I have never been attracted to this country but by dint of hearing that it is beautiful, I decided to go there. It is a country that is not as striking as Thailand or Indonesia but is appreciated in the long run, above all thanks to the friendliness of the people, always calm and relaxed (apart from when they drive). The high quality of the food is just the icing on the cake. What is surprising is the ability to get back up after years of brutal and violent war thanks to the community spirit that animates its people. There are many who are investing in a country in full growth, ready to enter within a few years among the most influential Asian countries.
Vietnam is a particular country with a recent history that is far from happy. Despite this, it was able to get up quickly and heal its wounds, thanks above all to its people who are so calm and lovable, with a strong sense of community. The things I liked most are definitely the people and the food, which make this country so easy to live in. During my almost two months of stay, I met men and women who made me feel home.
For an article on my trip accompanied by original photos, I refer here.
“– Private: Sergeant, you got any advice on how to stay alive in Vietnam?From the film Tigerland
– Sergeant Cota: Yes, I do, Private. Don’t go.”
The first Vietnamese state was born between the 4th and 2nd centuries BCE and was the legendary kingdom of Au Lac. In 221 BCE it is conquered by China which will dominate it for more than a thousand years. In the tenth century CE, under the leadership of Khúc Hạo first and Khúc Thừa Dụ then, it regains its autonomy. In 983 the emperor Ngô Quyền defeated the Chinese by founding Dai-Co-Viet. In the 13th century, the dynasty expanded its territories and they were the only ones in Asia to stop the Mongol invasion three times, defending Vietnamese territory. The expansion of the kingdom continues south to the detriment of the Cham kingdoms. In 1770, after conquering Cambodian territories, there was an internal revolt in Vietnam which led to the tripartition of the country. The kingdom is reunited thanks to Nguyễn Ánh and the French exiles of the Revolution. In the mid-1800s, the French presence became despotic by removing autonomy from the Vietnamese government.
During the Second World War, the Japanese invaded the country and governed them in collaboration with the French already present. When Paris was liberated in 1944, the Japanese disarmed the French and created the Vietnam Empire. The only internal political force that opposes external domination is that led by the communist-nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh. At the end of the war, he proclaimed the independence of the country and declared the previous treaties null. France then intervened militarily but was defeated in 1954 by the Viet Minh army. During the Geneva Conference of the same year, Vietnamese territory is divided into two: north and south. The north is given to Ho Chi Ming while the south is given to the US-backed anti-communist Catholic Ngô Đình Diệm. It was decided that in 1956 Vietnam would become a united state with a democratically elected government.
The Vietnam War
In fact, these elections never took place because the US feared that Ho Chi Minh would win them. So they push Diệm to reject them and to declare South Vietnam as a sovereign state. This unleashes pockets of rebellion that are soon supported by the Viet Minh army. In 1957 real guerrillas began carried out both by the Viet Minh and by smaller groups that converge in the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong). In the 1960s, first Kennedy and then Johnson sent large military forces, using the mass media to distort the reality of the facts. American soldiers carry out atrocities beyond the human-understandable with the massive use of napalm, the terrible orange agent (a dioxin-based chemical component), torture, rape, mass murder of civilians, destruction of innocent villages and so on.
Many American soldiers and officers rebel against these methods, abandoning the battlefield and denouncing these war crimes. The whole progressive western world, especially the American one, mainly made up of young university students, but not only, mobilizes in demonstrations and protests against this atrocious war. Due to the stance of public opinion, strong internal conflicts within the American ruling class, to the continuous supplies of men and weapons by the USSR and China through Cambodia, in 1973 the American army left South Vietnam. The Paris peace accords of the same year recognize the sovereignty of both countries but the Viet Cong, as soon as the US army has withdrawn, invade the South and conquer it in a few months, unifying Vietnam under a single communist government. Saigon is renamed Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam calls itself the Socialist Republic.
After nearly 20 years of struggle and a large number of deaths, seriously injured and traumatized, an economy aimed at war and a devastated, polluted and still full of anti-personnel mines country, many decide to leave. Due to conflicts along the borders with Cambodia led by the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam invaded the neighbouring country in 1978 and laid the government down, establishing a puppet state. This creates tensions with China, which supported the Khmer Rouge; frictions lead to a war that leads to nothing. Only with the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia in the 1990s did conflicts with China ease. In 1990 Vietnam became part of ASEAN: Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In 1995 relations with the USA are restored. In 2006 it joined the World Trade Organization while in 2015 it reached an agreement with the Trans-Pacific Partnership: free trade on an area that affects 12 countries, including Japan, Mexico, Australia and Canada.
Vietnam seen with my own eyes
“In Japan people drive on the left. In China people drive on the right. In Vietnam it doesn’t matter.”Patrick Jake O’Rourke
The first thing you notice when arriving in Vietnam, whether it’s Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City changes little, is the crazy traffic. Cars, mopeds, pedestrians, bicycles, trucks and means of transport of all types that go in all permitted and illegal directions. Traffic lights are rare, like pedestrian crossings, which are not respected in the least. By motorbike, you go in one, two, three, four, five … They carry babies in their arms while the husband drives the scooter and sometimes they breastfeed as well, so as not to miss anything. Everyone passes together and there are no precise rules, except that of trying to survive without being crushed. The only reason they don’t make accidents or make a few of them is that everyone drives very slowly, including cars. They honk continuously, not because they are stressed or nervous but, since no one respects the stop, to warn that they are passing. However, after being in India, the Vietnamese traffic is not at those levels, it still maintains a minimum of rational logical sense.
