Why Vietnam sparkles…or how to hug an entire country

Why Vietnam sparkles

Have you ever had the urge to hug an entire country? Although some countries won’t let you get close to them, but this is not a problem in Vietnam.

Would delicious draught beer on tap for around 50 cents a mug, tempt you to this very special destination?

Vietnam probably has the most friendly and polite people on earth and  as a bonus, they make healthy, delicious street food for less than $1.50 a bowl.

Could that tempt us away from cold, unfriendly Westernised destinations that won’t talk to you?

When my wife and I arrived for a 20 day vacation, I was apprehensive about the food and traffic but then something occurred that melted my heart.

Walking around the streets of Ho Chi Minh city on a steamy pre-monsoonal night, we crossed a busy street near the Korean embassy

when suddenly several women on scooters were tempted at the same time to jump the red light and drive over my foot.

Like a traffic cop, I held up my hand and yelled, “no wait…….”and heard a very loud “shorry” from one of the riders. You don’t hear “shorry” in any westernised traffic.

We began to notice that a national politeness ran through this picturesque and charming country. Later I couldn’t wait to get back to Australia and quiz my local Vietnamese doctor……….“hey Vu, you won’t believe what happens in Vietnam.

People apologise when they don’t have to, which means there might be a national politeness policy?”

“There sure is John, you’ve hit the nail on the head,” he said.

Intrigued and charmed by the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City.

No one gets offended when you walk into the the traffic to take a photograph.

The national politeness policy works for everyone.


From that sticky, steamy night onward, in Ho Chi Minh City, my wife and I fell in love with the other thing we’d been nervous of, the traffic.

We got mesmerised by the thousands of happy motor scooter riders. While eating and drinking coffee we watched it.

As a break from the beautiful scenery, we enjoyed the traffic. “Hey look there is a motorbike with half a tonne of parcels. And there is another one

with two chaps balancing a double bed.”

Yep, the traffic was riveting.

In fact, most Vietnamese are born, raised, romanced, married, earn a living and expire, in close association with their motor scooters.

Import duty on cars is around 100%, raising the price in an effort to keep cars off the road and reduce traffic congestion.

One chap in Ho Chi Minh was even having his daily siesta, curled up on his parked motorbike.

While a tourist needs two hands to pilot one of those scooters, it is not hard to find a pretty, well dressed girl in Hanoi, steering with one hand while

using a mobile phone. Four family members on a scooter in the morning, probably means that the two children are being dropped off at school, while the parents go to work.

Lack of room or safety never seems to be an issue.

Most blushing brides make a pretty picture with their scooter wedding party.

Better than bungy jumping

But here is the leap of faith for a tourist: You walk right out into the traffic with your eyes shut, and the hundreds of scooters politely drive around you. Don’t hold back as it really works.

No one swears or gets enraged in western style.  For tourists accustomed to road rage, this traffic is like poetry. I experimented by walking into a pulsing mass of about a hundred scooters,

while operating a video camera and simultaneously speaking a commentary. What an absolute fruit cake, I hear you thinking, so why didn’t an outgoing Hanoi driver kindly yell out, “watch out you fruit cake.”

It’s because they have a national politeness policy and they are happy to accommodate the antics of dopey tourists.

Not that someone doesn’t end up as roadkill. Vietnam News reports that around 30 motorcyclists are killed in road accidents each week which isn’t bad considering 95% of 70 million people use motorscooters on a daily basis.

My wife and I knew of someone that got splattered in Spain, after forgetting which side of the road their scooter was supposed to be on but we felt safe enough to hire a scooter four times in Vietnam.

Only once did we see a bicycle accident in which some fruit, unfortunately, got damaged. So it is quite safe to hire a scooter and get your adrenalin rush in the traffic, or on some of the country’s steep mountain roads for just $5 a day. The cost is an absolute bargain.

A girl can get no bigger buzz than flying through the mountains of northern Sapa, while sharing the road with cycles and construction vehicles, amid the low hanging clouds.

Every day young men and women were whizzing around those mountain roads while clutching a map, and no one looked  in danger.

The ideal way to forget your age is to zip around the glorious mountain roads north west of Sapa,

10,000 feet above sea level, just like a teenager.


The road toll

The Viet road toll has seen a significant reduction and is probably reasonable considering the more than 50 million scooters on the road each week.

However the national politeness doesn’t extend to the police because they are notorious for pulling up a cyclist and asking for a bribe for some minor infraction.

Viet Nam News says that the police sometimes dress like farmers to trap an unsuspecting motorcyclist. The dirt poor drivers have been known to run over these camouflaged police, with some being injured and bleeding to death.

