Our day threatens to begin like some others have, with a desperate need for food and coffee. Possibly it’s now appropriate to make a confession, pretty much all days start this way but lets all agree to keep up the illusion that we are about more than just food, shall we. Sadly this days commencement remains just a threat and little more, first stop is off to pick up Greg who camped out at the mechanics shop as a bit of tough love to soak up a better attitude. Our happy dude is there again, it feels like he belongs in this small shopfront but it’s hard to tell if he’s part of it or it’s part of him. He talks us through the work done and it’s now even more of a surprise that we even made it here; part of the adventure we keep telling ourselves.
Finally this day can continue, walking through the central market is like many others in Vietnam and displays a characteristic if Vietnamese culture that we were surprised by but are coming to love: blunt confidence. There’s an awkward idea to express but it’s sadly so true: much of the world’s cultures see a western looking tourist and immediately take on an air or deference, even submission. This acquiescence for some might make them feel important, rich and powerful but to both of us it’s not only none of these things, it’s sad. Not in Vietnam. Day one in Ho Chi Minh saw tiny old ladies grabbing our arms forcefully and ordering us to stop at their market stalls, young boys and girls initiating eye contact and smiles rather than only responding to ours and none of the meek subservience that so sadly exists in so many cultures. In Vietnam there’s no banking on wealth, race or status to walk tall as facades are kicked to the gutter to wash out into the South China sea will all the other discarded rubbish.As a first time tourist to Vietnam this assertiveness is refreshing, fun if a little confronting initially; I project that it’s probably a by-product of a strong national identity and a long recent history of beating back the powers of the world. Yes, Vietnam as a nation is nobody’s whipping boy and neither are its people. But where’s the nice sweetness of neighbouring Laos or Cambodia? Truth be told that gentleness and ‘I just want to hug you’ sort of sweetness is less present but there’s a contrary friendliness and warmth to balance the assertiveness bordering on aggression. People smile, people are courteous, people are genuinely interested; Vietnam as a culture has not a scrap of one of my personal bugbears: indignation. Few characteristics exemplify childishness like indignation, the petulant need for the world to all be about yourself, why me, me me me. The flagship downfall of the iGeneration.
Today we saw a young guy crash his scooter, skidding along a city street to a no doubt painful stop. Not a single cry out in anger, no accusation of another; only a shy assurance that he’s all ok as I get there first to pick up his bag more intent on not needing help than his own ego so blessedly in check. How many people do you know that, in that time of shock or stress, wouldn’t have any capacity for blame, accusation or outrage? The flip-side is that if we are meek or shy the Vietnamese will badger us to all corners of the boxing ring but respect is only ever a smile and a clear voice away. Visiting Vietnam: leave your inner spoilt brat at immigration and love this place where children have also done the same.And so goes the wander through the market, playing the verbal dance with insistent shopkeepers that don’t defer to shyness but go for us as customers; nothing more, nothing less. Barbecue pork noodles go with spring rolls and some meat-on-a-stick heaven as the shopkeeper puts down all sorts of goodies before us. A clear no thank you sees her push her sale a few times before a warm thanks sees us on our way, again this untainted maturity of assertive kindness removes us from any world of pretence, game playing or fake courtesy. Why does living a strong psychological marker of maturity feel a little like an unfamiliar novelty?
And so, after much ado, this day has begun; it’s off to the citadel, the old town of Hue. In 1802, emperor Nguyen Anh proclaimed himself emperor and gained recognition from China in 1804; maybe this is why everyone and everything in Vietnam seems to be named Nguyen. First order of business, build a huge metaphorical erection to show the world how powerful he is; of course, this means a grand fortified city. 10km’s of moat and wall surround a city caught between ancient civilisation grandeur and recent style building methods; immense gates match civilisations past to guide us into a huge courtyard more like military parade grounds favoured by leaders of more recent infamy.This link to a recent time is littered all about this city that crumbles and falls apart like it’s more ancient peers. But it’s not age and slow degradation creating this state of disrepair, again it’s the American war which so little of this country seems to escape. In 1968 the North Vietnamese Viet Cong took control of Hue in the well known Tet Offensive, leading to ruthless executions known now as the massacre of Hue. This action was swiftly countered by the Americans in the battle of Hue. Hints of a grand wonder lay all around us alongside the scars of war fought out in a place that so sadly holds little of it’s original grace. The ancient city is grand, vast and in captures in parts a simple beauty in the vein of grand gardens and palaces but it’s a historical marker now, a visual wonder no more.
The longer we ride, the more food we eat, the more verbal traps we escape at markets the more a row of similarities keep lining up in Vietnam. So strongly does a nations history, heroes and struggles define a people and in Vietnam that tapestry is unerringly one of fortitude, ingenuity, resourcefulness and selflessness. They exist like anywhere but in nearly four weeks I can’t think of a single person or display of behaviour that is in any way indignant, selfish, or petulant. When a child has a hard upbringing it’s oft said that they’re forced to grow up quickly, too quickly perhaps. It seems that the same applies to whole nations; childish overblown ego’s are not on the menu in Vietnam, they grew up. I hope Greg’s observing.