I spent a year in Australia as an international exchange student when I was 22 years old. Before leaving Vietnam for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I tried to prepare myself as best as I could by asking for advice from friends and seniors abroad, including some clothing tips.
I was consistently advised that Ao dai, the Vietnamese national dress, is a must-have so that I could wear it on special occasions and celebrations at the university. “Our patriotic pride is tenfold when we wear Ao dai overseas,” said a friend of mine. And as a result, I decided to treat myself to a brand new set of Ao dai even though I had never tried it before.
Back then, I didn’t want to be left out, it must be FOMO (fear of missing out). I used to study at a private high school where Ao dai was not mandatory, even on back-to-school days. I never had a chance to wear the traditional costume.
My friends told me to get a set of tailor-made Ao dai instead of a ready-made one for a better fit and quality. True to its promise of worth, I had to shell out VND3.2 million (around $136), which was a fortune to me concerning the regular price and my budget at that time. However, I paid for it without hesitation and had to trust that the style, color, or material would suit me well.
All I cared about was having a set of sophisticated Ao dai that I could wear overseas. I couldn't wait to showcase its beauty and unique design to my international friends.
When I arrived in Australia, everything was far from what I expected. It soon came to my knowledge that there was no suitable occasion for me to wear Ao Dai there.
Most of the time, I traveled on foot or used public transportation, and as a matter of fact, a convenient and comfortable outfit was my top priority. Ao dai, coupled with its trousers and a pair of high heels, was not a wise choice in such a situation.
During that year, I joined the Vietnamese Student Association at my host university. I drew a picture in my mind that Mid-Autumn Festival and Lunar New Year would be the perfect timing for Ao dai. However, the reality hit me that the long dress would be a great inconvenience as I worked for the logistics team, always running here and there to get things done.
Then the sunk cost fallacy led me to believe that I needed to wear my Ao dai at all costs because I spent a fortune on it. So when faculty prom came, I decided to dress up and parade my peachy Ao dai even though the given dress code for ladies was red.
It turned out that I hit the wrong note. Ao dai, however spectacular, was out of place among the other modern and elegant dresses at the prom. To top it all off, I became a clumsy dancer trying to avoid stepping on the flaps while others were dancing gracefully. I was actually in the spotlight but in an unflattering way.
To make the long story short, I realized that the chances of me wearing my Ao dai in Australia are close to zero. At the same time, I learned the hard way that Vietnam’s national dress was not the only means for me to show my patriotism. My realization showed me there are other ways to flaunt Vietnamese culture to my international friends.
So, when during the Mid-Autumn Festival that year, I made ten bamboo lanterns as decorations and game prizes. International students were thrilled to visit our Vietnamese booth and even queued up for photos with the lanterns. Some even wondered why we made few lanterns, expressing their willingness to buy some as souvenirs if there were more lanterns for sale. I also taught them Cheraw dance, tug of war, and other Vietnamese folk games on that day.
On another occasion, one of the student clubs that I was in threw a potluck party on the weekend. As the only Vietnamese serving on the executive board, I decided to treat them to the traditional Vietnamese spring rolls. They not only paid me plentiful compliments because of its tasty flavor but also eagerly asked me to teach them how to prepare the dish. Funny, I recall, their spring rolls ended up being too long or too short. I was filled with joy and pride at that very moment.
When I came back to Australia to study for my master’s degree in 2020, I decided to leave the fancy Ao dai at home because it no longer fit me. But most of all, I was already well aware that Ao dai was not the only symbol for Vietnamese women, and definitely not the only thing that would show how proud I am of my heritage.
I now no longer regret the VND3.2 million spent on the tailor-made Ao dai as it is the price for some priceless lessons, including not spending money for FOMO and how to look at the bigger picture.
The lesson I got was I do not need to wear the national costume in a foreign country to prove my patriotism. The handmade lanterns and the spring rolls I made were already enough to express my national pride. And I will always treasure all the compliments I received from my friends and all the memories we shared together, as they mean so much to me.