What Is It About Vietnam?

I’ve been back about a week now and have been thinking about how to wrap up my little blog series. A question I have gotten a few different times in a few different forms is “Why Are You So Drawn To Vietnam?” I usually answer with a brief response about the beautiful country with the warm, friendly people (and the great food), but deep down, I know it is much more than that. I have been trying to figure out why that country is so compelling to me and this post is my attempt to explain it by summarizing three aspects of my attraction.

Vietnam literally overwhelms the senses. I think I read that quote somewhere and it is true. From the moment that you arrive until you leave, you are bombarded by exotic sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. The crazy, chaotic swirl of motorbikes (particularly in HaNoi), the smells of the markets and the street foods being prepared, the constant buzz of people moving about the streets, the bright colors everywhere.

To me, this is all very exotic and at the same time very safe and comfortable. For a westerner, I suspect that Vietnam is one of the few places in the world where that is true. I walked all over three cities there at all hours of the day and night with zero concern. I bicycled by myself down long, isolated paths near Hoi An past people in poverty (by US standards) and was greeted only by friendly waves and “hellos” from the people who lived there. In eight weeks of traveling around the country over three trips, I was panhandled by beggars exactly zero times.

There is an incredible energy and optimism there. I have read public opinion surveys that say that right now Vietnam is the most optimistic country in the world about its future. No doubt, this is due to the incredible progress they have made in the last decade or two as they have moved from being one of the poorest countries in the world to being a solid middle-income country that is rising quickly. Everywhere I see construction and development. Everyone I talked with is optimistically talking about their personal new business endeavors. Young millennials are comfortable and confident avoiding or leaving employment in large, established corporations to strike out on their own in an entrepreneurial spirit.

While I was there, I ran across a blog post that contained this graphic:

When I discussed it with some friends there, the response generally was … duh … 50 years ago we were in the middle of a big civil war that included US B-52s dropping bombs! True enough … but I think my point is, being in a place with such a positive view of the present and the future as compared to the past is energizing and exciting.

Forgiveness, Grace, and Redemption. This last topic is a bit more abstract, and a bit more personal. I grew up in the shadow of the war (the “American War” as they call it there) and I feel a lot of guilt over that period in our history. I was about five years too young to have been drafted to fight there, but my youth is full of memories of nightly newscasts that included body counts as well as protests and riots against the war here in the US. On my first trip there, I was curious and a bit concerned about how I would be seen and treated there as a result of this sad history. I was surprised and a bit overwhelmed at how warmly I was welcomed. It seemed that once they learned I was an American, I was welcomed even more enthusiastically than other international visitors. I have subsequently learned that in public opinion polls, Vietnam is one of the most pro-American places in the world.

I have read many books and learned a lot about that period in history and it is very complex and it is not my intention here to expound on all of the geopolitics involved in that time. Suffice it to say that all parties involved have much to atone for. I just find that one of the very compelling things about Vietnam is how the people there have moved on. It seems that as a country that they have decided to set aside all of the very valid grievances about the past and to turn towards the future with a real optimism. A lesson that could be learned by many, many countries and cultures throughout the world today!

Oh, and did I mention how good the food is? …

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Last Day in Vietnam

On Saturday, my final full day in Vietnam, Huong took me on a bus trip to the Cu Chi tunnels east of SaiGon. It is an incredible network of about 150 KM of tunnels that cover an area about 100KM x 100KM and was used for guerrilla defense during the war. The tunnel network was actually three levels deep in places and included kitchen and hospital facilities.

After returning to Sai Gon in the afternoon, we met up with another friend and toured the reunification palace, which also served as the home of the South Vietnamese President during the war and was the site of the famous picture of the North Vietnamese tank crashing through the fence during the final takeover of the South by the North.

We ended the evening with a final local dinner of “half-folded rice” yet another delicious food experience!

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While in Sai Gon, I connected with some former Ha Noi students who are working there now. On Friday, Pham Huong met me after she finished working at DHL and took me to a local snail restaurant. I must admit that I was nervous about eating snails while sitting outside on little plastic stools, but I really enjoyed the food and the whole experience! Thanks, Huong!

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XO Tours

Wrapping my some blog entries as I’m sitting in a restaurant in the Hong Kong airport during my four-hour layover. On Friday morning, I took a guided motorbike tour of Sai Gon. It was a blast – there were about 7 of us riding on the back of bikes being driven by motorbike drivers to a number of spots where our tour guide, Tai, would entertain and inform us. Of course, the most fun part of the tour was riding on the back of the motorbikes!

