Venturing south of the border after having lived in China for years, I half expected Vietnam to be a less-developed version of the same thing. Boy was I wrong! I was blown away by the difference between Vietnam and China in so many aspects, but particularly the culture and spirit of its people.
OK, OK, so I admit, I am biased. I fell in love with a Vietnamese girl and am even more in love with her about a year and a half after our wedding (that’s her to the far left in the photo above). But I don’t think that really affects my feeling about the nation she comes from. Although I did have some negative experiences (what country can claim to be perfect?), the deepest impressions my time in Vietnam left me with were the warmth of the people and an overall openness which is quite surprising considering their last couple of hundred years’ history.
Most of the time I spent in Vietnam was in the southern town of Binh Long (my wife’s hometown), about two and a half hours’ drive from Hochiminh City and a stone’s throw from the Cambodian border. The town has a population of about 25,000 and serves as a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of Guangzhou – my regular base.
On my visits, I frequently take walks around the town, and often into the surrounding countryside. The one thing I am impressed with every time is the warmth of the people I meet along the way. Now, my Vietnamese language skills are virtually non-existent, so communication is usually quite limited and mostly comprised of gestures and body language, but I have always thoroughly enjoyed any interactions with locals I’ve had on any of my walks. Compared to people in China, I find the Vietnamese to be less suspicious and more welcoming toward strangers. It’s refreshing to hear strangers calling out “Hello!” with a purely excited and friendly tone, rather than the sarcasting note it often carries in China. Not only that, but I find the incidence of sudden price increases as soon as an outsider comes along to be far lower than in the Middle Kingdom. It really is the sweet escape I need from time to time as my years here in China drag by.
A nice surprise was the discovery of a village full of one of Vietnam’s ethnic minority tribes. The residents are instantly distinguishable from other Vietnamese in the town thanks to their considerably darker complexion.
My visits to that village were bittersweet, as on my first visit I was confronted by a reality that broke my heart. As I was taking photos, I was approached by a young girl, most likely around 15 or 16 years old. She tried to speak with me in Vietnamese about something. When words failed, she used body language to show me what she wanted to offer, and it was quickly apparent what that was – sexual services. I was shocked both by the fact that she was doing this at her age and also by the fact that she stood in the middle of the village with the crowd that had gathered to see the alien visitor looking on and openly talked about these things, even asking onlookers how to say various types of “services” to me when I didn’t understand. As I continued walking, it became apparent that prostitution is likely a large source of income in these villages. For every three homes I walked past, one or two had numerous girls sitting in the doorway inviting me in. I later found out that residents of such villages are often involved in various forms of criminal activity, and I may not have been entirely safe walking through alone (on my second trip I took a friend). I’m still not entirely sure how true these claims are, but it is clear that access to education is lacking for these citizens, and prejudice may limit opportunities for ethnic minority groups when it comes to employment. I hope to gain a more informed understanding of their situation after I move to Vietnam about a year from now.
Perhaps some of the best experiences I had in Vietnam were times I spent with my wife’s family during Tet – the Vietnamese lunar new year celebrations. Coming from a tiny family, it’s always quite overwhelming spending time with a family so large that few people actually know who everybody is, but I quickly found some favourites…
There’s no denying one of the big differences between China and Vietnam is the food. Vietnamese food is fresh and light, and the flavours are so much more complex than in Chinese cuisine. There is a wider range of ingredients – Viet food is a veritable cornucopia of herbs, spices, exotic fruits, flavoursome meat… combined with such finesse and balance that it makes your taste buds feel like a blind man receiving sight for the first time in his life. And all this without the food safety concerns that plague people in China. During Tet I overloaded on the stuff, and I can’t wait to get back again to have some more!
At this point, I realise I have too much to share about Vietnam for just one blog post. I haven’t even begun to talk about the cities – Hochiminh City or Hanoi – or my trip to the coastal town of Vung Tau, or Cuchi (my father in-law’s hometown) and the famous tunnels built there during the Vietnam war. It seems this will have to be part 1 in a series of posts about Vietnam.
I’d love to hear your feedback, or any experiences if you’ve spent time in Vietnam or are Vietnamese yourself. Or maybe there’s something you’d like to hear about in future posts – just leave a comment and I’ll see what I can do. Cheers!