Vietnam Time

3/7/2019 10:50:39 AM

French and Asian culture mingle together in Vietnam

Before departing to Vietnam, most of my impression of the land came from bits and pieces of media, such as the world-famous opera Miss Saigon, Tony Leung's Tricycle Driver and Leung Ka-Fai's The Lover. Each of these depicts a war-torn and poverty-stricken country characterized by colonialism.

However, a recent trip to Vietnam has greatly changed my previous perception. This is a charming country full of paradoxes - chaotic traffic, brightly colored houses, delicious rice noodles, high-end French cuisine, the scent of coffee in the air - sentimental but intriguing, simple but modern, evoking endless contemplation.

Country on a motorcycle

On the bustling streets of Vietnam, the first thing you notice is the motorcycles. In big cities such as Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, 80 percent of vehicles are motorbikes.

To shield themselves from the sun, the motorcyclists usually wear long masks that cover their whole face and neck, revealing only their eyes. Imagine hundreds of motorcyclists dressed up like someone about to rob a convenience store coming at you all at once when the traffic light turns green. The experience was quite overwhelming at first.

Though the army of motorcycles looks intimidating, beneath the chaotic veneer I found that everyone was surprisingly organized. They strictly follow traffic laws: Everyone wears a helmet and waits very patiently for red lights.

After a while I started to figure out how to cross the street. The trick is to walk at the same pace as everyone else and gesture so they notice you as they approach. Usually, the motorcycles will slow down and maneuver around you.

Sidewalk culture

It won't take you long to notice the sidewalk culture in Vietnam.

It was a hot afternoon when I arrived at the noisy center of Ho Chi Minh City, where I was surprised and amused to find a man leisurely lying in a hammock strung between two trees by the side of the road and snoring loudly regardless of all the noise around.

Pretty soon I discovered that almost anything can be found on the side of the street and time is meant to be wasted here. A few shaky plastic stools and tables are enough for almost any activity, be it eating, shaving or just relaxing and drinking.

It was a common sight to see people from all walks of life just sitting on small benches by the roadside, shoulder to shoulder, at tiny rocky tables to enjoy bowls of rice noodles.

Also, crowds of three to five people can be found at all hours of the day sitting together drinking coffee on the side of the street. These places may not be up to many people's standards, but they feel comfortable and put you at ease.

It got me thinking that in China there are fewer and fewer street vendors in big cities. Of course, we can still easily find places to eat, but it is not easy to find each other anymore.

French romance

Walking on the streets of Vietnam, the ubiquitous French logos may make one think they were in France. This is especially true in Ho Chi Minh City, where the French built some famous Western buildings, such as the President's Office, the National Convention Center and the Opera House.

Also, the vast majority of Vietnamese houses have a clear French touch. You can easily tell by the European-style roofs, narrow windows and exquisite balconies.

Vietnamese love drinking coffee just like the French do, and maybe even more so.

In Vietnam, you can get a cup of good coffee anywhere, be it upscale restaurants, street cafes or hawkers pushing wheelbarrows down the street. Vietnamese coffee tastes strong and wild, and leaves you wanting for more when mixed with a glass of ice.

The streets of Vietnam are full of European-style cafes with Vietnamese touches. Each cafe is carefully designed and unique in its own way. When you are tired of traveling on foot, you can always find a cafe just around the corner to "recharge your batteries."

Perhaps it is only in places like Vietnam where you can feel it is totally okay to wait 10 minutes for a single cup of drip coffee and then take a few more hours to enjoy it. Time here passes slowly, and you can take your time watching the street.

Friendly encounter

The first impression Vietnamese gave me was that they are very thin, which I guess has something to do with their diet. The food in the country is not as greasy as it is in China, and they have a lot of fresh vegetables as side dishes that help digestion. I didn't see a single heavyweight person during my stay in Vietnam. They didn't appear as warm and smiling as Thais, but it only took some time to find out that they are very friendly and spontaneous.

My friend and I were wandering in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City when we saw three young men sitting next to a pile of watermelons with some amazing carvings on them. The carvings were carefully-crafted animals that were extremely lifelike. They smiled when they saw us, and it was clear that they recognized us as foreigners.

A young man took a piece of paper, drew a South Korean flag and pointed at it. It dawned on me that he was asking if we were Koreans. We shook our heads. Then one of the other young men gave a try and we laughed when we saw he had drawn a Japanese flag.

Seeing them clueless, my friend took the pen and drew a five-star flag and when they finally understood, we laughed together.

Although we were not able to communicate, I suddenly felt an indescribably warmth in my heart. Even now, I still remember how happy I was laughing with strangers on the streets of a foreign country.

It occurred to me that the meaning of travel is never just about the places you go, but more about the people you meet on the way.

What is left in your memory will always be the conversations you had with them, the moment your heart is touched and the moment you become a bigger person by expanding your horizons.

Motorcyclists navigate traffic in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Vendors sell produce in a street market in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Dang Zijun  ( Global Times )
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