1. How to lend a helping hand.
Step one foot into Vietnam and you’ll be greeted with two things: sticky, steamy air and the warmest of welcomes. While America is made safe and welcoming with tedious and drawn-out security checks, expensive alarm systems, and keeping children inside with video games, Vietnam is made safe and welcoming by the generosity of its people. You’ll see this for yourself when your bike breaks down on the side of Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa and you’re rescued within minutes by a kindly-looking man with grease stains up to his elbows. He’ll beckon you to his nearby sửa xe (bike repair shop), hand you a red plastic stool, and unabashedly make small talk with you in broken English until he’s fixed your bike and you’ve exchanged numbers on squares of toilet paper.
You’ll notice it too when you stop at a stranger’s home to ask where the nearest hotel is and find it difficult to be shy. The door is already open to let light, air, and the world in, and the stoop is casually lined with lots of brightly-colored sandals that let you know who’s home. Once ushered in, you’ll likely get an offer to sleep there for the night, along with a much-needed cup of hot tea or bowl of hủ tiếu while your bed is made.
Or maybe you’ll first realize it when you walk into a small, family-owned shop where the ancestors’ altar takes up more room than the product display case, where the smell of agarwood incense burning for weeks on end swirls in the air with the stench of stale nước mắm. You’ll walk out three Tiger beers and two kisses from bà Lan later. The undeserved hospitality shown in this dynamic country — even to recent enemies — should spawn a few moral questions in each of us, along with spotlighting our individualistic natures and putting them to shame. The Vietnamese have a group-oriented culture and take pride in helping out their fellow man — once you’re part of it, you’ll never want to go back.
2. How to work with what you have.
Less than 50 years ago, Vietnam was home to unwanted colonialism. In its strife, the masses banded together and fought — for two whole decades — at the hands of the world’s greatest superpowers, and won. How did these unassuming, modest people manage such a feat? Just take a look around. One of the first things you’ll notice about this “primitive” society (though with shopping malls, apartment complexes, and showy beer clubs starting to dominate the city streets, that’s debatable) is their endless ability to stay resourceful, industrious, and utilitarian in the face of any obstacle. The past 50 years have carved these men and women out of steel, and it takes quite the snag to get them to bat an eye.
Where’s the proof? Just find a challenge and watch them soar. Complain to your landlord that there’s a hole in your roof when monsoon season is in full swing. With a hot glue gun in one hand and one of his kitchen cabinet doors in the other, he’ll report back minutes later with a boastful smile and exclaim, “You see? You see? Easy!”
Get a flat tire on the edge of Gò Vấp and you’ll have no choice but to trust and awaken the only man on the road you find — the one dozing on a shoddy lawnchair with an orange cellophane-wrapped tire resting near his left leg. He’ll patch it up with the tiny, glowing end of his lit cigarette and when you drive off fearing for your life, convinced you just paid 30,000 VND to end up in the bushes, your bike actually drives better than ever.
Or buy a queen-sized mattress and two end-tables for your apartment, and then hail a Vinasun taxi to haul everything back — but no, no, no, put your hand down. The sales assistant will insist he can fit it all on the back of his ’87 Honda Cub, and his daughter might hop on for a joy ride too.
And when every day you come home soaked from the torrential rains that just won’t cease, hair plastered to your forehead, shivering through your cheap plastic poncho, glasses only capturing and magnifying each raindrop, your next door neighbor will be outside loving it. It’s not a burden, an inconvenience, or a danger — these rain puddles are free and it’s time to wash the dishes.
