Why two HMCS Calgary sailors are learning Vietnamese while the ship is deployed to Asia

March 30, 2021 - Defence Stories

Author: Capt Jeff Klassen

Sailor First Class (S1) Richard Vuong and Sailor Second Class (S2) Peter Bui

HMCS Calgary’s Sailor First Class (S1) Richard Vuong and Sailor Second Class (S2) Peter Bui hold up Vietnamese coffee makers on the bridge wing. Both sailors have Vietnamese heritage and they are excited that the ship is going to be visiting Vietnam in March 2021 while on Operation PROJECTION even though they won’t be getting off ship because of COVID-19 precautions.

Photo credit: Corporal Lynette Ai Dang, Image Technician, HMCS Calgary

Two sailors on Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Calgary, both with Vietnamese heritage, have remarkably similar stories and are they excited to be going to the country, even if they won’t be able to step foot on land because of COVID-19.

Marine Technician’s Sailor First Class (S1) Richard Vuong and Sailor Second Class (S2) Peter Bui – who both work in engineering on ship - are natural-born Canadians but were brought up in families that followed traditional Vietnamese customs as they have parents that were born and raised in Vietnam.

One of the main reasons both sailors joined the navy is because they found out Canada frequently sends ships to Asia and these ships often visit Vietnam. They thought these deployments could be an opportunity to connect with their roots. Despite not being able to go ashore in Vietnam on the ship’s current deployment, Operation (Op) PROJECTION, both sailors are still taking the opportunity to study Vietnamese.

As part of their current operation, HMCS Calgary is making a fuel stop in Cam Ranh International Port, Vietnam, in March 2021. Although, because of COVID-19 safety precautions, the crew won’t be able to leave the COVID-free bubble surrounding the ship, they are excited to be going all the same.

S1 Richard Vuong - The sailor with Vietnamese heritage but who’s never been to the country and whose Vietnamese girlfriend is teaching him the language

“I’ve never been to Vietnam before, it’s going to be like coming back home a bit – in a sort of random way,” said S1 Voung, a former infantry reservist who found out the Royal Canadian Navy does annual trips to Asia on Op PROJECTION and wanted to go.

His dad is from Vietnam and he has family in Ho Chi Minh City in the South and Haiphong and Hong Gai, near Ha Long Bay, in the North. He’s never been to these places and it’s his dream to. He started learning Vietnamese so that he could go there, and meet his ancestors. Even though the crew of Calgary won’t be able to go into Vietnam like most years, he’s still studying hard.

In fact, S1 Vuong has a girlfriend from Vietnam that he met because he hired her as a tutor before going on deployment. He originally wanted a tutor with a Northern dialect - she has a Southern one - but they just hit it off. They frequently video call while he is deployed and she helps him with his pronunciation.

“Learning Vietnamese is a project that is long overdue. My dad is getting old, I wanted to go to Vietnam and connect with my family members without the help of my father. I want to stay in touch with my roots,” he said.

Growing up, S1 Vuong ate a lot of Vietnamese food, celebrated Tet holiday and did things like help make make Bánh chưng– a sticky rice with pork and wrapped in banana leaf – and eating Bánh mì sandwiches –Vietnamese baguette-style sandwiches. He also loves Vietnamese coffee “way more” than typical-Canadian coffee, just because of how strong it is.

“I won’t be able to go to a Vietnamese coffee shop on this deployment, but I’m still excited to actually see the country with my own eyes, even if it is just from the ship,” he said.

S2 Peter Bui - The sailor who worked on a small Northern Vietnamese farm and can’t wait to go back

Sailor First Class (S1) Richard Vuong and Sailor Second Class (S2) Peter Bui

(From left) HMCS Calgary’s Sailor First Class Vuong and Sailor Second Class Bui study Vietnamese together on board the ship as it makes its way to Vietnam while on Operation PROJECTION.

Photo credit: HMCS Calgary

Going to Vietnam and connecting with his ancestral roots is what led Sailor Second Class (S2) Peter Bui to join the Royal Canadian Navy in the first place.

“When I found out we were going to Vietnam, even though we can’t get off the jetty, I was really happy. I’m so excited to see my home country again. The whole reason I joined the navy was because I knew Canadian ships often sail to Vietnam and I wanted to go and do that with them,” he said. “Sure we can’t get off the ship but it will be great to go back to a country that is very very close to my heart,” said Bui.

S2 Bui’s parents moved to Canada when he was very young and so for years his knowledge of Vietnamese culture was mostly based on his home-life. As a child, his parents followed a more traditional Vietnamese lifestyle, working a mushroom farm in Abbotsford, British Columbia, and preparing Vietnamese meals at home.

After graduating high school, S2 Bui’s parents sent him on a trip to Doan Lap, a farming area just outside Haiphong, for three months so he could connect with his ancestral roots. It was the first time that he met his grandmother and the rest of his extended family (besides when he was a baby too young to remember).

On that trip, he went from his comfortable and familiar life in Canada to working on a rural Northern Vietnam rice farm in a language he didn’t speak. It was a life-altering experience.

“Everything was so different. I loved the Vietnamese sense of community. People in the same village eat together and look out for each other in a more intimate way than in most Canadian communities” he said. “There is a very communal spirit. People feel free to walk into each other’s homes and eat together. They have tea and coffee together. It’s definitely different than in Canada but some ways it relates as people in Canada do look out for each other, and of course we have coffee together.”

S2 Bui’s Vietnam experience, which happened just over four years ago, made him realize the world was a rich and fantastic place, and he wanted to see more of it, and that’s why he ended up joining the navy.

“I just wanted to see the world, and I especially wanted to go back to Vietnam. It may be under less than ideal circumstances, but it is still amazing. Anyways, the navy is always here so I will have more opportunities,” he said.

S2 Bui is using language learning apps on his phone to practice Vietnamese as HMCS Calgary sails to Vietnam. He may not be able to use his skills, but he says it’s worth it.

“By learning Vietnamese I get to deepen my connection with my ancestral country. It’s just making the deployment so much more memorable,” he said.

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