Posted by: Anna | May 27, 2011

Vietnam Wrap Up Post

I liked Vietnam. Bizarre American War experiences aside, Vietnam has a lot to intrigue a tourist – good food, friendly people, beautiful natural landscapes, interesting history, beaches (although we didn’t see any), and more. Like the Philippines, our time in Vietnam felt rushed, and when we left, a great deal remained on my Vietnam to-see and to-do list.

Vietnam initially delighted me with its Asian-ness. After Singapore (so globalized) and the Philippines (so many traces of American culture), Vietnam was the first of the Southeast Asian countries that truly felt Asian – where I felt transported to the Orient of old novels and cheesy stereotypes. The women really wear the conical straw hats. Corners really have people selling homemade street food from wicker baskets.

Like India, Vietnam inspires a sense of wonder in me because it is visually such a different life than mine. Vietnamese people are friendly. When they met us, the immediately wanted
to get our vital statistics – age, married, babies. When we would tell them we were 29 and 30, married for three years, but no babies…they were surprised. The women would always tell us proudly about their babies. No one is at all surprised if you ask them the same questions; in fact, it feels as if it would be rude not to inquire.

Vietnam is poor (which is why for us as travelers from the developed world, it is incredibly cheap), although after spending so much time in India and the Philippines, the poverty certainly seems less shocking. Although when you put it in numbers, I am still honestly unable to comprehend it. We visited a rice noodle making shop (they referred to themselves as a factory, but factory is too large a word for this small operation), where the workers made $40 per month. I have no idea what that means in practical terms for that person’s life, and I suspect they cannot imagine my life. I have been blessed by the accident of birth, certainly.

The implications of cheap labor are interesting. Vietnamese people work hard, and the level of service is generally quite high. People will go out of their way to assist you, even in routine tasks (see the Socialist Hero Postalworker post). Tasks that would never be done manually in America because our labor costs are so high are often done by hand in Vietnam. And not just done by hand, but truly crafted. Simple acts are done with attention. Even when simply serving a bowl of noodles, an act that must happen millions of times a day in Vietnam, each one is treated like an opportunity to create a small beautiful moment. Visual artistry and elegance permeates even the smallest interactions.

Handmade items abound, including beautiful custom pieces. One of the really special experiences we had in Vietnam was at a Fair Trade shop in Hoi An. The shop is staffed by disabled people who have been trained to make handicrafts of various kinds: weaving, jewelry, pottery, etc. The shop occupies the front section of the building, and the workshop occupies the back section. Shoppers are welcome to walk into the workshop and see the various pieces being crafted. Their work is beautiful, and for their work, they receive a living wage in Vietnam (still not that much, but better than not a living wage). Vietnam does not have the social safety net that America or most other developed countries do, and so operations like this often serve as the only avenue beyond depending on family for these people. Not to mention that the birth defects caused by Agent Orange are still evident today.

We walked in, admired many of the beautiful pieces, and picked out a few things to buy. I noticed an attractive pair of silver cufflinks, and Tommy mentioned that he would like to have some roman numeral three cufflinks to wear with his french-cuffed shirts (newly custom made by the tailors in Hoi An). We asked if it was possible to make some with III, and they quickly agreed. We showed them a “III” online, and the salesgirl (who spoke English) went and got the craftsman to look. He said he could make them, and they asked us to come back tomorrow to pick them up. They charged us the same price as the ones already made and out on the shelves in the shop. Tommy was full of anticipation for the rest of the day.

The next day we went back to pick them up, and the salesgirls recognized us immediately and excitedly. They pulled out the cufflinks, nicely packaged, and showed them to us proudly. We were amazed – with only a google image of III, the artisan had made beautiful cufflinks, much more handsome than we expected. Tommy was grinning ear to ear. The salesgirls were so genuinely excited that we liked them too. We asked to take a picture of Tommy with the artisan. It may turn out to be Tommy’s favorite souvenir. Well, that or the burnt orange jacket he got custom made….

Here is Tommy with the artisan who made his cufflinks.

This story just illustrates some of the wonderful things about Vietnam – the beautiful handwork, the culture of service, and the friendliness of the people. It is so refreshing to interact with people who are not jaded, but who demonstrate genuine enthusiasm for life and for meeting new people. It makes even simple, everyday encounters a pleasure.

Usually the wrap up post is almost all words, with a few pictures. This time, I really feel like the images of Vietnam will flesh out the experience that we had. Vietnam is intriguing in that the country is both energetically on the move to the future and following old traditions. Every street corner offers a study in contrast between the modern and the timeless.

This is a shot inside the Cao Dai Temple. Cao Dai is a religion that is unique to Vietnam; it blends many religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. The temple has iconagraphy from many of these religions, along with looking uniquely Vietnamese. The people in the brightly colored robes are monks and nuns, while those in white are lay people. They worship four times a day for 90 minutes each time (noon, 6 PM, midnight, 6 AM). This means the monks and nuns never sleep more than four hours at a time. Lay people just worship as often as they can. The worship is esentially, as I understand it, a meditative chanting.

We saw these women everywhere, on street corners. She carries her wares every morning to her spot and sits and sells them all day from her baskets.

You can buy pineapples, beautifully hand cut like this (to take all the eyes out) on the street all over Vietnam. The pineapple is really sweet, too.

New weirdest food tried - grilled rat. Tastes like ribs.

Visiting Vietnam, I could not avoid thinking of the bigger picture. As an American, I value freedom highly. Interestingly, Vietnam helped me to better understand some of the nuances of that value. Certainly, Vietnam operates in vacuum of political freedom. There is only one political party – the Communist Party. Freedom of speech is severely limited, and the punishments can be severe. At the same time the socialist republic has in some ways a more free market society than the the USA; fewer government regulations, or at least less enforcement of them, creates an environment where business can operate as it sees fit. It seems like the wild west. Sometimes I see the appeal of libertarian perspective in that the government allows the market to self-regulate. Certainly, as a business owner, many regulations only served to hamper my ability to operate profitably and to offer services my clients wanted. In Vietnam, where there are not laws to protect children from selling bracelets on the street at all hours of the day and night, and laws to protect workers from dangerous conditions or sweatshop like working conditions….I prefer some regulation in the end.

Disclaimer on that paragraph above – I’m sure my fleeting impressions from two weeks in Vietnam missed a great deal of nuance and perhaps even misses the larger picture of problems. I just wanted to share the experience of seeing a society that operates very differently from the one I know best, and how it helps me to understand my own perspective on the world.

I really wish we had more time in Vietnam. While I left with interesting impressions, it is only a fleeting glimpse of the culture. I would like to spend more time just being in Vietnam, just to better understand the way of life and to be able to get to know some of the people outside the boundaries of the tourist – tourist industry worker interactions that made up most of our experience with the Vietnamese. Vietnam is the third place that we left too soon.

Haiku for Vietnam

Pho and custom clothes
Work as an act of beauty
First taste of Asia.


If I say that I’m
Canadian, will you then
discount that shirt?
— Tommy


  1. Really enjoyed this recap. I definitely want to go there someday. Burnt orange jacket with the III cufflinks. Tommy, that’s spiffy for Austin, Texas.

    Tell us how they cut the pineapple like that.

    Pineapple Pineapple
    Slurp Slurp
    Yum Yum

  2. Bravo to you for tasting rat! I’m seriously impressed.

  3. I meant to comment on this one earlier. Like your Dad, one of my favorites. It definitely illustrates your enjoyment and appreciation for Vietnam. The fact that is more Asian than where you were previously is intriquing. You had your Dad at the pineapples.

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