EnviroLab Asia’s Vietnam Research Fellow Vy Doan (Pomona ’18) writes about her experience returning to Vietnam to participate in the EnviroLab Asia/Cion Trust Clinic Trip in January 2018. A Vietnamese version of the article follows the English version.


“In Vietnamese, nước means water, country, and homeland. To ask where one is from is to ask “Nước nào?”

16-year old mango tree. Photo credit: Vy Doan

I once planted a mango tree back when I was still living in Vietnam. Even though I was quite young, I took care of my tree very well by watering it daily. However, when my family immigrated to the United States when I was five years old, I quickly forgot about my mango tree. Upon my arrival in the United States, I felt as if I needed to give up parts of my culture in order to assimilate.

My family was one of the few Asian American households in the suburbs of Arizona. Everyone around me spoke English but no one knew where or what my country was—to them, my country was just a war. It was only at home where my family and I comfortably spoke Vietnamese. At home, we were comfortable speaking our own language. Outside, people often thought we were too “foreign” to be living here. Due to language barriers, I became my family’s cultural navigator since my English was more accepted. A few years later, I spoke English as well as anyone else in my school; but my improvements in English came at the cost of my Vietnamese. Although I could still eat Vietnamese foods and speak Vietnamese, I felt as if I lost more and more of my cultural heritage with each passing day.

Ten years later, I was given an opportunity during my senior year in college to visit Vietnam through a program called EnviroLab Asia. I was stunned the moment I stepped off the plane. Saigon had changed so much within the span of a decade, yet my hometown in Dong Nai two hours outside of Saigon still remained unchanged. At the beginning of the trip, I worried that my Vietnamese was not good enough. People talked so quickly and there were so many new words or words I had forgotten how to use. I struggled with the question: “Was I not Vietnamese enough or was I too Americanized?” Yet, the more I shared my stories with my family and friends, the more my fluency improved and the more I realized that some things were never truly lost. Sometimes, living in the United States made me forget my roots. It was only when I returned to Vietnam that I started to remember once again what being Vietnamese meant. Like my relatives and my friends, Vietnamese people were not only dynamic but also thoughtful. For instance, the community in my village pooled together their money to purchase and hang up Christmas lights around the neighborhood for the holiday season. Although every community has their issues, Vietnamese people will still care for you at the end of the day just like a family member.

Even though I still don’t know everything about my culture, I want to continue to learn as much as possible. For so long, I thought that my level of “Vietnamese-ness” was tied to my command of the language, but I later realized that it’s more important to consider personal self-identification. Although I live far away from the homeland, I’ve found my own community and ties to my Vietnamese-ness through other Vietnamese-Americans. My roots may lie outside Vietnam itself but they live in spaces like the Vietnamese Student Association and my home in Arizona. Nowadays, Vietnamese people live all over the world. Due to our scattered existence, I like to use the term “diaspora” to sometimes describe my connection to Vietnam and to other Vietnamese individuals. “Diaspora” refers to the migration of a group of people, of the same national origin, from a settlement or ancestral land. I hope to continue growing in my identity like the mango tree I once planted and to always remember, “when you drink water, remember the source.” My hometown is still home to me and like the mango tree that grows, blooms, and gives fruit to the people, I will also grow and branch out.

Finding Home & Healing

 In Vietnamese, nước means water, country, and homeland. To ask where one is from is to ask “Nước nào?”

When I speak Vietnamese, other Vietnamese people often do not know how to categorize me. My accent is neither fully Central, Northern or Southern—although it is almost always noticeably American. It ebbs and flows between different syllables and phrases, never knowing where or when or how to settle for the right words. When I first stepped foot onto Tân Sơn Nhất airport after more than a decade, I was strangely but happily surprised to be addressed in Vietnamese by the staff while obtaining my visa. Despite my attachment to my hyphenated identity as a Vietnamese-American, in that moment, I felt a sense of validation for simply being Vietnamese enough. Although I never thought I would be returning back to Vietnam to study its environmental issues and in studying them, also unraveling more of my identity.

