Summarizing a country in a blog post is impossible. You can’t know a place until you’ve been there — and you can’t understand it until you’ve stayed much longer than I have. But, after three months in Vietnam, my still ignorant opinion is that this country might be the most unique in Southeast Asia. In Thailand, everything is smiles and cafés. In Malaysia, it’s lounging and eating. It’s fair to say, Vietnam isn’t quite so carefree.
The hustle is immediately apparent in its traffic. A tornado of gas fumes, metal clangs, and piercing honks. I wrote about my initial experience with the motorbike hordes when I first landed. Having since been driven in the stampede, I saw a flow in the apparent madness that wasn’t visible from the sidewalk. Scooters weave around one another. They break to get between the larger sluggish vehicles, then meet again — like the current of water through rapids. Oh, I’ll take Elon Musk driving me down the I5 any day. But, amidst the chaos, it is possible to have a zen experience while crapping your pants.
Another difference: the history — more visible than in other places. You can see the scars of constant invading wars, from the ancient Chinese, to the French colonials, to the American GIs. Don’t worry, I didn’t make the connections myself — everything’s presented with an unwavering political slant. A country united, surviving the assaults of the world’s largest superpowers, through integrity and smarts. It’s hard to decipher the true stories when every museum praises the gift of communism and Ho Chi Minh’s liberation of the Vietnamese people. But the locals are proud of their history, propaganda or not. And maybe us Westerners have the wrong view. After all, who’s to say the Americans weren’t the invading army who lost to native ingenuity? It sure looks that way from here.
But perhaps the biggest surprise is, in spite of the rush of their commute and the wounds of their wars, the Vietnamese are some of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met. Food and drink lead to easy friends. Search for Bun Bo Hue, or Mi Quang, or simple Rice Porridge — not the immediate staples, but my favourites. Grab a local, add a few street-made draft beers, and you’ll get smiles for the night (by far the cheapest place on this trip, buying a round in Vietnam won’t break the bank, either). Then you’ll realize, perhaps paradoxically, that even with the heavy government rhetoric, the locals love foreigners. They want you to enjoy their country and their company. They want you to smile with them. At the end of a night, they’ll even refuse to let you pay for anything.
The secret: do it anyway. Shoulder them out of the way to the cashier if you have to (you probably will). Then they might offer to pay for tomorrow’s morning coffee. Do yourself a favour: accept the coffee. On a continent obsessed with taste, the Vietnamese milk coffees are my most cherished. They’re so good I wrote a whole blog post just about them. I’ve developed an addiction, and it’s one I’m not eager to cure. Usually you’ll get a set of short tables and chairs on an outdoor patio. If you’re lucky, facing a pretty lake. Few experiences in life are so blissful.
And while bliss may not be the best expression of Vietnam as a whole, there isn’t just one word or phrase. It’s more complicated than that. Visibly nuanced. Pock-marked by craters, but still resilient. A country strong, alive, proud, and cheerful. Vietnam, you’re an anomaly from every perspective. I won’t forget you.