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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One Response to What Is It About Vietnam?

  1. Dick McClure says:

    What an insightful, beautiful summary on your thoughts, feelings and personal experiences in Vietnam, Bruce. I too enjoyed our trip there and you have captured and expressed the essence of that experience much better than I ever could. Will miss these.

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