Visiting Vietnam with my pals on a twenty-day Vermont Bike Tour was absolutely thrilling. Our journey began in Bangkok and ended in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The trip was a rich cultural survey of Southeast Asia with some 'rice paper flat' biking in weather that was 'hot, hotter, and damn hot' (clocking in at 93 degrees, with humidity to match!) We traveled with a fascinating group of twenty globetrotters, who gelled like long-lost friends, and made for a fun and enriching trip. I love VBT and recommend them highly; check out the VBT site for full itinerary details. My food experiences in Vietnam (‘NomNomNom') is a separate delicious post in the KitchenSpirit section.
If Vietnam is on your travel list, I suggest you move it to the top. The extraordinary people and dynamic energy steeped in a rich culture creates a unique experience for the Western traveler. My desire is to share what I learned and loved about the Vietnamese people and their intriguing universe. I am writing generally–the intention is to share only what I actually witnessed to avoid stereotype or any disrespect.
‘The aspirational energy rises and flows like a cultural consciousness.’
Each Vietnamese person I met exuded a special level of happy energy that emanated from deep, kind eyes and a sweet demeanor. They were unfailingly polite and gracious to me. I learned that the secret to happiness is the practice of compassion. If compassion is not present in one's heart, there will be no place for joy. Happiness comes from being mindful of the simple acts in everyday life. Their beloved land, sea, and ancestors–complete with spirits and ghosts–combine to create the supernatural 'Buddha energy' that fuels this culture of lovely and enthusiastic people. These ancient elements are integral to each living soul. Life is precious and demanding; the will to strive, not simply survive, is palpable and permeates every contemplation, conversation, and transaction. The Vietnamese people I met were so intelligent and industrious and ingenious; despite living under an indifferent government, the desire to achieve runs through people like a fever.
I witnessed the Vietnamese as resourceful and creative. The aspirational energy rises and flows like a cultural consciousness. I could feel the intention of getting to the business of life in every moment and everywhere I looked: from a modest butcher shop set up on a busy sidewalk, to moving large trees on the back of a Vespa, to crafting a pair of eyeglasses in less than twenty-four hours at a fraction of American prices. They get the job done at warp speed in a beautifully choreographed chaos of city energy: millions of Vespa- packed people flowing together like a school of fish swimming with innate radar intelligence and exhilarating efficiency.
‘The Vietnamese care deeply about their reputations and integrity…’
Despite their intensity, kindness flows from the skin, hearts, and soulful eyes of the Vietnamese. They are never too busy to wave 'Hello' or to help in any possible way. The fluidity of simple acts, like setting down a fork, or processing a credit card, was always graciously slow, and always calming. I called it 'Tai Chi hands'–the effect was a Zen energy I could feel amid the mayhem of 95 million people living in a country the size of New Mexico.
The Vietnamese demeanor stems from a deep cultural pride and the desire to never, ever lose face. It is paramount that one not embarrass or diminish someone else. Being non-confrontational is a choice—outbursts and fighting cause both parties to lose face and is avoided at all costs. (Some specific examples for visitors are tipping: be very subtle about it; coffee service in the morning: don't bark at people for it; and, over-bartering: yes, you can negotiate, but only to a respectful point.) The Vietnamese care deeply about their reputations and integrity–how friends, colleagues, and family perceive them drives every decision.
‘As prosperity rises in Vietnam, so do the problems a Western lifestyle brings…’
Appearances are so essential to reputation that they even polish their rice, at the expense of nutritional value, because it will look nicer on the platter. White skin is revered as high class, and women regularly wear surgical masks and sun protection between visits to the whitening clinics that abound. Vietnam is the land of textiles, and women were immaculately dressed regardless of economic status.
Even the most modest of homes are rigorously tended and relatively clean. Sanitation is respected despite an inconsistent supply of modern plumbing. VBT planned well for WC stops—our 'Happy House' experiences ranged from -2 to 10 on any given day. Ahead of many developing nations, Vietnam is a bit more environmentally progressive as evidenced by less litter and open burning, and more recycling options. Water, septic, and vehicle emission issues still require strategic attention.
Relentlessly optimistic, the Vietnamese pay for their children's education, including extra classes, tutors, and English lessons on salaries that range from $148-$400/month, with 10% going to taxes. They have a deep desire to excel–this is a universal family mandate. Healthcare is also out of pocket. There are no social policies in place to inspire or support society; families simply make do helping each other. Despite their discreet nature, people are very curious and candid about how much money you make, and feel free to ask outright. This is seen more as a sign of concern that things are okay with you, versus rude competitiveness, but nevertheless, it's an appearance marker–as is academic achievement and job status.
