Why I Love Vietnam

During the Tet holiday, Ho Chi Minh City, 2005.

The last time I was in Vietnam, a strange thing happened. I was walking down a typical alleyway between two buildings near the center of Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon. There was a small vegetable market spread on one side, and a few fold-up tables that constituted another side. Some teenagers sat on parked mopeds, and off to the side a guy squatted on the ground, welding a piece of metal, sparks flying at his unprotected face.

Then, out of nowhere, a girl—maybe 18 years old—ran up to me, grabbed my right nipple through my shirt, and twisted it. Then she grinned and jogged off, looking back at me as she did so. It didn’t hurt, but man, that was weird. Except that it wasn’t weird at all. And it wasn’t sexual—she wasn’t a hooker. She just… thought it was funny. And it was. From a certain point of view.

When I tell people this story, a lot of them don’t get it. If they’ve been to Vietnam, they see it as further evidence of how difficult it is to do something that should be simple, like walking down the sidewalk, crossing the street, buying fruit, or taking a taxi. Those people will freely admit they don’t much like Vietnam. Who would, with such constant hassles?

To me, however, the nipple-twister is exactly why I love the place. The people there are outgoing and exuberant, not only fascinated by foreigners but unafraid to confront them. And they are original—where else can you get your nipples playfully twisted by a stranger as merely the prelude to a increasingly strange day?

Yes, there is hassle, but key to managing it is understanding that it is a game. Now, the game may be called “How Badly Can We Rip Off the Foreigner?” But it is still a game that you can play. You might not win—actually, you can’t win, but that doesn’t mean you can’t mitigate your losses. It helps, of course, to be able to speak some Vietnamese, so that when your taxi driver or the dragonfruit vendor quotes an outrageous figure you can squeal with derision, “Oh my God!” And from there you begin the bargaining/arguing procedure.

Now, look. If you want your travel experiences to be seamlessly pleasant, then Vietnam may not be for you, unless you are very rich. But me, I like travel to be challenging. Not difficult, exactly, but the kind of thing that tests me, tests my language abilities, my wits, my patience—all the assorted skills I’ve accumulated over the years. And Vietnam does this every second of every day, from the moment I step out the door in search of coffee or pho. And it rewards persistence and creative thinking.

Once, I remember, I stepped into a taxi and asked the driver to bring me to the best pho in the city. There began a long conversation about where and when and how to find such a thing. It was early afternoon—not prime pho-finding time—and the best places, in the cabbie’s opinion, lay on the wrong side of town. But the enthusiasm with which he matched my own was wonderful, and prompted me to declare, in shaky Vietnamese, “Ai co thich an pho, day la ban toi.” (Roughly, “he who likes pho is a friend of mine.”)

But it wasn’t just the fact of his enthusiasm—it was the purity of his spirit. There was, at least as far as I could tell, nothing but enthusiasm there, no irony or condescension or even game-playing. For 15 minutes in cross-town traffic, it was just two guys talking (through a minor language barrier) about their love of noodles. And implied by that, I think, was a love of the country that made them.

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3 responses to “Why I Love Vietnam

  1. I have little use for travel experiences that don’t require some challenge. It’s when you are reduced to your mere essence, trying to communicate in whatever way you can, that you learn the most from traveling. Even if you’re only trying to find a beach to plop down on.

  2. I went and stayed on Hochimi city! for 1 day n 1 night!… and I was surprised about the traffic which does not have rules at all and shops everywhere as motorbikes too. Every single person has a motorbike there… at Night we went on clubbing with my vietnamisse friends, 4 hots girls!.. Such a funny night … They almost all end up drunk.. The bar was OK, cool music and expensive (in vietnam) drinks. To be honest if u bother urself converting money in ur head when u having fun!.. It’s almost the same price for drinks in Vietnam than here in Australia. But Who cares for 1 night!… Let’s drink them all… Later when my friend went home .. I went by myself to my hotel. As it was described before, taxi drivers talk funny english but fortunately taxies has meters. What was not in my mind is that Vietnam has thousands of Dons… in different bills and I got confused and I end up giving Australian dollars to the drivers,.. that was funny for the driver n for me as well. Walking after get off from the taxi, and right before I got into my motel, a nice girl in jeans and helmet on her motorbike asked me… hey do u want some company? to what I said of course YES… but then after few seconds I realised she was not just a girl in her mbike at 4 am at a motel door, she was a p…tute! but she did not look like .. nway I just walked into my hotel and the lady at receptions desk stopped her… The last words I heard were, just fifty dollars, I’m clean… lol
    Next day we went to some town in sort of the country side.. But, once more traffic is hectic and for someone with heart desease could be letal on highways. Tou I didn’t see any accident, perhaps everyone there got used to the way to drive. or Perhaps because traffic is that hectic that driving at 10 or max 20 per hour it’s not enough for letal accidents. Nway, Vietnam food is delicious, based on vegetables and seafood, I liked it very much!.
    Also, another thing I noticed is that there is not much iconic buildings for taking pics there. Just the market and some signs with Vietnamese writing … Or maybe coz I just stayed 1 day.. Du no!

  3. The traffic does have rules. You just haven’t opened your eyes and ears yet to understand them. WEST is not synonymous with BEST. Taxi meters are easily corrupted so your 20,000VND ride most likely cost you 200,000. But as a westerner it’s still cheap so you agree and pay anyway. The taxi driver is probably still laughing about you to his mates over several beers. The ladyboy on the motorbike should be no drama. She says she’s clean so no need for a condom and don’t stress about leaving doors unlocked and forgetting to put your wallet and fancy watch in the hotel safe (which is not impossible to get into by any stretch).

    When you wake up you’ll probably think it was a dream and you left your belongings in some nightclub you can’t remember the name of. Welcome to Saigon. You’ll fit in with all the rich backpackers getting their bums unknowingly ridden for cash down the backpacker area.

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