My rural hometown in the province of Dồng Nai, a two-hour drive east of Sài Gòn, remained virtually unchanged since I left at the age of five. The village was fondly referred to as “Bot Đỏ” to denote its rich red soil and was well known for cultivating crops including bananas, peppers, and cashews. After the 1950s, the once vacant landscape transformed into small plantations when a mass flow of people migrated from the Northern and Central regions of Vietnam. After the end of the war in 1975, Bot Đỏ was renamed as Lê Lợi (Vietnamese emperor) along with many other villages. I would later discover that my family was never actually from the South but rather from the Northern and Central areas of Vietnam.

Peppercorns grown in uncle’s plantation. Photo credit: Vy Doan.

In learning the history of Bot Đỏ, I also began to understand the nuances of environmental issues at the individual level. Most of the residents in Bot Đỏ are either farmers or vendors at the local market. Both depend on the land for their livelihood but with increasing movement to the city and commercialization of produce, the outlook for these occupations is steadily waning. Farmers like my uncle cultivate their crops on small patches of land and sell their raw produce for a scant VND 5 – VND 7 ($0.20-$0.30) per kilogram. He often relies on himself to cultivate the land and must use harmful pesticides in order to just break even. Both his body and the land feel incredibly ill after each spraying. While sustainable agricultural practices, such as crop rotation, have received greater attention in Vietnam, the majority of small scale rural farmers like my uncle have either little access to such information and few financial resources to actually put research into practice. Their limited mobility and power places them at the bottom of the produce ladder with little to no control over the market. At the end of the day, what counts as “sustainable” and for who’s benefit? Individualism is so often prized in Western cultures that the concept obscures the need for collective action, especially given the multi-faceted nature of environmental issues.

When our EnviroLab Asia cohort visited the mangrove forests on the outskirts of Sài Gòn in Cần Giờ, I began to understand how local residents and governments can work together as a collective. After the end of the Vietnam war, over three million hectares of mangroves were destroyed by defoliants used by the U.S. army. The mangroves had long been protectors of biodiversity and local livelihoods. It would take decades to grow them back and even longer of a time for local residents to recover from the genetic impacts of the defoliants. In 1978, a restoration project was started and locals began planting mangrove saplings. Ever since then, villagers such as Mr. Tuong act as guardians of the mangrove forests by patrolling and protecting the area. He expressed that he would like to see the mangroves flourish once more, even if this does not happen in his own lifetime. Although the dioxins and the legacy of war still linger in the land and people, the mangroves represent a collective resiliency and environmental consciousness I hadn’t been aware of in Vietnam. For so long, all I could ever focus on was the war; coming back to Vietnam made me realize that I could disrupt the dichotomy between remembrance and progress. I was so focused on reconstructing stories of the past that I forgot how to live in the present, to fully see Vietnam as a country that has also been on its own journey toward healing.

Outside the home of Mr. Tuong in the Can Gio mangrove forests. Photo credit: Vy Doan

The very interdisciplinary nature of EnviroLab fostered some of the most memorable and non-linear connections I’ve witnessed. From conversations about mangrove cultivation and conservation to discussions about the ethics of documentation, the Vietnam trip allowed me to understand and be okay with how identities and environments are constantly in flux.Hearing the stories from the Mr. Tuong as well as stories from my own family in Vietnam gave me a perspective on environmental justice that I had yet to fully explore in my own life. So often third world countries are viewed as deficient in contrast to first world countries yet in approaching environmental issues from such a deficit-based viewpoint, we often forget the strengths and resiliency of these countries. By listening to these stories and uplifting non-traditional forms of knowledge, we can begin to conduct research and generate collaborative solutions from an assets-based approach. In my future endeavors I would like to emulate this practice of sustained, engaged, and reciprocal community based research.

Before boarding on my departure flight, I wavered in between the two visa processing lines labeled “Foreigner” and “Vietnam.” Logically, I knew I should be in the foreigners’ line yet I still wavered pondering on the binary between what is considered as “foreign.” Even after coming to better terms about my identity, there were still moments like this where I wondered what it means to be a part of the diaspora, to experience my cultural identity as fluidly as the oceans that separate me from it. Perhaps one of the most profound lessons I internalized throughout the EnviroLab trip was the freedom to truly explore the complexity and heterogeneity of diaspora in time and place.

