Phở: the traditional Vietnamese rice-noodle with beef brisket, basil, bean sprouts and onions. We ate it often in Nha Trang and, aside from the people I met, it was the first thing I missed when back in the States. For an “authentic” recreation of our international experience, some of the Ohio University students joked about ordering phở from a Vietnamese restaurant in Cleveland wearing conical hats (think Raiden from Mortal Kombat) and attempting to pay with đồng – the national currency – that we had leftover from the trip. Consequently, I was very excited when I learned that the#1 Phở restaurant was twenty minutes away from my house, and dragged my family there.
It was fortunate that I didn’t wear the cone hat, as I would have felt like an idiot; I soon realized that there can be many types of “authentic” cultural experiences. When we were seated by our Vietnamese waiter, I immediately began making small talk about his homeland. A very serious expression came over his face as he told me that he grew up in a one-room shack in a bad neighborhood of Saigon (now officially Ho Chi Minh City). At seven years old, he had the opportunity to flee to America to seek a more prosperous life.
I was thinking that we would be chatting it up about common experiences like snorkeling in the tourist town of Nha Trang, seeing beautiful mountain vistas in Da Lat or taking in all the museums of Saigon. Didn’t everyone in Vietnam do these things? It should have been obvious: a privileged college student traveling abroad is going to have a very different time than an impoverished child desperate to get out of an urban slum.
I did indeed see a lot of class differences in the Southeast Asian nation. This was best exemplified in the contrast between two different visits that my group made. By day, the OU students worked on a project with the students from the Vietnamese Nha Trang University. In a very short amount of time, the bond between us got quite close, and we were invited to eat lunch at two different NTU teammates’ houses.
One house was quite modest. It was long and narrow, three stories tall. The front area, a combination garage-family room, housed lengths of steel pipe, which a customer would come up and buy every once in a while. The top floor was a guest house, which was rented out periodically. Our NTU teammate was a member of a large (six plus) family, and their house felt lived in and loved, if not particularly large or impressive.
The other house, that of the mother of another NTU teammate, was jaw-dropping in every aspect. We were led through a gated courtyard which contained several oddities, including a slab of uncut jade the size of a vertical Cadillac, the “only petrified wood in all of Nha Trang,” and innumerable immaculately kept patches of beautifully colored flowers. After we were done reeling from their two pet peafowl (a peacock and his female mate), we noticed three buildings off the courtyard: there was a “traditional Vietnamese house” (essentially a cabin made out of expensive looking wood and filled with even more expensive looking trinkets). After a tour, we sat down in a patio off the larger residence for lunch. As an after-dinner treat, we were served tea.
But this wasn’t any old tea. We were astounded to learn that this tea was made from the shavings of a 400 hundred year-old mushroom which had been flown in from mainland China, for what was implied to be a hefty price. Does this sound ridiculous? Just wait. We were told that local research universities and medical institutions were persistently in contact with the mother to borrow even a small chunk of the ottoman-sized fungi. There was great academic demand to study the mushroom’s medicinal properties; it was thought to “cure cancer.” But the mother was content to keep it and serve tea on special occasions.
As we drank our cancer-curing tea, the mother took us to the third structure: a large garage where many workers were busily assembling fiberglass – what she termed “composite” – boats. This business, as we understood it, was the root of the woman’s profound financial success. In an economy in which fifty U.S. dollars could last several months and where the conversion rate was stacked four-fold in favor of the Vietnamese currency, this woman and her family lived a life of wealth in American standards.
The most interesting part? This Vietnamese mansion was located at the end of an unpaved road that was marked with kitchen table-sized bumps and potholes. On the way there, I saw a side street literally paved with garbage: cardboard, plastic and other junk was wedged so deep into the muddy road that they resembled a cobblestone path. You never knew what was around the next corner in ‘Nam. Nothing was consistent.
Well, almost nothing. In both houses, we lunched on bowels of the same type of rice noodle… in America, the saying goes that death and taxes are the only certainties. In Vietnam, you might eat in a cramped garage, or perhaps in a garden patio surrounded by jade and lotus flowers, petrified wood and a 400 year-old mushroom. All that is certain is that you will eat phở.