Back when I was preparing to be transferred abroad, one of my expat consultants talked about her experience in South East Asia. I can’t remember now what country she was referring to – but she said she could eat her way from border to border. In Vietnam I did my very best to embody that description: Banh Mi (oh Banh Mi), bun cha, egg coffee or in my case egg hot chocolate, pho……….. I don’t know that we ever really stopped eating.
The people here are not only hospitable, but there’s a sweetness to the culture too. It’s a sweetness that comes through in the smiles and in the friendly help from restauranteurs to shopkeepers. But it also comes through in the almost uncomfortably believable propaganda our Vietnamese tour guides relayed.
My friend and I started Friday night at the hotel club room after arriving in town. Then we headed to the spa and finally out on the local streets in search of Banh Mi. Our search took us to a coffee cafe where the staff all dressed in Communist Army uniforms and the walls were military green with red stars. But the couches were stuffed with pillows and the young and trendy Vietnamese were enjoying coffee. Coffee houses are more popular and common than pubs or bars. After receiving directions requiring significant good-natured gesturing, we found our Banh Mi stall. We happily perched on short, weak, plastic stools in the street to enjoy our treats. It was our first, satisfying, taste of Hanoi.
The rest of our days were spent wandering between food stalls, food tours, food shops. Even the occasional non-perishable good store. And then we’d head back for a flight of wine and afternoon tapas at the stunning Metropole hotel. Or over to another massage. It was a decadent trip in many ways.
But it was also something of an uncomfortable trip. I’m oversimplifying here, but without looking up actual facts the impression my education and culture gives of a Communist government is negative, controlling, corrupt and repressive. Where something as wonderful as ‘the American Dream’ could never even be conceived. We’re meant to think “how awful for those who live in Communist governments. Their leaders are so corrupt and they have no chance of succeeding on their own.”
Perhaps as a corollary, I was also taught that the Vietnam War was a messy, confusing affair that my government enjoined to save a repressed people. Whether we should have done it in the first place – either from an ideological view or the horrific hindsight of the cost of the war, is still debatable. It seems to boil down to a conflict of paradigms, of the patterns through which we view the world. Until I started traveling, I had (and probably still) deeply internalized the paradigm that says the American way is one of the best ways.
But there I was in Vietnam and people were happy, running businesses, and even being playful with their culture. (My favorite cafe in all of Ho Chi Minh City was called Propaganda Cafe.) I didn’t walk around towns full of rigid order – far from it! – or lacking in either poverty or wealth. Hanoi (and HCMC) do not lack art, or industry, or have curfews. And in their history, the “Vietnam War” was a war to drive off first colonizing/conquering nations (France) and then more invaders trying to dictate how they should live (the US and Allied Forces.)
This was the first time in my travels around South East Asia that I had come face to face with my own culture’s history. Usually when I travel it’s another Western nation’s colonial past that I see – but here it’s my nation. Our history and our mistakes.
It was a cold shower of a lesson in just how much of history is skewed by the perspective of the storyteller. And once again I was struck by how generous and hospitable people were in spite of that history. The more I take time to really listen and talk to locals the more my travels become a bit of a paradox. On one side there’s the thrill of adventure and wanderlust. In places like Hanoi, there is the incredible sensory experiences of food, massages, and wandering the noisy town. On the other side though the culture and most especially the history is beginning to leave an equally strong mark on my memory. Most often a question mark… asking whether I really know or understand the world around me at all.
By the way, if you ever get the chance to ride on the back of a scooter through crazy traffic somewhere in South East Asia, take it. Maybe at night so you can’t see everything too clearly, but go. It’s great fun.