Semester at Sea Fall 2006 Voyage banner


Vietnam: Vernacular at Heart

By Carrie Benson


As I attempted to cross my first street in Ho Chi Minh City I found myself in the middle of a busy intersection, completely surrounded by speeding mopeds and large cars and busses.  It was at this point I realized that Vietnam was like no where I had ever been before.  I was experiencing complete culture shock. 

            As I wondered around Vietnam I started to feel a little more comfortable in my surroundings, though I still marveled at all the tremendous differences.  The city of Ho Chi Minh is the largest city in Vietnam, yet life in the bustling metropolis still seemed rather primitive in contrast to other large cities I had visited.  The lives of the Vietnamese people and the architecture of the city hit me as charmingly vernacular.  The city in almost all respects seemed to have been touched little by western culture.

As I walked down the streets I saw women selling homemade handicrafts, men peddling large amounts of vegetation on the backs of their bikes, children running around the parks barefoot, and people “squatting,” selling random items on the street corners.  There were very few high rise buildings, instead the streets were lined with small independent shops that closed and opened like garage doors.  Markets flooded the streets selling all types of food; big commercial grocery stores did not exist in this city.  In fact, there were hardly any western chains in Vietnam, not even McDonalds.  The way the Vietnamese lived their lives seemed not only very vernacular, but also strangely refreshing.

            However, just as I had convinced myself that there were very few signs of the transnational in Ho Chi Minh City I stumbled upon a Sheraton hotel.  As I looked in I realized that it looked that same as the ones in New York City.  I examined the city further to see small Samsung cell phone stores all over, and I later learned that McDonalds and Wal-Mart both had plans to come to Vietnam in the next few years.  It seemed to me that elites of Ho Chi Minh City had a plan to slowly turn the city into a transnational city, based on a western model.

            Another way that Ho Chi Minh is attempting to become a modern transnational city is through tourism.  Through war tourism, Vietnam has found a way to bring in western people and western dollars.  As Christina Schwenkel stated in her article, Recombinant History: Transnational Practices of Memory and Knowledge Production in Contemporary Vietnam, Americans are coming to Vietnam to make their peace with the war.

            The idea of Ho Chi Minh City as a major transnational city gives me mixed feelings.  I can’t help but wonder how the culture of the Vietnamese people will be affected when corporate chains come in to sell many products that local people currently make and then sell on the street.  Will Ho Chi Minh City lose much of its vernacular appeal to become a transnational city, or will it be able to maintain its deep-rooted culture?   

Return to course home Send me your comments: