Interview with Duong (Victoria) Nguyen
J: We’re in Ho Chi Minh City at Tan My Dinh Hotel. This is Victoria, or Duong, or
V: Vickie or whatever…
J: What’s your last name?
V: My last name in Vietnamese is Duong.
J: Your last name?
V: Yeah. My first name is Duong, you know, but my first name is your last name. My family name is Nguyen – N-
J: And where were you born?
V: I born in Hue.
J: Aahhhh. So do you have a Hue dialect? A Hue accent?
V: Actually because you know, I did not grew up, grow up in Hue, but I grew up in, my father, he used to be an army officer, you know, so he traveling, I mean, where he stay, along the central? From Hue up to Bin Tranh, just 300, 200 Km from Saigon or Ho Chi Minh city and then I came to Saigon in 1960s, but I have Northern accent and then I can speak with Hue accent.
J: Okay. So you came to Ho Chi Minh City when you were a little girl.
V: A little girl…very little girl.
J: Aahhh. Okay. Did you ever live in Hanoi?
V: Ahh…No. I came…My first time coming to Hanoi, it was in ’88 when I was interpreter for an Australian man who wanted to get married to a Vietnamese girl here. I was taking him to the embassy.
J: Ahh. Okay. So you grew up in Ho Chi Minh City, and you went to school in Ho Chi Minh City. Which district did you grow up in?
V: District 3.
J: District 3.
J: And what was one of your favorite childhood memories?
V: My child memories? Let’s see. Actually my childhood is very lonely. It’s like this. I love animals, you know? And then I remember, it was in Bin Tranh. Tan Kiet (?)200 km from Saigon.
J: On the coast?
V: Yeah. On the coast. Because my family were living along the coast before moving to Saigon. And then, you know, because my other brother and sister, they have someone to look after them…but not me.
J: Are they younger?
V: Yeah. They’re younger. So me? I have a friend, that’s my dog. So, I love, you know, uh, taking my dog along the beach, you see? But, because this is down here, but my house is up here. So every day, I have to slide down.
J: Down a cliff?
V: Yeah… No, just only there’s a big…and then, I love the beach. I love nature. I love the beach, and I love…like that.
J: Did you swim in the water?
V: Yes. I swim in the water.
J: Did you go fishing or no?
J: No, no. Not at the beach. You can see some shells, but not fish in there. Some other place, you can see, like in Can Nha, but Can Nha is further, not far, just 100km more from >>> if there’s rocks there, you can see the fish there, but because Bin Tranh is beaches, just flat, no rocks in there. That’s why no fishes.
J: Are you the oldest child in the family?
J: Did you have to take care of your younger brother and sister?
V: Yes, I have. Of course, you know my father, he used to be an army officer. Before we have some soldiers who stay in our house… as a cook and also…
J: Did your mother have to cook for them?
V: My mother she’s a very good cook.
J: What was your favorite holiday growing up?
V: Major holiday, I like just only New Year’s.
J: Yeah? And what did you do at New Year’s? What is that called in Vietnamese?
V: New Year’s in Vietnamese we call Tet. That’s the Lunar New Year. It’s like the Chinese. We have the same Lunar New Year’s. Sometimes it’s hold in January – late January, and sometimes in June – uh, in February.
J: What did your family… How did your family celebrate?
V: Uh, you know, New Year’s is a time for all family to be together. Even people staying away from each other, they have to come back home to be with one another at New Year’s. So it’s very meaningful to the Vietnamese people to be together, you know, at Tet. And then, if I had school, then … I mean that’s poorly, because my grandparents, they were in the North…
V: You know, in …Now it’s a part of Hanoi. In Ha Tei; this is an area very well known with many pagodas, with the Tei pagodas.
J: Is it near the lake? West Lake?
V: No, no, no. Not near the West Lake. It’s 18 km from Hanoi, but it’s now a part of Hanoi because it’s now integrated to Hanoi, to be a part of Hanoi.
J: So your relatives came together at your house for Tet?
V: Yes. Just like my…actually my father’s brother and sister, they were all the north; only my father, he moved to the south, and then my mom, you know, moved to the south in 1954, but my dad, he went ahead, two years ahead because he was I mean, in the prison house two years,
J: The French put him in prison.
J: In Hoa Lo?
V: Not Hoa Lo. Bien (?). In the north. Because the French put him there. But my father could speak French very well. So that’s why the French loved him.
J: So they treated him okay.
V: Yeah they treated him okay. Then, just he’s like the head of the prisoners.
J: Oh, I see.
V: Yeah, and he tried to help people in there. And then after two years, he went to Saigon and my mom still in Hanoi, and after few months my mom went, too .
J: And when you celebrate Tet, people have three days off, I understand.
V: At least three days. Yeah, but Tet is the longest holiday we have, at least one week.
J: Oh, people take the whole week off?
