Hoi An, in Vietnam's Quang Nam province, was a favorite of foreign tourists before the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: iStock

My first restaurant opened in Hoi An, then an old trading village, three decades ago. At the time, Vietnam was cut off from the Western world because of a trade embargo designed to invert the result of what we called the American War. But we persevered, and shortly after I served my first meals, a small group of New Zealanders trickled in for dinner.

Others followed. By 1995, the United States was allowing trade between our countries to resume and our “ancient town” became a major tourist destination.

I learned a lot about Westerners, particularly how different they are from us Vietnamese. For example, they are typically punctual and outspoken, and they eat a lot of protein. 

For the past two years we Vietnamese have, once again, been separated from the West, though this time by a viral pandemic rather than a war. And once again, I have found myself reflecting on the differences between East and West.

It is a different time to be sure. The economy is global now. Democracies and communist economies have learned to co-exist harmoniously – for the most part. Maybe because I now own a mini-empire of restaurants and a hotel, largely made possible by Western visitors, this Lockdown 2.0 might be expected to feel more painful, but it does not. It may well be more painful for those on the outside.

The reason has a lot to do with the differences between us. In the East, we believe in seasons and balance. We are humble and scrappy, always preparing for the next test. If you disagree, tell me: How many Western businesses could survive without customers for two years, as we have?

I read that Americans are quitting their jobs en masse. We in Vietnam have witnessed our own “Great Resignation.” But ours is not resigning from work; rather it is about being resigned to the vicissitudes of life generally and the drought that comes naturally after a flood. We do not complain about such things. We welcome them as cleansing.

After 30 years working virtually non-stop, the pandemic has afforded me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take stock of my life and my business. For me this has been a time for introspection, not panic. I have a long-held belief that out of every negative situation or event, we can find something positive. 

Prior to the arrival of Covid-19, my business involved running several restaurants, a cooking school and a hotel, and employing more than 500 staff. I have always been driven to work, but when the pandemic emptied Hoi An, I was forced to put my restaurants on hiatus. Without my work, I had to find something to fill my time. For me, that wasn’t a problem. 

Over the years, I have wanted to update, upgrade and remodel several of my establishments. Even before the pandemic I had plans to make improvements, but when I realized how long it would be until Hoi An was likely to see international tourism return, I decided that large-scale remodeling could be undertaken. I have now built the largest food and beverage venue in Hoi An; it has no customers.

During the lockdown, I also sought to expand my hospitality business into retail food and beverage lines. As part of this, I created a wellness-focused food and hygiene kit to be donated to frontline workers in Vietnam. We are also developing a herbal coffee with a partner in Thailand, which recently reopened.

As well as expanding my business operations, I sought to explore myself during Covid. I have long been interested in the arts. I am an avid dancer, with tango being my personal favorite. I have gotten to a reasonably competent level now. I’ve also tried boxing, learning the drums, and billiards. 

For me, all of these disciplines help me to know and understand myself. Most people don’t know and understand themselves adequately. It is said that God created us perfectly, but I would say that perhaps there are two deficiencies. Our eyes and ears only point outwards. In order to be fulfilled and reach our full potential, we need to look inwards and listen to our bodies. 

When I dance, I communicate with every part of my body. I am aware of every muscle – its position, how it connects and coordinates with the rest of my body. I have learned how to regulate my breathing to conserve my energy. And what I learn during these lessons helps in other ways.

For example, even cueing up a shot at the pool table – knowing how to place my legs to create the solid foundation and how each arm should be positioned, either firm or relaxed, to make the best shot. And when I sit in front of my drum kit, I have to balance my arms and legs, both synchronizing or separating their movements, while at the same time delivering the correct amount of force to the drum skins and cymbals. 

Developing myself through the arts is a beautiful journey and the best way to get to know myself. I believe that exploring these latent skills or abilities can help in every aspect of my life, including my business, of course.

It is also about finding balance, which is a core Eastern value. The artistic side of us provides the yin component and our work, our career, provides the yang. Everything I do outside of work helps me in my work.

Rather than dwell on the negative aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic, or race to get back to the old normal, as we have seen happen in the West, I have used my time to reflect and look inwards. Ultimately I hope to emerge from this situation as a better, and possibly more successful and fulfilled, person.

Vy Tranh Diem

Vy Tranh Diem, a longtime Vietnamese restaurateur, is founder of the Taste Vietnam Group.