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Julia Plevin

Julia Plevin

Posted: August 26, 2009 05:46 PM

Notes on Hanoi, Vietnam


Just a few months ago I was a senior at Dartmouth College. Like the majority of my peers, I was stressed about my post-college plans. I applied for all sorts of communications, consulting, new media, and teaching jobs in a disorganized frenzy. I even considered posting my resume on The Huffington Post in the hope that someone would be intrigued and hire me. And then, at the last minute, I received a fellowship to work for a year in Hanoi, Vietnam. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I decided to take the opportunity. When people asked me why I was moving to Asia, I responded, only half-jokingly, "because I could not get a job in the U.S."

Once I started reading about Hanoi, my mind became filled with romantic visions. The city is called "the Paris of the east" because of its French influences. There is French architecture, French bread, and definitely a coffee culture. I started to compare Hanoi in 2009 to Paris after World War I. I have always been enamored with Gertrude Stein and her clan of influential writers and artists, like Hemingway, Picasso, Matisse, and Steinbeck, who would gather and swap observations and ideas. The creative Americans came to Paris because they were disillusioned by what America was becoming -- a country of big business without any cosmopolitan culture.

Granted, it is has been about 40 years since the Vietnam War ended, while the Lost Generation was in Paris right after the war. But I have only been in Hanoi for two weeks and already I have found an enclave of creative, ambitious Americans. As one young American writer I recently met said, "I could never afford to live in New York City and spend my days writing at coffee shops, but in Hanoi I can be in a cosmopolitan city and do exactly that." When rent for a room in a nice house costs about $200 and delicious hot food from a street vendor costs one dollar, 20-somethings can actually afford to indulge themselves in the thinking and creativity that their liberal arts educations bestowed upon them.

Just like New York City, Hanoi is bursting with creative energy. There is an incredible amount of change occurring in this country at a rapid pace. There is an ever-apparent juxtaposition between old and new. For example, old men practice their ancient martial arts in the early morning hours and old women wear rice hats and pedal around on rusty bikes selling fruit, while the young fashion-conscious generation zooms around the city on motorbikes. I find myself walking around with both a digital camera and a Flip video camera because there is always something I need to capture. So many thoughts swirl around in my head that when I finally get home after a long day, I have to run to my computer and write them all down.

The profound flux is readily visible. Fancy businessmen still sit on little stools on the street and eat bowls of bun cha for lunch and, although supermarkets are sprouting up, most people still buy food in little markets along the streets. Change is easy to spot, but to see remnants of the war is harder for the untrained, pacifistic western eye.

About a third of Vietnam's population is under the age of 15. Most Vietnamese were not alive during the war. Unlike places in the Middle East where young children are taught to hate their enemies from birth, the Vietnamese did not seem to pass any enmity against Americans to their children. While I would not go so far as to say that they love Americans on the whole, I do not feel ostracized here because of events that happened long before I was born.

It is apparent that Vietnamese people are tough and resourceful. When an American friend mentioned that he lost in tennis to his Vietnamese opponent even though the American had all the right gear and the big forehand, I joked casually that that was just like the war, when the Americans, for all their learned skills and equipment, could not overcome the Vietnamese. While I was able to casually joke, I know there are some people for whom the war here is still so real. I respect both Americans and Vietnamese who had hard war experiences and I am grateful that I can be part of this new generation that has lost sight of the war and wants to form friendships and alliances.

I have not been in Hanoi long enough to know my way around, but already I feel as though I have found a place where both history and the future are so alive. I am sure my thoughts will continue to evolve. I do not claim to be an expert, but just an observer of a very interesting place in a pivotal time. And luckily for me, I am not a lone observer. I have met other Americans with whom I can ponder and conspire.

For more observations and photos, follow my blog: www.profoundfluxpudding.blogspot.com.

Follow Julia Plevin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/juliaplevin