Day 177: On Vietnam
I struggled to find the right words to describe what it was about Vietnam that stole a part of me and buried it deep within its fertile soil. After toiling through the touristy hell of Bangkok and viewing first-hand the intense poverty of Cambodia, I arrived in Saigon weary from travel and disallusioned by the sight of wandering infants and entitled Aussie drunkards. But then everything changed. Saigon was alive and real, with the buzz of motorbikes ringing through me like the beat of a caffeinated heart. In the four weeks to follow, I traveled through ten cities and small towns, some so rural that I was the first Westerner many had ever seen. In addition to the unbeatable cuisine and stunning landscapes, it was the energetic, amiable nature of the Vietnamese people that would prove to change my life forever.
Vietnam has an incredibly old history, with the first states forming in the year 2879 BC. With mountains, jungles, rivers, and sea, Vietnam is a difficult country to invade. Nevertheless, its strategic location along the South China Sea has enticed nations seeking domination. For over a millennia, the Chinese launched a series of offenses against Vietnam, influencing its culture and fostering a deep resentment within its people. To this day, the Chinese view Vietnam as South China, and the government continues to assert itself along Vietnam's eastern seaboard.
In the 19th century, the French conquered Vietnam and made it a colonial state, capturing the northern capital of Hanoi and spreading southward. While French influence can be seen through Vietnamese architecture, the local population were persistent with resistance efforts throughout the 60-year occupation. With the introduction of Marxism to Vietnam in the 1920s, Communist parties sprouted amongst the population. The French ramped up suppression efforts, and the Vietnamese responded with more aggressive guerrilla tactics. With the conclusion of the Indochina War against the French, the Geneva Conference of 1954 declared North Vietnam an autonomous state led by communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, and the South a democratic republic supported by the United States.
In the 30 years to follow, a proxy war raged on between the Communist, Russian-backed North and the democratic, American-backed South. By the fall of Saigon in April 1975, three million Vietnamese were left dead, and the effects of American chemical bombs known as Agent Orange can still be seen in children today.
To my surprise, I was welcomed rather warmly by the local population, even in Hanoi, the heart of the communist North. Many Vietnamese view the American War as yet another imperial invasion, looking past politics and separating people from government. With that said, this does not hold true for the Chinese, who they disdain.
With the American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, the nation was officially united under the Communist flag. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and images of their revered leader can be seen on every bill and street corner. Not unlike China, Vietnam maintains a relatively free market economy, and is quickly becoming one of the fastest growing developing nations on the planet. With that said, government corruption and suppression of civil rights advocates continues to thrive. Vietnamese police are the best money can buy, routinely stopping foreigners and locals alike to fish out petty bribes. While the average Vietnamese lives a relatively comfortable life, poverty persists, and reform efforts are met with unlawful detention, or worse.
Tour through the countryside and you'll see seemingly endless seas of green rice fields that are segmented into well-organized square blocks, sparsely tended to by farmers knee-deep in water that have perfected their craft over millennias. Along the riverside and wild coastline, villagers spend their days casting nests into the still, green waters, returning at dusk to their makeshift floating homes alongside limestone spires. In the big cities, scores of reckless motorbike drivers coexist with women in conical hats walking along the road selling fruit from wooden shoulder yokes. At the start and end of each day, incense, fruit, and play money are burned at the stoops of homes and businesses alike for the safe travels of their ancestors. Amid it all are armed military police, ever-watching under a backdrop of red flags and propaganda pumping through the air-waves.
After my experiences in Japan, I ignorantly expected people in Southeast Asia to be reserved by nature, but was pleasantly surprised to find the opposite in Vietnam. People smile warmly to one another, and find solace in the company of their peers. While I oppose the communist regime, its propaganda that pushes family values reflects on the people here, who show genuine affection towards one another.
The biggest field in need of reform in Vietnam, after civil rights and more democratic institutions, is education. As only primary school (up to fifth grade) are subsidized by the government, dropout rates remain high, especially in rural and mountainous areas. Teachers are underpaid, making around $60 per month on average, and have been known to charge students to take exams and for writing material. Not unlike neighboring Cambodia, poor households unable to pay the costs of schooling consider a child's labor more valuable than its education. In the rural frontier, it was at times difficult to find someone that could read my simple translations, as many were illiterate.
While I am by no means a professional chef, I take pride in seeking out the most authentic local cuisine a country has to offer, and learning how it is made. I ate almost exclusively at food stalls—if it didn't have colorful, ankle-high kiddie chairs, chances are I didn't walk in. More importantly, if I saw locals eating there, so was I. With that in mind, I am confident in saying that Vietnam is home to the best food on earth.
Traditional Vietnamese cooking is known for fresh and simple ingredients combined with selective spices, yielding a balanced taste. Herbs are fundamental to nearly every dish, namely mint, dill, and cilantro. These are paired with bean sprouts, and are seldomly cooked.
Meat is generally lightly cooked, either roasted on table-top grills or boiled in rich broth. Competition amongst the incredible number of food stalls runs so high that cooks simmer their stocks in fresh bones for 24 hours to give their broths a fine enough flavor.
As you may have guessed, Vietnamese food is largely soup-based, and is generally paired with noodles. The sheer variety of noodles available in Vietnam can be overwhelming, but the most common types are bún (sticky and thin rice noodle, also known as rice vermillion), and báhn phō (thick, fettuccine-shaped rice noodle). Instant noodles can also be seen, and their use is hardly looked down upon, as their quality is vastly superior to the typical ramen.
Vietnam is also home to a unique type of uncooked spring roll, consisting of rice paper wrappers, heaps of fresh mint, thin rice noodles, grilled pork or chicken, diced chilies, and peanut sauce.
Lastly, Vietnam's Central Highlands boast phenomenal dark-roast coffee, which is generally poured over ice and mixed with sweetened condensed milk.
In the early 1990s, poverty in Vietnam hovered over 50%. Today, it's less than three. Foreign investors are pouring money into this rapidly growing economy that is set to become an Asian Tiger in the foreseeable future.
After four weeks of traveling through this beautiful country, I have been struck by the integrity of the Vietnamese people. They have come to my aid when lost or in need, invited me for coffee when sitting alone, and fed me consistent, savory food when I was hungry, which was all the time. But what ultimately stole me away is far more simple: it's the way people look at one another, gently and directly in the eyes, and smile.
With just two months left before I return to Detroit, I am kicking things back into high gear. For the next six weeks, I will be traveling through the north of India, beginning in New Delhi.
As always, thank you for taking the time to read my blog. Feel free to message me for more photos, stories, or just want to talk.