Editor's note: CNET editor and Crave contributor Dong Ngo is spending several weeks in his homeland of Vietnam and will file occasional dispatches chronicling his adventures. To read stories from Dong's last visit, in December, click here.
HANOI, Vietnam--I'm not a big fan of holidays. I don't mean the time off, of course, but the mass consumption that generally accompanies them.
For this reason, I've been sort of secretly happy that my parents live in Vietnam. This means that for years I haven't had to pay attention to Mother's Day or Father's Day. The Vietnamese, one would think, have no reason to even be aware of these American days. And for a long time, they weren't.
Thus, it was a revelation to me the other day, during a casual conversation at Hanoi's Noi Bai International Airport, when a trendy-looking and friendly Vietnamese girl asked me if I had done anything for Father's Day.
Learning where I stand on the issue, the girl, Lan, expressed surprise. "I bought my dad a Gillette shaving set," she shared, "and he was very happy. You should have done something! I bought my mom a nice bouquet for Mother's Day a month ago, too."
I was speechless. I live in America and my American friends have hardly ever asked me the same question. As it turned out, over the years I was away in America, American pop culture, via TV and the Internet, has sneaked into my home country in a big way.
Apparently, a month ago, for the first time, Mother's Day was a big event in Vietnam. Newspapers talked about it, TV talked about it, teenagers blogged and made YouTube videos about it, and people went out to buy flowers and presents for moms.
The day was hyped so much some people even felt guilty because they hadn't known about it in previous years. Yet at the same time, most didn't know the origin of it. "I had never heard of it and all of a sudden everywhere people started talking about it," Lan told me honestly. "But I think it's meaningful to honor your parents. Don't you think?"
Though it might have seemed "all of a sudden," the introduction of Mother's Day marked a very deliberate attempt by businesses here to sell products. For example, during the time leading up to May 10, Dutch Lady Vietnam, a subsidiary of the popular powder milk manufacturer Dutch Lady, launched an ad campaign that basically tried to link Mother's Day to feeding children with the company's variety of milks and dairy beverages.
The company even created a Web site, Ngaycuame.com ("Ngay cua me" is the direct Vietnamese translation for "Mother's Day"), which offered more information on the day and different ways to digitally celebrate, such as getting and sending e-cards.
And young people in Vietnam, like Lan, seem very susceptible to all things digital. According to Quyen Le, public relations manager at Dutch Lady Vietnam, young people in Vietnamese cities use the Internet heavily, starting in middle school. "Without the Internet, our ad campaign wouldn't be made possible, let alone the level of success that it achieved. The Internet also allowed us to measure the response of the consumers to the ads." Le revealed that the campaign was so successful it has become the advertising benchmark for the company.
Thanks to the increasing availability of the Internet and cable TV ("The X-Files," "Friends," "Jimmy Kimmel Live," "Dirty Sexy Money"...the list goes on), the media here is now full of foreign pop culture, especially that of the U.S. As a result, in the last couple of years, hobbies once hardly seen in Vietnam such as breakdancing, beatboxing, and skateboarding are now getting popular.
People have started using English words in daily life. My 6-year-old niece's catch phrase when she's frustrated is "Oh, man!" something she imitates after some character on the Cartoon Network. It was just a matter of time before foreign holidays were adopted by Vietnamese.
To answer Lan's earlier question, yes, I personally think it's meaningful to honor our parents. The thing is Vietnam has always already had several known days to honor moms and women, including International Women's Day (March 8); Vietnamese Women's Day (October 20); and Valentine's Day, which has also been widely adopted during the last few years and oddly thought to be another day for the ladies.
However, most people I've asked seem to embrace the addition of Mother's Day to the list. Minh, a 26-year-old student, said, "There's no such thing as too many days for mothers." Even those who don't embrace it express no objection. Hang, a 30-year-old mother herself, said, "I think it's a good idea, but still the only two days I buy flowers for my mom are March 8 and her birthday."
So I guess, it's just natural that Father's Day is now also known to some, though not yet as popular. It would be ironic, however, if this day actually became a big deal. Vietnam, where women are commonly and openly considered inferior to men in the family structure, is a place where every day is very much a father's day. (No offense, Dad!) Nonetheless, I wouldn't be surprised if some beer company grabs onto this idea in the future.
Other than Mother's Day, Halloween has also been celebrated in Vietnam in the last few years. Christmas, the holiday once celebrated solely by Christian communities, has also presented a big opportunity for teenagers to get out on the streets to bob and weave dangerously in groups with their scooters.
(I don't how and when it all started, but being out on the streets and racing on scooters are the typical ways for young people in Hanoi and many other major cities to celebrate basically any holiday or special event.)
Up to just less than 10 years ago, America had always been considered by Vietnam the symbol of "imperialism" and something to be avoided, at least at the ideological level. Ever since the post-war embargo ended in 1995, the government has been fighting a losing battle to keep Vietnamese culture from dissolving under the invasion of foreign ideas and lifestyle. Now with the Internet and the ever-increasing adoption of commercialism, it seems just a matter of time before Vietnam is no longer an exotic destination.
From KFC and bad TV to the commercialization of holidays, I'm pretty sure most Americans will easily find themselves at home in Vietnam's major cities.
For me, however, I finally understand the true meaning of this saying: you can never go home again.