An Idiot’s Guide to Vietnam

Two weeks in Vietnam as a tourist with three children is not enough to properly get to know a country. But I’ve done my best not to treat it as just another place in which to lie on a beach and warm my bones after a long Tasmanian winter. Let’s be honest though, in the last two weeks I’ve lounged up there with the best of them. I’ve looked at the fitness centre. And ordered a cocktail. Floating in the ocean has been my exercise. But I think I’ve learnt a thing or two as well. Here are some things my brain has acquired since being in this amazing country:

  •  The war is a wound yet to heal. 

This observation didn’t smack me in the face or anything. Things change so quickly in the tropics. Stuff grows like billy-o, landscapes shift. New houses don’t stay new for long, not when humidity grows mould and non-weatherproof paint fades and runs in the heavy rains. Where countryside was ripped bare by bombing, there are now sky-high trees and lush undergrowth. Among them are gum trees, brought in by Australian war veterans as a contribution to the rehabilitation. (Our guide says they are everywhere now. I wonder if they are a pest. Another bumbling Australian gesture of goodwill. But perhaps that’s unfair and culturally cringey.)

Anyway, after a week or so of listening and watching, digesting, reading and thinking, I concluded that the war is still very much a thing. There are unmarked graves scattered through the rice paddies. There are scarred faces, as in physically scarred. There are the suspicious, unsmiling eyes of elders. And it was not, after all, so long ago at all. A generation is all.

There’s every chance I could have reached the wrong conclusion though; there have been cocktails thrown into the mix after all. Pina Coladas mainly. Mojitos are not great over here, but cojitos are – they combine malibu with white rum and lime and they are my new favourite. A summer’s day in a glass. An eighties summer’s day given that coconut oil is politically incorrect these days (CONFESSION – I still buy it. It’s factor 15. I don’t ever get burnt but I still brownie up – is that bad?).  Anyway, war…

The Vietnam War is known here as the American War, called so because the prevailing (Communist) view is that the US invaded the country to assist the French in regaining control (more on the Vietnam War here).

But Duc, the guide that took us through the war museum and the preserved Viet Cong tunnels over a day of our trip, seemed to me to have a different view. (Please note that Vietnam is a tightly censored country and Duc only gave us hints of his feelings, nothing explicit). For years from the age of six,  South Vietnamese Duc lived with his mother and siblings in various hiding places, including underground bunkers. This is when they weren’t on the run. Sometimes he woke to find he’d been sleeping among dead bodies. His father was mostly absent, fighting with the South Vietnamese Army, funded by the US. He had uncles and cousins, swayed by communist propaganda, fighting for the opposing side.

Later, once Saigon had fallen and the North Vietnamese had claimed victory over the South and their allies (US, Aus, NZ, China and others), Duc and his family were sent to live for years in communist re-education camps, which were essentially prison camps, opened by the Vietcong . Duc calls them propaganda camps. They were used by the Communist Government to indoctrinate around 300,000 South Vietnamese military and their families with Communist ideals. People were tortured, abused and incarcerated for up to 17 years. People were still fleeing the country as boat people right up until the late 90’s (when I was finishing university and thinking about boyfriends and passion pop). Duc’s father chose to abide by the communist regime in the hopes he could stay on in peace.

Today, Duc, who is almost exactly the same age as my husband, lives with his wife, her parents and their and two teenage children in Ho Chi Minh (he abided by the Government’s recommendation to have no more than two children, but hoped very much for twins the second time around). He still calls the city Saigon and hopes to one day retire to his father’s rice farm in country near the Mekong Delta.

He remained  poignantly silent whilst showing us a sickening Viet Cong propaganda video which tallied up American killings like brownie badges. He holds nothing against the Americans despite the widely documented civilian atrocities at their hands (there were whole rooms filled with horrifying photographs of American war crimes in the museum). Instead, Duc blames”political ideology”.

I wonder, if we’d chosen to fly into Hanoi in the North and taken tours with a private guide there, whether I’d be documenting a different perspective altogether.The view from up there, I’ve read, is that the war was about the North Vietnamese saving the South from American invasion.

