Can Vietnam’s YouTube grandmother bridge one of the world’s greatest generation gaps?
The older generation is defined by war and hunger, the younger by peace and economic growth. This is the story of how one Vietnamese grandmother tapped a cooking pot and YouTube to bring a country together
XUAN HUONG, Vietnam — Nguyen Van Hung knew there would be an audience.
The 27-year-old Vietnamese YouTuber had welcomed his mother, Nguyen Thi Tan, as a guest on his channel, where he played pranks and told jokes to a few thousands followers. “When she was on, people would always ask me about her,” he said. “She was quite popular.”
Tan didn’t quite understand the extent of YouTube’s reach, but the lifelong farmer and construction worker enjoyed it when people would recognize her from the video when she went to the market, in the commune of a few hundred residents on the northwest outskirts of Hanoi, where she has lived her entire life. So when Van Hung asked his 51-year-old mother if she’d like to start her own channel, she quickly accepted.
“I am very small, as you can see,” said Tan, who stands about 4 1/2 feet tall, “so we decided I would make very big food.”
In her first video, uploaded in May, she grilled 100 barbecue chicken legs over a makeshift cinderblock grill, plated the saucy meat on a tray covered in lettuce leaves, and shared the meal with her son’s friends.
It was, the mother and son agreed, a very fine video. But neither of them was prepared for what happened next.
Within weeks of launching the channel, Ba Tan — “ba” means “grandmother” in Vietnamese — had surpassed her son in social media popularity. Adding a video every few days, she made giant panned fried rice, huge spicy noodle soup, and a 15-gallon boba milk tea, among other traditional and not-so-traditional meals. Just two months into the project, Tan had earned “gold button” status, a designation given to those with 1 million followers. It was the fastest any Vietnamese YouTuber had hit that mark. Tan has since surpassed 2.8 million subscribers, making her one of the most watched YouTubers in the nation.
“I am just a farmer,” Tan said, “but now people come from all over the country to see me.”
But Tan is more than just another story of a social media lightning strike. In a nation in which the lived experiences of elders and youth are starkly different — defined almost exclusively by war and hunger for older generations, and peace and economic growth for younger Vietnamese — Tan has unintentionally found herself playing the role of bridge-builder, pioneering a new way to close one of the world’s greatest generation gaps.
War and peace and profit
One of Tan’s earliest memories is of the day her brother took her to see the bones of a neighbor, who had been killed in an American airstrike, in a field near their village, about 40 miles northeast of Hanoi. “I was born in the middle of the American War,” she explained, “so many of the things I remember from that time were experiences like that.”
The United States military withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, but fighting between the north and south continued for two more years before Saigon fell in 1975. At that point, Vietnam had been at war for 30 years, but peace was not at hand. Wars with China and Cambodia, as well as numerous border clashes and rebel insurgencies, continued through 1990. For six decades, at that point, war — and the hardships that go with it — had been a shared experience between generations.
But since the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement, which brought an official end to the war with Cambodia, Vietnam has had relative peace. It has also enjoyed the fruits of an economy that, for more than a quarter century, has been among the fastest-growing in the world.
“Children now have such a full life, such good conditions to live in,” said Nguyen Van Cuong, 60, a retired bus driver from Hanoi who has six grandchildren from ages 4 to 18. As a soldier stationed in the city during the Cambodian war, he said, he was fortunate not to have seen combat, but there was not a day that went by that he didn’t worry about how he would eat.
Young Vietnamese, Cuong said, “have lives that are more than 50 times better than mine was.”
He wants to share his stories with his children and grandchildren. He believes his hardships might help them appreciate the blessings of contemporary life in Vietnam. “I would like to talk to my grandchildren about my story, about the war, but they don’t care,” he said. “They have such full lives now. It is hard to talk about difficult things with them.”
Ha Thi Binh agreed. The 53-year-old grandmother of two from Mai Chau, on the outskirts of the Pu Luong Nature Reserve, about 50 miles southwest of Hanoi, said her earliest memories were of hiding underground when U.S. planes would fly overhead. “I was scared to go into the tunnel, but my parents told me that if I didn’t go our whole family could die,” she said. “When I look at kids today, I feel very happy that they don’t have to go through what I went through. But it sometimes makes it hard to talk, because we don’t have similar childhoods at all.”
Ha Thu Thao, a 21-year-old student in Hanoi, believes that young Vietnamese are like young people in many other places — digital natives who have different tastes in clothing and music than their parents, are less likely to be staunchly religious, and are challenging traditional beliefs about marriage and family. But Thao thinks the advent of peace and economic growth — not to mention the capitalist ideology that has prevailed in a nation where, by some estimates, more than a million people have laid down their lives for communism — has made it hard, if not impossible, to connect.
“When my parents were young, there was war,” she said. “The country couldn’t develop like this. It affected their thinking so much.”
While Nguyen Manh Hung avoided the fighting, during the American War, he was not spared the trauma of living under the constant threat of bombings.
Now 70 and living in Hanoi, Manh Hung believes the wars — and the lessons the Vietnamese learned in the aftermath — did indeed affect his thinking, just as Thao suggested.
“Our education after the war was how to be polite, be a good citizen,” he said. “Now, their education is how to make a lot of money, get a good job and make a good life for yourself.”
That is fine for people who keep their values in order, Manh Hung said, but he’s not sure many young people are doing that — especially in bigger cities like Hanoi.
