by Lynn S. Schwebach
Laughing so hard that he found it difficult to talk, Nguyen Vu Tung described Christmas eve in Hanoi as a throng of young, thin Vietnamese men dressed as Santa Claus, driving on motorbikes, sometimes two Santas per bike, a large sack of toys thrown across one Santa’s back.
Year round, Hanoi’s streets are packed full of motorbikes, cars, and cyclos. On any given motorbike, you might find a family of four, three teenage women, a vendor hauling glass, mattresses, paintings or even television sets. Books have been published on how and what the Vietnamese haul on their motorbikes.
Yet the sight of Vietnamese Santas racing around on Christmas strikes even this native as inordinately unique.
“Our country is so original,” V said to me over a cappuccino in late May, only days before returning to Hanoi. In Vietnamese, the last name comes first (Nguyen), followed by the middle name (Vu), then the first name (Tung). But Tung prefers to go simply by V.)
He had been in Fort Collins, Colo., for nine months studying at Colorado State University (CSU). I sensed his homesickness as he described how his predominantly Buddhist city adopted the famed Christian holiday. As part of a new joint program between V’s university, Foreign Trade University (FTU), and CSU’s Economics Department, V spent his senior year at CSU.
I could also tell that V loves the idea of talking about anything creative, whether it’s Santas on motorbikes, or one of his many creative passions.
Creativity – either assimilated from his own culture, or gleaned through music, movies, and books from Japan or the West – defines this young man who exhibits unbridled energy. He writes music and lyrics, novels, gives public speeches – and studies economics. He has accomplished all of these ambitions in his 22 years of existence.
In fact, V wrote his first novel “GnE “ over his winter break in Fort Collins. (For an excerpt of the story, read chapter one on his blog at http://vnjustv.wordpress.com/)
To get into FTU, one of Vietnam’s top-rated schools, V passed an entrance exam considered to be one of Vietnam’s hardest. Then to get accepted into the joint FTU-CSU program required another highly selective round of testing because the language of instruction - in both Vietnam and America – is English. Out of 80 students, about 30 came to CSU for their senior year.
Economics might seem like a dry academic subject, but V did his best to integrate creativity into his class projects and presentations. He encouraged his classmates to literally turn projects into melodies and stories. Working in a group of seven, V’s group developed a presentation on Intellectual Property at FTU into a singing courtroom where they sang their arguments.
“Creativity leads you to do things in a different way than others,” he said smiling.
Others might present information and research on slides, he said. “But that’s so dry and boring.” Whatever the topic, V said, his group, together since their sophomore year, tried to do something creative so that others would remember it. In an advanced writing class, his group took the social issue of nuclear energy and filmed a YouTube video.(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-iH6bsgMpZk&feature=autoplay&list=UUNqWwXERgg377HFxST7hepA&playnext=1)
For another project, the group took the movie “Angels and Demons” and wrote unique and project-specific dialogue to make it humorous.
V began storytelling at age 11 writing in a journal that he still uses today. His first story was a book for children on learning English. He then started observing life, things about his neighbors, his family, and his friends, and began stories that he titled “Every day Life.”
His love for music and composing began in tenth grade when he first took American or Japanese pop songs and changed their lyrics. His best friend performed these songs before the whole high school, giving V his first taste of fame. The students favored his songs above the originals, and they became popular favorites.
He quickly tired of writing lyrics to others’ songs, but because his family couldn’t afford musical instruments or music software, he had to improvise. When he heard a melody in his head, he used the voice recorder on his cell phone to sing the melody.
“I wrote from my intuition,” V said. But he still gathered his inspiration from life. His first song, called “My Self,” is about a friend who “felt herself come back to her” when she ended a dysfunctional relationship.
Another project V completed while in the United States was getting his song “A Hope From The Past” published on iTunes.
Public speaking is another one of V’s passions. To keep audiences engaged during his speeches, he uses storytelling and humor. He spoke to about 300 U.S. educators this Spring on his experience as a foreign student at an American school. The educators specifically wanted to hear how he and his classmates overcame difficulties, so he told them about their first trip to Wal Mart.
“They were really laughing,” he said. “I told them it took over three hours, and to never go shopping with a group a girls.”
On a more serious note, V said when he speaks for groups he often poses questions that participants can ask of themselves.
But V stays serious for only a short period of time. Before our interview is over, we’re back to laughing about thin Vietnamese men dressed as Santas.
“Do they stuff their stomachs to look large?” I ask. “No,” he says laughing even harder, pointing to his hair. “And you can see their dark hair sticking out from coming out from under their wigs.”
We both agree that “Santas on Motorbikes” would make a great storybook, film, song, or anecdote to tell at a public-speaking event. Oh, and V adds, “don’t forget that I also love to do hip hop dance.”