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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.

Loving Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake
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