Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Month In Vietnam: Part 1

My wife, youngest son and I spent the month of February in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam. We had never been there before, we didn’t speak vietnamese, and we didn’t know anybody in the country. While many people have commented that this was a “most excellent adventure,” we did a lot of research, had very specific goals in mind, and a very clear purpose for going. This series of articles is being written to document these things, and to share some of what we learned along the way.

Why Saigon?

The United States certainly has its numerous quirks lately, and enough people are talking about moving away to Canada, Costa Rica and other places because of various domestic issues like unemployment, social security, politics or health insurance. Indeed I have a list, albeit a little more specific. I want to be closer to Australia (for business, pleasure, and because we volunteer time in northern Australia with Aboriginal people). Vietnam is certainly closer to Australia than Pennsylvania, but there are many other reasons, both personal and work-related.

Fresh low-cost food - Wow, what a difference! Buy anything at a street vendor, restaurant or grocery store in Vietnam, and you know it is fresh. Fresh fruit and veggies year round, it is always easy to find good quality meals and ingredients for cooking. Did I mention cheap? Many people don’t have kitchens in their homes because eating out is so affordable! A nice Bahn Mi Op La (french bread, fried egg, pate and veggies sandwich) costs about $0.70 and fills you nicely for breakfast.

Affordable Young Talent - one of the things I researched about Saigon is its technology scene, which is solid and growing. A skilled manager can easily hire young, hard-working vietnamese graduates for tech positions at a fraction of the cost of hiring a westerner. The young generation all speak english very well. There are cultural challenges with hiring people in Vietnam, but if you have a manager on the ground there, they are not really any different than having a diverse team in the US.

Friendly, Inviting culture - I can’t express enough how much I have enjoyed meeting people in Vietnam. Much like my trips to Japan and Thailand over the years, the people of Vietnam are SO kind and inviting, even more so than I have experienced before. It is so easy to start conversations with people on the street, in restaurants, or using public transportation. Most of the time you won’t need to make an effort, people will come up to you and ask you where you are from, what you like about Vietnam and the Vietnamese people, and sometimes ask to take a selfie with you!

Do you speak Vietnamese? Is being American a problem ?

I did my homework before we went on our trip, so I knew a little about the tech scene, but language and my American citizenship were the two biggest concerns we had. How hard would it be for us to simply function and get around? Would we face the same kind of discrimination against Americans like we experience in Europe?

I am thrilled to report that both of these concerns are total non-issues!

Everybody 35-ish and younger speaks English, or at least understands enough to get by. The older people have enough experience dealing with foreigners that they have their bag of tricks to help communicate. Don’t know the phrase for “how much” in vietnamese? The lady selling dragonfruit may not know English well enough to tell you the answer, but it's easy to pull out a few bills and show you how much the fruit costs. Some even have a calculator and punch in the numbers to show you. Any of you who know me, you know that I strongly encourage those who travel to learn a few phrases of the local language. I feel it is arrogant to expect everybody else in the world to speak my language all the time. Anyway, if you try to say a few simple phrases in Vietnamese, you will get bigger smiles and extra help every time!

On being American -- many times I have traveled through Europe, and even parts of Canada, where people notice you are American (yes, we tend to stick out like sore thumbs…), and treat you poorly as a result. Despite the fact that I consider our family to be very mindful of culture, more so than many other travelers, this still happens to us.  Some spots in the world it is quite dangerous for the locals to know you are from America. The complete opposite is the case for Vietnam -- they love Americans!

I was able to have meaningful conversations with several Vietnamese people about the war with America and their view of America today. Their answer is basically: “Yes we fought America, but we won, so now there is peace and we call them friends.” Wow, we can learn some things from these people. They have moved on. Look at all the problems we STILL deal with in the US with race, sexuality, religion and working class -- all within our own borders! Lots to learn, we have.

Concluding my first article, let me say that Vietnam is an absolutely stunning country. We found the culture, food and people to be equally beautiful. Saigon specifically is an up-and-coming place, for technology and everything else as well. We found a lot of reasons why the world should be looking closer at Vietnam!

Stay tuned for several articles to follow :)


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