American man heals in Vietnam

By Hai Hien   September 27, 2023 | 08:02 pm PT
Jordy Trachtenberg moved to Vietnam four years ago when he was struggling with disease and the aftermath that followed the death of a close friend.

"I did not choose Vietnam, it was Vietnam that chose me," said the 54-year-old Philadelphian.

"I knew from the moment I landed in Vietnam that I did not want to leave the country, because of the peaceful and happy atmosphere I felt here."

Trachtenberg poses with Ho Chi Minh City street vendors in March, 2023. Photo courtesy of Trachtenberg

Trachtenberg poses with Ho Chi Minh City street vendors in March, 2023. Photo courtesy of Trachtenberg

After his success as a record company executive and the founding of his own music label, Trachtenberg was making good money. But accompanying his high income was the feeling of being a slave to his job.

He eventually decided in 2016 to give himself a break from work to travel around the world, to learn about various cultures, and to absorb different inspirations for his music.

Trachtenberg then spent two peaceful years on the Thai island of Phuket and the Cambodian city Phnom Penh, until two big events happened to his life.

The first turning point for the American man was when he got seriously ill in 2018 and had to go to Malaysia for treatment. But the second, and also the more traumatic, event was when he returned to Phnom Penh after completing his treatment and was notified that a close friend of his had passed away in an accident. He soon found that he could not find peace again in the same city he had shared with his friend.

He thought about returning to the U.S., but the notion of resuming his "only work" life scared him. A grieving Trachtenberg then decided to find another place to heal his soul.

"I was reminded about how things are ‘easy come, easy go’ in our lives," he said. "So, I decided to treat the rest of my life as a precious thing."

After some research, he decided that Vietnam would be his next destination because of the cultural similarities between Vietnam and the other Southeast Asian countries he had thrived in.

Trachtenberg landed at Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport in April, 2019. Having no acquaintances in an unfamiliar country, Trachtenberg did everything alone during his first days in Vietnam. And the emotional scar of having lost someone so close made him reserved in getting close to new people.

After initially living in a hotel, Trachtenberg decided that he should step into the real life of the new country. He thus moved into a small rented room in Binh Thanh District outside the city center.

People in the neighborhood were curious about the foreign man with tattoos covering his body. Some stopped their motorbikes when they passed by him and many approached him to start a conversation. Some touched and praised his beard, some asked him for a photo together, while some others asked him about the meanings of his tattoos.

Trachtenberg did feel slightly annoyed at first with what he felt was a bit of nosiness from strangers. But soon he realized that those interactions helped him become happier and more open.

"And that was like the beginning of my healing process," he recalled. "I saw people smiling at me as soon as I left my room, I laughed, and I cried with them sometimes because of how they greeted and checked up on me, which I had never received from residents where I used to live."

Trachtenberg then opened an English class for children. He liked to ask his young students at the beginning of his classes "How are you today?"

And the answer he got most commonly was "I’m happy."

Thus, every day the elder man was reminded that he had to treasure and be happy with things he had in his life.

This "life lesson" made Trachtenberg change his way of seeing things around him. He started trying to see happiness in even the smallest things he encountered every day, like scenes of women riding their motorbikes with their cute helmets, streets in HCMC being decorated for public holidays, numbers painted on streetside tree trunks, or the tiny plastic chairs at street food stalls which he enjoyed sitting on to people-watch.

Trachtenberg also became a huge fan of local cuisine. He learned how to eat durian, mam tom (fermented shrimp paste), duck tongue, coconut weevil, and even rat meat after only a brief period in HCMC. Among local specialties, top mo (pork greaves) still holds a special place in his heart. He calls himself a "Top Mo boy."

"On my bad days, I would remind myself that whatever happens, I’m living in my favorite place," he said.

One of the "hobbies" Trachtenberg has taken up since getting familiar with life in Vietnam is visiting local religious sites. He has been to hundreds of pagodas and temples since his arrival in the country, including those that are not well-known to tourists. He visits Phu Chau Temple in Go Vap District on a monthly basis to pray and to admire the numerous sculptures present there, and he frequently travels to fishing villages in the coastal provinces of Ba Ria - Vung Tau, Nha Trang, and Binh Thuan to drop by whale temples.

Trachtenberg offering incense at Phu Chau Temple in HCMC’s Go Vap District in August, 2023. Photo courtesy of Trachtenberg

Trachtenberg offering incense at Phu Chau Temple in HCMC’s Go Vap District in August, 2023. Photo courtesy of Trachtenberg

Everywhere he goes, he shoots photos and short videos of the places to subsequently research the place’s history and architecture. Sometimes he uploads his videos to his social media profiles, which garner more than 2 million views every month, on average.

"I feel tranquil and chill whenever visiting religious sites," the American man said.

Reflecting on his time in Vietnam, Trachtenberg said it wasn’t until he came to Vietnam that he figured out how to live happily and enjoy his life. Thus, he has always tried to blend in by behaving the way in which local people behave, including using chopsticks and sitting with both legs on floor mats.

He is looking to open a community art club in the near future, where he can experience combining American and Vietnamese music elements.

"I often tell people that I have an American body and a Vietnamese heart," Trachtenberg said. "I believe that I have chosen the right place to live and to put my heart on."

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