Vietnam provokes strong reactions. Either you love it or you hate it.
I’ve found endless travel blogs dedicated to scams perpetrated on the back packing foreigners.
In stark contrast, I’ve found writers praising the grace and virtue of the Vietnamese. Were reports from travellers on pre-packaged tours or in the luxury hotels shielded from the harsher, squeamish realities of the mean streets? Maybe not. Some on the backpacker trail have embraced the colourful chaos and looked into the face of touts, clamoring for tourist dollars and not separated by an inch from your face, with great humour and goodwill.
My three-month trip had begun in the Eastern Europe and I was in Vietnam to check out both travel and teaching opportunities. I told my friends in the Yukon I was also going to start a U2 cover band in Hanoi, which did not come to fruition. I wanted to see what life was like on the backpacker trail I had known many moons ago in Thailand and Nepal.
I had a keen sense of the currency and was not shaken at having to pay an extra 10,000 Vietnamese ??ng to get on a bus to a beach town, knowing I had just been worked over for what equated to 50 cents. The bigger challenge for this thin white duke was personal space… no space to put my foot down while being assailed by quick-moving men selling motorbike rides and drugs, fast-moving buses, grannies with kids in tow, cyclists, and numerous humans competing for attention and money. Overwhelmed personally, I watched many foreigners pass through the mesmerizing maelstrom as calm as the Buddha himself.
“Do not make eye contact,” one local friend instructed me on running the gauntlet.
I didn’t realize the premium I place on personal space and how my sanity depends upon it.
A Canadian friend who married into a Vietnamese family offered this: the Vietnamese assume if a person is alone there is something wrong and they worry. If he is up in the toilet too long someone will open up the door and check on him… sit and chat with him with, full monty on display, about the days’ events until he is finished his business and ready to rejoin the group. Although anecdotal (and perhaps exaggerated) the story underscored the closeness of the clan—a core aspect of Confucian philosophy.
While I had left the Yukon for a dose of anonymity, the price was too high to stay and live in Saigon. Being hounded so many times per square foot, I wondered if this is what it was like for some of my female friends in dance bars and how much more intense it would be in Bombay or Calcutta. I had worked out a travel style that served me well in Istanbul and Bangkok, but it didn’t in Ho Chi Minh City (now the official name for Saigon). I found myself patronizing the restaurants, shops, or bars where there was not someone howling at me for my business.
I wanted to tell my Vietnamese friends about this boomerang effect. What is the Google translation for: “I will pay double if I can sit in the corner sipping on a beer without someone trying to sell me something putting a fan on me or approaching after every small amount of eye contact?”
When feeling calm, I chatted with the men yelling at me, wanting me to hire them for motorbike rides. I wanted to understand their world. I ended our jovial cross-cultural explorations when they broke out a series of photos of nubile young women on offer. I moved on. Similarly, the women patrolling Pham Gnu Lam (a variation on the Ko Shan Road for those more familiar with Bangkok) selling cigarettes and incense quickly switched over to selling pot when you waved them off. I wasn’t interested in the Vietnamese version of BC bud, nor jail, so again I moved on. I found the place where you are corralled tightly onto small plastic seats and offered Saigon beer for 10,000 ??ng (again, that’s 50 cents) a bottle. Here, I met happy-go-lucky backpackers from the so-called developed world. I formed close friendships with American liberals (with whom I’ve always had a fascination), was groped by women of the night, and compared notes of travelling in Southeast Asia with a British sanitation engineer working in Burma, a tattoo artist from Australia and was given directions to the pharmacy where I could purchase Imodium to quell the hurricane in my intestines—a result of my enjoyment of the local street meat.
I stayed in budget guesthouses where two or three generations of Vietnamese live and seem to feel no need for elbow room. They sang and ate and appeared to argue in close quarters (however, as I soon learned. what sounds like a harsh tone to the western ear in almost every case is not).
I read that in Vietnam, it is a sign of an uneducated person to raise your voice. To demonstrate anger is to show your weakness and low caste, and embarrasses both parties.
Yet this doesn’t square with what you hear in the back packer district.
In general, locals laugh at you if you dismiss them harshly and yell back.
The Culture Shock! guide to Vietnam states, ‘[t]he Vietnamese firmly believe they are the best. The Chinese summarize this in a saying: ‘Vietnam is nobody’s lapdog.'”
It goes on: “They have spent thousands of years struggling for freedom and peace and are finally being rewarded. The Vietnamese take great pride in knowing they have defeated the Chinese, French, Japanese and finally, the United States and its allies.”
I did sense the pride and resilience of the early rising, no-nonsense locals. They approached the fast pace of life in Saigon with a tremendous confidence although with a conservative Confucian value system as backdrop. Even on backpacker’s row.