When we arrived in the ancient city of Hoi An, north of Ho Chi Minh, now a tourist mecca, our new guide had an altogether different view of the world. His (younger) eyes seemed to be firmly focussed on the future, on business and commerce. Which brings me to my next point…

  • This developing country is developing at a rate of knots. 

When I was in grade three at Fairview Primary in New Norfolk, my teacher Mrs Deegan taught us about onomatopoeia. She used the word ‘hubbub’ as an example and put it in a sentence for us: “The hubbub of the city was very loud”. I hadn’t thought about that again until I got to Ho chi Minh city. Hubbub is exactly the word I would use. Crazy might be another, mainly because of the traffic. There are about 10 million people in Ho Chi Minh (called Saigon if you are speaking it, HCM if you write it; this according to Sth Vietnamese Duc). The numbers are an approximation because many children are yet to have their births registered. There are about 6 million scooters and motorbikes in HCM alone, apparently sketchy road rules and everyone on their way to somewhere in order to make their living.

A toothpick delivery man carries impossibly large boxes on his scooter. A florist balances a huge arrangement of orchids and is passed by a family balancing a baby. This is terrifying to watch at first, seems like madness. But it soon becomes clear that these people know what they’re doing. The blast of horns are mostly warnings, not bursts of anger as they are at home.  They look out for one another. I saw a woman drop a large bag of coloured plastic balls from her scooter. They  rolled everywhere, but people stopped to help and about 100 balls were cleared in less than a minute.  Only two or three squashed ones remained.

Regardless of care and road prowess, we are told that an average of 35 people die on Vietnamese roads every day. I got very clutchy with my children on road sides.

The majority of Vietnam’s population (about 93 million) live in the countryside, but the cities are growing as young people join the entrepreneurial wave that has pervaded the country. Ho Chi Minh in particular, although ruled by Communism, has a distinctly capitalist feel. Designer brand shops look out to an imposing statue of Ho Chi Minh in the city square. The central business district now spans 2 city districts. To make way for highways, slums and river shanties are being demolished and their occupants rehoused into high rise apartment buildings. The buzzing Chinese markets are filled with everything from coat hangers to coconuts, peelers to peanuts.

In the countryside we get glimpses of more traditional industries – crops of orchids, rubber, cucumbers and rice. Honey bee hives, whisky making, coconut sweets, fish.

In Hoi An,  where the townspeople are capitalising on tourism, the Chinese community are   sharing their business nous. Every shop is either a tailor, a shoemaker, a souvenir seller or a restaurant. I wonder if anyone’s thought to find a niche. On a walk through the old town I find a rug shop. Its difference draws my eye. The proprietor calls to me, “Come in, come in, we’re not Vietnamese.”

Over the road from our hotel, a local family have made the most of their location by setting up a restaurant. They cook food from their kitchen. When I took my daughter to the loo I found that we were using the family bathroom. We passed their seven year old daughter’s room where she was doing her homework. She proudly showed me her handwriting – so neat and even it looked like a font. As well as food the family offer laundry services, massage, motorbike hire and a battleship. What more can one family need?

It doesn’t feel too pushy though, or too fake. There’s still the sense that they’re bumbling along with the tourism thing, that they’re not manipulating anyone too much. In Fiji it is “Buuuullllaaa, Buuuullllaaa” everywhere you go, as if they are trained (nothing against this, I love Fiji, I just don’t think it’s necessary). In Vietnam, the thought of facades hasn’t seem to have occurred to them. If you get in the way of a pushbike, you get told. If you don’t want to eat the local fare, you can have a bit of weird pizza and come crawling back for noodles.

I love that the ‘shoe shop’ is the ‘shoes shop’ and everyone wants to help you with your ‘luggages’. I don’t want these things to get polished off. But they will. I saw a Crown Plaza development and a huge Sheraton between Da Nang and Hoi An.

  • I am a multi Dong millionaire. 

Everywhere we see wads of cash. The local currency – the dong – has inflated into the  common millions. A load of laundry costs me 150,000 dong (about $AU90). It’s hard to get used to. I worry for the people that in a few years they’ll have to ditch their wallets in favour of back packs. This is the case in Zimbabwe, Duc tells us. To buy the groceries you literally have to carry a bag full of cash.

