It’s a peculiar place, Vietnam.
Not in an obvious way though. The strangeness doesn’t jump out at you and slap you in the face. It only becomes clear when you look out of the taxi window at the life going on outside, focus a little longer on the little old lady standing by the street or the items sold by the shops on the main road.
You need to give yourself time to let the weirdness sink in.
Firstly, people walk around in their pyjamas here. Not just at home. I’m talking about people on the street, in the middle of Hanoi, or the middle of Ho Chi Minh city. They walk around the lake, which is surrounded by restaurants, as if pyjamas are the new jogging gear, and then stand for a while holding on to the railing, swinging their arms back and forth in some kind of tai chi exercise. Here in Ho Chi Minh, I’ve seen grandmas wearing pyjamas pushing their grandchildren along the road in prams, and even shop keepers dressed in pyjamas taking coffee orders.
You might think I’m joking – I’m not. I’m talking about silky pyjamas, striped Mr Bean pyjamas and soft winter pyjamas with small cute animals and hearts on them. In the middle of the day. In the middle of the city.
Equally peculiar I find the size of furniture here. I love the street food culture – there’s a certain grubbiness too it, an Asia feel. Restaurants facing out onto the street, chairs and tables strewn across the footpath, with a direct view of the hectic traffic of scooters, bicycles, tuc tucs and cars in front. Women washing dishes by the drain beside bowls of green herbs, and men welding pieces of old cars back together. Children running around, laughing; tourists peering curiously into shops as they step over the activity of day to day business on the streets of Vietnam. But everywhere, it seems, there’s a children’s tea party going on. The furniture looks like it came out of a toy shop, and I’m amazed that I haven’t seen more people snapping the legs off chairs.
A third peculiarity lies in the ability of the Vietnamese to plant vegetable gardens everywhere. Naturally exceptional gardeners (even at Australian markets the Vietnamese sell the best fruit and vegetables), the Vietnamese have seemingly not only mastered the soil, sun and water requirements of producing top-quality green leafy vegetables and herbs, they’ve also managed to overcome all logistical obstacles a horticulturalist might usually face and started planting things on traffic islands, among the concrete retaining walls of man-made lakes and inside water-filled rice paddies. There they squat, among their coriander and lettuce leaves, wearing pointy cane hats and pruning away at dinner. It’s pretty amazing really.
And a little peculiar.
Another sign of the Vietnamese ability to think outside the box and deal with difficult situations is their method of crossing the road. To put it into context, I should mention that Vietnam’s roads are distinctively chaotic. While there may be designated lanes, no one sticks to them. Nor do drivers obey zebra crossings, red traffic lights, or any other type of human/vehicle intersection. Scooters and motorbikes are particular offenders, but buses and cars add their bit to the mayhem. So what do the innovative Vietnamese do? Shuffle. Yep, no joke. They shuffle. One foot in front of the other, they step out onto the busy six-lane motorway with no hint of fear, not waiting for the traffic to stop but letting it go around them. We’ve been practicing this technique, and I’m happy to report that there have been no accidents thus far. The trick, we’ve realised, is to make no sudden movement. You need to be 100% aware at all times of what’s going on around you, so woe to anyone who thinks they can cross the street without concentrating! It’s an art, no doubt, but a peculiar one.
There are many more peculiarities worth mentioning – the fact that people sleep on their motorbikes for example; head on the seat, legs draped over the handlebars. Somehow, they balance. Some of them even look quite comfortable. Very peculiar.
And the street side hair salons! No matter where you are, you will always find a barber ready to give you a quick chop by the roadside, with a mirror leant up against the outside wall of a building and nothing but a chair in front of it. Not a bad business model really… no overheads, no staffing costs, no rent… But getting your hair cut beside a motorbike parking area, underneath a grubby overpass – it’s a little unusual.
Then there’s the fact that throughout Vietnam you will find hidden remnants of European influence – the coffee culture, the French patisseries, the cathedrals with church bells ringing every hour. And, rather than going into a shopping mall to find what you need, you just need to know which city street to venture into, and you will find tiny stores packed to the roof with everything from soft toys to toiletries to biscuits to selfie sticks. Yes, that’s right – selfie stick stores. Don’t tell me that’s not a little peculiar.
I wanted to take note of these peculiarities this time, because if I ever come back to Vietnam, I’ll no longer notice them. These are the little snippets of a culture that only strike you as unusual the first time you see them – after even a few weeks in the country these peculiarities have become almost normal.
It’s this progression that I find fascinating about travel. The initial amusement and bewilderment at a different culture’s habits, the gradual getting used to the way things are done in the new place, and the eventual fondness of all that makes a culture unique and peculiar. The world is a fascinating place, and I am thankful to have yet again been given the opportunity to visit somewhere brand new.
In all of this, I am so thankful to God, our loving father, for blessing me (undeservedly) with such opportunities. My prayer is that they continue to mould me into a more appreciative, tolerant and loving person, and one who can share these experiences – through words – with those who may never get the chance to visit these places themselves.