The People Make the Place

Building off my skepticism from the previous post, Vietnam has proven me wrong time and again. Living in North America, I’ve sort of built this safety bubble around myself, and from this, I’ve learned to define the world outside of it with ignorance. Before arriving to Vietnam, I did a lot of blog reading and vlog watching to get an idea of what to expect from this country. The consensus seemed to be that Vietnam is relatively safe, however, there are scammers and thieves as well – just like most cities. Fair enough. However, the moment you land, this caveat is intensified by the realization that this really is a developing country. All around, you see broken sidewalks, stained walls and an electrical distribution system that’s a possible death trap. The city is buzzing with people. Lots and lots of people. And to cap it all off, my parents, who were born and raised in Vietnam, issued stern warnings to me before I left to be careful of.. the people.

So as I traveled from one end of Vietnam to the other, this idea that the people are always out to get the better of tourists was always in the back of my mind. For the first few days, I avoided eye contact and didn’t really open myself to the locals. Equipped with my 3G-enabled iphone, I meandered through the cities hopping from one destination to the next without really embracing the people who lived there. It wasn’t until I hit my third city, a much smaller city called Ninh Binh, that I had my ideas about this foreign place truly challenged.

I had taken a scooter up to the mountain area to see some landmarks. I didn’t really plan the time right as when I was ready to leave, the sun started to set. I was racing against the sun to get back to my hostel because I knew that a city this small, there wouldn’t be any street lamps and I would probably lose my way. Halfway down the mountain, the sun set. It was very dark but luckily, there were still people on the streets driving home. I did my best to remember my way back but the streets of Vietnam all start to look the same when you get inside the smaller areas. I drove around and around until I came upon a gas station. I drove in and asked an attendant who was filling up another guy’s scooter if he knew at all where this hostel of mine was. Luckily for me, he did and directed me home. I thanked him and left. Ten minutes later there was a guy behind me beeping and waving me down. I slowed to a stop and he tells me he was following me from the gas station because he overheard my conversation with the gas attendant. It turns out he was driving the same way and he wanted to make sure I knew my way home. He tells me I missed my stop about a block ago and I should turn around to get back. I look behind me and realize he’s right.

I thanked him wholeheartedly. He just smiles, nods and goes on his way. Amazing. Here was this guy who had no vested interest in making sure this tourist got home safely. He did it out of the goodness of himself and it just blew me away. Later on, I would encounter many more of these scenarios where the people went that extra mile to help you for no reason than to help. For some of the help, I even pulled out a couple of dollars to thank them but none of them ever took the money.

After this incident, I learned that being vigilant is necessary but never close yourself off to a country because of things you’ve heard from people. Everybody’s experience is different and one person’s nightmare vacation is another person’s nirvana. I met many lovely people on this trip and made many lifetime memories because of it. This was all possible because I opened myself up and started genuinely taking an interest in others. It seems like such a trivial lesson but it’s a travel lesson I’ll take with me on my other trips. Hopefully I’ll make friends all over the world.