3. How to recognize the power of waking early and the saving grace of the afternoon nap.
Vietnam gets up early and stays up late, but it’s hardly a country that never sleeps — it gets its shut-eye in the afternoon. Get up with the sun and you’ll find your neighbors eating hot, just-cooked cháo lòng, doing tai chi in Tao Dan park, or already on their way to score a feast of mangoes, dragon fruit, and water apples at the morning markets. Burn the midnight oil and you’ll hear the rhythmic beats of endless karaoke music filling the streets even from your 11th story windows, the whizz of bikes carrying 4 or 5 laughing youngsters flashing by, and the cacophonous deconstruction of small, metal, streetside stands selling nước mía (sugar cane juice)as they turn in for yet another day’s early morning. The Vietnamese get more done before 2 pm and after midnight than most Americans can on 6 cups of coffee and a looming deadline.
But when the afternoon hits, don’t come knocking. You just might be swatted away. And deservedly so — how many sunrises have you seen this week?
4. How to make it happen in small spaces.
Picture the concrete pavement of Điện Biên Phủ — the innumerable power lines bunched together in the sky, blocking out your view of second story windows on either side, faded shop signs advertising the same family names over and over, garage-like shop doors swung open indicating life is open for business, banana carts trying to push their way through craggy sidewalks, finding issue with telephone poles and random passersby. Now picture it with hundreds upon hundreds of motorbikes, spewing up plumes of exhaust, angry motorists honking away their frustrations, and traffic lights being “organically” ignored. Bikes weave their way through inches of space, up onto sidewalks, past decorative street lights, and into traffic that otherwise wouldn’t be budging. Cars seem like behemoths out of place, inching along at the will of forgiving motorists, sometimes deserving a punch to their doors.
When it comes to small spaces, the Vietnamese make it happen. You’re in that throng of hundreds of bikes, all ahead of you, all equally sweating in the heat, all gazing longingly together in unison for the light to change and, lo and behold, one weasel-y driver finds six inches of space to work his way to the front lines. Soon enough, everyone else behind you follows suit and you’re left in the back of the pack, never having noticed the chance you didn’t take. Or maybe you’re on a xe om (bike taxi), and you tell the driver you’re late — he whips you onto sidewalks and into alleys so small you have to close your eyes as you scrape the sides of your legs, but you make it out just fine, but for a few scratches. Where there’s a will and a few inches, there’s a way. And the Vietnamese will prove it.
But it’s not just with traffic, either. Give a Vietnamese entrepreneur three square feet of space, a basic business plan, minimal overhead, and initial outlay and they’ll find a way to turn a profit. It may not be flashy and it may not be grand, but those three square feet, that pile of lime-painted concrete, the storefront boasting the finest banh mis and the coldest cà phê sữa đás west of the Saigon River will receive their heart and soul. Those six inches on the street, that three square feet of retail space — that’s opportunity. They’ll take it, and they’ll make it happen. Zero excuses, 100% diligence and effort. An enviable quality, hands down.
5. How to cook — without cheese, butter, and bacon.
If you do only one thing in Vietnam, it should be gathering intel into the art of Vietnamese cooking. After you know how to say “ngon quá!” (very delicious!), roam the streets until your nose pinpoints odors of grilling pork, steaming hot noodles, fresh baked baguettes, and frying spring rolls lining a nearby sidewalk. Better yet, make friends with a local family and watch the matriarch again and again and again until the image of her rolling the rice paper, mashing up the taro root, and delicately mixing soy, fish, and chili sauces is burned into your memory.
Vietnamese food is one of the finest cuisines on our little blue dot — fusing French, Chinese, and Thai influences. And you needn’t go to a 5-star restaurant to experience it the way it’s meant to be. Simply make an impromptu stop at the best-smelling hole-in-the-wall phở stand you can find — there will be plenty of motorbikes parked out front and plenty of aluminum tables filled with plenty of hungry people — and grab a stool. A bored-looking teenager will likely come up to you, hand you a glass of trà đá, and look at you expectantly. “Một tô phở bò,” (a bowl of beef phở) is your response, and you watch a tired-looking woman robotically throw a fresh serving of noodles into the boiling water — she’s done this since she was seven — and you know that soon your request will be granted.
