Sunday, January 10, 2010

Citizen Diplomats On The Road: From Western Pennsylvania to Vietnam, With Love - PART II

J. Ross Stewart, Pittsburgh-born and educated, made a trip to Vietnam from December 3-21, 2009, that included meetings with family, friends and business contacts. He was asked to journal his experiences and to provide insight into Vietnamese culture from both a personal and business perspective. Stewart currently serves as a Contracts Administrator for Concurrent Technologies Corp. (CTC) that is headquartered in Johnstown, PA, about 70 miles east of Pittsburgh. The views expressed here are his own. (Second of two parts.)

I write this post back safe and sound in western Pennsylvania. My wife, infant daughter and I have returned to Johnstown in time to spend the Christmas holiday with our stateside friends and family.

Though the return trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Johnstown has been even longer than the initial trip over -- 30-plus hours with short layovers in Seoul Incheon, Tokyo Narita and Washington Dulles airports -- everything again went relatively smoothly and uneventfully.

The last few days of our annual trips to Vietnam are always hectic. There is the need to pack several weeks worth of clothing, along with the souvenirs and gifts that we are bringing back for our stateside friends and family.

However, my father-in-law gave my wife and me a special and soothing treat for the evening of our last full day in Vietnam. He bought us tickets for the Christmas Carol concert at the landmark French colonial-era Saigon Opera House on Dong Khoi Street in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1. The Christmas concert was a joint performance of the Ho Chi Minh City Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Chorus and Ballet.

My wife and I enjoy classical music and the concerts of our hometown Johnstown Symphony Orchestra. We have also sung with the Johnstown Symphony Chorus and performed along with the Johnstown Symphony and international opera stars at the Johnstown Symphony’s annual Opera Festival. Therefore, we are aware of what a quality performance should be, and know firsthand how much work is put in to such a concert. However, we were not sure what to expect from this Ho Chi Minh City concert when we first walked through the door and took our seats.

Suffice it to say we were blown away by the performance, which included classics such as Handel’s Messiah and Schubert’s Ave Maria. It also included traditional carols like O Holy Night, Silent Night, Jingle Bells, O Come, All Ye Faithful – all sung in English, no less.

When we walked out onto Dong Khoi Street following the performance, we were greeted by the beautiful and plentiful Christmas lights that blanket the buildings and trees that line the street. It seems that all of the main thoroughfares in Ho Chi Minh City are decorated with Christmas lights this year, more so than in previous years, and so much so that the decorations are greater in number and more elaborate than in a lot of cities and towns in the U.S. It is common to see a life-size mechanical dancing and singing Santa Claus in nearly every other store front or lobby.

Though Vietnam is a predominantly Buddhist country, it does have one of the largest Catholic populations in Asia after the Philippines, and has a significant and growing Protestant population.

The entire population of Ho Chi Minh City seems to be out enjoying the Christmas decorations along with us, as the streets are packed with Saturday night motorbike, taxi and foot traffic. The traffic is chaotic, as usual, and makes Manhattan traffic at rush hour seem like child’s play.

The soccer fanatical citizens of Ho Chi Minh City do not seem to be wallowing in too much pity following their national Under-23 soccer team’s loss to Malaysia in the gold medal game at the 2009 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Vientiane in neighboring Laos a couple of days earlier.

To get a sense of what was the Vietnamese national anticipation of this gold medal game, imagine if the Pittsburgh Steelers were playing in the Super Bowl, the Pittsburgh Penguins were playing game seven of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the Pittsburgh Pirates were playing game seven of the World Series all on the same day. And further, imagine that the support for these Pittsburgh teams is not limited to just western Pennsylvania or to the Steeler Nation, but that the entire country was supporting them. Yes, it is something like that.

However, the ability of the Vietnamese people to move past a loss of their beloved national U23 soccer team is illustrative of a larger aspect of Vietnamese culture – the ability to be forward-looking and not wallow in the past. This is the case for a people who have endured generations of war and choose not to dwell on past conflicts, but rather to look forward to new opportunities in partnership, cooperation and economic and business development with Americans and the rest of the world.

As I said, while everything is not perfect in Vietnam, and there is still work to be done, there are many positive developments on multiple fronts taking place throughout the country. This is Vietnam of the 21st century: a work in progress, and open for business.


  1. Great finish Ross! Reaquaints me with a nation that was left in tatters many years ago.
    Ron Vickroy
    Associate Professor
    University of Pittsburgh @ Johnstown

  2. Thanks for the second part of this journal. As someone who was born in Saigon and lived there until the age of 19, I can say that you are right on as far as the Vietnamese's ability to be forward-looking and not be consumed by the past. They welcome the French as well as Americans with open arms and became partners in business and humanitarian efforts, even their own people suffered great loss as the result of the wars. It is interesting and at the same time funny to read about the crowd enjoying the Christmas decorations in downtown Saigon as I was one of them having a good time with friends and classmates until late night back then.

    Thanks again, yet another great post!

  3. Thanks for a very interesting post Ross. Quite surprising that Christmas - superficially at least - is celebrated there in such a similar fashion. You would expect somethign else in a socialist and predominantly buddhist country.

  4. Great job. Interesting detail, evocative descriptions, good mix of background, color and news. You draw the readers in and transport them to another place.

    on behalf of

    Patricia Stewart
    New York, NY

  5. Very, Very interesting. Thank you.

    Linda Watson