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Vietnam’s Spunk!

Yes, that IS a giant octopus piled on top of a moving motorcycle in the photo to the left.

“Remember,” said Ahmar, speaking from his ten months living in Hanoi, “Vietnam has spent most of its history fighting invaders– from the Chinese, to the French, to us Americans. It’s not surprising that the people have… spunk.”

I nodded enthusiastically, so happy that this friend of a friend of a friend had agreed to meet me in a bohemian cafe in Hanoi to share his insights on life here. Indeed, during my month in Vietnam, I’ve most certainly seen this “spunk” that Ahmar was referring to. I had labeled it “backbone”. More disgruntled tourists call it “rudeness”.

“It’s kind of refreshing in a way,” said Ahmar. “Our NGO suggests a public health change to the people, and sometimes they’re just like, ‘Um, no. We’re not going to do it that way. We have our own culture and our own way of change.’ In a lot of developing countries, accepting First World advice too readily has led to problems. Vietnam is being protectionist and proud with reason.”

“I think this spunk also goes for language,” I mused, forking some chocolate cake. “The level of English proficiency in Vietnam seems much lower than I saw in Cambodia or Thailand.”

“Yup,” said Ahmar, smiling, “They’re sort of saying, ‘We have 86 million people, and we really shouldn’t need to learn English. Learn our language if you want to talk to us.’ I have respect for that!”

Walking through the streets of any Vietnamese town, you really do have to have respect for the Vietnamese hustle. According to official figures, Vietnam has a reported unemployment rate of just 5% to (some claim) 1.5%. Sure enough, there is no one begging on the street. Instead, everyone is striving to sell something. “Motorbike, miss?” “Dragonfruit or pomegranate?” “Sunglasses or pirated Lonely Planet book?” And always: “Dried squid?” Is this industriousness a national trait or an effect of communist political policies?

The hustle can wear on a person after a time, though. “Sometimes the constant fighting to stand up for yourself here gets exhausting,” admitted Ahmar. I was in Thailand last week for work, and when the Thai clerk charged me double for a water I just said, “Noo, that’s not the real price,” and the man smiled and halved it.

“Amen!” I assented, laughing, “Yesterday this fruit vendor in Hanoi’s Old Quarter argued with me for ten straight minutes that her mango cost two dollars. She would rather I didn’t buy from her at all than lose the fight!”

“This striding forward connects to the crazy motorbike traffic in Vietnam, too,” explained Ahmar, and I clutched my heart, constantly traumatized from the chaos of Vietnamese streets.

“The traffic flow is RIDICULOUS,” continued Ahmar, “and yet there are hardly any accidents. Why? Because the one guideline is: look straight ahead of you and don’t hit anything directly in front. If you follow that guideline, you’ll never get into an accident in Vietnam.”

I shook my head in amazement that there was any logic at all in the explosion of motorcycles outside, but Ahmar had a point: it is full speed ahead in Vietnam, all at once… but it kind of works.

Just look at the photos on this page and try not to smile at Vietnam’s spunk.

How many other countries frequently have people motorcycling with monster octopi and stuffed crocodiles piled atop their vehicles?

Where else are there such strange “Danger, Construction” signs?

How many destinations have ice cream stores called “Fanny” which you can patronize for a Vietnamese Dong? (FYI, yesterday I ate the following Fanny flavors: Young Rice, Chocolate Chili, Sapodilla, and Sticky Caramel. Yum! Avocado flavor today…)

What other country sports massive billboards of Ho Chi Minh cuddling young children?

That’s right: only in Vietnam, folks. You gotta love it.

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Marcus Thomas

Monday 4th of November 2013

Hi, I've been to Vietnam and it was a struggle communicating with the locals especially the taxi drivers. I've also been to thailand, but like what you've said Vietnamese have lower levels of English. They really should train the tourism industry on English if they want their country to be more tourist-friendly.

Heather

Tuesday 12th of February 2013

The photo with the octopus is great! We were in Pakistan and India before, so we haven't seen much on Vietnamese motorbikes that has surprised us, but that octopus is definitely something interesting!

Lillie

Wednesday 13th of February 2013

Yes, one gets used to amazing things on motorcycles in that region! Glad you enjoyed the mobile octopus. :)

Fiona P

Wednesday 2nd of May 2012

I think I could buy one box of mangoes for 2 dollars!

Xiu Na

Monday 25th of April 2011

I think it is ridiculous how a lady would argue for ten minutes saying that the cost of her mango is two dollars.

Imported Blogger Comments

Wednesday 26th of May 2010

Anonymous said... I'm living now for nearly two years in Danang, Vietnam and I really love your writing about it. Especially this one:-) It's really true what you say about the bargaining. It's very exhausting to get a reasonable price in Vietnam. In comparison to Indonesia, Thailand or China. It makes always fun to bargain in those countries but you really get tired of buying things in Vietnam... but if you live there you have to:-)

October 30, 2009 4:30 AM

Luddy Sr. said... Oh my god, that octopus!

December 17, 2009 10:05 AM

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