During a 2010 study abroad in Vietnam, I discovered phở – pronounced “fuh” – the traditional local soup with rice noodles, beef brisket, and herbs. It was my first trip outside the United States, and I was eager to relive some of the memories upon my return. Thus, I was excited to discover a Vietnamese restaurant only twenty minutes from my house. I dragged my family there as soon as possible, where the Vietnamese waiter and I struck up a conversation.
“So, which part of the country are you from?” I asked. With a serious expression, he replied that he grew up in a one-room apartment in a bad neighborhood of 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’d chat about experiences like snorkeling in the tourist town of Nha Trang, seeing the beautiful mountain vistas in Da Lat, or strolling through the museums of Hanoi. Didn’t everyone in Vietnam do these things? My attempts to bond over common experiences with my Vietnamese waiter were destined to fail. I should have realized that a privileged college student traveling abroad is going to have a very different experience than an impoverished local child.
I had no excuse for this naïvety, for I did indeed observe many class differences in the Southeast Asian nation. This inequality was best exemplified in the contrast between the houses of two Vietnamese friends. During the study abroad, my American peers and I worked with local Vietnamese students in Nha Trang, two of whom invited us Americans to their respective houses for lunch.
The first house was a modest, three story building that was, like many urban Vietnamese residences, essentially stacked floors of “shotgun house“-style rooms. We entered through a combination garage, family room, and store front. A child watched TV from a hammock, surrounded by the family’s scooters and six-foot-high piles of steel pipe. Every now and then, somebody ambled in from the street and purchased a quantity of pipe from the family patriarch, who cut it to the customer’s preferred length with a lathe at the front of the room. After a meal seated around a small table, the men smoked cigarettes and drank snake wine while the women went to a bedroom to sing karaoke.
The other house, owned by the mother of a Vietnamese teammate, was quite different. Upon arrival, we were led through a gated courtyard that contained several oddities, including a slab of uncut jade the size of a vertical Cadillac, surrounded by immaculate patches of beautifully colored flowers and what we were assured was the “only petrified wood in all of Nha Trang.” After we met the family pets – two peafowl – 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 four hundred year-old mushroom which had been flown in from China for a hefty price. Does this sound ridiculous? Just wait. 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.” The mother, however, 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 boats. This business, as we understood it, was the root of the woman’s 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 pocked with kitchen table-sized bumps and potholes. On the way there, we passed a side street literally paved with garbage: cardboard, plastic and other junk was wedged so deep into the muddy road that it resembled a cobblestone path. You never knew what was around the next corner in Vietnam. Nothing was consistent.
Well, almost nothing. In both houses, we lunched on bowls of the same rice noodles. In America, there’s a saying that death and taxes are the only certainties in life. There’s one more certainty in Vietnam. Whether you eat in a cramped garage or a lavish garden patio, you will certainly eat phở.