Going to Vietnam was almost an afterthought. I had wanted to go to Uzbekistan during the summer, and found a tour that not only went to the usual places (Samarkand, Tashkent, Bukhara, Shakhrisabz), but also went into Turkmenistan to see the ruins of Merv. This area is perched neatly between Iran and Afganistan, so a tour is the only answer. It pays to be with people who know where they're going, since the last thing you want is to have to ask the Taliban where the nearest American Express office is.
Surprisingly, they couldn't find enough people for a tour group, so I'd have to wait for another year. I was actually kind of relieved, since Central Asia in the summer can be pretty torrid. The height of the tourist season coincides with the height of the thermometer, and I can't think at all when it gets that hot. I had been talking to a friend at work about going to Vietnam in November. Though it started out as conversation, as time went on it got more plausible. I adore the food, many friends were born there, so why not?
When I moved to London, Vietnamese food was one of the things I missed the most. Vietnamese food in London (food, one might argue) just isn't the same. Part of it is the small size of the Vietnamese community, part of it is the vegetables that won't grow in Britain and have to be imported, and part of it is the finicky British health laws that prohibit the tastiest parts of things from ending up in your soup. The Vietnamese restaurants are disappointing, so I started to cook at home instead.
Enter Duyen. Duyen is from Vietnam, having made a nocturnal, nautical exit some years ago. We're both in IT and work together, and discovered that we have the exact same taste in food. He's also one of the nicest people who ever lived, and is a lot of fun to hang around with. When we met, I had to interview him to make sure he was the right man for the job. I recognized that the Vietnamese name, and in the interest of acting professionally, resolved not to talk about food, Vietnam, or anything that would betray a bias.
The one small issue was that when he came in I realized there was a Vietnamese cookbook on my desk that I had bought for a friend, and through the interview I had to shift from side to side to prevent him from seeing it. It turned out (my luck!) that he was exactly the right man for the job, and from the day he started, the non-work-related talk turned to food.
For a long time Duyen had wanted to go back to Vietnam for a visit. He grew up during the war, so seeing the country, especially the north, wasn't an option. He visited 8 years before, but once in the clutches of his family, he couldn't go anywhere. Vietnamese families are like families everywhere. "Why do you want to see the country? Stay home and eat!"
He realized that he was interested in a Western-style vacation, where you travel around with guide books, look at history and culture, and take plenty of photos. What better idea than to team up with a Westerner (me!), tour the country, and then call the family at the last minute? So that's what we did. In hindsight, it was a great arrangement. It became really obvious when we met another Vietnamese who was about to spend an entire month with his family in Qui Nhon. On our own we found that one day in Qui Nhon was just about right.
In true IT fashion, we organized the project. My job was project planning and documentation. In other words, I did the research from the guide books, the itinerary and the photos. We worked up a neat itinerary on an Excel spreadsheet, with one hotel we chose from the guide book so we wouldn't fumble around when we arrived. The sights were there, the places were there, and the dates shifted around automatically when we changed something. (Cool!) The documentation part of it is here, on the web, for your perusal.
Duyen did the implementation and testing, which was the hard job. It meant being a translator, interpreter and bargainer ("testing" the offer and handing it back until they get it right). Vietnamese business is a world unto itself, and the terms and the prices slip and slide from minute to minute. We negotiated our tickets and visas with a Vietnamese businessman in a record store in Hackney, and the circumstances got even more interesting as the trip wore on. Duyen deserves a medal for his imagination and inventiveness, and also for not plunging a knife between the ribs of a certain Hanoi hotel manager. Even the bad parts of the trip were perfect, thanks to his efforts.
Duyen is, by the way, a fantastic interpreter. He's done a lot of community service work in London, and can do simultaneous translation. I managed to have great conversations with everyone, and even tell jokes, which never would have happened had I been traveling by myself or in a group. We also got to go to real restaurants, not the horrible ones that seem to prevent all the tourists from experiencing Vietnam.
Unfortunately, after studying the guide books, my preparation for the trip was rather scant. I learned how to say "hello", "thank you", "how much?" and "too expensive" in Vietnamese. It was embarrassing to know so little of the language, but it's also amazing how many situations call for these phrases. And even if you don't know anything at all, people appreciate that you're making some kind of effort, since Vietnamese isn't spoken anywhere else.
We had the usual warnings and annoying caveats that go with the guide books. Wear a money belt (presumably that when dishonest people squeeze your wallet you can feel it more profoundly). Watch out for pickpockets, cut-purses and people who get too near you, since you're being set up for who-knows-what. Don't eat raw vegetables. Watch out for malaria, bring lots of medicines, bug spray and mosquito netting with you. And lastly, stay home and watch TV. We did the opposite and had a great time.