The green oranges are delicious and the bananas are not picture perfect but equally yummy.

Healthy quality food

At the Than binh restaurant, number 3 district at Ho Chi Minh, we sat and ate 30,000 dong worth of prawn rolls in rice paper, with three dips, worth around $1.50 AU.

The surprises continued with 60 cents for a small bottle of water and $1 for a large 1.5 litre bottle. They can still make a tidy profit after importing it from USA so why all the price gouging in our home countries?

Anyway, back to the super healthy spring rolls which we chomped on while the locals were happy to talk to us,  answering our nosey questions.

Most wealthy countries have a majority that will tell you to mind your business or just ignore you, but Vietnamese will answer prying but sincere question. Education has been highly promoted by the Communist government and it has changed many lives. My taxi driver said his sister was a teacher but his mother is a more lowly paid cook and his father, a farmer.

Then we met Thanh, a 22 year old tour guide in HCM city, getting paid the princely sum of 3 million dong per month, or $133 AU while her mother,

a day’s bus ride away in Tuy Hoa province, cooks for 200,000 dong per month, or $9 AU. Imagine living on under $10 per month and being optimistic, chirpy and very polite to all and sundry.

I had a my mad friend from Sydney who spent three months learning Vietnamese by talking to people at random. It worked because the locals regularly stopped what they were doing and gave him time.

Quite a few would sit him down and spend five minutes correcting his pronunciation. Tell me where you find people like that?

Getting to know the mighty Mekong River, below Ho Chi Minh City.

Meandering with the mighty Mekong

Most tourists try to get down to the Mekong Delta where you can see villages that make confectionary from coconuts, produce exquisite embroidery and offer delicious fruits. If that culture isn’t enough for you,

there are very wrinkly Mekong musicians that play beautiful music on ancient instruments while beautiful girls in traditional dresses will sing and dance their way into your heart.

It takes a couple of hours to travel there by bus but when you can look out the window and see two guys on a scooter balancing a double bed, you know it’s a special place. The mighty Mekong was massive, fast- flowing and wide.

We negotiated this rapid river in a tired junk that had a length of fishing line for a throttle cable. The boat’s accelerator pedal was a piece of pine packing case timber, with a rusting hinge. Everything worked and they took such good care of us. I had a few momentary doubts but I was being a stupid westerner.

Later we were in the capable hands of an 84 year old lady who paddled us up a Mekong tributary to further our cultural experiences in one of the villages. We all took her picture, she smiled through missing teeth no one could have convinced her to be a stay-at-home gran.

It is not unusual to see three children and one parent, or two children and two parents,

scooting to their destination at the same time.



Vietnam is set up for conversation

Another notable thing is that Vietnamese in the city and villages, have small plastic tables and chairs so they can spend many hours each day, sitting, eating and talking.

I only saw wealthy boring Viets watching television on a hot steamy evening. The vital people were on the streets, talking until 10p.m. each night.

That same togetherness thing is replicated by Viets that have settled in Australia. I know first-hand because I did a survey at my local Sunday fruit and vegetable market at Logan City,

Brisbane. I discovered that refugees that came to Australia in boats, back in the 70’s and 80’s, continue to have regular reunions with their relatives. They still sit on plastic furniture at the markets and sell their produce with the aid of children that are now dentists, accountants and pharmacists. Notably they were repulsed when I asked if they would consider putting their old people in an aged care facility.

As a proper journalist and nosey pest, I also asked why they all get up at 2a.m. and pack the van and come to the Logan markets, if their children are accountants, doctors and pharmecists.

“It’s a family thing that we did back in Vietnam so we do it in Australia”, they said. The 2a.m. start allows insomniac Aussies to start buying produce at 5a.m.

Now contrast this to some Aussie vendors at my markets, that assured me they could never pay their children enough to work at their Sunday fruit and vegetable stall.

They had to employ non-relatives while the Asian children appeared to be working for love of family.

Also putting the pragmatic West to shame is that all across lovable Vietnam, Wi Fi is available everywhere and the internet is totally free. As a tourist, you really lap it up and feel completely spoilt.

Delicious chicken noodle soup is a breakfast favorite.


My most memorable venue for eating was on the beach at Hoi An, not too far from Da Nang. It was an average Saturday night in September and we were quickly won over by the sweet trolley -bicycle kitchens.

Each bicycle kitchen is ready with raw materials as they lay out dozens of cane mats and lamps from the foreshore to the waters edge. As the sun sets, each customer is directed to a cane mate, complete with oil burning lamp to create atmosphere, and they are fussed over totally by  superb dedicated Vietnamese cooks who could feature on any Masterchef cook-off.

