I don’t normally write a separate reflections post on a country, preferring to weave them into my normal posts, but after Loz’s slightly gloomy verdict on Vietnam, I thought I’d offer a counterpoint.Vietnam is a backpacker’s playground – well-developed, dedicated to tourism, astoundingly cheap, and comparatively very safe (except perhaps from road-traffic accidents). The people are friendly, and the level of hassle and scamming is lower than, say, India or China. It’s easy enough to glide along the surface, taking advantage of the English spoken everywhere and the ubiquity of cheap beer, cheap food, cheap tours, and cheap-yet-very-good accommodation. But I think that we slowly got to see some of the culture of the country underneath, as well as the many parts of it that are stunningly beautiful.
Vietnam is, I think, not so much scarred by war as hardened. In the 20th century, they fought pretty much everybody – the French, the Americans, the Chinese, the Cambodians, each other. There’s an immense and quiet pride in having won against these superpowers and established Vietnamese independence; it’s there in the flags everywhere, the resurgence of the ao dai as national costume, the art that we saw, and the lack of embarrassment that there is in displaying the craters and jagged edges of the conflict. That said, the extent to which the country has regenerated and rebuilt since the end of the civil war and the conflict with the US is phenomenal. Hanoi and, in particular, Saigon, are modern cities with glitter and culture. The trains may be noisy and a little worn, but the transport infrastructure is strong. That said, this is not the West; the police keep a tight rein on crime and disorder, which makes the country very safe for Westerners. It’s not necessarily very safe for Vietnamese people to report a crime, though. It’s still a one-party system with a heavy layer of propaganda.
One of the things I think I began to understand there, on a more visceral level, was how the concept of ‘face’, so important in Asia, manifests. If you lose your temper with a Vietnamese person, you can see them become visibly embarrassed; they have lost ‘face’ and must now find a way to restore the conversation to an even keel. Shouting is not the way to make things happen. Vietnamese is a subtle language, too – each syllable can be inflected six different ways to indicate six potentially different meanings. Although it’s the first country that uses the Roman alphabet we’ve visited since Lithuania, it’s considerably easier to understand Russian than it is to translate Vietnamese.
I like to try and learn something about a country’s history while we’re there, so in Vietnam I downloaded and read Kill Anything That Moves, a study of American atrocities in Vietnam. It argues persuasively that My Lai was not an isolated incident but the way that the US and South Vietnamese forces routinely operated. It’s honestly surprising to me that Vietnam ever re-engaged diplomatic relations with the US, although I would guess that politically, they didn’t have much choice.
I loved Vietnam, honestly. Ho Chi Minh city was a writeoff for me personally, and I never did get to do that vegetarian street-food tour, but I loved Hanoi’s crazy mix of old and modern, I loved the beauty of Cat Ba and the striking landscape of the karsts, I loved the remainders of the thousand-year-old empires at Hué and Hoi An, I loved the tailoring and the crafts, I loved the coast of Mui Ne even if the resort itself would have been prettier if a little less developed. I got wet occasionally, but I’m Northern Irish. I’m made of Gore-tex.
I really do object to cockroaches in my hotel room, though.