If you’ve been in contact with me over the past few weeks, it would come to no surprise that my first impressions of Vietnam were mixed at best. A complete culture shock that can best be described as sensory and emotional overload. It can seem at times that everyone is trying to either screw you or kill you via motorbike. The Visa process was both long and stressful, my taxi driver to Old Quarter Hanoi went 4k out of his way to increase his meter by $5 and waste 45 minutes of my time, and an old lady tried to scam me into buying donut holes for 10x what a local would consider a reasonable starting point.
But your sensory sways to all spectrums of sentiment. Ride on the back of a motorbike through any of Vietnam’s cities and you began to understand its controlled chaos. It’s coordinated symphony of stop, go, weave, honk, wave, laugh. 39 million motorbikes all driving inches from a sure pileup of sheetmetal and flesh. And though you’ll swear you cheated death at least 10 times through 1km stretch of city, it never happens. There is nothing like it.
And what fuels all of this madness are the millions of side street vendors boiling, grilling and baking some of the best food in the world. I will never forget entering Hanoi. Imagine your favorite Vietnamese restaurant and wafting a hand full of Pho goodness to your noise. Now imagine a city of one million caldrons boiling the best Pho broth on the sidewalks 24 hours a day. The city is one giant kitchen. Now leave the city and venture five minutes into the country side. This country is one giant, perfectly curated, herb garden. Cilantro, basil, mint, lemongrass… one wiff after another as you zoom past endless gardens. Combine these two worlds together and you experience smell and taste I never thought possible.
Cái khó ló cái khôn
“Adversity is the mother of wisdom”
The Vietnamese have every reason to want to close of their borders from the outside world. The country has now only experienced 29 years of independence without war, preceded by thousands of years of occupation, invasion and most recently currency inflation from embargo. What I expected to be negative sentiment towards a US traveler (and all western travelers) could not be more wrong of an assumption. Yes, this country seeks Dollars and Euros for economic stability fueling a more open world policy, but thats just the instrument to allow foreigners to visit the country. The people of Vietnam are incredibly open and sharing in their culture and wisdom. And man, they have some stories. I would be a gross injustice to share these with you myself. You can not hear it second hand or from a text book… you need to visit to get the full effect.
Walk through any street in Vietnam and you’ll soon notice all the open doors. Small glimpses into every day life without having to step inside a home (though I would highly recommend that you do, with permission of course). Smiles, laughs, waves. And the occasional “Where you from?” coming out a window. Whatever you do, answer! Guarantee you will not be disappointed.
Do you get haggled, screwed over and constantly ripped off? Yes. But years of occupation and exploitation leads people to in turn exploit the abundance exhibited by new neighbors. It’s a small tax to pay to share a day with the people of Vietnam.