At one of the first stops, I was excited to take this picture in front of a famous Sai Gon location. Any of my US friends recognize it???

Our first stop was the iconic Sai Gon central post office where we were introduced to “the translator” – an 87 year-old man who has been working there for 70 years translating letters for people into French or English. They tell us he rides his bicycle there to work every day.

We stopped at a number of markets and historic sites and sampled a few of the local traditional desserts.

OK, if you couldn’t figure out what that first picture was, here is a clue …

And, since you’ve gotten this far, a couple of embarrassing photos of me …

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SaiGon Jazz

As always when I travel, I researched the local jazz scene and found that the top club here is called Sax n’ Art. It is a nice spot just a block or so from the Rex Hotel and a 10-minute walk or so from my hotel, so I headed there after the conference banquet and a short stop at the Five O’Clock Follies. It has a very nice vibe and when I came in the band was jamming very nicely to a 12-bar blues piece that was followed by a beautiful jazz ballad version of Amazing Grace and then followed by a very credible version of Cantaloupe Island. I was a bit surprised that the audience was about 75% western.

Unfortunately, after that very promising start, a female singer took the stage and the repertoire turned to light pop-jazz tunes. Oh well, I’ll try again tonight and see if I have better luck.

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Five O’Clock Follies

The conference held a banquet yesterday evening in the Rex Hotel – another iconic Saigon location in District 1 (downtown) just a few blocks from my hotel. The banquet featured several courses of Vietnamese food and a performance of traditional music, dancing, and water puppetry. I had a very nice conversation with a young Chinese professor who grew up in France and has just accepted a new position at a University in Shanghai.

I titled this post “Five O’Clock Follies” because during the war, the US military PR office would hold daily briefings there on the status of the war. As the war dragged on, the press began to believe them less and less and came to refer to the briefings as the Five O’Clock Follies. The Rex hotel has given their rooftop bar that name, so I had to stop up there for a drink after the banquet.

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Thursday Night in SaiGon

I’m back at my favorite blogging spot in SaiGon – the rooftop bar of the Majestic. It’s still warm and sticky down on the street, but up here there is a pleasant cool breeze blowing and a beautiful moon over the river.

I have recovered nicely from my head cold and had a good day at the AETA conference. There were some technical problems with the projector, so I had to speak to part of my presentation without projected PowerPoint slides, which is a bit difficult for mathematical topics! The bigger challenge that I haven’t yet mastered is how to present a 10-page academic paper in 15 minutes. It is impossible to even superficially cover the content of the paper. I think in the future, I should forget about trying to summarize the paper in a talk and instead give a “meta-presentation” of the paper simply tries to summarize the key points. I am comforted by the fact that nobody else at these conferences seems to do any better.

At any rate, it was a pleasant day at the conference and I had several interesting conversations with the other participants.

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Advanced Engineering – Theory and Applications 2017

Tomorrow is the opening of the Advanced Engineering – Theory and Applications 2017 conference which is the reason for my trip here. As shown below, I will be presenting my paper tomorrow afternoon on a topic that is the heart of my thesis work. This is my second peer-reviewed paper this year and it means that I am very close to finally wrapping up my thesis!

The first few slides from my presentation tomorrow …

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Bitexco Financial Tower

Adjacent to my hotel is the 68-story Bitexco Financial Tower. Built in 2010, it was the tallest building in Vietnam for a couple of years (I think it’s #3 or 4 now). Here is a picture I took of it from the rooftop bar at my hotel …

I went to the sky bar on one of the upper floors before dinner, had a drink, and took a few pictures. Ho Chi Minh City is a huge city with over 10 million inhabitants, making it larger than New York City. As you can see from these pictures, the city has a lot of density and impressive modern high-rise buildings along its beautiful riverfront.

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Ben Thanh Market

Picked up a bit of a head cold in Hoi An (I think) which peaked yesterday. I hit it hard with medications and slept in this morning (and took a good nap in the afternoon) and am feeling much better this evening. Sitting here in the Hotel Majestic lobby bar planning my evening.

I did get out this afternoon and walked to the Ben Thanh market about a mile from here. It is a famous “traditional” market here in the District 1 (the central business district of SaiGon) and it has to be experienced first hand. Blocks wide on each side packed as tight as can be with merchants of all sorts. Not exactly my favorite shopping experience, but a Saigon scene that must be seen!

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