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Steep Mountains and Strong Spirits

From backpacker to businessperson, a Penn alumna witnesses Vietnam's economic and social transformation.

LIFE IS ALWAYS right next to you in Vietnam, eyeball to eyeball. Not counting possibly being conceived there -- my father, who was with the U.S. Foreign Service, and my mother, an anesthesiologist in a Vietnamese hospital, were married in Saigon in 1969; I was born in Washington, D.C. in 1970 -- I first arrived in the country as a curious backpacker in 1989. Having garnered only the odd paragraph of information from international newspapers, I found myself feeling as though I were standing on a makeshift bamboo structure bridging the chasm created by the Cold War.
   From 1975 until the late-1980s, Vietnam was barred to all but a few "socially enlightened" Westerners. The reintroduction of a market system, doi moi, had occurred only in 1986. This meant that on Pasteur Street in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) where I stayed, people working from rickety wooden carts could earn some money repairing watches. The city was in terrible shape; streets and buildings in disrepair. This was not because of the war -- after all, Saigon had been the capital of the side with air power -- but from the neglect and pov-erty of the years after 1975.
   There were so few Americans in the country in 1989 that when Vietnamese found out my nationality, they brought gifts, along with fond, sad memories of the Americans they had "worked for." Former secretaries and maids stopped me in the market to give me baskets and ask if I knew Lieutenant So-and-So. On a visit to a Vietnamese house on the outskirts of the city, I was so mobbed I had to sneak out the back door. A friendly crowd filled the entire front street, even the roof over the house.
   There were no cars and almost no motorcycles operating in 1989. Gasoline was too expensive -- and, anyway, if you had money you couldn't show it. Even eating an egg with your soup was considered ostentatious and would be reported to authorities. At night, the streets were so quiet the spokes of bicycles sounded like wind rushing through the wings of a flock of birds. With few electric lights burning, the stars were bright overhead.
   In September 1989, I began my freshman year at Penn, settling on urban studies as a major. Though there were no formal courses on Vietnam, West Philadelphia provided the opportunity to research the experiences of refugees from Indochina, who had settled in the community. I often felt sad for these people, knowing the ideal image of America they had received from the movies. After a tough passage, they had landed in a place that didn't look so different from the decrepit streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Combining my main interest in Indochina with the environment these people now inhabited gave me what I believe was the next best thing to a dedicated Vietnam education. At Penn, I decided to study Mandarin Chinese with Eugene Liu. There seemed no chance of finding work in Vietnam upon graduation, but this way I would at least be able to work relatively near the country. Continued...
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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 12/16/97