As prosperity rises in Vietnam, so do the problems a Western lifestyle brings: more animal protein consumption and related health consequences; more screen/sit time and loss of physical activity and play; dispensing of the simple traditional ways: ancient healing modalities, herbal gardening, sleeping on mats, and family lore. Our guide lamented that at age forty-two he has a totally different body type than the generation before him, and is not as healthy as he should be due to these factors. He feels like he is from the 'generation in transition' and that Vietnam will be forever changed.
I kept noticing a fierce, super-natural energy flowing from many of the women at work. The performers at the Water Puppet Theatre, the tailor, the cooking class chef, the nightclub singer–they all exuded a cool kind of 'bad-ass-mama-bear-on-steroids' energy that let me know who is really in charge of Vietnam. I loved it. The amazing Vietnamese Women’s Museum in Hanoi chronicles and celebrates the history of this palpable warrior feminism. Elders are revered in Vietnamese culture and age is the third thing they want to know after your name and where you are from. Confucian roots honor this bounty of wisdom and experience, and it is considered most polite to ask older folks their age. Adult children translate for the elder parent and this exchange always brought smiles of delight to everyone participating. I sure wish we could import this kind of wholehearted reverence for elders into our American culture.
I was curious about our guide's social media access and how he gets news. He said that because he can afford the premium $8/month subscription he can read any newspaper in the world and connect to the web without much censorship. The majority of Vietnamese have limited access and the government keeps a lid on things internet-wise by threatening convictions for any 'inappropriate' web browsing history. You can be sent to jail for anything they deem problematic. I'm now so curious as to how the internet has disrupted the geopolitical stability in regions like Southeast Asia, that I'm book hunting.
The Vietnamese believe in karma and take pride in their tolerance for suffering. This belief system proves very convenient for an exploitive government: the state plans and controls the economy with sixteen top 'fat cats' reaping the wealth. It's just astonishing to me how entrepreneurial this culture is despite the corrupt and apathetic leadership. What takes weeks in the US–eyeglasses, custom black pearls, and bespoke clothing in various cuts and textiles, were in hand within 24-hours. The Vietnamese Dong is a curiously crazy currency to manage: $10 is 232,000 VND. We figured knocking off the last four digits of any price and dividing by two got us a ‘near number’ to roughly calculate with. The huge open markets in each town sell everything in VND, including cheap but cool clothing (elephant pants, shirts, and sundresses are $3-8 so don't pack too much!) Beer and sodas are a buck, a sensational multi-course dinner for two, $14, and massage at five-star spas run $40-55 for 90 minutes. While the Vietnamese are always hustling, they never tried to hustle or harass me. They were always very dignified and businesslike–except first thing in the morning, that is. Because competition is fierce and the stalls crowded, even among kin, it is absolutely vital for a proprietor to get an early fast sale or bad karma ruins their business for the day. So, if you are brave enough to shop early–and I must say, it's kind of a terrifyingly fun experience–know that you will be buying something no matter what–or deal with the desperate jinx of the ghosts.
One of the reasons I wanted to visit Vietnam was to learn more about the US involvement in the Vietnam War. As a child, I grew up terrified of television images of the Viet Cong, the bombings, and campus protests. I found the Vietnamese to be fiercely nationalist and protective of their war history. Visitors must remember to be especially sensitive when referring to their history of war and colonialism. The thing I just could not get over was how gracious the Vietnamese are to Americans about our involvement in their civil war. In the wake of their genuine acceptance I literally felt the need to apologize wherever we went, and I did, whenever appropriate. Others in my group experienced the same phenomena. Our hosts would simply smile and say 'it's OK'. Each time was a humbling experience. They genuinely feel this way–a soulful embodiment of compassionate forgiveness. I am unwilling to accept that one nation's sovereignty justifies anything anymore. Simply put: War is hell. We visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, some memorials, and The War Remnants Museum in Saigon. This museum is a staggeringly frank indictment of the US invasion and the damage wrought. Particularly harrowing was the Agent Orange room where the destruction of biochemical warfare was graphically documented. From 1961-1971 the US saturated 4.5 million acres of land with Agent Orange leaving behind today's vast wastelands of 'American grass.' To this day, the devastating consequences of this bioterrorism program are still being measured in people's bloodstreams and soil content. As a human being, and a defender of the environment, this breaks my heart and blows my mind.
There is so much more to say, but I will stop here; suffice it to say that travel matters. Getting out of our comfort zone to experience life from a new point of view matters. Connecting with human beings from new cultures matters. Being a global citizen matters. Having soulful exchanges with other people matters. Being curious and open-minded matters. Understanding how we are different, and even more so, how we are alike matters. With xenophobia on a massively contagious rise worldwide, it's even more vital that we keep our hearts and minds open to the beauty and uniqueness of every culture and the human spirits that embody it.
I’d love to hear from you—feel free to send your comments to me.