Call it love on first arrival. I've let this place rent space in my heart and I hope it never moves out. How did Vietnam do this to me? Here are some of my theories:
- Shiny, happy people. Resilient, smiling, and willing to crack a joke about "the" war, and about themselves. Although the southern people are warmer, the northerners too, especially the ethnic minorities, tend to see the brighter side of life. They are outgoing and exuberant, wanting to know where you're from and how you find Vietnam. Even with the most limited English, they will reach out to you with openness, curiosity and a hearty laugh.
- Ca phe sua da. Strong coffee filtered the old-fashioned way, a generous dallop of condensed milk and ice. I could have it with and for breakfast, as an afternoon pick-up and a dessert in itself. Cafe culture is part of the Vietnamese social structure. You meet a friend and end the day at one. There's usually nothing else you can order at the cafes except for drinks. It's not a place to eat; it's a place to relax, unwind and catch up.
- Value for your money. Book a midrange hotel and get a room fit for a queen. The beds are comfortable, air conditioning is quiet, there's cable TV, a minibar filled with 50 cent beers, a safe big enough for a laptop computer, a bathroom with all the amenities you brought with you but shouldn't have - Q-tips, toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner, razors, sewing kits, shoe polishers, and not just free wi-fi but an actual desktop computer or laptop free to use right in your room. Are you sure this room is $40? I kept asking myself. Let's also not forget about all the times we were upgraded and allowed to stay past check-out without paying an extra cent. Then there's the free breakfast buffet that could be the lunch and dinner one too.
- Vietnamese tourists. The roads are great, the buses are luxurious and cheap. Of course, the people of this land want to get out and see what their own country has to offer. In almost every hotel we stayed, every bus we took, every city we stayed, there were Vietnamese people on the road and snapping away at their cameras just as much as we were.
- Motor bikes and face bras. Yes, it will be daunting the first time you have to cross two-way traffic with no traffic lights and only the buzz of motor bikes swishing by you. But take that confident step when the crowd of bikes lighten up and slowly, lane by lane, move forward. Don't hesitate, the bikers are gauging your moves and expect you only to move forward, never back. Sigh when you've reached the other side in one piece. Then there are the ubiquitous face masks, what I like to refer to as the face bra. For $1, you can save your lungs from inhaling all that carbon monoxide spewed by those bikes.
- Oooh, what's that? Don't worry about what it is, just order one. Pho bo, banh mi heo quay, banh mi (fill in the blank), banh cuon, bun cha, banh xeo, cha ca la vong, com tam, mi quang, cau lao, banh bao, bun bo, kem, sinh to. Fresh, tasty and dirt cheap.
- Diversity. Love the beach - head to the hundreds of miles of coastline and pristine islands; want ethnic minority insight - head to the hills and villages; need culture - taking a cooking class in Hoi An, visit Cham ruins, tombs of the Nguyen emperors, hang out at the parks with modern sculptures, visit museums; craving nature - visit well maintained gardens with bonsai trees, go trekking, take a boat trip to Halong Bay or along the Mekong.
- They will gladly entertain your children. Out of all the Southeast Asian countries, this one is first when it comes to taking care of the kids. Free babysitting when we first got to Hanoi, free stuff always being given (t-shirts, stuffed animals, food), lots of hugging and coddling, putting up with 4 year old naughtiness without a voice being raised or anger on their faces, taking infants from parents so that they can eat breakfast, tour guides taking them under their wing, and snorkeling with them while you go under for a dive. Then there are all the kid friendly things to do: trekking/hiking, beaches, water puppet shows, boat rides, train rides, traditional craft making, visiting villages, and restaurants, even a fine dining one in Dalat, ready and equipped for the young ones with their origami skills and staff ready to show them the kitchen.
- Mix of modern and traditional. A sticky rice seller donning a conical hat and balancing her bamboo baskets on her shoulder and a girl in a fashionable mini skirt designed by a local designer scooting by on the latest Vespa. These are the images typical of big cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, racing to catch up with Western ideals but also retaining ways of life that have worked for centuries.