As I stood knee-deep in the water on the deserted sandy beach of Đông Hà, Quảng Trị, a city about two hours north of Huế, the frothy waves wrapped around my legs and gently tugged at them, as if Lạc Long Quân – the mythical father of the Vietnamese people – was calling. Meanwhile, a strong breeze from the nearby mountains effortlessly coiled around my body like a long-awaited embrace from Âu Cơ – our folk tale mother. For the frst time in my life, I felt a visceral connection to Vietnam, a feeling that, until then, I thought impossible having lived in the U.S. for over two decades and growing up with Vietnamese American sentiments, ones that encourage an understanding of our ancient history and culture yet does everything to instill in us a sense of suspicion and disconnect with the very place from which we originated.
The Vietnam War was fought between the North and South but the end result was that of a Western Vietnam, the diaspora where I now call home, and an Eastern Vietnam, the land where I was born. Growing up in Western Vietnam, one can’t help but admire the determination and resourcefulness of its people, who constantly strive for a brighter future. At the same time, an undercurrent of fear and anger, no doubt a collective reaction to the painful memories of years past, runs through the community, slowly widening the shores between East and West. I was simultaneously encouraged to be proud of my heritage while often hearing divisive exhortations echoing in a community where fear-mongering was accepted as the norm. Understandable as the circumstances were, it was also clear that the rumbling of War never completely ceased and the wounds of Conflict never fully healed. Attempts to break these pernicious chains, perhaps toward reconciliation, were often met with a range of disapproval, from mild irritation to intense outrage, and occasionally, violence.
Since immigrating to Seattle, I had returned to Vietnam a few times to visit family; friends were long gone. With each trip, though, the enthusiasm faded and, unable to keep up with the country’s rapid development, I started to feel like a tourist rather than a familiar visitor. In time, the thought of going to Vietnam became as appealing as a trip to the dentist, and after my last trip in 2007, I had no desire for another. Convinced then of being estranged from my counterparts overseas and that there would be nothing common from the way we talk and dress to our attitudes on life, I bought into the narrative of being at odds with Eastern Vietnam and her people. I began to regard them with distanced familiarity, like one would toward friends of friends, going so far as to avoid interacting with the increasing Eastern Vietnamese population that started coming to the States in the early 2000s.
It was under these circumstances that I met Nhơn, Hoa Mai, and Hà, three Eastern Vietnamese who had come to Seattle to attend leadership programs conducted by an organization where I was working. The programs lasted weeks and I would see them daily. In the days leading to their arrival, my mind was a coin toss stuck in midair. Whatever excitement there was about having “my people” here was equally subdued by a cloud of trepidation.
My mind churned with questions like: Would I be able to connect with them? What would they think of me? Is…politics going to be an issue? Partly because I had a job to do but more so driven by what I later realized as a dormant yearning to reconnect, I decided not to squander this rare opportunity; I would make an effort at openness and friendship. Through conversations led by curiosity and unhindered by history or politics, we connected as one person to another, sharing our hopes and dreams, our past, present, and future. Inactive neurons in my brain fired up one by one, rekindling memories and emotions I thought had been lost forever. By the end of the programs, I had three new Eastern Vietnamese friends, a bet I would not have taken just a few weeks earlier.
I learned from them that while Western Vietnam still regards its Eastern sibling through the lens of the 70s and 80s, the next generation of Eastern Vietnam had quickly grown up and started to join the global stage, becoming business entrepreneurs and social leaders and shaping their communities. They are pursuing education and careers abroad, looking to connect with people all over the world, including those of us in Western Vietnam. But it has not been easy. Another Eastern Vietnamese friend in Seattle told me there are nearly 200 families like hers residing here with more coming every year, but they largely socialize among themselves, eschewing the local community for fear of rejection, if not outright hostility. They opt to hold gatherings and celebrate holidays amongst themselves instead of joining existing ones. It’s regrettable indeed that a 5000-year-old tradition like Tết – the Lunar New Year – could not overcome 50 years of Conflict.
Standing on the beach that day as I mulled over this wistful thought, I suddenly remembered that just a few feet behind was my new Eastern Vietnamese friend Hà, who I had visited after also meeting up with Nhơn in Saigon. When they had completed their work in Seattle and returned home, I felt a great calling from across the Pacifc and booked my flight. This time, I did not feel like a tourist. I was visiting friends in an old neighborhood and Vietnam had never been more beautiful and calm in my mind. Through the fear was friendship, and through the human connections that I made, was peace. It is a joy that I hope others could find.
In a later conversation, I asked Hà how it was to work with a Western Vietnamese like me. She tells me that when she was preparing to apply for the program, she felt happy and somewhat “at ease” to know there would be a Vietnamese person around.
“At ease about what?” I pried.
“Isn’t that a very natural feeling?” she said as a matter of fact. “Like ah…there’s a Vietnamese person! I believe other participants would feel the same. Isn’t that a natural connection among Vietnamese?”
I nodded and smiled.
Bao Nguyen comes to Xin Chao with a belief that stories, through their connective nature, have the power to bridge the ideological islands where we often fnd ourselves stranded. From a young age, he has immersed himself in stories, absorbing everything from the historical to the fantastical.