They get your order and bring your food and drink so promptly so that you can watch the stars, hear the surf and have the most romantic candle lit meals. You are surrounded by hundreds of people talking, candleing and canoodling and the amazing thing is that in the beachside darkness, no one ever seems to get your order mixed up.

My wife ordered “home cooked” potato chips which surprisingly were more delicious than any we had tasted. How did they knock it up on the back of a bicycle?

Peering into Vietnamese lives

In district 3 of Ho chi Minh city, I found a mad Mexican named Moises who said he would translate for me while I got to know a family that sold delicious food and drinks till late into the night.

I met 15-year-old Lee who happily told me that seven other family members slept in their one room above the shop. Lee and her siblings went to bed around 11p.m. but the parents and elderly only trundled in and began snoring around 1a.m.

This was after many delirious hours of glorious Asian chatter, while seated on the plastic furniture on their footpath, while they watched their own traffic.  Lee also said it was the sincere desire of millions of country -based Vietnamese to escape their low paid and much slower lifestyles and attain to more frenetic and highly paid city lives. The modern cities had a magnetic attraction.

There are around 70 million Buddhist shrines in Vietnamese shops and households.

Buddah is at the top, the god of money is on the left and on the right is the god of good luck.

The people are always optimistic that things will get better.

Often the Communist flag can be seen on a shop front.


Money didn’t bring more happiness

We noticed that Hanoi seems to have a higher standard of living and thus more shiny motorcycles than Ho Chi Min, but the award for happiness goes to the less developed areas and the residents of the poorer cities. The giant happiness award goes to the crazy black Hmongs of Sapa, north-west of Hanoi in the hills.

We travelled north-west from Hanoi, overnight by train and then took a transit van to Sapa in the serious hills. On the ziggy, zaggy, windy mountainous drive up to picturesque Sapa,

we noticed our local van driver was a fan of “Need for Speed” movies, 1, 2 and 3. “Should someone speak up,” I wondered. Our driver might not realise that buses can slip off wet mountain roads.

It was like a roller-coaster ride, but still I didn’t complain as we caught sight of blurred terraces of rice, all with built-in irrigation on slopes steeper than 45 degrees. On the 70 degrees slopes, between the rice,

the native Hmongs grew entire mountainsides of corn. It was so steep that a farmer,  would have to pack his lunch and toilet paper before starting his daily climb. My mind went back to my Hmong friends at Logan markets, near Brisbane. It isn’t surprising that they viewed an  Aussie backyard, measuring a quarter of an acre, as a massive economic opportunity.

Speaking of sustainable farming, it appears that Vietnamese folks love to pee on their fruit trees. You notice it more when you are aware of the trend.

In our 20 days of travelling, we saw four men relieving themselves on their backyard fruit trees. This recycling, connection, with their fruit reminded you of things you can’t often see in Australia,

the UK or the USA, because people are so busy with protocol and health regulations.

Acres of corn grow on the sides of mountains and hills where it is not suitable for rice.

Once you embrace the Hmong’s zest for farming and selling things to the tourists, you can start to absorb their culture. Some of our friends were repulsed by the Hmong’s eagerness to sell their hats, bags and shawls but not us. We were in awe of the Hmong women’s talent at needlework. They also had the best language skills of any group we met. It didn’t take long before you wanted to hug them.

If you had to write 2,000 words about the charm and politeness of Americans, Australians or the British, you might drive people to their travel agents, but you’d have to tell some untruths in that story.

In the west you would struggle but with Vietnam, it comes easy. It is the first thing you want to put on your page.

Summing up a cultural experience like this one, you could just say that four people ate out on delicious street food for less than $15 and washed it down with 50 cent mugs of draft Da Nang beer,

and the people actually want to talk to you. I forgot to say that included fruit.

One tourist, Laura from San Francisco, summed it up this way: “they’re the nicest people I have ever met, and they are so forgiving.”

It was Saturday on the beach at Hoi An. In several hours it would become

a sea of lamps where conversation, delicious food and romance

would take centre stage in one of the most charming countries on earth.

About John
John started out as a cadet in 1970 at Bundaberg News Mail, continuing as a feature writer at Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, then began producing regular freelance articles for the Sunday Mail and New Idea. Later he took up science writing for Qld climate, water and soil scientists. Whimsical stories and humorous bush poetry is his current passion.


  1. well said.

  2. karol AntipasJanuary 18, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    Loved this story .what a great way to share your holiday in story form. thanks.

Comments are closed.