Another night, another new bed. I laid on a worn mattress staring up at the ceiling. It was just like any other restless night in this mobile carouselle lifestyle that I was living. Yet another new sleeping place on my journey to meet Vietnamese people living all over the world. This time I was in Africa for the first time ever. I found a Vietnamese man who had lived there for years. He was also wide awake on the ground next to me.
Almost a year and a half earlier, the director of the episode of the Travel Channel’s ”Bizarre Foods” that I appeared on took a picture with a Vietnamese man. The show was shooting in Senegal. I was intrigued and immediately made contact with that man. Almost a year later, the episode aired, but that man in the picture was nowhere seen. I completely forgot about this Vietnamese man living in Senegal as time and my life progressed. But the dream of visiting Africa never left my mind.
I remembered very vividly how I hesitated a bit after collecting my bags at the airport and saw the exit doors. I’ve traveled quite a bit on my own. But, this was another level that I didn’t have the proper time to mentally prepare for it. My dreams were just outside of those exit doors. I was more nervous than scared. It was the complete unknown. The walk out of the airport towards the taxi area might have been the longest walk in my life so far. I was very happy to see the man in the picture in real life. I shook his hand and introduced myself and he introduced himself as Duong and people there often call him Duong Nem.
6:00 AM was rapidly approaching and I still hadn’t slept for more than a few minutes. The strong smell of cooking oil filled the air and made breathing a tad bit difficult. My mind raced a million miles a minute. Twenty-four hours earlier I woke up in a suburb outside of Amsterdam feeling refreshed for the heavy travel day ahead. And now, I was in a completely new continent with the man in the picture. I knew absolutely nothing about him and he knew very little about me.
After a quick selfie, we searched for a taxi. Two minutes later Duong started shouting in the local language and I started filming. The taxi driver wanted an unfair surcharge and Duong was quite angry about it. While walking away, he explained to me that he needed to be aggressive living there or else people would take advantage or walk all over him. We managed to find a fair rate with another taxi and crammed into the car. I still recall how quietly happy I was to be staring at the streets of Senegal just outside of my window.
14 years prior to meeting me, Duong met a man in Saigon who offered a job to work at a French restaurant. Duong was excited about the thought of living in France. Unfortunately, this job was at a little eatery in the Ivory Coast. He worked there for almost a year until the civil war forced him to flee from the chaos. Instead of going back to Vietnam, he found himself in Dakar. It wasn’t his intentions to go there. He had no idea what Senegal was all about. Like much of his life, Duong just went along for the ride.
He learned the local language by simply just “doing it”. Fortunately, Duong secured a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant owned by a French woman of Vietnamese origins. She gladly accepted him because he didn’t even discuss a salary. He just needed a place to sleep and a roof over his head. Pretty soon, the aging owner closed up shop and returned to France, but she promised Duong she would gift him a refrigerator, which would allow him to start a small business. While she never followed through on that promise, she did give him something more valuable – her infamous fried spring roll recipe.
When it was time to rise that morning, I’ll admit I struggled with the bathroom situation. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but it was a lot different than waking up in the Amsterdam suburbs. While it seems like such an innocuous problem, not having hot water and a proper sink allowed me to understand how so many of us take simple things for granted. As the smell of Duong cooked eggs wafted through the place, his neighbor appeared asking for some ingredients. Duong explained to me that he wouldn’t have been able to live there if it wasn’t for the generosity of the people around him, and so he doesn’t mind sharing.
I tried my best to live as close to Duong’s lifestyle as possible. I woke up when he did, and ate when he ate, and slept when he did. The first two days were all business for Duong. I focused on capturing the preparation and cooking process without revealing too much of his secret recipe. I helped him come up with some ideas on how to make his business more efficient. This was going to be the focus of my documentary, but it ended up being something else entirely.
By the end of the third day, Duong was quite honest with me and expressed the unhappiness of his situation living in Africa. We spent time discussing the pros and cons and went through a thousand different scenarios and alternative options. I understood what Duong was going through. He built a decent business for himself. He started off with absolutely nothing and according to him, “slowly crawled” his way to the main roads to sell as many spring rolls as possible. He’d built a life over the years and it wasn’t as simple as just packing bags and returning to Vietnam.
Duong visited Vietnam many times before. He’s actually married to a woman who lives there and they have a young daughter together. On the surface, the decision seems pretty obvious to an outsider looking in – move back to Vietnam and be with your family. But it’s never that simple.
I knew exactly what Duong was going through because I’ve had to go through similar decisions. I built a very decent life for myself in Vietnam. Leaving everything behind was very difficult. It wasn’t a decision I took lightly. I left Vietnam to pursue an absolute unknown without a set job or career. But it was easier for me to leave because I obviously come from a more privileged position than Duong has. The point is, he’s established a life in Africa. He has a reputation and Vietnam, though part of his past, is now completely foreign to him.
I witnessed the loneliness in his life firsthand. Despite being surrounded by friends and neighbours, Duong still felt the isolation that comes with existing in a space in between. I was the first Vietnamese person to come visit him. His friends and family back home haven’t been able to fully grasp his situation and his surroundings. All they understand is that he works abroad and he sends a lot of money back home – enough money to build a house and buy a motorbike. So of course, they have advised him to stay because though he is absent, he’s providing for his family. Like I said, it’s never as easy as it seems. Yet it became abundantly clear to me that deep down inside Duong doesn’t want to stay.
I wish it were as simple as black and white. I wanted him to be happy with his family. I thought that he could find work in Vietnam, and though he might make a lot less money, he would be closer to his family. I liked to think it was an obvious choice. But, unfortunately, life can’t be broken down into binary terms. There are all sorts of shades of gray in between. As much as I wanted to help him, we went back and forth for days, weighing the pros and cons. We repeated conversations about true happiness, the value of money, and living away from family. I grew emotionally invested in Duong’s life and was frustrated at the complexity hiding amid the simplicity.
When I finally completed editing the video a few months after I left, Duong watched it and grew very emotional. He was appreciative that he could share his story and he really enjoyed the video. I was relieved and proud of the fact that I could help him retain a part of his life as a memory, but at the same time let people all over the world understand one man’s life a little bit better. I think at the end of it, he was just happy someone cared enough to visit him and to take the time to hear him out. I know exactly what it feels like to be alone and far away from home. Many people have helped me through rough times, and I’m a believer in the age old maxim, “Everything happens for a reason.”
Meeting Duong far from Vietnam was next to impossible for me to imagine at one time in my life. But it happened thanks to a series of serendipitous events, or because it was just meant to be.
Prior to releasing this video, may it be fate or some universal pull, my schedule somehow aligned up with Duong’s visit to Vietnam and I was able to spend only a few hours with him. I did document a follow up video which you’ll see in the near future. When I left Africa, never in a million years would I have expected to see him in Vietnam because I myself didn’t think I’d be back in the country for a long time. But the chance came up, and the chance to see Duong happy in the motherland with his family became a reality.
I’m glad I met Duong. He’s a prime example of the amazing resilience of Vietnamese people.
Special thanks to Duong Nem for the sharing his story and his life. Another fond thank you to the producers and director of “Bizarre Foods” who found us.