Quê H
ương Ca Tôi

Khi tôi vẫn sống ởViệt Nam, tôi trồng một cây xoài. Mặc dù tôi chỉmới năm tuổi, nhưng tôi chăm sóc nó rất tốt bằng cách tưới nước hàng ngày. Tuy nhiên, khi tôi năm tuổi, gia đình của tôi di cưsang Mỹ. Tôi quên vềcái cây xoài đó. Vì tôi sốngởMỹ, nên tôi cảm thấy nhưtôi cần phải từbỏdi sản văn hoá của tôi.


Gia đình tôi là một trong sốít hộgia đình châu Á trong khu phốởArizona. Tất cảmọi người nói tiếng Anh nhưng không ấy biệt nước tôi là gì. Chỉởnhà mà gia đình của tôi nói tiếng Việt. Ởnhà, chúng tôi không bịđánh giá là khác nhau. Ra ngoài, người Mỹhay nghĩ chúng tôi là ngoại quốc. Tôi là người phiên dịch cho gia đình bởi vì họkhông nói tiếng Anh rất tốt. Sau vài năm, tôi nói tiếng Anh nhưngười Mỹnhưng tôi hy sinh tiếng Việt của tôi. Mặc dù tôi vẫn ăn món ăn Việt và nói tiếng Việt, nhưng tôi thấy càng ngày qua, càng quên văn hóa của minh.


Sau 10 năm, tôi được trương cho vềViệt Nam thông qua một chương trình, EnviroLab Asia. Ngày đầu tiên tôi đi xuống may bay, tôi đã choáng váng. Sài Gòn đã thay đổi quá nhiều nhưng quê của tôi trong Đong Nai là vẫn nhưngày xưa. Lúc đầu, tôi lo lắng vì tiếng Việt của tôi không tốt may và mọi người nói chuyện rất nhanh. Tôi nghĩ, “tôi là người Việt hay người Mỹ?” Nhưng, tôi càng nơi chuyện vời gia đình và bạn bè, tôi càng cải tiến. Vì tôi sốngởMỹquá lâu, tôi đã quên gốc của tôi. Khi nao tôi trởvềViệt Nam, tôi mơi nhớlại tưduy của người Việt là gì. Không những người Việt năng động mà còn rất thông minh. Ví dụ, cộng đồng trong làng tôi đã cùng nhau kiếm tiền mua và treo đèn Giáng sinh quanh khu phốvào mùa lễ. Mặc dù cộng đồng nao cung có chuyện, nhưng họvẫn lo cho nhau nhưmột gia đình.


Mặc dù, tôi không hiểu mọi thưvềvăn hoá của tôi, nhưng tôi vẫn muốn học càng nhiều càng tốt. Tôi nghĩ thông thạo tiếng Việt là tốt, nhưng nó không xác định được danh tính của mình. Chủđềquan trọng hơn là nhận dạng của chính chúng ta. Mặc dù tôi đang sống xa quê hương, nhưng tôi được tìm những người nhưtôi — người Mỹgốc Việt. Gốc của tôi có thểnằm ngoài Việt Nam nhưng nó vẫn sống trong cuộc sống của tôi ởnhững nơi nhưVietnamese Student Association và nhà tôi ởArizona. Bây giơ, người Việt sống khắp mọi nơi. Tôi nghĩ đên từnày, “diaspora”, khi nơi di cưvì nó rộng bao gồm. “Diaspora” nơi đên sựdi trú của một nhóm người, có cùng nguồn gốc dân tộc, khỏi vùng đất định cưhay vùng đất tổtiên. Nhưcây xoài tôi trồng ngay xửa, tôi phai nhớchăm sóc gia tài của tôi và nên nhớkhi “uống nước nhớnguồn”. Quê hương vẫn lưong đơng hanh cung tôi và tiêp thêm nâng lương sống cung nhưcây xoài đã lơn lên pha, ra hoa, gêt trai và đem quảngọt đên cho mơi người.