Take a step back and pretend you have never heard of Vietnam and were presented with this list of historical facts.
It’s a country that…
* had been ruled in one form or another by its northern neighbour for over 1,000 years until eventually liberating itself, only to succumb to rule by that neighbour again, followed by one final rebuff decades later,
* was colonized by Westerners for more than a century, then ultimately forced the invaders out in a final series of fierce clashes,
* fell under foreign control yet again during World War II, that time by an Asian country, then regained autonomy at the end of the war,
* was subsequently divided into two separate parts for over 20 years during which armed conflict between the two dominated, involving over 15 other countries, resulting in millions of casualties,
* has had at least 15 different names during its history,
* again suffered numerous attacks from that same northern neighbor over a span of more than 10 years after gaining independence late in the 20th century, only to quell them all,
* finally has only known continuing, uninterrupted peace during the last three decades.
If you told me about such a country, my gut reaction would be:
“Wow, if there was a world championship for kicking out trespassers, these guys would be at the head of the podium.” Then,
“After all those intrusions, they must be completely burnt out on foreigners and very careful about who they let in.”
The Vietnamese aren’t burnt out at all, indeed quite the contrary, they’ve become very adept at getting back up, dusting themselves off, and hurdling the next obstacle with great enthusiasm. Most recently, Vietnam jumped all over COVID-19 with both feet even though the pandemic was right in its midst, originating from a neighboring land.
So, why then, given that list of incursions and invasions above, are we foreigners welcomed in Vietnam?
Obviously, we’re needed – our skills, investments, business and language acumen, and the money we spend as tourists, all of which play a role in a country rushing to develop. That welcome implies past international incidents have been put on the back burner in order to facilitate a better future.
So far, so good.
Also insinuated, and critical for the above strategy to work, is that the Vietnamese are rowing the boat in one single direction, sharing a unified, futuristic vision, including the role of foreigners. That’s not an easy achievement in a country that was split in two for decades.
It’s as if 97 million people sat down together and said to each other: “Hey gang, for the good of the cause let’s put past differences aside, turn the page, and go kick ass in this world, make things happen, and develop together.”
And that’s pretty much the way things work in Vietnam, with a spirit of community and sharing dominant in daily life. There are some Vietnamese who don’t subscribe to that unified view, but keep on rowing for the good of the overall cause, and have told me so on many occasions. That’s mature, big picture, long-term thinking.
Vietnam is the most welcoming country I’ve lived in and home to some of the kindest locals I’ve met on any trip overseas, be it tourism, a work assignment, or expat living. To make a long story short, I’ve lived outside my country my entire adult life, so there is no shortage of experiences in many countries from which to draw.
Yep, there are red tape, minor inefficiencies and random warts, tricky business practices, communication issues, and a small percentage who prefer the company of their own in Vietnam, just like every other country in the world.
We hear rip-off stories, but they’re few and far between compared to any other country I’ve stayed in. I’ve always had the feeling I’m welcome here – routinely offered things, invited to peoples’ homes, bills mysteriously paid in restaurants and cafés, and treated with deference and respect.
I live in a mid-sized provincial city (Da Lat) without the huge commercial push, far away from the pressure and greed of the largest urban centers, so of course that impacts daily life and my perspective.
Early in the initial pandemic panic when we were all off guard, a citizen developed and implemented a free rice dispenser for those in need, which generated an enormous amount of attention in the media. All that hoopla was sensationalist – indeed that attitude is quite widespread – take this type of banh mi (baguette) dispenser as another example, which I’ve seen all over the country for many years.
“Who needs, please take one”
Of course, the economy and society will evolve and progress, it’s inevitable.
Local skills and techniques develop through training and experience, foreigners become less critical to operations, then eventually obsolete in many cases and removed from many business operations. That’s the way the pendulum swings in most countries as they mature, if they do.
For every story from those who struggle to adapt to life in Vietnam, I’ve got one about the red-carpet treatment accorded me. Hell, I’ve got at least one for every day I’ve ever spent in this country, beat that if you can.
This morning I popped in to the tofu shop up the street, ordered my preference in my crappy Vietnamese, and the young lady began snapping up those heavenly chunks of fresh onion tofu with her tongs.
Fried onion tofu
She started to pack my order, then spied me looking at the next batch of tofu on the fry in the background, and offered to serve me from that fresh batch coming right out of the kitchen if I could wait a moment.
I recently moved to this part of the city, have only shopped there a handful of times, never seen her before. There is no history between us that would spur the girl on to give such deferential treatment. She was just being kind, that’s it, that’s all.
Silly little snippet? Yes, it is, but those are the random occurrences that remain etched on our minds over time, and – at least for me – are reasons for living here. I’ve made the tour of Southeast Asia over several decades and that scene would have played out differently in most other lands in the region.
Hang on, it gets even better…
If, after the long list of atrocities that this piece opens with, you then told me about a country that...
* has a cuisine comprising over 3,000 unique dishes, but also a thirst for tastes originating from outside its borders, and is a major producer of wine, cheese, and coffee,
* is a socialist republic, yet independent small business and free enterprise are the backbone of the commercial landscape,
* is not dominated by any single religion, so tolerance and inclusion are the prevailing themes,
* boasts fifty-four distinct ethnic groups, as diverse as any country,
* was so poor thirty years ago that over 60 percent of its citizens lived in poverty,
* has experienced phenomenal economic expansion resulting in its middle class increasing by double digit percentages annually over each of the past 15 years,
* lies only forty-eight kilometers from its neighbour to the west at its most narrow point, so always keeps a vigilant eye out,
* has over 3,000 kilometers of coastline with nearly endless beaches and seafood to die for,
* has variable climates and seasons catering to all preferences.
…my reaction would be:
“Let’s go to Vietnam! Outta here on the next airplane!”
When things get back to normal, whatever and whenever that turns out to be, that’s exactly what a lot of foreign people are going to do.
Be ready for it, they’re coming, and I’m staying put right here.
|Roast duck delight|