  • Religion and superstition go hand in hand with business.

We were warned not to go shopping too early. This is because the first customer of the day sets the luck for the rest of the day’s trading. So if a Vietnamese shop owner opens to an indecisive tyre kicking window shopper like me then they believe they will get this all day. They are likely to be rude and dismissive and will often ask their friends to come in and make a decisive purchase first thing. This is superstition, as opposed to religion. It’s also, in my opinion, fair enough. I invariably engage and try on and don’t buy. And must leave a trail of pissed off traders.

Being  communist country, there is no set religion in Vietnam. But Buddhism is common. There were many people who prayed or made offerings to Buddha during the war for their salvation, and are now living lives dedicated to Buddha. Those who became successful and wealthy built pagodas, which are Buddhist or Taoist multi-tiered towers used as places of worship. You can see a Pagoda from most vantage points in Vietnam, so there seem to be a lot of people grateful to be alive.

Confuscionists and Taoist also feature all over the place in Vietnam. They give offerings to the gods of fertility,  prosperity and longevity. Children are thought to be signifiers of luck. Western children, particularly babies, are like rock stars. My six year old was caressed, kissed and even sniffed by strangers. People thought she was a doll. She got over this pretty quickly and asked that I dress her in less pretty clothes (she got the most attention when wearing a gorgeous dress by Miss Haidee by the way).

  • Saying ‘thank you’ is a new phenomenon in Vietnam.

“Thank you” is pretty big in our culture. I am often reminding my children to say their thank you’s (particularly on holiday actually, the sense of entitlement appears to strengthen with each scoop of ice-cream, of which there are many. My quinoa spinach balls in their lunch boxes ought to sort them out). But in Vietnam, thank you is a relatively new concept. Only the last couple of generations have adopted it, mostly to conform to western social standards. Traditional belief is that instead of saying thank you to someone who has done something for you, then buggering on and forgetting all about it, you take on board what they have done, store it up and repay the favour at another time. The act of repaying shows that you are thankful, without having to say it.

  • In Vietnamese, there are no words longer than one syllable. 

This means that Vietnam is actually called Viet Nam, and everyone’s name is short and easy to spell. It also turns the cadence of the language into something that sounds like rap music. Lyrical but direct. I like it.

  • There are pervy people all over the world

Just when I’d decided that the Vietnamese people are among the most kind and healthy, smart and motivated in the world, I get flashed by one. I haven’t heard the word ‘flashed’ since the 90s at the latest. Hmm, maybe I’m no longer of an age in which flashing is encountered. Or maybe flashing is out of fashion. Regardless, it happened to me the other day, on a Vietnamese beach. I was in a suitably relaxed stroll, thinking about nothing in particular and looking around with interest, when I realised that one of the points of interest had his trousers around his knees and his knob out. My first thought was that he had to be a grubby westerner. I mean, none of my dear Vietnamese fellas would get his wanker out and pump it with such vigour RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME. But I was wrong. He appeared to be a local bloke. My second thought was, Fucking men and their fucking penises, they have to ruin everything. Which is unfair because not many men I know would go to such (ahem) lengths. Then I powered walked out of there, only looking back once to make sure he wasn’t following me. He wasn’t. I have placated myself by thinking he was either drunk on rice wine or unfortunately stricken in some way. Or I am so goddam attractive that men can’t help themselves. The latter is probably the one.

  • There is nothing quite like home

Once  the holiday was over and we had landed back in Melbourne (without hitch thank Goodness), I was looking at the shops in the airport whist waiting for our connecting flight to Hobart and thinking how comforting it is to be home. In a foreign country you’re always on high alert for potential misunderstandings or strange social mores or unfamiliar dangers. Here at home I know what to expect. I fit. Ish. And just as I was sighing with sentimental fondness, I overheard a nearby man say casually to his companion, “Don’t be a cunt.” They laughed. It was evidently a friendly use of the word, which is likely something that could only happen in Australia. Dear old Oz.

I’m not in the habit of publishing the C word, but I threw it in just to see who was still reading.

Anyway, Vietnam in a nutshell – loved it. Go if you can, before it gets over-run with idiots like me.

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