Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series of dispatches by CNET editor and Crave contributor Dong Ngo, who is spending the next month in his homeland of Vietnam. He'll be looking at the country through his now nerdy and Americanized eyes, in particular exploring how people there do the sorts of things he does every day in the States: play video games, use a cell phone, and try to stay safe online.
HANOI, Vietnam--There's a standing joke that goes like this: "What do you call an Asian who gets lost? Disoriented." Not really funny, but if you want to meet one Asian who gets lost in his own neighborhood, that would be me.
Originally from Hanoi but now living in San Francisco, I visit friends and family in Vietnam as often as I am financially able, which is not as often as I would like.
The country has been changing so fast, every time I go back to the place I still consider home, I experience a little reverse culture shock. This time is no exception.
It took 20-plus hours of travel time to get here from San Francisco. The first morning in Hanoi, jetlag woke me at 4:30 a.m. and I decided to get up for a jog. In the States this would be super early; over here, nobody is remotely impressed.
The moment I left the house, it felt somewhat like a national holiday, noisy and bustling. Restaurants and makeshift breakfast places selling sticky rice, pho (noodle soup), and other delicious morning edibles were just being opened. Some were already serving their first patrons.
On the sidewalks were already people everywhere--running, walking, playing badminton, doing Tai chi, or just simply sitting and looking. There were scores of scooters and bicycles, and once in a while, small trucks weaving back and forth, carrying vegetables, chickens, or other food-related items in bulk, honking all the while.
(There are many things you will need to get used to when in Vietnam, and one would be the honking. Nothing personal, it's just that people want to make sure their existence on the street is well-noticed. And considering the crazy nature of the traffic here, this totally makes sense.)
It was, indeed, just another day.
I ran to the gym I used to go to, about half a mile away. It was no longer there. Instead, there was a seven-story apartment building with a big swimming pool nearby. The pool was closed as it's rather chilly in November.
I continued my jog, following one new road after another. The area where I grew up used to be considered suburban, with lots of open space containing nothing but grass. Now the grassy open space is long gone and there are many new, modern apartment buildings. Some are still being finished, divided by new streets with fancy names.
After about an hour of running, I turned around to go back to my parents' home and very soon, realized that I was totally lost.
I tried to figure out where I was and what direction I should go by looking for familiar landmarks, but none were still there. Instead, at the site of my once-favorite beer joint, I found a KFC, something so familiar in San Francisco but the strangest sight to see in Hanoi.
I decided to go into the fast-food restaurant, partly out of curiosity, partly to ask for directions.
The waitress, a twentysomething girl, drew directions with a lot of turns on a piece of paper, then uttered in Vietnamese, "Oh my god! You speak perfect Vietnamese! It's amazing."
To my surprise, she explained that she had never seen a foreigner who spoke such good Vietnamese and that she was certain I was not Vietnamese because according to her I "said thank you more than necessary." Ironically, I said "thank you" once more before leaving the store.
(It was rumored back in 1999 that KFC wanted to get into Vietnam but was repeatedly denied due to the fact that its mascot so resembles Ho Chi Minh. Now the food chain is available in major cities throughout the country with about 40 stores in Ho Chi Minh City and 10 in Hanoi alone. The store seems a rather trendy place for young people, with meals that cost around 50,000 dong (about $3). This is quite expensive considering a bowl of pho costs just about 75 cents and, in my opinion, tastes much better.)
I never thought an all-American meal would have a place in the long and diverse list of Vietnamese cuisine. But hey, I never thought I would get lost in an area I spent some 20 years of my life, either.
home to Vietnam, Dong!