When Tran Binh Nguyen first stepped outside Vietnam and onto Australian soil, he wasn’t sure what he would find. It was his first trip abroad and after almost a month of Sydney life, he formed a number of opinions. To Nguyen, Australia is a mixed bag.
He saw the plane we flew on as a bubble, suspended in the air. “My heart beat so fast when the plane took off,” he says. “It feels like being in a tube with the sky both above and below us like we are flying through a huge ball. I was amazed by how the clouds could be bright but the sea grey because the sun couldn’t get down to touch them.”
Leaving Ho Chi Minh City, Nguyen was most worried about immigration at the other end, but when he finally exited Kingsford Smith Airport his biggest concern were the flies. “They welcomed me to Sydney!” he laughs, “and they never left me alone. I think I must smell different or something? Maybe they can smell nuoc mam…”
He was struck by the blatant black and white of Eastern Australian weather. “Now I know why Australians like to lie in the sun,” he says. “It’s either very cold or very sunny in Sydney. Without the sun, it is cool, and when the sun shines you feel it on your skin. But in southern Vietnam it’s hot all the time and the sun just makes it worse.”
And as we drove to where we were staying in northern Sydney, he began to marvel at the buildings we passed by. The houses in this area are often built on a slope because the land is hilly. They are levelled by layers of brick in their foundations so that their floors are flat but their bases are slanted with the ground.
Sitting in the back seat, Nguyen watched them for a while, then he turned to me, “How can people live in them?”
I asked him what he meant.
“They are not flat.” he says, “they’re so unstable — they look like they’re falling down the hill.”
A Different Place
Nguyen sees Sydney life as a strange collaboration of progress and isolation. My mum asked him to describe the place in four words, and he chose beautiful, large, green and sad. “Sydney is lonely,” he says. “Life is not lived on the streets like it is in Vietnam. The people are always inside, the doors are never open, and there is no one walking on the roads.”
People drive rather than walk in Sydney and many build their houses as refuges to spend a lot of time in, rather than a place to sleep and eat. “I think the houses there are prettier than in Vietnam,” he says. “They are colourful, and they’re beautiful even if they are made of wood. In Vietnam people only use wood if they can’t afford brick.”
But in the city’s less affluent Inner West, life is a lot harder. “Before I went to Cabramatta, I couldn’t tell how wealthy the houses on the North Shore were,” says Nguyen. “I had expected rich houses to be very big, but many of them seemed similar in size to an average Vietnamese house. I think the main difference between rich and poor in Sydney is upkeep. In the poorer areas of Sydney the whole area is rough and the buildings are older and more broken.”
He had expected to find a first world country in Australia, but while most areas of life there are well developed, others are not. “It’s strange that many houses still use TV aerials when most people in Vietnam stopped using them a while ago,” he says, “and yet, the entire public transport system runs on touch-operated Opal Cards!”
Nguyen was also struck with the rate of homelessness around central Sydney, not expecting this to be an issue in a country with a welfare system and a healthy GDP. “I felt disappointed to be honest,” he says. “People are on the streets in Sydney for a different reason than in Vietnam, but at the end of the day Australia shouldn’t have this problem.”
Home Away From Home
Nguyen’s understanding of Sydney and its extremities became epitomised by that famous Asian concept of relativity — same, same but different. “There are definitely plenty of new and strange things here,” he says, “but many other things are the same as where I come from. I think I was prepared for what I would find because I’ve talked with backpackers, I’ve read about Australia and my girlfriend is from Sydney. To some degree, I knew what to expect.”
But no matter what you’ve heard or read, the reality of a place is always more interesting. “I knew what Sydney Harbour would look like from the internet,” says Nguyen, “but actually being there felt different. I was next to the Opera House, I walked over Harbour Bridge and I stood in the Queen Victoria Building. It’s a memory that I can keep forever.” Visiting Sydney was, in many ways, like visiting an old friend.
Nguyen felt a similar way when he went to Cabramatta, the Vietnamese side of the city. The Vietnamese community here dates back to the first boat people fleeing the war. It has a history of crime and disharmony, but is now a bustling, flourishing epicentre of typical Vietnamese activity. “Cabramatta is like a mini Ho Chi Minh City,” says Nguyen. “The Vietnamese people speak their own language, and they sell street food and market goods just like back home. The main road even looks a bit like downtown Saigon — it was like they’d moved a slice of my culture to another country.”
You can find almost all of Vietnam’s staple fruit, vegetables, spices and other ingredients around Cabramatta, even the king of fruit — the durian. Nguyen and I had travelled by train to get to the Inner West, and we decided to buy one of these notoriously pungent fruits to bring back to my family.
As we entered the train station at Town Hall, Nguyen flinched. He stopped and started to take off his jacket.
“What are you doing?” I asked
“I want to wrap it up,” gesturing at the Durian, “are we allowed it on the train?”
He was genuinely worried and set on doing the right thing. And while I assured him that this fruit was not offensive in the West, largely because no one knew what it was, he wasn’t really comfortable until we were off the train an hour later at the other side.
It’s My Opinion
By the end of his time in Australia, Nguyen had reached the conclusion, common to many travellers, that every country has things you will miss and things that you won’t. I asked him what he would take away from his experience, and he said that one sentence kept running through his mind.
“The trees have a lot of colour and the noise comes from the birds.”
A precious memory for a man from bustling, raucous Ho Chi Minh City.