Words by Yến-Nhi Lê
Editor Anano Shalamberidze

Last year, towards the end of a scorching Amsterdam summer, I had a sudden realization that over three years had passed since I last returned to my mother and fatherland. A strong sense of saudade washed over me. The word saudade is one of the most difficult words to translate, it’s powerful, intense and encapsulates the presence of absence — an emotional state of profoundly, nostalgic longing. Historians suggest that its origins might be linked to a time when many embarked on journeys across uncharted seas, often meeting unfortunate fates in shipwrecks, battles, or simply never returned. Later on, the definition of saudade became particularly associated with the longing for one’s homeland. I missed Vietnam. Specifically, I was missing its unique smell: a mixture of gasoline, and different culinary aromas; the heat that hits you as soon as you leave Tan Son Nhat’s chaotic airport; the sense of freedom while cruising on my cousins’  Piaggio Liberty (yes, pun intended); the comforting hum of busy streets; and even the familiar “You’ve grown so much since we last saw you!” from both known and unknown uncles. I suppose the uncle part is a universal, canon event for anyone who returns home. Little did I know that this trip would forever change my perspective on what home truly means to me. Yet, can a place truly be considered your homeland if you weren’t born there? And what truly makes a place ‘home’?

‘Home is not confined by borders; it thrives where the heart of the community beats’ 

Many ‘Việt Kiều’ (term for overseas-born Vietnamese), are returning to their roots for different reasons, some are looking for a sense of belonging in their ‘home’ countries, others are in search for identity or a need to explore their pasts to understand their presents. Returning Việt Kiều are collaborating hand in hand with the local community to establish a strong foundation for an emerging Vietnam*. I specifically chose to use the term ‘emerging’, given that the Vietnamese have been rebuilding what we lost during the war for a considerable period. This intergenerational grieving process extended beyond the loss of lives, we were also grieving the loss of everything that creates a culture: our films, music, fashion, and art. I’ve observed Vietnamese people for quite a while, and after all, they remained soft and open to the beautiful facets of life, living the utmost act of resilience. 


For we cannot tarry here,  

We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,  

We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,  

Pioneers! O pioneers! 

O you youths, 

So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship, 

Plain I see you youths, see you tramping with the foremost,  

Pioneers! O pioneers! 

Have the elder races halted?  

Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?  

We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,  

Pioneers! O pioneers!

Walt Whitman

As someone who is naturally curious, my approach to exploring another country and culture involves immersing myself in it; I want to feel, experience, and absorb it all. And what better way to do that, than by connecting with local pioneers? People who have actively been changing the game and building sustainable communities for the future. I was fortunate to reunite with friends I had met during my first trip there, one of them is Mino, a true pioneer, music, and talent curator.  Back in Berlin, where he was born and raised, he was part of a DJ collective called ‘BASSGANG’  and is now based in Sài Gòn. He started V2X in 2018 as an online magazine, DJ-school, and radio station where he is providing the necessary tools to a whole new generation of young people, interested in music and culture. The first time I visited the V2X office, there was a party for their newly launched radio station. Mino told me it would be a ‘small’ gathering for friends and family, but when I arrived I found about 40 pairs of shoes outside the door. During this evening I encountered numerous people who I had been following and interacting with on IG for a long time and finally got to meet in real life. After that evening, I almost went to every radio show. The office of V2X is more than just an office space, it’s a community space where the worldwide, creative scene comes together, to laugh, share Heinekens and have cultural exchanges. 

My second friend who I would like to introduce to you is Ryan, a visionary and multidisciplinary entrepreneur. He has been at the forefront of pushing boundaries, whether it comes to organizing events or retail. One of his projects is OBJOFF, a retail space and café with multiple local, Vietnamese brands such as Soulvenir, Tuơng, and AAHMidnight Club. Currently, Ryan is also creating a new hub, called ‘Ro Ro’, which will be a new cultural destination for fashion, events, and sports for the Vietnamese youth, built in Sài Gòn. Ro Ro will build the first-ever skate park in the central district, powered by Stüssy, host pup-ups for brands like LỰU ĐẠN and Peter Do, have several retailers, a members’ club, and a sound space in collaboration with V2X.  