What you don’t know is that you’ll want to grab that can’t-be-bothered teenager and say to him, “Have you tasted this?! Have you felt it seep into your veins, recharge your soul, and enlighten your palette to a subtle, refined, almost magical mélange of flavors?” But you don’t. You settle for, “Cảm ơn, em,” and guzzle down your meal.
And the vegetarian food. Oh, the vegetarian food. Thanks to their Buddhist roots, the Vietnamese can work miracles with a bit of tofu. Walk up to the street-side buffet in Thuyền Viên, and try to poke your head between the throngs of people ordering their own smorgasbords and the flies buzzing relentlessly amidst your next meal. Once you get the attention of one of the many blue t-shirts floating around, point to several of the large aluminum pots of mysteriously sauced and sliced tofu — you won’t recognize a thing — and grab a table. You’ll be brought a king’s feast of vegetarian fare that in time you’ll grow to worship. Those “chicken-y bits,” the “bamboo drumsticks,” and the fake shrimp may just make a convert out of you.
6. How to respect our elders and teachers.
The amount of kinship terms Vietnamese boasts is paralleled by few languages. There are well over 20 pronouns used in Vietnamese, reflecting their level of respect and value for even the most distant of family members. That being said, it doesn’t stop with familial blood lines — the Vietnamese are highly reverent of their elders and those in positions of knowledge or authority, like teachers. Families stick together, students show loyalty, and as a result, relationships last the test of time. Aging parents aren’t left in the dust, children have barrels of role models to choose from, and the family unit struggles and succeeds together. It may sound a bit suffocating from our end, but in Vietnam it’s only natural and right.
How can a foreigner experience this first-hand? Take “Teacher’s Day,” for example. In America, you might get a few greeting cards from the earnest children whose parents actually remembered. In Vietnam, you’ll be lucky to find room on your desk for all your bouquets of flowers and metal tins of crackers and cookies. For a week, you’ll speak to your coworkers through a floral barricade, decorated with red and pink cards, odd trinkets (like the bizarre gallon of shampoo), and the occasional fake designer purse reminding you of your not-so-fake value.
It won’t take many conversations to see it in everyday action, too — find a youngster and simply ask them about daily life. They might mention sharing a bed with grandmother, happily skipping a Friday night out with friends to work with mom, or last Sunday’s family dinner where dozens and dozens of relatives gather weekly. Tour a two-bedroom home that sleeps 9 (comfortably, you’re told) and watch a few generations working cohesively to get hot food on the table. And whether you’re blood or not, you’ll feel like family.
7. The meaning of a good squat and what it’s like to have no shame.
It takes a certain amount of gall to squat in the middle of the insta-noodle aisle at the Big C, wouldn’t you say? But yet, you’ll have to get your ramen on later, because grandma is in the middle of a powering-up session, squatting to her heart’s content. Maybe she’s contemplating between chicken or beef, maybe she just likes the feel of her lilac-colored, flowery pajamas against her legs, or maybe she knows something the rest of us don’t. Whatever it is, she’s making this aisle her own for the moment and doing as she damn well pleases. You can come back for your noodles later.
This lack of shame isn’t seen just in odd instances at supermarkets, though — you’ll also frequently notice it in the “al fresco” urination happening on most street corners. At first, that is. Eventually, it’ll all blend into the background. The same goes for those silky, elastic-waisted, archetypal pastel pajamas. Older Vietnamese women seem to wear them all day every day — they’re so ubiquitous, you might not even notice them. Instead of dressing up to the nines to obtain some arbitrary, perceived level of status, they opt for matching floral pajama sets. Heck, wouldn’t most of us — if we felt it was “okay” and knew an afternoon nap was just around the corner anyway? Do any of us actually want to experience a certain level of shame pumping gas in our pjs? Doubtful. In Vietnam, we don’t have to. Maybe these things should be okay. And maybe an earthly utopia does exist.