Vietnam doesn’t greet you. It attacks your soul. From the moment you step off the plane you are hurled into the fast lane of a nation that doesn’t comprehend the concept of slowing down.
The weight of the sun bears down on you, sticking your clothing to your back. As you try to break through the crowds, sweating and wishing you had packed lighter, the street vendors shout out to you to buy their wares – silk embroidered trousers, coconut bowls inlayed with dyed mirrored glass, or intricately carved silver jewellery believed to increase fertility. Even the children repeat the English phrase “you buy from me!” – A demand, not a request.
Motorcycles beep incessantly as they race past in packs. The first time you cross the street, whatever your religious affiliation, you find yourself praying to some unknown deity: “Please God! Let me live!” They don’t stop. Nothing in Vietnam relents.
All I can say is that it is tremendously exciting. I have now been here for around a month, having backpacked my way South from Hanoi to the paradise of Phu Quoc Island, and I have thoroughly enjoyed embracing the chaos. It is a country that commands respect and acknowledgement – both for its powerful history and for its vibrancy in the present day. I’ve devoured the books, the tours, the museums and especially the food. In the words of my millennial generation “Oh my God” the food.
It is a good thing I am walking every day or I would be beginning to resemble the Happy Buddha – perhaps locals will begin rubbing my belly for good luck? I’ve sampled wafer thin rice paper rolls filled with crispy onions and delicately cooked mushrooms. I’ve chewed my way through peanut and coconut meat toffees that stick to the roof of your mouth. I’ve also savoured the most succulent grilled aubergine dishes and spicy tofu curries – both prepared with fresh chillies. It truly is paradise for a vegetarian foodie.
On days when I wanted some peace, I would escape to spend an afternoon sipping Cà Phê Sữa Đá (iced coffee with condensed milk) in an outdoor cafe by the ethereal Hoan Kiem Lake. Or in majestic Hoi An, I’d wander around beneath the gentle coloured lanterns lighting the beautiful buildings of Old Town by the iconic Japanese bridge. Yes, it’s the tourist area, but for me this delightful river crossing evoked something of the elegance of Venice beneath the boisterous nightlife and busy market scenes.
Then there was Sapa. At the Northern border, the misty rolling hills of the rice paddies extended for miles. Unpopulated, save for a few villagers in traditionally weaved indigo, red and green dress and a smattering of soulful looking water buffalo, it was the perfect medicine for my persistently anxious and over-analytical Western brain. I could feel my body and my mind simultaneously sigh with relief at the close of the day’s 12km hike.
The town itself rises vertically, with hotels interspersed with stores selling hiking gear, massage spas for weary walkers and some excellent restaurants. I tried a facial with a French girl I met on the hike, but for some reason we couldn’t stop laughing. “This is nothing like home,” we said.
And that’s the point. I could carry on about kayaking in Halong Bay (truely spectacular), crawling through the Viet Cong’s Cu Chi tunnels, or exploring the temples of the Marble Mountains, but you can read all that in a guide book. What matters is that Vietnam has shaken me. This country and its people have been through so much, yet you get the sense they consider the job unfinished, as though still fighting for some intangible glorious future. Yes Vietnam is really loud and really hot and the smells hit you like a brick wall. But one thing is for sure – it makes you feel alive.