There are some places you visit that you instantly fall in love with, or perhaps by the time you leave you have conflicted emotions. Then there are those places that slowly seduce you and have you missing them before you’ve even left. That is exactly where I found myself during our too brief time in Vietnam.
What is it like in Vietnam today?
Vietnam is composed of 54 different ethnic groups. For much of its earlier history, it was actually 3 separate kingdoms and regions. While it is well known that the French occupied Vietnam for a fair amount of time, China was its most frequent foreign occupier, and its influence on Vietnamese culture is much more obvious. For Americans, most of our information about Vietnam is related to the US’s efforts to keep communism from spreading southward during the almost 20-year war that began in 1955.
The other most common factors my fellow Americans seem to be familiar with are: There are lots of rice paddies, they wear conical hats, and pho is absolutely delicious. Perhaps they’ve also seen photos of the insane motorbike traffic in the former Saigon. (Saigon’s name was officially changed to Ho Chi Minh City after the fall of Saigon; however, people still call it Saigon, and even many of the official signs in HCMC refer to the southern city by its former name.)
While the impressions above are certainly correct, Vietnam is so much more. It is a country with breathtaking scenery with some of the best cuisine I’ve ever tasted. The markets in Saigon are absolutely incredible, with some of them being the cleanest and freshest wet markets I’ve experienced in a large city. When you can stand next to organ meats sitting on blocks of ice and not really notice a foul smell, you’re seeing some of the freshest meat available.
With the exception of the capital city of Hanoi, the Vietnamese are among some of the friendliest I’ve interacted with in Asia. They are very community minded and ready to help each other out.
While some areas and practices may seem more. . . vintage, smartphones are everywhere. Almost all cafes, restaurants, bars, etc., have free WiFi that has decent speeds.
It is perfectly normal to see a person carrying a large refrigerator or a pane of glass on their scooter. Speaking of scooters, Vietnam is one of the most chaotic when it comes to driving. Or crossing the street. And they love their horns. You honk to let people know you’re coming through an intersection, to tell someone to get out of your way, and to inform them you’re about to crush them with your vehicle if they don’t move. I’m pretty sure sometimes the honking is simply just to honk, too.
Some cities, like Saigon, simply defy expectations. This city is an amazing blend of sleek and modern and dull, old Soviet-style buildings occasionally mixed in with beautiful French architecture. Not many cities would offer a French-named popular bar with salsa dancing that is owned by a Japanese man.
Not many towns in the world offer an amusement park on a nearby island complete with a free, multilevel arcade; fantastic water park; lovely aquarium; extremely reasonably priced food; and which can be reached by riding the world’s longest sea-crossing cable car system.
And don’t even get me started on the incredible and very diverse food!
Vietnam is unlike any other country I’ve been to. While part of me wants to keep it a secret, the other part of me wants more people, especially Americans, to come experience its extreme beauty, fantastic people, and absolutely delicious cuisine.
The way things constantly change, and with the government’s apparent interest in attracting more foreign companies, etc., visiting Vietnam today is the best idea. Who knows how quickly some of these great areas will drastically change! Although, part of me believes there is a large section of the country that will always remain somewhat untamed. And that puts a smile on my face.
Have you been to Vietnam? If not, what’s holding you back? Please share your thoughts.