I will readily admit that until about a year ago, I knew almost nothing about anywhere in Southeast Asia, much less specific countries. However, thanks to becoming more involved in the travel community and, oddly enough, Vietnam War reenacting, I can now distinguish Laos from Cambodia, and Thai from Vietnamese. In the process of learning about these places, I have been particularly struck by Vietnam.
It is odd that I want to go to Vietnam. I don’t like hot weather, I’m not a beach bunny, and I generally prefer my hiking trails sans-land mines. However, something about Vietnam really calls to me. It is one of the only southeast Asian countries to have a cuisine that isn’t likely to leave me without tastebuds. The pace of life in Vietnam seems both faster and slower than its neighbors. It also has a lingering French influence that I find quite intriguing and compelling. And, like my previous home of South Korea, it is a country that recovered from an awful, un-winnable, stalemate of a war at a truly astonishing pace, resulting in the curious dichotomy of quiet, unassuming rural areas bumping up against high speed, metropolitan modern cities.
When I was applying for jobs in Korea, a family friend said she could easily get me a job in Vietnam. I declined because I was focused on Korea’s potential as a profitable country (little did I know that the Korean Won would drop so precipitously during my time there that I ended up making the equivalent of the American minimum wage), but many times, I wish I had not. In retrospect, I went to Korea for all the wrong reasons: it was easy to get a job, it paid well, and I knew that I’d be in demand, even with the increasing levels of anti-foreigner sentiment there. Teaching in Vietnam would not have paid off my debt, but teaching in Korea didn’t either. In Vietnam I would have likely been able to travel more (Korea is, thanks to North Korea, effectively an island), my efforts to teach the locals English would have been appreciated rather than tolerated, and I would have been a part of a culture that focuses on more than just the current pop songs and television dramas. In Korea I realized that I really did enjoy living in a rural area, and I think that Vietnam would have allowed me to have an even better experience. In fact, back when it was looking like Marc was not going to be able to find a good job here in the states, we were looking at going over to Vietnam to teach for a year or two. I’m really glad he found a job he enjoys, but I’ll be honest: part of me still wishes that he had not, and that we would be going to Vietnam instead.
Part of what fascinates me about Vietnam is the same thing that fascinates me about Mongolia: a preference for traditional culture over modern culture. I’m sure that some folks will see this as a particularly imperialist, western viewpoint, but I really appreciate it when I see cultures that stick to their own traditional lifestyles rather than going after the modern rat race. Sure, Vietnam has plenty of modern cities like Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, but it also has vast tracts of wilderness still being farmed by hill tribes whose lifestyle hasn’t changed all that much in the last several centuries. As someone who generally enjoys retreating from the world and who at one point wanted to be a hermit, I can appreciate that decision to not move to the city, even when the opportunity presents itself. It’s a preference for a slower way of life, one that I enjoy.
Vietnam is one of those countries that I would have to take time to get to know, to explore. I doubt I would be satisfied with just a few days or weeks. I would love to go there for 3-4 months, rent an apartment, and really get to know the place. I will, unfortunately, have to learn to deal with bugs and land mines and stifling humidity. But, for the motorcycling opportunities, the food, the beaches, and the amazing cultures to be found there, I think it’s worth it.
[Header Image by Etoile]
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