I did have some odd reactions from American friends when I told them I was going to Vietnam. Most of them said, something like, "O-kaaaay, if that's what you want to do", knowing that my holidays stand a chance of turning out to be interesting. I realized that they were thinking of a certain war that ended in 1975. Many Americans complete the word "Vietnam" with "war", having no other basis for contact. I had spent part of my youth marching around the draft board and getting beaten up by right-wing lunatics, but to be honest, I hadn't made the association. I had only thought of the culinary and cultural angles. I'll argue that you don't think "cheese cake" every time you hear "New York" the idea of the place is deeper than dessert. Vietnam is a part of history, but more important, it's a vibrant, interesting place with a lot to see and know.
For their part, the Vietnamese have a bigger picture of America, even though the war took place there and everyone suffered personally. But that was a different time and a different America. America is Hollywood, rock music, technology, television and fashion. America is the English language, which everyone wants to learn. English is more than the language they speak in the U.S., Australia and England; it's "foreign-ese", it's integration with the world. Even people from other Asian countries speak English when they visit Vietnam.
The Vietnamese love talking to foreigners, and no holds are barred. In fact the first questions are, "How old are you?" and "Are you married?". This happened so often I started calling them the Two Questions, and those are the indirect questions. The Vietnamese are endlessly curious.
I was surprised that people are particularly thrilled to talk to Americans. Again, they're thinking about the culture, and the U.S. has earned a lot of good will in the past few years. Recently, the U.S. supplied aid during some bad flooding, and it was all over the news. Our trip coincided with Bill Clinton's visit. Wherever I went people yelled "Clinton!" at me, and I told them that Clinton was a friend of mine and we lunch together often. I could see they were convinced.
On the other hand, no one cares for are the Russians, which also surprised me, Vietnam being a communist country. The Russians helped Vietnam win the war and then demanded repayment right away. The Russians got the entire rice crop and made all the Vietnamese eat cassava for years, while they advised them on how to slide their economy into the toilet. But who knows maybe even the Russians are welcome, and the talk is just bluster.
The long and short of is that foreigners are great, as long as they don't try to take over the country. At that point, the Vietnamese get mad, and history shows that that's not good. The Vietnamese have a long history of throwing out foreigners, and we're not talking about the Albanians here. The Vietnamese stopped the advance of the Mongols in the Middle Ages. Even China couldn't. In turn they've thown out the Chinese, the French, the Japanese and later the Americans. When the Americans came in, all the Northern government had to say was that the Americans were "occupying" the South, and everyone knew just what to do.
Interestingly, some of their attitude came up in a discussion about the Jews. We couldn't figure out how to put "Jew" into Vietnamese, so we mentioned Israel (Do Thai). Everyone we talked to said "Yeah!! Israel!!!" and gave the thumbs-up. It was totally unexpected, but the Vietnamese love the Israelis. Like Vietnam, it's a small country you'd be crazy to mess with. You would think that as a communist country they would root for the other side, but there you have it. They're fiercely independent in everything.
The thing that struck me the most about Vietnam was the idea of contact with people. It's the most sociable place I've been. There's zero concept of privacy because there are people all over the place. When you see someone else, the first thing you do is make contact. Even on the road, the cars beep all the time not to tell people to get out of the way but to tell people that they're there. As such, it's an amazingly democratic country (for the simple fact that you can't ignore anyone).
Vietnamese have an easy way of making friends, getting along, and sharing the smallest of spaces, while being direct with each other at the same time. Even solitary activities such as reading are done in the same room as everyone else, and if another person blasts their radio, so be it. In such a place, being in a bad mood is unthinkable, and everyone stays pretty cheerful.
The other quality is improvization. My first contact with this was through cooking, but it shows up all over the place. Where Western culture is acquisitive, looking for new things, the Vietnamese tend to look for new uses for what they have. A screwdriver isn't a mere screwdriver. It's a can opener, it's a doorstop, well, you get the idea. The Vietnamese are constantly adapting things in surprising ways. There are things in life you can control, but most of them you can't, so I think adaptability is very healthy.
In any case, I had a wonderful time, ate like a pig, and to my great joy, hadn't gained any weight when I came back home. It's a fantastic place. Admittedly, it's not in such great shape, but why wait around to enjoy your life until everything is perfect? That wouldn't be very adaptable at all, would it?