One day, I was in a taxi in Saigon and the young driver started to talk to me in what turned out to be quite good English. He explained that he was only driving a cab temporarily while he prepared to go to college. After he learned that I was from Japan, he said, “If there were three people in a competition, an American, a Japanese, and a Vietnamese, the Vietnamese would have an equal chance of winning. Now, if the competition was between teams: three Japanese, three Americans, and three Vietnamese, the Vietnamese wouldn’t have a chance.”
I asked “Why?”
He explained that his personal opinion was that the basic nature of the Vietnamese people will always prevent them from success. The country is essentially divided into three parts, inhabited by three very different types of people, and they have never gotten along. Even without the Americans or the Chinese or the French, the Vietnamese would fight among themselves, and it was impossible for them to cooperate.
Other Vietnamese friends said that it was the French who understood this essential division of the Vietnamese and used it in a “divide and conquer” strategy to keep them a colony. They’d run the nation as three provinces: Tonkin in the North, Annam in the Center, and Cochinchina in the South. There was continuous competition and feuding between the regions, different religions, and different customs. So long as the Vietnamese continued to quarrel among themselves, the French didn’t have to worry about them uniting to throw them out. It worked for about 100 years until Ho Chi Minh created a united front after the Second World War.
(Dang Van Minh in Front, Tony Hirashiki in back)
However, the Vietnamese have kept these divisions alive long after the French departed. The people in the North saw the Southerners as lazy and too easy-going and in turn, the people around Saigon thought those ruled by Hanoi were smart but greedy. The people of the Center thought they were clearly the smartest and, if not, the beautiful city of Huế, for a long time the imperial capital of Vietnam, had the most beautiful women. In private—or in anger—they called each other names based on the food they consumed which made sense since the entire nation loved food and were known as the gourmet people. Northerners loved to eat a particular vegetable, a type of spinach named Rau mồng tơi, and so, that’s what they were called. Of course, it was also one of the few things that very poor Vietnamese could buy so it also meant “dirt poor.” People from the Central region cooked with a very hot pepper called “ớt hiếm” which means “dangerous” or “rare” chili so the were known as “ớt,” and in the Southern Delta, people love bean sprouts or “giá đậu” so they are known as “giá.” This can also mean “price” or “haggle.” Most of these names weren’t serious insults, just the sort of thing you’d say in jest like an American might call someone a “city slicker.” In Saigon, there were so many people that all types ended up mixed together.
No one who has ever been in Vietnam, or at least in Vietnam and not on a frontline, can forget the wonderful rice noodle soup from the North that’s called “Phở Bo” when it’s made with beef and “Phở Ga” when it has chunks of chicken. Interestingly, it’s a street food that was only invented around 1925 but the Vietnamese have now spread it around the world. In the Central region, people make a spicy and yeasty rice vermicelli soup with beef & pork together and named after the old capital “bún bò Huế. ” The Southerner have their own noodle dishes, some with lots of seafood, another called “hủ tiếu” which has different types of meat all mixed on top of flat noodles and has spread to Cambodia, Singapore and even Thailand. Even if they might not like each other all that much, Vietnamese all enjoy food, no matter where it came from originally
The Vietnamese might all look and sound alike to foreigners but they can easily recognize each other by the way they talk because each area has a different dialect and accents. Oddly, no matter where they are, singers always perform with a Northern accent unless they are doing traditional folk songs. I asked my friends why but they just shrugged and said it had always been that way. I guess the Northern accent just is better for singing and broadcasting much like in America where I’ve noticed that very few reporters or anchors have a strong Southern accent.
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