Vietnam is a country with a high number of non-believers, considered one of the least religious in the world. 12% of Buddhists, mainly from the Mahayana school, 8% of Christians while the Cadaoists reach almost 5: it is a new religion founded in the early twentieth century which is a kind of syncretism of the main religions. It proclaims the existence of only one God (creator of all religions), promotes non-violence, vegetarianism and reincarnation, from which one must free oneself in order to go to heaven. There are other religions with percentages below 1; for the rest, the Vietnamese do not recognize themselves as belonging to any religion. Those are 73%. Among these, however, there are many who still believe in superstitions, who practice the worship of ancestors and the rituals of the Vietnamese popular religion, which is a combination of animism, Confucianism and Taoism.
Respect for the dead is very high and the tradition according to which the eldest son, after 3, 5 or 7 years (depending on the areas) must unearth the deceased father, remove the bones from what remains of the flesh and burn them is still in use. At home, everyone has an altar through which the ancestors are prayed, incense and food offered during the main ceremonies or for a specific request. The belief in spirits and ghosts is very strong. They also believe that if one does not properly practice rituals for ancestors, he/she will become a hungry spirit. All these beliefs and practices are more folkloristic than religious and belong to the tradition rather than to religion.
Vietnamese cuisine is very good and very cheap. It does not have many condiments, it is very light and rich in aromatic herbs and healthy vegetables. The most famous dish is Pho, which is a rice noodle soup with meat or vegetables or fish. Other specialities worthy of mention are the Gui Con, raw vegetable rolls (not fried like Chinese ones) with crispy shrimp; Dau Phu or braised soft tofu; Banh Mi is a French baguette filled with mixed ingredients of your choice. Just to name a few. Eating street food, good and safe, you spend a maximum of € 2 per meal. There is no shortage of tropical fruit, such as Dragon Fruit, passion fruit, guava, coconut of various types, sugar apple, wax apple, melons, pineapple, bananas and so on, which give rise to very good and cheap juices. Ethnic restaurants also all have very low prices and high quality. Vegetarian and vegan restaurants are very popular and the great thing is that they are extremely cheap!
The most important holiday of all is the Tet, or the Vietnamese New Year, which corresponds in all respects to the Chinese one. The Tet celebrations last for weeks: schools close for almost a month, people stop working, the cities are full of decorations and the most disturbing thing is the people who sing on the street. In Vietnam they really love Karaoke and even the nastiest, filthiest and poorest bar has a thousand-watt speaker with a microphone connected and bases of Vietnamese songs. They sing all day, from morning to night, in every corner of every city, at unbearable volumes. They can even start at around 6.30 in the morning and end after midnight. During this time, apart from singing, everyone returns home to their families (since most live in the big metropolises of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City to work).
One of the number one businesses in Vietnam for a Westerner is definitely teaching English. There are many native and non-native speakers, with certificates taken online or on-site, who venture to teach English to private schools for children aged 4 to 18. The legislation, until recently, was very mild even though lately it is becoming more rigid and a general degree and a certificate are required to teach English to foreigners. Many are, however, those who manage to work even without these requirements. Obviously native speakers are privileged. Those who are disabled are black people (it doesn’t matter if they are native speakers) and Asians (even if they were born in countries where English is spoken as a first language, it doesn’t matter). Caucasians are the most advantaged, regardless of their level of preparation. The pay is definitely good considering that it starts from a minimum of 1000 USD up to 2000 and more for those who have experience and work in universities. Considering the low cost of living, it means living like a king.
Vietnam was under China for over a thousand years before becoming independent, although it has always maintained a more or less subordinate relationship. Chinese culture is still strongly present and can be seen in religion (Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism), in temples, in traditions (Tet himself is none other than the Chinese New Year), in culture (it is easy to meet Chinese elements such as statues of characters from The Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en) and so on. In many temples, the inscriptions are still in Chinese characters, as is the architecture in Chinese style. The night and day markets, street food, eating everything (in Vietnam you eat the dog that is considered a delicacy, for example) are legacies of Chinese culture. Surely also having a communist government further unites these two nations that have always been close despite the moments of friction.
Unlike what I expected, I didn’t see much poverty, quite the contrary. In six weeks of travel, there would have been one or two people begging. I have not seen anyone living on the street and even the poorest houses are made of brick. Sure, I haven’t visited all of Vietnam palm by palm, but as far as I could see it’s very different from countries like India or Cambodia. Poverty exists and the gap between the rich and the poor are very high, but misery appears to have been overcome. And although, in fact, there are many poor people, it is an extremely safe country. You can drop your wallet and you will find it with the money inside. Scooters are often parked without a padlock, without a steering lock and with helmets hanging on mirrors, yet nobody steals them.
A country that is enjoyed slowly, stopping in places and talking to people. It does not have particular things that strike at first sight but the goodness of its food, the kindness and relaxation of its inhabitants, the welcoming climate and the enchanting places make it perfect for those who can grasp the subtle and serene beauty that springs from kind hearts. A country to keep an eye on from an economic point of view, in which to invest if you have money, a nation ready to take a leap forward and to amaze the rest of Asia.
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