Vietnam from Chi Terraced Rice Fields

International Clarity: Vietnam (from Chi Nguyen)

This week’s guest author: Chi Nguyen

I wish I could just sing a song, or dance, or do anything else to express what I wanted to say about Vietnam, just because writing is always my last resort of communication. But because Kyle The Great [editor’s note: I did not tell her to call me that 🙂] very kindly invited me to join his project, and I personally thought it’s a very meaningful and interesting thing to do, so in a rare moment of absence of my fear for writing, I bravely accepted his request.

So, imagine one word that first comes to your mind when describing about Vietnam. War? Pho? Communism? Poverty? Jungles? Scooters? You’re probably correct to some extent. Yet, it won’t be a comprehensive picture of the country, the people, and the culture with what you’ve just heard or seen via the media. How can I fit a story of a nation that has over 4000 years of war-ridden history with too many ups and downs into such a short piece of writing? With such a limited time and resources, I chose to just write about the most common misconceptions and questions I think the Americans might have of Vietnam and bring my best knowledge and fairest opinions to provide a more accurate view of the country.

1.      Is Vietnam still a Communist country?

Vietnam is one of the five countries on Earth still being governed by a Communist Party. Yet, just because the leadership has “Communist” element in its name does not automatically mean they are Communist leaders any more. It is true that Vietnam used to be a highly centralized economy when the country belonged to the Communist bloc of nations including Russia and China.  
Thanks to the political and economic reforms in the last couple of decades, Vietnam today has embraced a mixed economic system that is led by both state control and the free market.  With international trade, foreign investments, and fairly open democracy, Vietnam has transitioned to a socialist-oriented market economy and one of the fastest-growing countries in the world.
So my answer to this #1 misconception: Thankfully, Vietnam is no longer a Communist country. At least we don’t call each other Comrades!

2.      What do Vietnamese people think of the Americans today?

I am fortunate enough to be born in the peace time and never witnessed any war-torn experience in my personal life. I grew up learning a lot about the Vietnam War through the stories retold by my beloved grandmother. She has lived through the war, and the memories of the war are still so vivid in her mind that sometimes I cannot help but wondering how one can find the peace of mind to carry on her a long life with such a painful past. It seems that even many older people who have fought in the war don’t have a feeling of hatred toward the Americans. It must be their forgiving and accepting nature that helps them to let the past go and look forward to the future.  In my view, Vietnamese people in general are friendly and welcoming to the Americans, just like to any other foreign groups. That’s also the impression I’ve heard from many of my American friends who have come visit or even had experience living in the country.  I told you Communism is gone there!

3.      Do you guys speak Chinese?

Approximately 5 out of 10 people the first time I’ve talked with started a conversation like this:
“You look Chinese! Are you from China?” or “What part of China are you from?” Or sometimes, even with a very excited greeting: “Ni Hao!” (equivalent to Hi in English).
Geographically, Vietnam does share its border with China. Historically, Vietnam had been ruled by the Chinese for over a thousand years. Yet, again yet, just because we are neighbors and share quite a few cultural aspects does not mean we use the same language system. Presuming Vietnamese people speak Chinese is just the same as assuming everyone who has squinty eyes is Asian, and all Asians are Chinese related.

Interestingly, the Vietnamese language does have tone-based pronunciations similar to Chinese; however, it is written with the Latin alphabet that consists of the English letters and a few other modified letters using diacritics. In essence, I think Vietnamese is a very unique language system that reflects the country’s rich history of cultural diversity and adaptations. During my grandparents’ generation, many people spoke French as one of the most dominant languages. A generation later, people studied Russian, and today we are learning English in school and at work beside the Vietnamese national language.

4.      Why are there absurdly so many Nguyens?

This, in fact, is the most commonly asked question I’ve got ever since I came to America. “Do you know ABC NGUYEN?” “You must know DEF NGUYEN, right?” “Are you related to XYZ NGUYEN?”, etc etc.  And most of the time, my response would be that 70% of my friends named Nguyen, so which one are you talking about? Because I myself sometimes got confused by an army of friends whose names show no distinctions. 
(picture with courtesy of
Interestingly, 9.9 out of 10 people would pronounce the word as “Nuwen”. The consonant “Ng” in Nguyen doesn’t exist in English and many other languages, hence, this pronunciation confusion. That’s kinda funny but I think it’s cute at the same time every time I hear a foreign friend trying so hard to pronoun my name.
Every time you meet a Nguyen person, you know that he or she is for sure Vietnamese related. This is due to the fact that approximately 40% of the Vietnamese population shares this surname. Nguyen was originally the name of a Dynasty, and Vietnamese people wanted to show their loyalty by changing their family name to the King’s.  

5.      Is there a code to cross the Vietnamese streets?

One of the very first things you experience as a foreigner in Vietnam is the insane Vietnamese traffic. You will easily find yourself stuck in a gazillion motor scooters, added with some cars, trucks, buses and all sorts of honking noises from the vehicles. Stoplights and rules appear to be random, and whether you as a pedestrian will get splattered is random as well, unless you grow up in Vietnam. Every single friend who planned to visit Vietnam for the first time asked me the same question about the code to cross the streets safely. And my advice for them is always: Keep walking ahead with confidence! The drivers expect you to keep moving and they will guide themselves accordingly to avoid at all cost not to hit you. The scooter drives weave in unison around the trucks, buses, and people as if they were cascadeurs  [editor note: this is “stunt man” in English.  Chi is using the French word, which I left in to complement her discussion of language above] in some Hollywood action movies. And despite the never-ending chaotic traffic that may have some effect on your nervous system, you will be surprised at how rare you encounter an accident in inner cities due to such “weaving” skill of these drivers.
Perhaps nowhere on Earth you can find more scooters than in Vietnam’s streets.  It’s become a symbol of Vietnam. Also, it is one of the few things I miss the most about home. It is the feeling of strolling slowly around Hanoi’s (my hometown) little streets on my scooter at night time. That’s when the city goes to sleep, and the only sound left is of the night’s breeze and some hard-working street vendors cycling on their bikes to sell their food.
Despite all of these chaos, craziness, the fast booming economy and industrial developments, what remains as its quintessence, the Vietnam that I love, is its unique traditions and its serene natural beauty. No matter how many foreign places I’ve been to and how many years I’ve been away from home, what still makes my heart ache with nostalgia is an image of its golden rice fields waving in the wind and flocks of white storks slowly flapping their wings to the far-away sun setting horizon in a country afternoon. 


From Kyle again:
If you have experience in both the U.S. and another country (for at least 3 months in each spot) and would like to write a post, email me at and I can send you more information.  Thanks!Keep seeking truth.You may also be interested in:
International Clarity: New Zealand (from Pauline Durfee)

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