It’s very easy to judge a country before you get there, and for Vietnam there are no prizes for guessing what I thought. Try playing James Bond’s word association game: “Gun – Shot; Agent – Provocateur; Vietnam – War”.
Yes, Vietnam still lived in my mind as being something some Americans did fifty years ago – and the image wasn’t even of the real war but of one conducted on cinema screens with Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando and Tom Hanks in the lead roles. Note, not Sylvester Stallone: I’ve never seen Rambo. All these were Hollywood creations though, and 45 year old ones at that. It was time to leave the Vietnam of 1973 at the box office, pack its tropes into the helicopter leaving the Saigon embassy and and let its role be filled by the country of today. Hello modern Vietnam!
Immediately over the border I could feel the warmth, and it was relational as well as climactic. Here was a more open, friendly, westernised country where B&Bs and homestays would be listed on TripAdvisor, not hidden away in some Chinese parallel internet; where the kids ran along the road to say hello, and where if the government still blocked the BBC then at least they didn’t block Google anymore – and hey, my VPN subscription was still running from China days.
A Friendly Familiarity
All the countries I’d visited so far had – with the noble exception of Canada – been progressively less familiar, further apart from what I knew. I’d become accustomed to this, and it wasn’t until I stepped back into the comparatively tame, touristy Vietnam that I was shocked to realise just how alien China had been. For a start: I could read the writing here! Okay, there were several accent marks I didn’t know and I was probably pronouncing everything completely wrong but at least my illiteracy wasn’t being rammed home in my face, at least I could fool myself that I could read this. The familiar brands in the shops, the smiling English hellos; here was a return to some small degree of familiarity. Now I could relax.
Soaking up the Miles
Three days in I met James, cycling the world the other way round, from a hometown in Yorkshire not 20 miles from mine. This called for a cyclists’ conference: stop for coffee, compare notes and trade info on our routes ahead – and we quickly realised why it was we’d found each other. There are two main ways down Vietnam: the main road down the coast or the inland, minor route. The inland route is the ‘real’ Vietnam: hills, small villages, bad roads. James and I had both come through China, had had now than enough of ‘the real’ version of that country. Now we were both in it for some easy miles, hitting the coast road, soaking up the smooth tarmac as the cars whistled past.
A Refreshing Change
“Hello, hello, where are you from?!” During my grouchiest moments these constant greetings could grate, but they made a refreshing change from the Chinese habit of staring dumbfounded at anyone who looked like they came from outside China, then segueing to treating me as if I were already Chinese. Unlike the imperial power to the north, the Vietnamese were clearly used to foreign arrivals. Foreign arrivals … well, quite. On the heads of the scooter riders who buys across the country there was one style of helmet that dominated all others: the GI helmet. Odder still, most of these were modern replicas – the old ones have rusted but the people still life they’re American military gear.
On my trip, it was the Americans who still seemed to most affected by the Vietnam war: it has entered their national mythology, whereas the Vietnamese have dealt with it. I cruised down the country on good roads, waved at kids wearing Liverpool and Arsenal shirts, bought food from friendly adults and never once felt unwelcome because I might have looked like a GI. Well done Vietnam, you’re doing great.