OK, OK. I get it now. See, when you’re travelling in Vietnam, most of the time you don’t get to actually see many average Vietnamese people. The only people you’re guaranteed contact with are those who survive on tourism (hawkers, shopkeepers, and travel agents), who can be pretty tough and pretty rude. But the thing is, the real Vietnamese people are pretty great. Yes, there’s a hardness here that isn’t present in Laos or Thailand. Perhaps it comes from the war with America and its allies, perhaps from the centuries of battling the Chinese, perhaps it’s both – or maybe it’s got to do with the Communist government discouraging Buddhism which would normally be the #1 religion here. I could speculate endlessly, but it would be difficult to prove anything. It’s also a very conservative culture here, which also may have something to do with the government, and besides isn’t necessarily a bad thing – unless you’re an outsider. But there is a sense of humor in these people, and curiosity, and a desire to make contact with others.
It’s Tet, the enormous Lunar New Year celebration that takes over the country for 3 days every year. What this means is that people who are normally working while I’m out walking around, or home with their families when I’m out in the evenings, are out on the streets, walking and eating and celebrating. On New Year’s Eve, the 31st, I was out with an Austrian couple at about 3:30 in the morning, and we stopped at a street vendor to get another beer and something to eat. The Vietnamese guys at the next table insisted on sharing their rice wine. Yesterday, I took a walk around the lake and it was like being in a whole different city than the day before. Where I’d become accustomed to seeing suspicion, I saw curiosity. Where I expected hostility, I got smiles. And for once in all my time here, for an entire day, people said, “Hello!” and didn’t try to sell me something. It was lovely.
I met a woman named Ti in Nha Trang who told me that she felt bad for Westerners in Vietnam sometimes, because so many people just see us as walking dollar signs. To be fair, it is partly our fault – during the war, America spent a lot of time spreading propaganda about how great life is the US and how everybody’s rich and can do as they please, etc. I guess they did a good job, because some people still believe it. Not everyone, though. So I guess it’s up to us, really, to show them that we’re more than money, that we’ve got something to give. Making contact was supposed to be what it’s all about anyway, right?