Living and working in Vietnam has given me some of the best times of my life. I genuinely love it here, but like all countries it is not perfect. These are some of the things that I really do love about the country. To find out what I HATE about Vietnam, click here.
1. Owning a motorbike (at my age)
Owning a motorbike at my age is one of the things I love about Vietnam. When I first arrived in Ho Chi Minh City I did what probably 90% of people do. I looked at the traffic and said, “Never in a million years!” Within a month, I had rented a motorbike and within three months I had bought my own. The movement around the city that it gave me, was liberating. I really enjoy being able to go where I want, when I want. It is though losing its appeal slightly, with the ludicrous drive towards car ownership, It is still a great feeling, but the city is becoming clogged and the pollution is going through the roof. For now, though riding around the remarkable city remains one of the things I love about Vietnam
It is actually quite a lot safer than you would at first think. It is easy to get carried away by the number of accidents on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, but I can’t think of anywhere else in the world where you could put 8.5 million motorbikes on the road and not see the utter carnage. I have never had a single angry word shouted at me in 3 years, and I’m sure I’ve broken the code (the code? I hear you shout!) on occasions. I would never drive in the other big Southeast Asian cities, but I do here every day. Riding my bike is definitely one of the things I love about Vietnam.
The reaction from other drivers ties in with number 2 here. Beep your horn and nobody gets angry, the world does not end and everyone lives happily ever after. In three years driving in Ho Chi Minh City and I have never heard a cross word from a fellow motorist, directed towards me. I’ve seen two bikes crash into each other and they just pick each other up, dust themselves down and smile. In the West if you sound your horn its almost a given that it will be met by a V sign, someone flipping the finger or a stream of expletives.
2. The people
I think every country is only as good as its people and for me, the Vietnamese come very high up the list of decent folk. At times their honesty is humbling. When a woman chases you down the street waving money that you have overpaid due to the confusing currency, It makes you think. They only earn a few hundred dollars a month, and sometimes they could make a few days’ wage just by keeping schtum. In the first week I lived here, I went to buy some bread and instead of 30,000 I gave 300,000 and walked out the shop. This girl was very busy and distracted. I was about a hundred yards from the shop when she caught me up and gave me my change.
I also find them incredibly hard working and industrious. No matter what breaks they will manage to repair it. This ‘make do and mend’ attitude is of course borne out of necessity, which is as they say, the mother of invention. The women are the backbone of this industrious nation. It is not surprising that they have a Women’s Day each year and that many of the old propaganda posters feature women, hard at work.
I am treated with a much greater degree of respect here than in my own country. It is so nice to see smiling faces all day instead of the grey grim grimaces of home. People will regularly shout “hello” as they ride by. People pull up next to me at traffic lights and chat. It’s brilliant. There is a natural respect for older people here, it really is heartening. and one of the things I love about Vietnam.
Whereas in the West, old people are marginalised and ignored, here they are respected and in most cases live with their younger family members. I work with Vietnamese people who are 30 and 40 years younger than me. I never feel ‘in the way’ and I always feel part of the team. It’s a good feeling, they respect the knowledge that I have amassed (as we all do) and are happy to mix socially with me.
I have been an avid coffee drinker all my life. My parents had no idea from where it came. But I suppose American TV shows had something to do with it. Steve McGarrett from Hawaii 5-0 looked cool drinking coffee and I thought, that’s for me. As a kid, I was always obsessed with America from a really early age I was always asking my parents for coffee. They bought some Nescafé and I remember wondering what the fuss was about. But for some reason, I still persevered.
One Saturday morning in the early 60s, when I was about 10, my mum took me to Manchester city centre to the Kardomah Coffee House in Piccadilly Gardens. I was completely blown away; the smell was heady stuff for a young boy, the machines that hissed and fizzed into life every time someone ordered, held me spellbound. When some players from Manchester City walked in, my young life was complete. And so started my life-long love affair with the black stuff.
Imagine my delight when I arrived in HCMC with little knowledge of the coffee culture here. It is astonishing just how well ingrained into Vietnamese life it is. I do a large part of my work in coffee shops, there can be no better office. Relaxing with a really good caphe da is one of my greatest pleasures and one of the things I love about Vietnam. I find I am definitely more productive in this atmosphere.
Ho Chi Minh City is absolutely teaming with wonderful coffee shops, cafes, street vendors and restaurants selling in some cases, superb coffee. Whilst their is some real crap about, it is easy to find the good stuff and it comes at a fraction of Western prices. Oh Yes! Coffee is definitely one of the things I love about Vietnam.