V: Yeah. The whole week. At least one day before the New Year’s Eve, and one week after.
J: Oh. I thought they only had three days?
V: No. Three days, that is in general that we celebrate among the people, but we have one week.
J: And do you go to pagodas the first day?
V: Yes. Those who are Catholic go to the church, and those who are Buddhist, you know, go to the pagoda. It’s like that.
J: And is there something with the ancestors and New Years? Like the dead ancestors?
V: You know Tet, you know, is the time for us to pray to our ancestors. Because for the Vietnamese people, veneration, you know, to the ancestors is very important. So at New Year’s we have to prepare the altars, with flower s and food and everything to pray to our ancestors.
J: And what is the special food you eat at New Year’s?
V: Ah, yes. We have, you know, sticky rice, in the shape – in a square shape. Inside we have pork and green beans and then outside, with sticky rice, and then we wrap them with banana leaves. And we have to cook them at least 24 hours.
J: Oh, my goodness! Is someone cooking all night?
J: Is it steamed, or how do they cook them?
V: We must have a big – it’s not a kettle…
J: Like a steam pot… and then boil underneath?
V: Big, like that…
J: And then boil underneath?
V: Yeah, we put all the sticky rice in there, and pour water in there, and boil 24 hours with the wood fire.
J: Fire underneath…Okay.
J: Do you still make that? Or you buy it now?
V: Now, because you know, it’s very complicated making that, you know, so it’s better to buy.
Some, if you have, before, when my parents, my father, and my brother and sister were still in Vietnam, every New Year’s we made sticky rice, but now because we need to have many people; now, just me and my mom, so better buy.
J: So, what was your first job?
V: My first job? I was a teacher of English.
J: Oh, really?
J: Was that after college, or?
V: It was in ’79. I was a teacher of … school in Bun Tau, about 100km from Saigon.
J: Did you have to live there, then?
V: I have to live there, yeah.
J: Was it children you were teaching?
V: No, no, not children. But my students, they were petroleum engineers that graduated from Russia, from Germany, from … (?) so I have different kinds of students but the first ones – engineer -
J: So how did you learn your English?
V: I learned in the VAA – Vietnam American Association, since I was a little girl. Actually my first language was French – I could speak French before I speak English.
J: Did you learn French in school?
V: Yeah, in school. In private school.
J: Oh, okay. And then you learned English?
J: And then, did you go to college somewhere?
J: Where did you go to college?
V: Actually, I went to college in the Philippines.
J: You did?
J: Then that was all in English, right? College was in English?
J: Which college was that?
V: That is, you know, that’s where the same college with Marcos, Mrs. Marcos…Imelda Marcos?
J: With all the shoes?
V: With the thousand shoes! I took some dance – you know, traditional dance at Malakanya – that’s the independence palace in Manila. I have photo with her. She has thousand pairs of shoes.
J: Yes, I remember.
V: She’s taller than her husband.
J: Why did you go to the Philippines?
V: You see, it’s cheaper than, you know.
J: Interesting. So your degree is from there.
J: Okay. So if you would like… Many students in Bakersfield don’t know anything about Vietnam, so if you would like Americans to know something about the Vietnamese person, the Vietnamese character, what would you tell them? What are Vietnamese people like?
V: Actually, the Vietnamese people are you know, always smiling, even when we have bad things. Just like my friend, “What happened to your father?” “He died already, and then hee hee hee.” Smile, but smile with tears. Just the way they are.
V: I don’t know. That’s why the French, you know, I have a lot of French tourists, you know, who say, “I don’t know why you always smiling,” see?
J: Always smiling.
V: It’s like that.
J: And how about Vietnamese women? How would you characterize Vietnamese women?
V: Vietnamese women? Actually, nowadays, Vietnamese for the women it’s more open than it used to be. Vietnamese people in early 20th century it’s different than nowadays. Or I can give you different period. You know, Vietnamese in war time, from ‘54 to ‘75 is different than VN from ‘75 to now.
J: So can you explain the difference?
V: Because I was living in the South, and by that time, we, my country, you know, the war was already, I mean, since 54 it was broke out, already in ’54, but in school, we did not learn anything related to the war. We just studied. From ‘54 to ’68, I don’t have any ideas related to the war. Until Tet Offensive, that means in ‘68, that was the first time seeing, soldiers from the North, but actually no, they belonged to the Liberation Front. But the soldiers, not until April 30, I could see them.
So the Vietnamese people, easy. And actually, for a long time, have different characters – people in the south are more open, people in the central – very reserved, because where the king lived…, and people in the north, very well spoken.
J: Interesting. Oh. Okay.
V: Yeah. Because the people, the women in the north, you know, they are well spoken, they are more charming than people in the central and people in the south. But people in the central, they are very feminine, because they live in the areas where the kings were living there before. The way they walk, everything must be very gentle. See? And even after the war, can you imagine? The street sellers, you k now, they’re selling food? They still have to wear traditional dress. Yeah, with formal…
J: Yeah, they did!
