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Vietnamese village

A man prays at an altar in the Tran pagoda in Nhan Dao during the first moments of the new year.

A man prays at an altar in the Tran pagoda in Nhan Dao during the first moments of the new year. People bring offerings such as candies, flowers, and fruit to show respect to their ancestors and ask them to grant good luck and health.


HANAM, Vietnam--Once you've been gone for so long, the place you come from no longer exists.

The place in question is my birthplace of Nhan Dao, a small village of about 4,700 residents in Hanam province, some 60 miles south of Hanoi. To put things in perspective, when I was growing up here in the '80s and early '90s, a trip to the capital of Hanoi would take eight hours one way. There was no paved road, no electricity, and no running water. For those reasons, until about 10 or 15 years ago, most people in Nhan Dao spent their whole lives within about a 20-mile radius of the village.

I found myself a little lost at home amid all the changes. It's a feeling of not knowing who I really am anymore when all that colored my formative years is slowing fading away.

During that time, the only piece of modern technology I knew of was the lone loudspeaker, positioned in the middle of the village, which broadcast Radio the Voice of Vietnam from 5 in the morning to 10 at night. For years, it was what I woke up to and went to bed with, and it was the voice of one of the VoV newscasters that inspired me to become a journalist.

Life in the village was calm and simple then, and, for the most part, happy, despite the lack of wealth or connections to the outside world. Everybody, apart from working hard day in and day out in the rice fields, always looked forward to holidays, especially Tet, the traditional Vietnamese new year, when relatives and friends visit, children get lucky money, and celebrants feast on dishes including steamed square cakes made of sticky rice, pork, and green beans and wrapped in leaves. In the simplest terms, Tet in Vietnam is like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's all rolled into one.

After being in the States for so long and especially after several long days immersed in gadgets at CES 2011, I wanted to go back and experience Tet again for the first time in 10 years. I wanted to try to stay away from technology and the Internet for a while and find glimpses of the simple life I had once known.

That was not to be. I discovered that while Tet is still here, most of the simple life I remember has gone for good.

My village has completely transformed in the last decade, changing much more dramatically than it did during the 100 years before that, according to my 96-year-old grandmother, who lives here along with my parents. It now takes just about an hour and a half to get here from Hanoi, with the roads paved all the way. During this holiday season, the village's main road is adorned with flags hung on light poles or on top of houses, next to satellite TV dishes and antennae.

In truth, there doesn't seem to be much difference between my village and the city--apart from the rice fields and sounds of livestock, plus smaller houses and much less traffic. Almost everyone here has a cell phone now. In fact, there's no phone service, other than cellular, in the village. Viettel is the most popular provider in Nhan Dao, though anybody can switch to another provider just by swapping out SIM cards, which are on sale everywhere.

Traditionally, during "watch night" (the last night of the new year, which this year was Wednesday), people in the village walk to the Tran pagoda to collect burning incense and small tree branches, symbols of luck and prosperity, to bring home. This is also where they convene with loved ones before the new year arrives.

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