Not really often but sometimes, I still catch familiar sounds of our language or smell Vietnamese’s favorite food while wandering on Taiwan’s road. That is a very touching moment for me when traveling in another country. Being curious, I started looking more closely and that was the way an interesting story began.
Promising land for Vietnamese women
During the period from 1995 to 2003, the number of Vietnamese women married to Taiwanese people increased by 60,000 people (1) and it was around 75,000 in 2007 (2). Most of them came from rural Mekong delta religions such as Can Tho, Dong Thap (Vietnam). It was believed that those Vietnamese women had thought Taiwan was one of the most developed countries in Asia and highly safe, the promising land for a better life.
Based on that information, I researched about Vietnamese women in Keelung by meeting them and experiencing their everyday lives.
Struggle with a new life in a new land
I went to Huilong market and night market to find Vietnamese women who are around 35 to 45 years old. Accidentally, I met some people that came from the same rural area in the South of Vietnam which is famous for rice and floating markets. In our country, we have a sentence to describe this area: “white rice and pure water”, so maybe that is a reason to explain why these women have beautiful skin. They also worked hard but unluckily, it was not enough for securing the livelihood of a whole family. Maybe it is the main reason that they relocated to Taiwan.
They now open small businesses in the market, some sell Taiwanese food, some sell Vietnamese specialty. However, is it difficult for them to adapt to Taiwanese culture and be a part of this society?
Rushing off her feet with countless tasks, Ms Tuoi in Keelung night market said: “Now my life in Taiwan is pretty busy and I do not have time to connect with too many Vietnamese women, I know only some people in Miao Kou market.”
“The most difficult part is finding a job”, Ms Ngoc in Huilong market continued her story: “I went to Taipei and learnt the way to make a traditional Taiwan cake, and now I open a small stall in Huilong market with my husband. It is such a good thing to have a job in Taiwan.”
She stayed glued to the phone to receive orders from customers while we were talking.
“I had a very tough time when I started working in Taiwan, did not understand the language, a lonely hustle everyday made me feel exhausted. I have never forgotten that time.” (Ms Hoa – Huilong market)
It is recorded that language was the first solid fence wall between mixed Vietnamese and Taiwanese couples. Many spouses broke up unhappily as a result of “Taiwan Disillusionment” that comes from the language and family culture barriers (3) .
Cross culture and a choice to stay in Keelung
Keelung is the second largest port in Taiwan currently where life seems to welcome everyone. However, with these Vietnamese women, how do they truly feel in a strange city with a lot of differences?
Jennie: So what are things you love in Taiwan or specifically in Keelung ?
“After one year taking care elderly people in Taipei, I stuck with them very much. I remember deeply their eyes looked at me full of sincere and thanks. That was the moment I knew that I love people here”, Ms Hoa was emotional.
“I feel very comfortable living here. This city is not too big but it has modern transportation, people are friendly, and open to try Vietnamese food”. (Smiling Ms Tuoi)
“Last time I was looking for a place to open my restaurant, I did not want a big place in a busy city. Finally, we found Keelung and bought a small restaurant. I have lived here until now,” Ms Hanh said.
After difficulties, they are now happy in Keelung and their small family seems to be their motivation to overcome all cultural challenges.
Ms Tuoi was smiling with me and her husband: “My husband is super busy with our stall because the night market is crowded on weekends. He even can not talk with you now”
I was so surprised when hearing how my fellow countrywoman told: “My husband supported me a lot, I took 18 years to study from grade 1 and had graduated some years ago. I was even a teacher in a university.” Ms Linh, who owned one of the most popular Vietnamese banh mi shop in Keelung, eagerly narrated.
Ms Ngoc was waving to her Taiwanese neighbor while talking: “My daughter is very good at Vietnamese, she is 16 years old, she has learnt from her grandparents for a long time. I want her to know both languages.”
Jennie: “You are such a good husband. She told me that you helped her everyday to prepare the cake filling and took care of the family a lot.” (I talked to husband of Ms Ngoc)
Currently, the weather in Keelung is hot and also rainy often. I pass by quiet people with peaceful appearance walking on the road. Couples like Vietnamese wives and Taiwanese husbands have been popular in Asian social media for several years that were considered as having big cultural differences. However, staying in Keelung for a couple of weeks makes me feel like I am at home. The weather, the warmth from neighbors surroundings, new friends, Vietnamese women I have met etc. All of those things raise a perception inside me that there is a resonance between my motherland and Keelung city which helps the relationships of Taiwan – Vietnam couples become more and more sympathetic.
Bring Vietnam soul to Taiwan
A stall of Ms Tuoi attracted me immediately when I was wandering in Keelung night market. This is the only stall with food in Vietnamese here, Ms Tuoi sells Vietnamese dishes which are from her area such as Banh Cuon (Steamed rice roll), Banh Khot (Fried coconut cake. She keeps her spirit always focused 100% on her job and that made her foods become popular in this place. The smell of coconut cream grilled with shrimp and flour in a small pot attracted people from many cultures to try Vietnamese special cakes.
When thinking about Vietnamese specialty, I can not forget Pho and spring roll. I found all these in a restaurant of Ms Hanh in Huilong Market. Pho bo (Vietnamese beef noodle) is the most wanted dish in her restaurant. The traditional secret recipe of Vietnam goes well with fresh and pure ingredients from Keelung’s ocean that bring the best Pho bowl. -“I changed the whole menu to Vietnamese food. I love Vietnamese food and just cook by my own feelings and memories, try to make it very Vietnamese.”
It is completely true, I felt very impressed by the spring roll here, my Taiwanese friend was also immersed in those tiny things. Fresh shrimp and vegetables were dipping inside a Vietnamese gentle fish sauce which made me feel like I was in Vietnam.
Jennie: “These are even better than something I ate in Vietnam.”
Laughing Ms Hanh: “Correctly! Because of magical ingredients in Keelung, I also ordered a Taiwanese factory to do Pho yarn (Vietnamese noodle), a little bit different from original but very tasty.”
Such an amazing fusion of cultures between Vietnam and Taiwan!
Ms Hoa, who I met in Hui Long market, gave me a package of stirred peanuts to try. I was really into that because the popular food of Vietnam is made in an ingenious Taiwanese way. The best seller of her stall is beef stew which has been cooked well in almost one day. She also brings some sauce from Vietnam here to introduce Taiwanese people.
It would be a shortcoming if I do not mention Banh mi (Vietnamese bread) which is considered as the most specific street food in Vietnam. Ms Linh who used to be a teacher in Keelung then stayed at home because of Covid pandemic, opened her restaurant 3 years ago. Promptly, her Banh mi with the original traditional flavor of Vietnam became popular in Keelung. Ms Hanh even bought Banh mi here to enhance her menu.
“I only sleep 4 hours per day because making Banh mi requires many steps and effort. Though, I am passionate about this job. I decided to bring my country’s savor into my work.” Ms Linh loves listening to Vietnamese folk songs while baking bread.
Keelung & Vietnamese Flavor
Today, my friend asked me: “What is the thing that reminds you of your nationality when you live in another country?”. I suddenly thought about these Vietnamese women I met. They went to Keelung with various reasons, yet now they work for the same mission: keeping their original roots in the second hometown. It is said that not many people in Vietnam know about Keelung and not many Keelung people know about Vietnamese here. There are also many Vietnamese women in Keelung who work in other fields that can not be mentioned within the limit of this article. I quite believe that traditional food and smiles will definitely connect people which are the first foundation for creating a Vietnamese community in Keelung that helps enrich culture and business in a local society.