I remember clearly that magical, deep connection I first felt with Vietnam. My Vietnam love affair began right from the moment I arrived.
I’d left Australia at the end of a hot, dry summer. As we descended into Hanoi I was charmed by the patchwork of emerald green rice paddies, so soothing after months of parched, crisp brown landscapes back home.
I’d Come Home
I was excited as we touched down. But that was quickly eclipsed by astonishment, as we taxied past a hand operated boom gate just metres from the wing tips! The operator, wearing the iconic cone hat, lounged back on a chair chewing a corn cob. Standing beside bicycles laden with baskets of vegetable, a string of farmers patiently waited for the plane to pass, so they could cross the tarmac and continue home from market.
For the first of many times I was struck by how the people so easily accommodated both each other and all manner of obstacles in their daily life. It seemed in stark contrast to my own city. Had this tolerance been born out of a strong Buddhist tradition or one of pure necessity born of population pressure?
At that time I had no interest in Asia as a whole, and Vietnam even less. So I arrived with no expectations other than to attend a brother’s wedding. To discover such a deep connection with this overlooked place caught me completely unprepared. But as we drove towards the centre of Hanoi I felt myself drop into this strange land so comfortably and completely. I felt I had come home.
Navigating the roads in Asian cities terrifies most westerners. But this was back before cars choked the roads, back when scooters ruled the roads. The tourist trade was in its early days and there were few cars on the road from the airport into the city. With only the odd truck trundling along slowly and a few scooters hugging the edge, the road ahead was clear. And the driver used it all, driving on the wrong side until he actually met an oncoming truck, only to return again once it passed. Weirdly, this made total sense to me – that wide empty road pleaded with the driver to make full use of it.
Far from being terrified like my travelling partner quivering beside me, I loved the flexibility that allowed road rules to be adapted to fit the circumstances.
Thit Chó and Other Challenges
As we drove into Hanoi along the old Dyke Road, my fascination and love for this vibrant and strange land rapidly grew. The road was thick with honking motor scooters and apart from a few taxis we seemed to be the only car.
Row after row of tall narrow buildings, homes four stories high, painted turquoise and yellow, lined the roadside. This was so strange to someone from a wide flat land where civilisation spreads out rather than up. But when you consider the country has 92 million living there, it becomes obvious why the tube houses are so popular, with space at such a premium.
I couldn’t curb my fascination and curiosity. Why are the houses so tall? (Smaller footprint) So old? (They’re not, their paint is just poor quality) What are those barrels on the roof? Why do the bike riders have masks? And many more…
Passing by the string of deserted “thit chó” restaurants our friend explained dog meat is only eaten from the Full Moon until New Moon. I was quite relieved I wouldn’t face this cultural challenge as we had arrived at the wrong time of the moon cycle, and would be gone from Hanoi before the next ‘dog season’.
Crazy. Busy. Hurly-burly. Vibrant. Hanoi
Vietnam today is a vibrant, fascinating country, but Hanoi back then was a different world altogether, a strange mix of an ancient and proud culture and exuberant excitement as the modern world made inroads. Nobody can ever feel ambivalent about Hanoi, in all its insanity you either love it or hate it. But either way, it is certainly a gift to yourself to experience it at least once in your life.
It called to me immediately and every day it drew me in deeper. I had fallen in love with the crazy, busy, hurly-burly, vibrant life of it. I understood how it worked, the city’s life-blood seemed to flow in sync with my own. Rather than invoking fear, tiny alleyways beckoned. The contrast between the crazy madness on the streets and the calm relaxed shopkeepers playing checkers on the shop floor fascinated. Traffic didn’t daunt me and I embraced bartering like a duck to water as I shared jokes with vendors. The city buzzed in tune with my nervous system and its flavours beamed their juicy messages to all my senses.
We were very fortunate to be staying in the home of a friend, lying beside Truc Bac, a small lake right on the edge of the Old Quarter in the centre of the city. The owner was barely home so we virtually had the place, and his magnificent cook, to ourselves.
Sunrise Tai-chi Serenity
Every morning through the front doors I would watch the elders practice tai chi on the small grass patch beside the lake. Meanwhile, from a nearby corner a loudspeaker would blast forth a string of Vietnamese for hours, at a volume that couldn’t be ignored. I discovered it was a mix of party propaganda and lifestyle advice, such as “take your children to the dentist”.
In all its full-blooded life it was easy to forget that Vietnam has a communist government. I associated communism with complete austerity and shutdown so was quite surprised to see the vigourous small shoots of capitalism emerging in all quarters.
As the tai chi crew departed the beautiful young “banh mi” girls would stroll past, balancing huge baskets of bread rolls on their heads. Calling out their wares my husband would giggle, as it sounded like “bang me, bang me” to our western ears.
The Real Vietnam Behind The Tourist Trail
It’s easy to fall in love with the excitement and beauty of places so different to our own world. But that initial love often quickly fades as we return to our lives, our own culture and ways. To hold onto that love takes more than a passing experience, one that for all its breadth, simply skims the surface of the culture.
What cemented my deep love for this fascinating place was having insiders who ‘told-it-straight’ there to explain it to me. My brother-in-law had lived in Hanoi for fourteen years and not only did he have an understanding of how the society functioned, he loved sharing the nitty-gritty detail, both the good and bad, of Vietnamese life with me.
He’d arrived when Vietnam first opened its doors to the west and had settled into Hanoi life, never to leave. He had ridden his Minsk bike through areas so remote he was the first white person to visit; had chatted with elderly veterans of the American War; and now was marrying a Hanoi girl.
He explained whatever tweaked my curiosity from the customs, family hierarchy, restrictions and freedoms, through to the plumbing. He warned me of the more subtle scams that had recently appeared. I laughed as he taught me to say “that’s a ridiculous price…are you mad?” in Vietnamese to make bartering more fun.
This was what brought Vietnam alive for me, lifting it far above a great holiday. This deeper understanding of the Vietnam that lies behind the tourist trail cemented my connection with Vietnam and keeps drawing me back, time after time.
Reflections Of Self
Travel is fabulous. We visit these wonderful places, see the sights, try new foods, buy stuff and come home relaxed. But we often miss those deeper insights into life in that other world. The insights that reflect our humanity and similarities back to us and remind us of our fundamental connections to each other. When we experience that recognition we forge strong, deep connections to a place and its people.
To discover the deeper side of any place one needs to either live in it or to connect with those that do have the insights to share. And it’s important this happens while you’re actually there, when it has real meaning, so you can identify personally with what you hear and discover.
There are many other places I love, but Vietnam firmly holds a special piece of my heart. On that first visit I fell deeply in love with Vietnam. It wasn’t until the next visit that I discovered the sadness and hardship that also dwelt in its past.