Not long ago, I wrote a post about how I felt caught between two worlds – the Western world I was brought up in, and the Eastern one I was born to and now call home.
If that weren’t enough, I’m a product of bilocation in my very own country. You see, my father’s family is from Thai Binh, a small province 110 km southeast of Hanoi, in the north of Vietnam. My mom’s family is from Cai Rang, a tiny country town outside of Can Tho, in the south. While I’ve never been to my father’s hometown (the entire family moved to the south after Vietnam gained independence from the French in 1954), I have visited my mother’s side of the family.
It was on one of our first trips back to Vietnam.
I remember them laying out a feast for us, these relatives who I had never seen or heard of, including a cabbage salad with tiny little eggs that I found out were from inside the stomach of a chicken. Until then, the only chicken I had ever seen was the one nicely packaged in my local supermarket, its eggs fully formed and nestled inside crates. These veiny oddly shaped spheres resembled nothing I had ever seen before.
A table was set out outside, under a fluorescent lamp, a lone light in the pitch dark surrounds. My little bowl of nuoc mam was alive with tiny little gnats that had fallen from the light above and were now brazenly doing the backstroke in my fish sauce. Then came the main course: grilled turtle. Again, there were eggs (what IS it with eggs!??!) which my great aunt made a big show of giving to me as the prized delicacy. I remember the crack of the turtle’s shell as they quartered it and gave me a piece, sinews and teeny claws clearly visible, even in the dim lighting.
Early the next morning, not surprisingly, I had to make a rush for the bathroom. My mom handed me a flashlight and pointed me in the direction of the toilet, a few wooden planks suspended over the fish pond. In the half light, I tried to go, really, I did. Lord knows I wanted to. But my body simply would not cooperate.
So, a distant cousin was summoned, still groggy with sleep, to drive me over to another relative’s house, one with a “Western” toilet (which actually turned out to be an outhouse, but with a familiar toilet throne.) Now that I look back, I’m sure they thought I was the most spoiled brat ever, one who turned his nose at their simple, unadorned way of life.
I’ve come a long way since then, trying my best to embrace everything about Vietnam. I recognize my upbringing has been a blessing, being familiar with the strange words used in the north that aren’t here in the south. The heavy northern accent doesn’t phase me. So when I came across a graphical book about the differences between Hanoi and Saigon, I was intrigued and found the author, graphic designer Le Duy Nhat, 25, for a chat over coffee.
Born in Thanh Hoa, 136 km south of Hanoi, Nhat moved to Ho Chi Minh City at the age of 18 to attend university. Armed with a degree in IT, it didn’t take long for him to discover that he didn’t like working with hardware.
“I love images. Even TV commercials and advertising posters speak to me”, he said.
Back in graphics design school, Nhat created a whimsical book outlining the differences between Hanoi and Saigon for his final project and uploaded the 31 page book onto Behance. Within a week, more than 20,000 people had viewed it. I asked him why he thought the concept resonated so much with people.
“I think people yearn for traditional culture. People also like to compare things. People also comment on their own observations. I think people who live in Saigon but go to Hanoi for business really get my work. Vietnamese culture is like a gold mine that hasn’t been fully excavated. Why can foreigners come to Vietnam and write books for other foreigners and we Vietnamese can’t?”
Here are some of my favorites from Nhat’s images, reprinted with his permission, along with a few of my comments.
“Things are just more casual in the south,” he says.
No matter where you are though, Vietnamese traffic is legendary. While even crossing the street might seem a suicide mission to the uninitiated, I’ve come to view the traffic as a perfectly swirling school of fish. While it may appear impenetrable from the outside, every fish is reacting to the one right next to it, rarely colliding.
So what do you think? Saigon or Hanoi?