A Truly Local Experience in Vietnam

When I told people I was traveling to Vietnam, many responses I got were along the lines of “be careful.” Which I came to mean as, “that country seems unsafe, so be careful and don’t get robbed or worse.”

 

Sadly, I did not get the same reaction when I told people I was backpacking through Europe a few years back. I attribute this largely to the fact the European countries are “westernized” like the United States, and people see them as more familiar and friendly. On the flip side, many Americans unconsciously associate Vietnam with danger due to the war we fought against them in the mid-late 20th century.

 

I’m writing this post to dispel such negative associations, which couldn’t be further from the truth. The Vietnam of today is quite possibly the friendliest country I’ve ever visited. To prove this, I’d like to tell a story.

 

A few nights ago, I arrived on my motorbike to a little town called That Khe and left my bags in a room I rented at a nha nghi (which is roughly the equivalent of a Vietnamese motel). Then, as I often do in new cities, I then went out for a meander*.

 

*Tom’s definition of “meander” is: wandering aimlessly through a new place to explore the area and find adventure (oh, and food too. Always food).

 

During my meanderings, I like to make eye contact with, and smile at, as many people as possible. I believe that a genuine smile is the easiest way for two strangers to connect because, at least for that brief moment, nothing in the world exists other than positive emotions and sincerity. Here’s where the first part of my homage to Vietnam comes in. Of everyone I smile at, probably 90% of the Vietnamese smile back. This number completely eclipses the results I found at my university in Bloomington, IN, a town that is probably more friendly than most in America. For more on that, read my article here.

 

And the smiles I get from the Vietnamese are big, warm, and definitely genuine. Part of this could be because I’m a foreigner who smiled at them first. But if that is the case, then most people reading this blog have no excuse. Because they too would be foreign in Vietnam, and they would be welcomed with open arms and homes. Which leads me to the second part of this homage.

 

Before long, I found myself wandering through a back street between quaint little houses with chickens, pigs, and dogs in their yards. As I turned a corner, I nearly ran into a man walking in the same direction. He was about 5’2”, appeared to be in his fifties, and had eyes that never seemed to look directly into mine when talking. But I found this endearing as he was incredibly friendly, possibly friendlier than me.

 

We exchanged a few pleasantries while we walked; and when I say “few” I truly mean that. As my Vietnamese vocabulary is limited to about five phrases, and a host of food-related words which only really help me in restaurants.

 

His name was Chung and he invited me to have tea and dinner in his friend’s home after literally 45 seconds of knowing me. This would simply not happen in the states, or many other western countries for that matter.

 

After assessing the situation, I gladly said yes and entered the humble home of his friend, Bao. Bao was about sixty years old with a wife, son, and grandson who joined us that evening. The grandson was an adorable spitfire who seemed wary of me at first, but who quickly warmed up to me. Before long, he was climbing all over me and talking nonstop even though I couldn’t understand a word. I brought out my newly purchased ukulele, and had him strum while I held different chords. He didn’t have the best rhythm, but I won’t hold it against the five-year old.

While Chung, Bao, and I drank tea we managed to communicate quite effectively. It’s amazing how well you can communicate with smiles, laughter, and lots of gestures. Bao showed me his Vietnamese identification card, and I showed them my Indiana Driver’s License. Bao then took my license, put it in his pocket, and basically told me that he wouldn’t give it back unless I ate dinner with them. I laughed, and told him that wouldn’t be a problem.

 

So we all sat down to a dinner of chicken and cabbage hot pot, rice, and oranges. From the size, furnishings, and appearance of the home I could tell these people were quite poor. But what they lacked in money they made up for in happiness and generosity. After dinner, they offered for me sleep there, but I had already booked accommodations at the nha nghi. I politely declined, but thanked them a thousand times over for their incredible kindness, grabbed my license with a chuckle, and bid them adieu

I can say with confidence that most any Vietnamese family would have done the same thing for me in a heartbeat. In fact, I’ve had multiple similar experiences in Vietnam which support this belief. As I mentioned before, Vietnam is possible the kindest country I’ve ever visited.

 

I hope this post has helped some of you see this country, and other unfamiliar countries, in a better light. Don’t get me wrong; before traveling here, I also had mixed emotions about Vietnam. But like with many things, my perspective was warped by stereotypes and a lack of exposure to the culture. I’m a firm believer that people are good at heart, and no matter where you are in the world, people (for the most part) will treat you with kindness. Just show them kindness and respect in turn, and you will have some truly unforgettable experiences.

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