Portraits of Vietnamese in 21C

crossing the bridge

—– Đọc bài tiếng Việt —–

There is a Vietnamese saying that goes like this: “Without salt, the fish is rotten. Without parental guidance, the children are due to fail.” The first part of it is correct beyond argument. But to say that the second part is still accurate in modern-day Việt Nam where changes happen at unprecedented rates and on indiscriminate levels is to stretch the saying too much. In fact, as things go with all traditional stuffs, reconsideration for their current use is highly recommended. As a result, it makes great sense to change the second part of the above original saying to: “Without parental guidance, the children are well ahead for success.” This is by no means to say that the majority of young Vietnamese are having an easy ride.

Given the speed with which Vietnamese youths are absorbing and advancing in world pop culture, they have become a completely different species than their parents. They develop the sense of self-confidence and independence earlier than their parents expect, especially those from small towns coming to big cities like Sài Gòn to study and work. Still, for them to win the battle of pleasing their parents and getting their approval is not any less tricky.

For many of the small town fellows, by choosing to stay in the city after graduation to pursue their career and build a life there, against their parents’ will for them to return to their home town, they risk being labeled ‘uncontrollable children.’ This turns the delicate relation between parents and children up a notch. It is a tricky situation because if they make it, the label drops; if they don’t, it stays. This risk, however, seems to be worth taking for, together with their city counterparts who are also determined to be on their own, the number of ‘uncontrollable children’ is on the rise putting a new face to the Vietnamese pop culture. One of those faces is Tố Hương Hà. She is a more caring person than an average Vietnamese, which makes it all the more challenging for her to win her parents over, and to embrace the fistful life in Sài Gòn.

Slow and sure strategy 

Hương is from Vĩnh Long, a small town south east of Sài Gòn. Like many of her fellows who came to Sài Gòn for education, she had to face some trepidation upon graduation as her parents wanted her to go back to Vĩnh Long for a job and to be near home. Hard-headed and argumentative, Hương was determined to stay in Sài Gòn to work.

By taking this action, Hương was aware of the strong tradition of filial piety that Vietnamese parents still practice widely – one that automatically grants them authority and power out of seniority. It would be an uphill battle for her to persuade her parents, especially her father, that as a newly graduate she was capable of taking charge of her life in Sài Gòn, and that they should let her stay. To convince them, Hương knew she needed to “divide and conquer,” e.g., one year at a time until she could eventually acquire a permanent stay-over. According to this plan, she asked to stay in Sài Gòn just for a year to try her luck. Her father agreed.

During that first year, phone calls from Vĩnh Long were the regular happenings in Hương’s daily life in Sài Gòn, both as reminders of how futile her efforts could be, and concerns about her well-being. Her father would call and tell her, “What could a small-town person like you do in Sài Gòn? Let go back home. You are only trying to move a mountain.” Odd as it sounds, that is one way Vietnamese parents like Hương’s faher think they can express their concern about their children. Hương listened patiently time and over again. As much as she appreciated his concern, Sài Gòn was already growing on her.

At a one year mark, Hương knew she was doing something significant for her life. She asked her father to stay another year. She would not accept a ‘no’ from him, anyway. And Hương was taking root in Sài Gòn this way.

By the end of the second year, completely confident and independent, Hương told her parents once and for all that she would not consider going back to her home town anymore, and that she would take whatever came her way. She knew they were sad, but hoped they would understand her. That was 2003.

Success, at last! 

Ha T To Huong
Photo courtesy of Hương Hà

2009. Hương bought the first apartment in Bình Trưng, District 2 of Sài Gòn. The news came as a shocking surprise for her parents. For the first time, they were encouraged at her daughter’s efforts, and at the same time reassured. They began to let it slide – their request for her return to Vĩnh Long, and to give her the latitude to do whatever she wished with her life. But old habit died hard. Once in a while, dad would come to visit Hương in Sài Gòn, just to be brought back to his reality of worrisome and concern when he saw his daughter alone in a big city. He would say, “Let go home. What are you doing here all alone and who is going to take care of you?” By now, Sài Gòn already took root in Hương and she was not going anywhere.

2012. Over thirty years old. Hương bought the second apartment in An Phúc, District 2 of Sài Gòn. This served as hard evidence to show her parents the undeniable truth that their daughter has become a mature and established woman. They took it as an ultimate truth that she could really be trusted to be on her own – completely. Since then, every time her father pays her visit to Sài Gòn, he would not talk about her return to Vĩnh Long any more.

By Stealth

Now that Hương already has more houses than she can physically occupy at one time, she is thinking about real estate investment, a car, and marketing classes she wants to attend. She has achieved the financial freedom so desirable by many Vietnamese young and old. Success, at last. But for Hương, “Success or not, what is important is that I have done what I want to do and am happy about that. I don’t think of success as much as my satisfaction with what I have accomplished.”

As a Senior Manager for a world-renown marketing corporation, Hương’s ‘success’ shows not only in her work management skills but also in her relations with others. Her philosophy is: “To be kind to everybody and you can go home a free soul.” Applying it to work, Hương has been able to build a team of co-workers who are devoted to work, to one another, to humanity, to one’s self-development in a humane working environment, and to the beautiful things in life. It is difficult to imagine, but by looking at her team at work, I seem to catch a sight of a Vietnamese family bracing itself for challenges to come. And Hương is happy in such a life.


Devoted, engaged, truthful, and kind, people like Hương are needed anytime, anywhere. For their embrace of life, their actions that speak louder than words, and their independence, they are quietly contributing to the becoming of a more advanced and prosperous country, Việt Nam.

Vietnamese version of this article has been published by the Vien Dong Daily News. Read the Vietnamese version here.

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