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.