talk to me and even my body language wasn’t working.
We all got introduced to each other – basically I was the tall white guy from America. They couldn’t pronounce my name correctly. Instead of Phil I was “Phieu or Phi.” We got in a huge van and drove away. It took about 20 minutes for the air conditioner to start working properly. I was dying.
I just remember sitting with a bunch of ladies and kids who just were smiling, not saying anything, but smiling at me. They were also staring at me now that I remember correctly. They weren’t being rude – they were just being overly curious since this was the first time any of them really saw a white guy and especially this close. I was something like an alien to them.
As we drove through Saigon from the airport all I could see were hundreds of motorbikes and people of all ages driving them. This was amazing. Where I’m from in a small suburb in Central New Jersey we maybe had 5 motorcycles in the entire town. I also saw many people walking all over – even on the wrong sides of the streets. I saw controlled chaos. It was awesome.
We stopped at a local place to eat. I really was scared to be honest. It was my first time using chop sticks, it was blazing hot, and it wasn’t the most hygienic place. I saw everyone else eating some kind of meat, but I wasn’t ready for that. I ended up eating white rice and vegetables and drinking sugar cane juice. It wasn’t the best meal but it was the safest.
After eating I just passed out. I was exhausted. Exhausted from the long trip, the noise and the heat. It seemed like everyone at the same time fell asleep. It was like we were all under a spell. The entire van went silent for the remainder of the ride to Ben Luc city.
I remember hearing shouting, again it was just them talking loudly. I woke up instantly. The road started to get bumpy. Now remember this was 2008. Things weren’t even developing back then. We just went though a huge intersection and we’re finally going into the countryside. I remember all the traffic and the insane amount of drivers coming to an end. Things got more quiet and calm.
We continued on back roads for a while and Andy said we had to make a quick stop somewhere. I had no idea why and no idea where we were going. Turned out we had to visit the burial site of his grandmother. His family was extremely close to her. I would find out that his grandfather was also very old so that’s why they had to come back – they had to see him and make sure he was okay.
We stopped in the middle of a field and it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Fields and fields of green open space with clear blue skies. We just walked to the mausoleum and we stayed there for a while – I just stood back and let the family pay their respects.
Soon after we were back in the van – sweaty again. Andy told me we were close to his home. Apparently close meant another 30 minutes. That was plenty of time for his family to stare and smile at me again. Oh, and for some reason they were holding my hands and rubbing my arms – they were actually petting me like an animal because I must of been the first person they met with long arm hair. Weird.
We finally arrived at his country side home. It was in the middle of nowhere and behind a school. There was an open field to the right and a little shop to the left. There wasn’t much of a driveway and I had no idea how 15 people would sleep there. Well, I soon figured that out.
There were three rooms and each room would have about 5 people sleep together – all under mosquito nets. It was hilarious but odd at the same time. The first few nights I got no sleep because of jet lag so we would all just stay up all night and play cards and drink wine. I soon got dehydrated because of the alcohol and the heat.
Andy introduced me to nuoc mia – sugar cane juice and it was the best thing I have ever tasted. Plus it was super cheap so I would buy 5 glasses at a time. For my entire trip I drank at least 1 glass a day. Nuoc Mia wasn’t the only tasty drink I had. Before Vietnam I never tried coffee. Andy made sure I was drinking Ca Phe Sua Da daily and I had no complaints and to this day I make sure I have at least 1 glass per day.
As the trip continued I was just fascinated with everything. The lovely school kids who just wanted to see me because no foreigners ever visited their village and all the cheap food and drinks. I was loving it all. I loved the attention the locals gave me. I remember all the card games and all the jokes – all the laughs and smiles. I still talk about those memories to my friends and colleagues now.
Andy decided for Tet holiday to hire a few popular singers from Saigon to come down to his house to do a few performances – it had to cost a lot. Andy really wanted to give the entire village a great holiday and something to remember forever. Everyone had a blast and I remember there were even a few comedians and I’m sure they talked about my bald head because everyone kept looking at me and saying “dau troc.”
Two weeks were finally up – it was time to go home. I had mixed emotions. I was a little home sick because it was my first time away for that long, but I already had a feeling that Vietnam was now my home. It was love at first sight – I fell in love. It was everything that America wasn’t. I wanted to live the “American Dream” in Vietnam. That statement is hard to explain unless you left home and travelled to a new place. Sometimes “home” is where you want it to be and that’s why Vietnam is my home.
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About Phil Veinott
Philip is a traveler, teacher, writer and blogger. He has been living and working in Vietnam for over 6 years. He has travelled to over 30 countries and enjoys learning new languages and meeting new people. Follow him on Facebook