“The younger generation here doesn’t care about me, about what’s going on around them,” he said. “They don’t care about politics or Vietnam. They only care about their own life.”
During a recent day of filming a new episode for her channel, while waiting for a gigantic gelatin fruit salad to set in the middle of her courtyard, just steps away from a pigpen with an enormous hog inside, Tan took a few moments to contemplate her nation’s vast generation gap.
“Maybe we cannot connect by talking about war and poverty,” she said, “but that does not mean there is nothing we can talk to our children and grandchildren about.”
Tan’s living situation has not changed much in the wake of her newfound fame — YouTube pays a relatively low rate for clicks in Vietnam, and Van Hung said the payouts, so far, have just covered expenses. But she has quickly embraced her new role as a social media maven, yelling directions to a small group of eager 20-somethings, including at least one well-tattooed young man who was spending a month living with Tan in what he called “the very best internship.”
Like many people her age Tan has little formal education, having finished school in the sixth grade. Because of this, she said, she has to work harder to keep up with younger people — and she thinks others should, too.
“The older generation is a little behind the times,” she said. “The younger generation is very smart, and we have to try harder and talk to them in their own ways.”
Food, she said, is a great equalizer. “We all love to eat,” she said, before dashing off to trim the banana leaves that would become the setting for the gelatin salad.
The bridge builder
Tan understands why her videos are popular. The clips, each about 15 minutes long and edited by her grandson with light-hearted music, feature very big portions of food served up by a very small lady, “so, it is silly,” she laughs.
What she doesn’t get is why so many Vietnamese people have come to think of her as a hero. “I don’t understand why the younger generation admires me,” she said. “I just act naturally.”
Van Hung believes that authenticity is what makes his mother’s videos stand apart from other content. Sure, he said, a clever concept — and the seemingly anachronistic appearance of a person older than 50 on YouTube — might have helped stoke initial interest, “but people get bored very quick if you are not real,” he said.
Luong Anh Bao can’t imagine ever getting tired of watching Tan’s videos. The grade-schooler, who came with his father to visit Tan on the day she made the gelatin fruit salad, has seen all of the videos multiple times. “The first time I saw Ba Tan’s video, I really liked it,” he said. “I watched it many, many times now. Repeatedly.”
When Bao learned that Tan lived in the same area of Vietnam as his grandparents, he was overjoyed. “I didn’t usually get excited about seeing my grandparents,” he said, “but when I learned they lived near Ba Tan, it made me want to visit them.”
Could they be YouTube stars, too?
“No, I don’t think so,” the boy laughed.
But, he said, he was eager to talk to them about his visit to Tan.
It wouldn’t be the first time, in her short time as a social media celebrity, that Tan inspired the generations to connect. She said she has gotten messages from Vietnamese who have told her a similar story.
“They say that when they see my videos, especially for the young people who work abroad, they remember their parents and they remember their grandparents,” she said. “Their parents and grandparents worked as farmers, like me.”
Ha Thi Viet Ha, a 44-year-old pharmacist, believes that Tan taps into a desire that is shared between generations. “The thinking between generations is so different,” she said. “There has been so much social development. We used to have more simple thoughts. Now, every thought is complicated.”
But Tan’s videos, filmed on a single GoPro camera, are quite simple. In her segments, she doesn’t speak about the past or lament the future, and Tan said she isn’t likely to do so any time soon.
“She’s good because she talks to the old and young,” Ha said. “In my family, we watch her together.”
Nguyen Minh Chau, a 16-year-old high school student in Hanoi, said she thinks Tan is funny. She also admires her strength. “Although she is older and very small, she is strong enough to lift a big pan or pot of food,” Chau said. “She is good and inspiring.”
Chau said her grandparents call her “all the time” to ask her to visit. “But I don’t have very much time because I am always studying,” she said.
Have Tan’s videos made her more likely to accept their invitation in the future?
“I am still very busy,” Chau said. “But maybe I can spend more time with them on the phone.”
Enjoy your meal
Visitors to Tan’s home are warmly welcomed, and then put to work. Mixing rice. Slicing mangoes. Stirring soup.
And, on one recent morning, flipping a gelatin mold that had been made in a plastic tub that was the size of a truck tire. Given the 100 degree temperature on that day, there was some concern that it hadn’t set, and Tan’s helpers told her she should wait longer before turning it over.
She was firm, though. It was ready, she told them. And when the tub was flipped, and she was proven right, the crew erupted into cheers.
Now the meal was ready, and Tan’s helpers and guests sat on a bamboo mat as she sliced into it and served wobbly helping after wobbly helping to each of them.
“You have to eat more,” she told them as the camera rolled, “so that we can get the right shot.”
There are almost always leftovers, though, and Tan’s first trip after filming was about 30 yards down the road from her home, where an older man lives in a ramshackle hut. A few pleasantries later, and she was back to her courtyard, consulting with her son about the next video they would make.
The two agree that “little lady makes big food” will eventually run its course.
“We have an idea for what comes next,” Tan said, “but it is a secret.”
Pressed for a clue, she pretended to relent.
“All right, all right,” she laughed. “I will make very small food.”
Whatever she does, Van Hung said, his mother intends to just be herself. “If you’re not real, people know right away,” he said. “Authenticity is what works. Authenticity is what connects people.”
Matthew D. LaPlante is an associate professor of journalism at Utah State University, where Kat Webb is an undergraduate studying journalistic writing.