for nearly all of October. I haven't been in Vietnam since 2001.
From my novel, Love Like Hate:
"To travel from Saigon to Hanoi is to go back in time. The navel of Vietnamese civilization, a place of ancestors, Hanoi is haunted by a thousand heroes, tyrants and poets. It first became the capital in 1010. By contrast, Saigon is only 300-years-old. The main stage for much of Vietnamese history, Hanoi is also its dustbin. So much has happened only to be ignored, distorted or forgotten. Entire centuries had been reduced to hearsay and ashes. Perhaps one should call Hanoi a dumpster."
"Saigon lost its identity in 1975 but by the early 90’s, it has regained much of it back. A young metropolis with a raw energy, it is the least traditional of Vietnamese cities. Unlike Hanoi or Hue, it has never been the seat of an imperial court and therefore has no traditional monuments of any distinction. There are a handful of ornate Chinese temples on Nguyen Trai Street but the city is still dominated by a French/Vietnamese hybrid architecture left over from Colonial times. Now there are even a smattering of skyscrapers to give downtown a veneer of post-modernity. But Saigon is in fact thoroughly postmodern. Hodgepodge and incoherent, Saigon thrives on pastiche. Sly, crass and frankly infatuated with all things foreign, it caricatures everyone yet proclaims itself an original. On Vo Thi Sau Street, there are vendors selling empty liquor bottles: Talisker, Hennessy, Teacher’s, Bailey’s... Picture a Saigonese sitting in a room gazing at an empty bottle of Johnny Walker’s Black Label. When friends come by, he can boast, 'I drank all that by myself!' Or picture him pouring moonshine into a fancy bottle. 'This is imported from France!'"
In 2000, Leakthina Ollier interviewed me in Saigon. An excerpt:
Leakthina Ollier: Linh, you have been living in Ho Chi Minh City for a year and a half now, and this is your third trip back since your left Vietnam in 1975. On a personal level, how is Ho Chi Minh City different from where you lived in the U.S. and do you consider this city home?
Linh Dinh: Yes, this is more home than Philadelphia. I don't have to apologize for being here. I might get harassed on the street, but I know that this is my city. In the States, I always felt apologetic. I always felt like I was walking through someone's living room to go to the bathroom. I always felt like I was a squatter. Maybe that was a very extreme attitude. I hope most Asian Americans and immigrants don't feel the same way I do because that is a very uncomfortable way to live. Maybe that's just my hypersensitivity, but in Philadelphia, people were always asking me, "Where you're from?" It's such a standard question when they see you. When people say "Where are you from?" what they really mean is, "What are you doing here?" Here, they might ask the same question but I don’t care. At the same time, Ho Chi Minh City isn't quite home either. When I walk down the street people know immediately that I'm not a regular citizen. They think I'm Taiwanese, or at the least a Viet Kieu, an overseas Vietnamese. They can tell immediately, there's no hiding it.
LO: How can they tell?
LD: Perhaps because I look a little different, I wear this goatee, cut my hair this way, and my face is kind of round. I don't know what they look at, but my face is different, the color of my skin is a little lighter, and the way I stand or sit is different. My body language gives it away.
LO: Do you still feel somewhat like a tourist here even though you've lived here for a year and a half now?
LD: Yes, there's still a lot to be discovered and it's good to be on the outside...
LO: I see that you have the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam on your bookshelf...
LD: Yes, I bought that last year and still have it...
LO: Do you still have recourse to it once in a while?
LD: When I visit the different towns, yes! It's a good book. It's the best book of its kind... I didn't bring a lot of books back. People bring books to me when they come to visit. So that's strange too: I'm cut off from that source. I was always buying books back in the States and now I can't buy them. I have to download things off the Web, but there isn't much there. So I was trying to feed myself strictly on Vietnamese literature, but I got a little tired of that.
LO: As you said, you’re seen as a foreigner both in the U.S. and in Vietnam, or at the very least here you are being considered as Viet Kieu which, of course, also carries with it the connotation of not belonging, and by extension you have been made to feel, in many instances, like a foreigner in both countries. So how is one experience different from the other? To that effect, let me also read these verses by Saint Victor and ask you to comment on that:
“The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner. He to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong. But he is perfect to whom every land is a foreign land.”
