There are three stages in getting to know Vietnam. The first one started when I got off the airport taxi, in downtown Saigon(Ho Chi Min City) at 2 in the morning.
You feel like you don’t have enough eyes to see everything, to watch out for everything nor to acknowledge every blinking light and the truth is you don’t. The first night in Vietnam is all about the air vibrating, about the music of the omnipresent high heels (and short skirts), the clinking of chop sticks hitting he bottom of a bowl of pho, the non-stop honking of dozens of motorbikes that melt into a pleasant purring as the night goes by.
The first couple of days in Vietnam go by as if you are dreaming. Every face is new and beautiful and you can’t get enough of the sun and the food… Oh the food! Exploding with spices and herbs and every kind of sea food there is, a delight at every corner of the street, at any hour of the day and especially the night.
You drift by, smiling and waving and returning every cheerful hello Vietnam throws at you and only see the good around you. But then a week passes by and suddenly you start to see more than the open houses and the convenience of having everything for sale always at just 5 feet away. You start to see the garbage and then a rat passes by your feet in a night fish market and then the bus driver is not entertaining anymore but just a strange man that throws his trash out the bus window. And the smiles don’t look as good anymore and the prices aren’t so surprisingly small anymore and you feel tired. But don’t disappear, the third stage is about to kick in! You now know the correct price for fruits you never ate before and you can make your way across the most crowded motorbike lane with your eyes closed and you feel strong. You already ate at the dingiest places and you sun tan is now settled. Now you don’t wait for smiles, you start handing them around instead of Vietnamese dongs and you feel less lost or vulnerable.
It is in this stage that you can really know Vietnam, when the right questions come to your mind and you can understand the locals. In this stage you can find out for example about the many religions of the Vietnamese people. But be careful who you ask!
First I asked the owner of a hostel in Da lat, the sweetest woman I ever seen, if she is a Buddhist. Her response was swift -No, my father is a communist so we don’t have a religion- but the shrine in her hostel lobby adorned with a fresh batch of dragon fruit offerings told a different story. The next person I asked was an orphan brought up at a Buddhist temple in Nha Trang. She fluently spoke 3 foreign languages and told me there are three religions in Vietnam: Buddhist, Christianity and communism. I was confused by her answer, seeing that I was just coming from the Cham temple where the Linga and Yoni (penis and vagina) were so peacefully revered. It was about time I took things into my own hands so I hit the streets with my eyes open. What is the most praised and well known symbol around? In a land of no copyright laws and endless markets, Apple seems to rule the Vietnamese imagination.
Flip-flops, hats, bags, t-shirts and skirts, face-masks and motorbike mirrors, there is nothing that the infamous Apple logo is not printed on.
Vietnam is not only food and beaches, noise and heat, street vendors and pollution. There is dignity in the Vietnamese way of life given by the fact that they earn their living everyday by any means and never shy from work. A country of many colours, Vietnam might just win you over if you come with an open heart. But it might also wear you down to your most basic feelings only to spit you out on one of its white beaches, blue waterfalls or red dirt roads, a traveler with a distant home and a vague understanding of what it means to be born in a land of permanent sun and to have to hide from it every day.