So far you’ve heard about my ride on a train, our trip to the hospital, and a snake-eating experience. These are great stories and all, but I thought you might like some insight into my thoughts about Vietnam. If I’m wrong, then stop while you’re ahead!
When Becky and I were looking for somewhere to travel over the summer, many destinations came up. We talked about Malaysia, South Korea, China, and many more. South Korea is actually near the top of my list for countries to visit in Asia, so needless to say, I was pushing hard for that one. In the end, Vietnam won out because the flights were the cheapest and we knew that while in ‘Nam, things would be even cheaper. When Becky said you can get beer for 80yen ($1) I was instantly sold. Grab your aviators, we’re going to Vietnam, baby.
Before arriving in Vietnam, we did little to no planning. Actually, with a 2am arrival time, we probably should have booked at least the first night’s hostel. Luckily, there was room for us on backpacker road in District 1, Saigon.
The first day was spent experiencing a serious case of culture shock. Vietnam was the first country I’d ever been in where I couldn’t understand any of the language. Along side feeling utterly lost in translation, Ho Chi Mihn is a loud and dirty city. Most travel by motorbike, making it unbelievably noisy city and polluted. It’s divided into districts, each specializing in certain goods (remind you of Hunger Games?). I calculated that we walked a whopping 18km on our first day there. Why? We got incredibly lost. It’s laid out similarly to Washindton D.C., which was designed by the French to confuse the British. Therefore, it confuses everyone. After wandering 3 full districts away from where we were staying, it wasn’t looking good.
Then out of no where, the most adorable Vietnamese college student appears and offers to walk us back to our district. Her name is Tran, and she’ll actually get her own blog post here soon. As she walked us back, we chatted about Vietnamese culture and things to see and do. But more on that later.
We traveled most of Vietnam by overnight train and bus. It’s a long country and we packed the entire length of it into 10 days. To give you an idea, traveling from south to north by train takes no less than 40 hours. Definitely the most tiring vacation I’ve ever been on.
To give some backstory, Vietnam has a long, sad history of being fought over. It’s right in the cross-fire of Eastern Asia and Europe’s eastward power hunt. Vietnam’s past is a bloody and battle-filled one. This is apparent as you wander the cities. Saigon still looks like it’s recovering from the Vietnamese war, and the stretches between the two major cities (Hanoi and HCMC) are desolate and poverty ridden. As we traveled, I would often sit and watch the world outside whizz by.
Vietnam reminded me a lot of Mexico, with shanty homes peeking out of the forest, dilapidated buildings in ill-repair, and clear gathering areas in each town. Coming straight from Tokyo, one of the worlds cleanest and safest cities, Vietnam was pretty jarring. That said, once I got used to it, I loved it. I always describe HCMC as a city with a “heartbeat.” One of my fellow travelers found this funny, but it’s true. All the commotion and life in each city was unlike any city I’d been to before. Down in the south, there is a blatant disregard for the laws, whereas in Hanoi, the Communist government has a clear grip on the city, with red flags and police officers looking like they are willing to enforce if needed. In Saigon, the cops could often be found sitting around roadside stands enjoying spring rolls with everyday citizens.
The long, sad history of Vietnam is not only told through books, but also through the architecture of the cities. Some places have a clear French style, while others have stunning Khmer and Cham influences from neighboring countries and past rulers. However, the disregard for these pieces of history is clear, and most are in disrepair. My Son, Cham ruins from the 4th Century, is riddled with bullet holes from centuries of warring in the midlands of ‘Nam.
Something else I didn’t realize until arriving is what a staple coffee is for Vietnam’s economy. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a coffee shop, and it’s always about $1.25 for the best coffee in house. Next time you are at a coffee shop, check for Vietnamese coffee and give a try. They rival South America in coffee production and are hoping to surpass them in the coming years.
Finally, and something I feel strongly about, is the attitudes of the Vietnamese. I was expecting much more hostility from them. Why? Well, think about it. Outsiders have caused nothing but trouble in ‘Nam. However, they were nothing if not warm and friendly (most of the time). The Vietnamese are incredibly social. I noticed that they always approach each other and chat as though they’re close friends, even if they’ve never met. Most cities had what appeared to be giant mess-halls where family and friends would gather in the evenings to socialize over food and beer. Even in the major cities, the street vendors had those tiny kids chairs where grown adults would sit around enjoying some pho and a beer together after work.
In a 180 from Japan, the Vietnamese were never afraid to tell you how they really felt, and offer to help if you needed it. It’s a close knit community, held together by laughter and late night beers. Most houses leave their front doors open in the evenings, often unoccupied as the owners gather with the rest of the town in the community halls. Anyone can join (yea, even us) and share a few smiles over the days events.
Vietnam was nothing like I expected it to be. Nothing. But, I loved it. It was incredibly dirty, loud, and the people could be incredibly rude. That aside, it was equally lovely and embracing for being such a war ridden country. Amidst all the damage and destruction, there is a country that is slowly rising from the metaphoric ashes and becoming a major global economic player. It’s not a country to be trifled with, but undoubtedly worth paying a visit to.