Eating. Sharing food. Meeting around a table with people, and sharing. Travelling to Vietnam? Not just the food: sharing ideas, sharing culture, sharing a worldview, laughter, emotions, more racy situations; and if you feel a little naughty and want to see another side of the people you’re with, you can even share ideologies.
And what is directly related to the act of sharing is its opposite; which is the act of absorbing some of what others give us. For example when travelling to Vietnam, the act of filling someone else’s glass is very similar to explaining to that person the principles of our own culture. And people who have received the gift of openness appreciate being offered a world view that is not theirs – in addition to a shot of rice wine.
Sharing and war
Vietnam is a country that has had so many influences – and injustices – through the years, and its kitchen is inevitably heightened by the contacts with foreigners.
Hundreds of years of Chinese rule, a botched attempt at colonization by France, a civil war, a war against the Americans, Soviet-style communism, and a very strong cultural identity allows Vietnam to maintain its own traditions – pho bo (beef noodle soup), spring rolls, dishes of dog meat and buffalo – but also to accept and transform what has come to them from the outside – banh my pate (sandwich of French bread with liver pate), thick and supersweet coffee, pastries from the French; stir-frys, chopsticks for utensils and tons of rice, as China has dominated for so long.
War against tourism
Vietnam is a place where tourists are directly targeted by criminals. The Wikitravel pages of Hanoi and Vietnam have long articles on the subject. And scams are thorough, developed, comprehensive and complicated. No one is immune when travelling to Vietnam.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is teeming with crooks. It’s nicknamed the “backpacker area”. Scams are at each intersection. Dishonest people approach you, up to 30 per hour. Sometimes aggressive, sometimes offering small treats which they’ll sell at crazy prices, sometimes offering taxi services to unknowing patrons… but everyone – everyone without exception – want to suck on your wallet like a zombie wants to suck your brains out.
Want to buy a SIM card with a prepaid plan? The woman “forgets” to configure the prepaid plan and makes a fake invoice, pocketing the balance of your money. A woman sells small pastries? She says they cost 15,000 dong, you accept, and then when the food is in your hands, she asks for 50,000 dong, claiming a misunderstanding. You stop for soup or coffee in a small night market? The price for Caucasians travelling to Vietnam is up to ten times higher than the Vietnamese. You forget to ask the price of your soup? It will increase with every bite.
You leave your bag in a locker, secured with a padlock? Come back and a piece of metal is stuck into the lock – luckily it has survived the attack. You meet local men, have a couple of drinks and and discuss? They force you to pay the bill in full. You check your smartphone to make sure you’re heading in the right direction, late at night, and then place it back in your pocket? Two women act like prostitutes, put their hands all over you, take your smartphone and jump on the motorbike of two men, who were waiting behind.
And that’s just what I experienced when travelling to Vietnam. In two days.
Travel, not tourism
How, despite the understanding we have that a whole culture can’t be summed up by the center of its capital, the wisdom we have not to curse everyone at once, the restraint we should to not immediately leave this country to never come back, can we stay calm and collected?
Difficult indeed, and it is for this reason that 95% of tourists who visit Vietnam will never return. (Besides, a well-known blogger in the world of backpacking had an experience similar to mine…)
Fortunately after travelling to Vietnam, I had the luxury to regain strength. Mental fatigue can become unbearable after all these robbery attempts, successful or not – and try again.
Travelling to Vietnam: Outside the City
Outside the city center, life is much more peaceful. A half-hour walk from the old town, past the train station, there’s an area where Caucasians can only be rarely seen; and people are much more welcoming. You can sit on a terrace and have dinner quietly, have a beer without getting ripped off, and where menus – all written in Vietnamese only – are the same for all.
Walking last night in the company of another backpacker, back from our dinner on the terrace, two men, sitting in their living room, invited us to have a glass of vodka Hanoi. And then a second. And eat a few snails cooked in garlic. They didn’t understand English. And they didn’t ask anything in return.
This is enough to come to terms with all of humanity and let your guard down, at least for a little while, and keep travelling to Vietnam.