Native Spark Glows Bright in Myanmar Hearts

Like every other citizen of Myanmar, Min Shan goes to the pagoda daily to pray for his family’s well being, and for peace and prosperity in his country. But every time he stands with folded hands in the famous Shwe Dagon (Golden Temple) pagoda, he has an added prayer.  “I pray for Vietnam’s peace and prosperity, too,” says Shan.

Mr. Shan prays for his ancestral land's peace and prosperity in a pagoda

Shan is among a very small minority of Burmese citizens of Vietnamese origin living in big cities like Yangon and Mandalay in Myanmar. No matter how far away they live from each other, they get in touch regularly and exchange information about latest developments in their ancestral land.

“My father joined the stream of migrants leaving Vietnam for Laos some 60 years ago to escape the First Indochina War which was fiercely raging in the country. When the war extended to Laos, we moved to Myanmar and settled down here.”

Like many other immigrants in Yangon, Shan’s father earned his living by selling heat-relieving beverages like iced tea and betel quid during his first days in the foreign land.

Decades later, he became the owner of three large stores trading in consumer goods and building materials. He also owned two workshops manufacturing Burmese traditional handicrafts.

Born and brought up in Yangon, Shan was given a Vietnamese name “Nguyen Hung” by his parents. He now has a big family consisting of four Burmese sons and daughters in law and three grandsons. Two sons are directors of big trading companies in Mandalay, the second-largest city in Myanmar.

“After going through their first days of hardship and challenges in the strange land, most Vietnamese expatriates in Myanmar are now successful and affluent businessmen,” says Shan. “The success of Vietnamese expatriates can be credited to their diligence, intelligence and rapid adaptability.”

Soc Than, another successful businessman in Mandalay, reveals that no local residents know that he is a Vietnamese by birth and has a Vietnamese name, Nguyen Duc Binh. “We speak Burmese, wear Burmese clothes and eat Burmese food. No one wishes to acknowledge himself as a person living in a country that is not his own, because of the regular political turmoil here – “My family originally came here from Nghe An, the largest province in the North Central Coast of Vietnam, 50 years ago.”

Than now is the owner of a large shop trading in gems like rubies and jade, which are famous treasures of Myanmar. Than said, “From times to time, I fly to Vietnam although I have no relatives there. There appears to be a calling from the country.”

Staying rooted

“Vietnam is always our heart. My father said this often to all his offspring. My parents taught us Vietnamese and we then teach it to our children. Vietnamese therefore is spoken in each

Shoc Thi, one of Mr. Soc Than's sons, lives in Manday, the country's second-largest city

 Vietnamese family and among people in the community. We also eat normal Vietnamese foods in our daily meals,” says Shan.

“We teach our Burmese sons and daughters in law the tradition of a Vietnamese family so that they can “do as the Romans do when in Rome,” he adds.

According to Than, to keep the Vietnamese traditions alive, the Vietnamese people in Myanmar organize meetings on special occasions like the Lunar New Year (Tet) so that they can gather together to exchange information in Vietnam. Delicious traditional Vietnamese dishes are prepared and served on such occasions.

When Cyclone Nargis caused catastrophic destruction in Myanmar last May, Vietnamese people in the country got in touch with each other to lend a helping hand to any one in need, Than says.

As Shan comes out of the pagoda after praying for peace and prosperity in his ancestral land, he notes: “It’s not only my aspiration, but that of all Vietnamese people living in the land of this country.” 

By Vu Binh – Kim Em (Tuoi Tre) – Translated by Phuong Lan

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