LD: Well, that's a very stoic attitude. By Saint Victor's definition, I'm perfect already. I feel alien to the very house I grew up in. Although I'm a native born, I'm perceived as a foreigner, so I can assume the privileges of an ugly American if I want to. It's very ironic. A foreigner is superior here, unlike in the U.S., where a foreigner is leveled down to the lowest social level. Unless you're a white European, of course, then you're elevated... You might be an Indian doctor or a Chinese scientist, it doesn't matter what level of education you have, how much money you make, but you're still seen as a social inferior. A white working class person can insult you at anytime, can laugh at you, and feels entitled to do that. Here it's the reverse. Whether I want to or not, I enjoy certain privileges here because I'm perceived as a foreigner. Just by returning to Vietnam, I became a bigger man. In a literal sense also.
LO: What was your experience in growing up in the United States?
LD: Well I moved so much: Washington, Oregon, California, Virginia. In San Jose, my school was mostly Mexican, in Virginia it was mostly white. I never really saw a pattern because I moved all the time. But I lived in Philadelphia long enough to examine my life more closely. There is a funny illusion. You think that assimilation is a gradual process: you learn English, meet people, learn American history, learn baseball, learn football, and you're gradually allowed in. So when you reach a dead end, you're in shock. You realize, finally, that you're never going to be allowed totally in.
LO: The cultural glass ceiling?
LD: I don't know, the glass wall, whatever. I came to the States when I was eleven so my embrace of American culture was an organic thing. But it was also a half deliberate thing because you always want to belong. Any kid wants to belong. For example, I happened to like baseball. I watched it on TV because I liked it, not necessarily because I wanted to be an American. I also liked Speed Racer, and that was Japanese. I liked what I liked. So I did all these things organically. My assimilation was organic, but twenty five years later, people still ask me where I'm from, and are still surprised that I'm American. Then, you realize you can't go any further, and it's a shock when you realize you will always be on the outside, permanently. There are hundreds of incidences I can tell you about. It gets so tedious to talk about this. I used to think I don't want to talk about race any more. It's such a sordid topic, but I have no choice. I walked into a store in the Italian Market in Philly. I liked to shop in the Italian Market because they had all sorts of things I wanted and I walked into the store and this guy said "Hey, I shot this guy in Hiroshima." What are you going to do? Laugh and say "Hey, you missed!"? You don't expect that but you hear that shit all the time and it always comes at you at the most unexpected moment... You look at Black culture, and I've always been curious about the Black response to all of this, and you see all this anger coming out. It's getting more out of control actually, but you can see where it's coming from, and it's very sad and it's very unfortunate. Around the 10th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, some homeless guy chased me with a branch through the park right behind Independence Hall. Maybe he was a Vietnam vet, or maybe it was because I was walking with a white girl. Maybe both.
LO: With all these problems and difficulties, why do you feel you will eventually have to go back the U.S., as you told me the other day?
LD: Because of my future as a writer, I need to be there. My writer friends are there. I need to be closer to books and journals, just to function as a writer. In the long run, I need to be back in the U.S. My home is in the English language. Also, I'm not a citizen of Vietnam, I'm just a guest here. I don't have a lot of the legal rights here, and I wouldn't want to be a citizen of Vietnam under this government. If the laws were different, that might be a possibility. But I have to be practical. There are a lot of disadvantages to being a Vietnamese citizen. As an American citizen, I have all these advantages. Just traveling, you know. It's very hard to get a visa as a Vietnamese citizen, to go to certain countries. So, for practical reasons, I'll remain an American citizen. I see the flip side to Vietnam. This country is very badly run. It’s a mess. The wages are absurd and there's a lot of sadness, a lot of anger, but that's a whole different set of problems. The only Vietnamese Americans who come back here to live permanently are old people. They come back to die. And the ones who are in trouble with the law. If you've killed somebody then you come back to Vietnam.
LO: What were your conceptions of Vietnam before you came and lived here, and how have they changed?
LD: I think one of the misconceptions I had was that people related to each other better here. All superficial observations, I mean you can see how people live here: they live in close quarters and the neighbors know each other, they have time to talk, the conversation can drag on for three hours, so I thought people had more patience with each other, they liked each other better, sense of family, sense of community, all that shit. But I was also a little skeptical. I didn't believe it fully. In the States, I didn't know my neighbors. I hardly knew anyone. I had to go to the bar. I knew my friends at the bar but the people around me I didn't know. But here, you see people chatting and talking. But after living here a while, I can see that people aren't quite that social. They might talk, but there's a lot of animosity, there's a lot of mistrust, there's a lot of underhandedness, you know.
I'm not the same man I was in 2000, obviously. Just as my take on the US has evolved, so has, and will, my perception of Vietnam. I'll post photos of the country starting from Thursday.