I asked Anh, our Vietnamese guide, what is “bánh canh”? He said it is a noodle soup with broth and meat to cook in the broth and veggies and herbs on top. That sounded awfully familiar. Noodle soup with broth and meat to cook in the broth and veggies and herbs … so it’s Phở, I asked? No, Anh said, Phở is completely different.
This is a problem I have seen again and again as I watch our cultural encounter with Vietnam. We grab something – noodle soup, in this case – and decide for ourselves what it is without taking the time to get familiar. Things don’t work in Vietnam the way they work in the US. They just don’t. There is a different social contract. It’s better than ours in some ways, perhaps not as good in others but the point is, it is different.
The U.S. got off on the wrong foot with Vietnam. As I travel around this fascinating country I hear that line from “Jesus Christ Superstar” – “Could we start again, please?” We as Americans need to be quiet for a minute and let Vietnam unfold. It is layered into a small space, so what seems like minor distinctions to us are significant to them. It’s like the language. They can hear what seem to me tiny, tiny difference in pronunciation that make the word mean something completely different and they chat away at top speed making sounds that are beyond us.
LBJ called Vietnam a “raggedy-ass, third-rate country.” Well, they threw us out. It might be useful to learn how it was they did that and learn it in their language, not ours.