Plano, Texas teen Han Ngoc Hong pays an eye-opening visit to her ancestral homeland of Vietnam

Thursday, October 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Han Ngoc Hong / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

It's been just over six years since Han Ngoc Hong wrote her first – and so far, only – novel, at age 11 sitting at her family computer.

Publication of Then It Heals behind her, the Plano teenager went on to swim competitively, to join the student council and student congress at Jasper High School and Plano Senior High School, where she recently graduated with honors. Now she's a student at the University of California at Berkeley, majoring in political science.

Before she went to Berkeley, she traveled with her father, Hoa Hong, back to explore the family's roots in Vietnam. At her father's suggestion, she took notes, recording her impressions of the Vietnamese and afterwards expanded them into this essay.

Bill Marvel

Last July as a high-school graduation present, my father took me on a two-and-a-half week trip to Vietnam.

Since I am Vietnamese and first-generation American (I was born in California and now live in Texas), my father felt it would be the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to understand my culture, where my parents came from, and, most importantly, who I am.

Starting in Saigon, we traveled along the coast from village to village, city to city, my father hoping I would face a lot of new experiences. And indeed, I did.

I experienced the luscious taste of tropical fruit picked ripe off the tree, the sight of clear blue ocean as yet unspoiled by tourism (Cancun could not compare), riding in a sea of Honda motorcycles, a visit to a shrimp farm.

But as I look back now, the most valuable experience was meeting the Vietnamese people.

They were truly beautiful – exquisitely and uniquely beautiful. Without the concealments of makeup or plastic surgery, without hair products, styling tools, lavish clothes, they radiated a natural beauty.

Typical Vietnamese men wear plain cotton pants. More often than not, they are bare-chested because of the unbearable heat and humidity and the lack of air-conditioning. Although traditionally short (averaging 5-foot-5 or -6), they are broad-shouldered and lean, with the chest and stomach definition that American boys only achieve after laboring for long hours in a gym.

Their high cheekbones and thin cheeks are the products of a diet free of the kind of junk food many of us seem to base our meals upon. They have either small, pointed noses or larger, flatter, more rounded noses. (I have a combination of both, the heritage from my two parents.)

But what was most striking about their faces was their eyes. Their height and stature gives them an air of vulnerability. But their eyes are fierce and strong. It was this beautiful balance that made them so striking to me.

Vietnamese women define beauty and elegance itself. Thin and long, with Barbie-doll waists and curves that might seem the product of surgery rather than nature, they have bodies to die for. Like their bodies, their faces are long, their lips small but full, their eyes wide with innocence. In silk or cotton pajamas, or the traditional Vietnamese dress known as the ao dai, their modesty paradoxically makes Vietnamese women sexy.

Their freedom

What makes Vietnamese men and women even more beautiful is their freedom. After years of communist rule, one would expect them to have adopted the ways, ideas and characteristics of communist government into their beliefs and thinking. My trip to Vietnam proved otherwise.

I found the Vietnamese people to be gentle and passive. Their ways were sincere and kind, their generosity boundless. Generosity does not have to be rich; you don't have to give $1 million to be large in the heart. Generosity can come in the form of simple things.

My father would tip waiters and salesmen, but they always refused the money, a refusal that was sincere rather than just polite. They felt they did not deserve the money and therefore refused it – money that was more than some of them made in a week, in a month. You could see it in their eyes as my dad handed them the money.

We were at an aquarium, and my father approached a woman who was selling food for the turtles. He asked her for a single fish. She gave him one with an enthusiastic smile, and with no request for money.

After we fed the turtles, my father returned to the woman and tried to give her some money for the fish – more than enough for two or three fish, actually. But she refused. This was her livelihood, selling fish. Yet she placed kindness above her personal needs.

When I went shopping, salesmen – usually two or three at a time – would wait on me hand and foot. They would bring me clothes, asking me if I liked this or that, hovering over me as I went through the shelves. When they thought I was tired, they offered me water and a place to sit.

At first I thought, "Geez, they're anxious for a sale." Quite honestly, they were getting on my nerves. But this was my American thinking. By the end of the trip, I had come to recognize this as the kindness of the Vietnamese people. It was in their nature.

I was told a story of a man who traveled to Vietnam. Every night when he arrived at his hotel, he would order some soy milk. An old woman would cook the soy milk and bring it to him.

One day, the man told the woman that he would not be returning until late that night and not to bother with the milk. At two in the morning, when the man arrived at his hotel room, he found the old woman waiting outside his door with the utensils necessary to prepare the soy milk.

Shocked, he let her into his room, where she prepared his milk for him.

I found this story profound, not just for the kindness of the old woman, but for the kindness common among all the Vietnamese.

Their sense of humor

Something else that made the Vietnamese beautiful was their sense of humor, which was free from ridicule.

My father and I were walking through a village when a young boy – he must have been four or five – walked past us and lightly tapped my father's back with a bottle he was carrying. He pointed to my father's stomach, smiled and said, "Bung bu," which means "big tummy."

On another occasion, I was buying a shirt for my brother, and I had asked the sales lady for a Large. She looked at me strangely and asked, "Are you sure? A Large is pretty big." This, of course, was spoken in Vietnamese.

My brother is about 5-foot-11 and pretty skinny. But he has broad shoulders and long arms from years of swimming. Although of average size in America, compared to the typical Vietnamese person, he would be considered a monster.

I found that even Large would be too small for him and so I asked the saleswoman for an Extra Large.

Once again, she gave me that strange look.

"No, no," she said. "You don't need an Extra Large. An Extra Large is for people with a bung bu." With that, she patted my father's belly.

No American salesman would have dared do that to another person. Just touching them might provoke a lawsuit.

That's just it. In Vietnam, the saleswoman and the little boy were just making an observation. Their words were no insult because, strangely, they did not understand what it means to insult, to hurt somebody with words.

A Vietnamese person might say you were fat, or your dress was ugly. Or, as I had seen in another incident, a father, accompanied by his wife and daughter, observed that his daughter was not as pretty as his wife had once been. These were observations, made in all sincerity. In American culture, they would be "rude" or "impolite."

So Vietnam exposed me to an entirely different race – not just different in appearance but in nature.

Of course, there were exceptions. Vietnam has its share of "ugly" people, too. Not everyone is kind or generous. (How else could you explain the pickpocketing and other crime?) But in general, I saw beauty in the Vietnamese people as a whole.

And in the end, I discovered many of their characteristics in myself. Physically, I have large eyes and a stubby nose. I tan easily. I am blunt – a trait many of my friends say they admire – and generous and caring toward friends and family (though occasionally this kindness is misconstrued, as I myself misconstrued the motives of the Vietnamese salesmen). All this would make me Vietnamese.

On the other hand, I am tall, with broad shoulders. And I am not as thin as most Vietnamese women are. I am outspoken and aggressive. That would make me an American.

All in all, I am a Vietnamese-American.