4. My social life
There is no doubt about it, I have an infinitely better social life here than I would in the financially crippling night spots of the UK. Beer is cheaper and food is cheaper, and by quite a margin. I generally go out somewhere every evening, something that would be impossible in many countries. The craft beer culture is really taking off, also.
I really enjoy the cafe culture and sitting in nice cafes or bakeries enjoying a coffee and a croissant or something similar is both enjoyable and not financially restrictive. I find Ho Chi Minh City to be almost like two different cities co-existing. The difference between day and night is so huge.
The Pool has become quite a big part of my social life. I couldn’t really get into it in the UK. Poxy little tables at extortionate prices coupled with the ridiculous two-shot rule put me off for good. I have not played a competitive game in the UK since my twenties. However as soon as I came to Asia, I noticed that the tables were hugely superior and the rules were better. When I first arrived in Saigon there was no structured pool league. However thanks to the efforts of Chris Lee, The Saigon Pool League is now thriving with 42 teams battling it out in both 8-ball and 9-ball codes. This has slowly but surely added to what has become one of the things I love about Vietnam. The Vietnamese appear to be naturals at the game, they pick it up very quickly.
Coming from a city like Manchester as I do, one has to accept that certain activities are pretty much off the radar forever. Al fresco dining will never really take off, and while street cafes with outside seating are really growing in number, by early evening it’s generally too cold to enjoy it. Switch to Saigon and the climate is perfect for this. Moreover, the rooftop bars and restaurants that are springing up only monthly, offer the chance of a really special evening. Sipping cocktails high above the Saigon traffic as dusk falls is absolutely one of the things I love about Vietnam.
5. The Dry Season
Without a doubt, this is a big one, and in fact one of the main reasons that I left the UK. The dry season here is a five-month spread of hot sunny days when there is simply no chance of rain. Anyone planning an event can rest assured that the weather will be perfect. Though almost the other way round to the UK, I kind of view the dry season as our summer and the wet as our winter, it’s not as simple as that, but it will do. So for me now, summer consists of about 20 weeks of unbridled climatic joy. It’s like a climatic climax! On the other hand for my family back in Manchester, summer I believe is on a Tuesday this year.
As one gets older, things change and tasks that were never even tasks, become a nuisance. Getting dressed in the morning and putting on layer after layer of clothing, pulling your socks on and tying up shoe laces, all become a pain in the arse (or in my case the back.) Now I rise in the mornings, slip on my sandals, pull on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt and I’m good to go. You never have to worry whether it will get cold later on, it won’t. No need to carry a sweater, “just in case”, no need for wet weather clothes and no need for umbrellas. The dry season is fabulous and one the best things I love about Vietnam.
6. The scenery
Vietnam has completely blown me away with its scenic beauty. I have travelled round the country a bit, but certainly have a huge amount still to see. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Halong Bay, it of course has pollution issues, but some of the tour boats manage to find quiet areas away from the madding crowd, where you can relax in absolute tranquillity. I’ve not yet made it up to Sapa but hope to soon. I thought HoiAn was excellent. I spent a few days there and intend heading back in the not too distant future. The beaches were really pleasant, the Ancient Town of course, is great to walk round and the waterfront at night when the lanterns light up, is a really special place to be.
I am a huge fan of the Mekong Delta, it has a strange draw for me. No matter how many times I go, I want to go back again. I find the people really special. Their lives are so hard but they manage to maintain that famous Vietnamese smile all the time. I loved seeing the floating markets and I think Can Tho is a nice little city. I have done a couple of proper tours down here including a luxury cruise with Heritage Line; that was really special. Slipping quietly along the rich brown waters of the Mekong River in complete luxury was a truly wonderful experience.
Then of course there’s home, Ho Chi Minh City, it’s not perfect but like an old friend, you put up with the imperfections and deal with what you have. It is for me, as good as any place I’ve been. The broad sweeping tree-lined boulevards are really special and need to be kept. Such is the development of the motorcar we are in danger of losing them. I love Nguyen Hue in the centre of town, a great focal point for the city. I live in District 2 and regularly travel through all the other districts. Having my motorbike means that I know this place far better than I ever did Bangkok, despite living there longer. It is the city that has kept me here and I definitely see it as one of the things I love about Vietnam
So, that’s it then. Not by any means a definitive list, but I really do love it here. It isn’t perfect by any stretch, but the plusses out-weight the minuses by a lot.