There were two subjects that repeatedly came up for discussion when i talked about this trip with my friends (okay, three, but i’m saving the ladyboy hookers for next time). They were US-Vietnamese relations and traffic. They’re topics I think on often as I ride through Vietnam.
Traffic in Vietnam is legendary. Busses passing busses passing trucks passing motorbikes, all on a two lane road. Intersections where motorbikes stream through non-stop, and pedestrians hoping to cross the street are expected to wade into, and slowly through, the flow of traffic. The outsiders often remark that there are no rules, but after a few weeks of travel I’m starting to see some patterns emerge. Cars are a remarkably new addition to Vietnamese roads. Thirty years ago, bicycles ruled. Motorbikes are now available for a paltry sum of money, and soon cars will be within the grasp of all middle class households. I think the rules of the road in Vietnam came from a different source though.
I have a theory that they came from the boats. Smaller vehicles here always yield to larger, regardless of timing, lanes, direction. This is standard with ships, right? The way that traffic flows, around pedestrians or motorbikes crossing perpendicular, doesn’t involve maintaining lanes, but it closely resembles the flow of water around rocks in a stream. The hostel I’m in now has a warning about the traffic, and it points out that accidents happen when you try to impose your own rules on the roads here. It doesn’t work. Our system is a set of guiding principles to minimize the chance of collisions. The system here is one where the traffic is viewed as a whole, not piecemeal. It is a living thing, a writhing beast, but knowing this, accepting this, makes navigating it easier. You learn to balance the proactive with the reactive. You learn to take things in stride, to abandon the personal insult so often taken by Americans from the driving habits of others. When you view yourself as a drop in the stream, you focus on maintaining the stream, on not disrupting the pattern. This is how you safely navigate.
In Laos, I thought I would find resentment under the surface, as our cluster bombs still kill and maim people every day. I never found it. I was never greeted with anger or suspicion, only warmly. In Vietnam, it’s the same, but with so much enthusiasm I’m often perplexed at the source. One man showed me how (conversing through hand signs) our countries used to butt heads, and it was bad, and now we are very close, and it makes him very happy. Another ran his hand over his head to indicate short hair and said “Obama” followed by a large grin and thumbs up.
So many people asked if I was concerned I would be ill-received by the Vietnamese. They asked if I would pretend to be Canadian. They had no clue what the current relationship between our countries is, and neither did I. Amazingly, my reception has been nothing but positive. Strangly, I’m greeted with more enthusiasm as an American than the Europeans and Australians I’m often traveling with. At first I thought this was a fluke, an act, but as I got the same energy from everyone I met, I began to realize it’s authenticity. Children shouting to me “I love ah-mare-ee-ka!”. Teens saying “America, very strong country”.
Where does this warmth come from? Is it our exportation of culture? I don’t think so. It’s never “Oh America. Breaking Bad good tv show” or “Jonas Brothers, very good rock music”. Maybe it was Bill Clinton’s visits in 2000 and 2014. I thought for a while, perhaps, that it is due to rising tensions with China. As relationships with one global powerhouse crumble, they hope to see new bonds in another. I don’t think this is the case though; this love of America seems set too deep to be reactionary. I think it’s a reflection of how the Vietnamese view themselves, their future. They’ve worked hard to shed their past. Outside of the museums, there are very few reminders of the wars, of communism, of harsher times. This is a country on the rise, people looking forward to a brighter future. They’ve made an incredible tourism industry in not much time, with no evidence of slowing down. The work ethic and ingenuity displayed every day are a thing of beauty. I always try to communicate to the people I meet how proud they should be of their country.