Waves not cycles   A generation of local talents in Vietnam have been making waves and gaining recognition worldwide, in different domains of the creative industry. Among my personal favorites are respected artists Suboi and TLinh, who were recently featured in a big editorial by Colors Studios — a must-read, if you would like to learn and discover more about the creative landscape. 

Besides local talent, the Vietnamese diaspora has also been transforming oceans into their own waves, for example: Peter Do, who was recently announced as the new creative director of  Helmut Lang. For his New York Fashion Week 2023 debut collection with the HL house, called  ‘Born To Go’, Do collaborated together with his close friend, Vietnamese-American writer Ocean Vuong. He wrote a poem for this collection, in English and Vietnamese, a nod to Helmut Lang’s work with artist Jenny Holzer. Parts of this poem were printed on several pieces of clothing. On the runway, Vietnamese model Dahan Phuong Oanh shows a crisp white, poplin shirt, with rolled-up sleeves, worn backwards and reading the text: “Con nhớ mẹ nhiều lắm, con xin lỗi con làm mẹ buồn”, meaning “I miss you so much, mother, I’m sorry I made you sad”. This is not the first time Do has used references from Vietnam to tell stories. For his own Spring 2022 ready-to-wear collection, Do found inspiration in old photographs of his grandmother’s church outfit, which led to an exploration and beautiful homage to the Vietnamese national dress: ‘Áo dài’. Do managed to translate the dress anew, through American eyes, into a knitted tunic from silk with a beautiful drape, soft texture, and dramatic splits on the sides, worn over wide-legged trousers. 

Brands’ perspective on Vietnam   Another interesting, recent development I observed is Western brands showing a growing interest in Vietnam as a place for the production of editorials. Golfwang shot their summer 2023 campaign and featured models Weantodale and Son Huy. The second example is called ‘Trên Yên Xe’,  which means ‘On the saddle of a rolling vehicle’ photographed by Osma Harvilahti for the French brand Lemaire. You have to imagine that too many people, Vietnam is solely known for being a backpacker’s destination that is ‘cheap’. I personally think the timing is completely on point,  Vietnam has mostly been known for being a war-torn country, but due to rising representation and awareness, the country is slowly, but surely, losing that image. Through these editorials, both  Golfwang and Lemaire invite viewers and challenge these exact perceptions — it’s truly inspiring to see two well-established brands, who are speaking to a diverse audience, capturing and showcasing Vietnam’s essence. Vietnam is a country where I see the ultimate juxtaposition,  everywhere you look, you see a clash between old and new: Vietnamese, some American, and French influences combined with each other, creating an atmosphere that is unique to the country.  

Vietnamese community in the Netherlands   After three months in Vietnam my journey came to an end. It was time for me to say my goodbyes to friends and family, and to go back to my other home base (not gonna lie, I started missing Dutch potatoes and bitterballen at some point). My heart was incredibly full and I left feeling grateful, with more purpose and as a person who had gotten a stronger sense of self. Going back was the right decision. Once back, I started thinking about the Vietnamese community over here. The Vietnamese community in the Netherlands is relatively small compared to cities like Los  Angeles, Paris, or London, however, that definitely doesn’t mean less impactful. On the contrary, 

there are many Vietnamese talents in the Netherlands, who have cultivated their own audiences and inspire me on a daily basis: Linh Thoại Lưu from Animistic Beliefs, Amy Pham Thi with NHỎ girl, artist Nobinh and fashion designer Irene Ha. From here on, I can draw a very visible conclusion; from role models and creative talents to media, Vietnamese representation is finally worldwide around us, and this thought leaves me elated for what is yet to come. 

In my journey of understanding, I’ve learned that a house serves as a vessel, for cherished memories and moments that are shared with others, shaping our lives and making it a true home. Similarly, Vietnam embodies the form of a home, established onto pillars as open-mindedness, collaboration, and the will to help one another out. A strong sense of community can be felt everywhere. And the beauty of it all? This community extends beyond the borders of Vietnam and the Netherlands but is connected to the whole diaspora. Home is not confined by borders; it thrives where the heart of the community beats. 

*Pham, A. (2010). Việt Kiều Contributions to Vietnam’s Growth. DEPOCEN Working Paper Series. Available here.