Foreigners adopt Vietnamese culture, not just country

By Ngoc Ngan   July 22, 2023 | 03:14 pm PT
After moving to HCMC 10 years ago, Portuguese-American Joshua Ryan’s daily life now looks much like that of all his local neighbors, full of Vietnamese ritual and tradition.

The 29-year-old got up early on a Sunday morning in July to hit the market for flowers and fruits to use as offerings for the celebration of the 15th day of the lunar month.

"Burning incense and praying on special days of the lunar month makes me feel warmer," he explains.

After returning home from the market, Ryan arranged a flower vase, put the three mangoes he just bought from a market vendor onto the altar, and burned incense. Smoke spread across his house.

Ryan says he also visits Buddhist pagodas during the Ghost Festival every year, sends the Vietnamese Kitchen Gods to heaven on the 23rd day of the last lunar month, and burns scented leaves in his house to clean and refresh the house, as well as to help make himself feel peaceful.

Ryan at the Vietnam Television station during his trip to the broadcaster to shoot for a program in December 2022. Photo courtesy of Ryan

Ryan at the Vietnam Television studio to shoot a program in December 2022. Photo courtesy of Ryan

Ryan first learned about the Vietnamese rituals of celebrating certain days of the lunar months when he was 10 and living in the American city of Portland, Oregon. His parents were both busy and not able to spend much time with him, so he spent a large part of his childhood at his Vietnamese neighbor’s house. The woman was originally from Vietnam’s imperial capital city of Hue in the central region.

The woman, who Ryan calls his foster mother, explained to him that during the celebrations of those days, people express their gratitude towards their ancestors, God and nature, and pray for their well-being.

Ryan still remembers how interested he was to watch his foster mother close her eyes, put her hands in front of her chest, and start praying.

His interest in Asian culture has only continued to grow since then.

As he grew up, Ryan often dropped by a Vietnamese Buddhist pagoda in his neighborhood. There, he prayed with and learned Vietnamese from the monks. His foster mother taught him about Vietnam’s greatest epic poem "The Tale of Kieu" by Nguyen Du, how to use chopsticks, how to make Vietnamese tapioca dumplings, and how to enjoy Vietnamese folk music.

All of this eventually contributed to Ryan’s fluency in Vietnamese – both in language and culture – and even his ability to speak in different accents from the various regions in Vietnam.

"Vietnam has become part of my soul like that," he says.

Ryan took a three-month trip to Vietnam in the 2012 summer and decided to reside in HCMC. He got himself a Vietnamese name, Tran Luan Vu, which is a combination of his foster mother’s surname and his favorite Vietnamese folk singer’s name, Vu Luan.

But all that doesn’t mean Ryan didn’t experience culture shock.

When he first resided in the country, he got annoyed when his neighbors sang loud karaoke.

But pretty soon after that, he was joining them, belting the classics out into the neighborhood

"When I returned to the U.S. after that, I thought gatherings there were lacking something," he recalls. "Then I realized that one thing lacking was the sounds of karaoke singing and people laughing and talking to one another. I started thinking of Vietnam as my home country since then."

The Nigerian Nadis Uzor, who has lived in Vietnam for 15 years, says the "5:59 p.m." culture is the thing he finds most interesting in the country.

He explains that he has learned the term from his Vietnamese friends, and according to them, it refers to the last minute of work, when male colleagues ask one another to hang out and have beer together.

Uzor is a frequent member of his company’s post-work beer sessions.

He says settings for those sessions may be really simple sometimes, as all they need is a mat in the middle of the room, with snacks like grilled squid, Vietnamese sausages, and braised chicken. He is often the one opening iced beer bottles and offering them to others.

"As long as there is still someone holding a cup, everybody has to drink," he says.

The Nigerian man can normally go for two bottles before feeling tipsy. But he is willing to take sips after that if someone comes to him and offers him a drink.

He says people in Nigeria do not have drinking gatherings like those in Vietnam. If they want to drink, they simply hit the bars and drink while enjoying some cold cuts or bacon. Everyone drinks however much they can and stops whenever they want, without asking others to drink more, which is what Vietnamese people often do during drinking sessions.

Because of that, he was left stunned during his first drinking session with his Vietnamese acquaintances in the 2010 summer.

He was never able to finish his cup, as his companions filled it back up every time it got half empty. He was surprised with that, but his friend explained to him that people just did so out of friendliness and hospitality.

Two years and tons of drinking sessions later, Uzor has eventually adopted the same tradition.

"If I really can’t drink anymore, I will still hold the bottle pretending I’m drinking, to make people happy," he says.

He adds that he enjoys the way Vietnamese people share everything, both ups and downs, with one another during these drinking sessions.

A 2022 survey conducted by InterNations, a network and guide for expats, pointed out that local culture is among foreigners’ most-favored thing about Vietnam. 83% of the respondents said they felt welcomed in Vietnam, while 71% felt living in Vietnam was as comfortable as living in their home countries. Around 80% of the respondents also said that they were satisfied with the living expenses in Vietnam.

And it was these figures that made Vietnam rank 7 on the list of the best 52 countries for expats to settle in 2022.

"Foreigners are increasingly seeking to settle in Vietnam," says Guillaume Rondan, founder of Move to Asia, a company specialized in assisting foreigners who want to invest and settle in Asian countries.

"It is estimated that the number of people looking to relocate to Vietnam increases by 20% every year. Most of them are American, Canadian, and Australian nationality holders."

Rondan always suggests his customers spend at least three months living in Vietnam before deciding whether they want to permanently immigrate.

One of Rondan’s customers who followed this suggestion is Jefferson Saunders, now 73. Saunders visited Vietnam four times over the period of seven years, before making his final decision to officially relocate and become a "Vietnamese-American."

He is currently living in an alley in HCMC’s Binh Thanh District. He enjoys eating Vietnamese vegetables and fruits so much, he bought seeds from the market and planted them at home. He calls the plants by their Vietnamese names and many are so exotic in his homeland that he doesn’t know what the English words for them are.

Saunders picking vegetables and fruits in his garden in HCMC’s Binh Thanh District. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Ngan

Saunders harvesting vegetables and fruits in his garden in Binh Thanh District, HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Ngan

Saunders was surprised during his first week in Vietnam, when all of his neighbors disappeared at noon. It took him a while to find out that they were taking naps.

He adopted this habit as he realized how good taking naps is for recovering all of the energy he loses dealing with the country’s scorching weather.

"The weather in Vietnam is totally different from that in Seattle," he says. "I think napping is a good habit here."

Another thing about Vietnam that Saunders likes is the collective culture. Houses in Vietnam often lie one next to another, unlike in the U.S. where houses can be kilometers apart. In HCMC, he says, everyone living in the same neighborhood knows one another’s names, faces, and even some intimate details about their personal lives.

He once stopped a neighbor from beating his wife as a consequence of this close proximity between households. And there was another time he installed a security camera in front of his home to find out who was throwing their trash there. He then confronted the man who did it.

"What I was suffering from somehow spread to everyone in the neighborhood, leaving the man embarrassed and having to stop," he says.

Saunders now thinks he has more reasons to stay in Vietnam than that for leaving. He has lost 9 kilograms since settling here and feels that his health has totally improved. He is leading an active lifestyle as well. He attends events for the elderly held in his local community, sings in Vietnamese and performs in traditional ao dai.

"Living in Vietnam is a happy experience for me," he says.

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