Our forays into the tailor shops in Hoi An left us with more than just extra (or superfluous) clothing for our wardrobe. Even when a business deal was clearly not involved, we found that shop owners were often open to sharing their lives and their opinions with us. These unprotected moments provided us with insight into Vietnam's diversity, the legacy of the Vietnam War (or, “American War”, as it's called here), and opinions on the impact of Vietnam's breakneck speed development is having on Vietnamese tradition and culture.
After placing an order with a tailor one evening, we got caught up in a conversation with a bright, talkative woman in her mid-twenties. We chatted for what seemed like hours and stayed long past closing time.
She tells us that northern Vietnamese are very close to their families, but not very open and sometimes two-faced to others. The southern Vietnamese are warm and speak from the heart. The central Vietnamese on the coast live in fear of typhoons and strong storms – they live for the moment and are open and friendly. The central Vietnamese who live behind the security of the mountains, like in Hue, are smooth talkers, but are not genuine. As in all countries, stereotypes and prejudices characterize people from different regions. We can't affirm or deny any of this, as we spent little over a month throughout Vietnam. But it was fascinating to hear. Not that this is any surprise, but suspicions and stereotypes – like ethnic jokes – begin to take on a very familiar ring.
A Personal Story
Prejudices aside, this woman's personal story was representative of many in Hoi An. Her family has owned the merchant house in which her family lives and runs a business for eight generations. She’s of Chinese descent, but identifies herself clearly and proudly as Vietnamese. In a complicated twist of family trees and politics, she tells us that her father worked with the American forces during the war, even though his father was a strong supporter of the Viet Cong. Thirty years later, the father still has a black mark against his name, and as a result, her older brothers and sisters were not able to finish their schooling because of this. For her, things continually improve and time seems to slowly heal old wounds, but certain fields of study and work in the government are both closed to her. She hopes and expects that the black mark may disappear from her family's record in time for the next generation, her children, to openly pursue what they desire.
She disagrees with the government’s approach of punishing children for the “sins” of the parents, believing that each generation should be responsible for themselves and not the actions of previous generations. Asking how the Vietnamese feel about the war and Americans, she explains that current generations don’t blame Americans today for the bombings and the war of the past.
She concludes, “Today and tomorrow are enough.” In conflicted eras and eras of conflict, these are admirable words to live by. And if their reactions to us as Americans are any indication, the Vietnamese for the most part – from North to South – certainly appear to live by it.