V: It’s like that in the central. But people in the south more simple. Different. And in the south, even in the long time, they still wear pants, but in the north they wear long skirt in the countryside. So people in the south , women in the south, more open. Like I just told you. Yeah.
J: Yeah. Interesting. But they also seem very strong.
V: Yes! We have to be strong. It’s like this. Because we will stick to Confucianism. So, husband -
J: The women seem to work very hard here.
V: to help the husband and children.
J: And what about religion – is that still important today do you think?
V:Yeah. It’s like this. Most of the Vietnamese – I can say that more than 60%, you know, we are Buddhists. As I explained to the group, Mahayana originated from the North, right? and Theravada from the south. But Mahayana is very strict, you know, the Monks or the nuns, they have to be very strict themselves, they have to be vegetarians, and many, many regulations. But now things are different. But in the north, before 1975, there seemed to be no religion in the north. No religion, especially Catholics. So, now, all the religions, I mean, that developed better than in wartime in the north. But in the south, you know, we have free religion. You can be Buddhist, you can be Protestant, or you can be whatever you want. You see, Free! But in the north, before, they did not.
J: Do you think the young people are still practicing Buddhism?
V: Yes, Nowadays.
J: The young people are, too.
V: Even the young, not only the old, but the young people. But you see, the southern people, most of them are Theravadan Buddhists, but they practice, you know, Mahayana. They are more people are vegetarian in the south than in the north, I don’t know why. Then in the pagoda in the north, you see, they go to the pagoda with chicken, sometimes with beef, it’s funny, you know.
J: That is funny.
V: Yeah. It’s funny. Like Chue Hug Gung Pagoda is a beautiful landscape over there and then I saw them carrying chicken and duck to the pagoda – what the hell, it’s a pagoda in here! I can’t understand it, you know. Okay, they can eat whatever, but do not bring to the pagoda. They practice Theravada not Mahayana in the North, why people in the South they practice Mahayana instead of Theravada.
J: Interesting. Many contradictions.
V: Yeah, yeah.
J: So, what would you say is the most important value to Vietnamese people?
V: Vietnamese people?
J: The value.
V: Actually, we are very strong people. So you look at the history, you see. My country is like a cockroach, while China is the elephant compared to Vietnam, the cockroach. Many times, for 1000 years, dominated by them, but they could not swallow up Vietnam, see? That means our people’s character is strong.
J: M hm.
V: But we’re also very cruel.
J: Very cruel?
V: Yes, because we swallowed up the Champa. Also occupied a part of Cambodia. Also, I feel ashamed sometimes, because the Champa people they are, you know, compared to Vietnam, they are that ethnic group, they had a written language. We didn’t have. First, we just had, first one we had Chinese character, then later we tried to perform Vietnamese Chinese, we call that NOM.
J: Yeah. I remember.
V: And then, in 19th century, actually it started from 16th century.
J: Let me go back. So, if you were to say, what’s the most important thing? In America, many people find “success” -
V: Young families? They are too much Occidentalized. It’s just like in your country.
J: Do you think they value what? What do they value most? Money, success, family, what?
V: Actually, nowadays, the young people, they don’t care much about family. Just like before, in my mom-
J: But they probably can’t afford to move out.
V: Some, they can afford. But even they can’t afford, they want to try. Now, you know, too much Occidentalized, so it’s just like the same in your country. Now we have abortion. The percentage of people having abortion is very high.
J: Isn’t birth control acceptable?
V: Actually, we have birth control. Sometimes we force the women. That’s in the countryside, in the countryside only. But not in the big city, like this because in the countryside, they’re not educated and they do not know what birth control is, especially people in the mountain –the minority ethnic group. So, people, the women in the countryside, when they go to the maternity hospital to deliver the baby, when they ask, “how many people do you have?” if they say “two,” then, automatically, they have them …
J: Okay, so is there anything else you would like to add to inform my students in Bakersfield about your country? To let them know about Vietnam? About what a wonderful place Vietnam is?
V: Actually, we are very proud of our history. We have many heroes. The first hero, that’s a female hero. Of course, everybody would like the country to be united. But anyway, the conflicts between the south and the north, I don’t know. I just have to say…We hope that we could clear the conflicts, but I don’t know how long it would take, but…
J: Maybe it’ll have to take another generation.
V: I don’t know.
J: Maybe a generation that does not have a memory of the war.
V: Yeah, maybe. Actually, the young, you know what they like? They like to go abroad for their studies. But I don’t see them coming back. That’s also a shame, I have to say. I don’t know why.
J: Life is easier.
J: Well, thank you very much, Victoria, for your interview.
V: You’re welcome.