45. Dear Vietnam: 10 Things I Love About You

Count on your fingers or toes. Here are two handfuls of reasons why Vietnam is a great country to be living in.

Who doesn’t love pho? Vietnam’s famous beef noodle soup makes a great meal. (JGA photo)

I’m in Vietnam by choice. Nearly two years have passed since my arrival in this Southeast Asian country, and despite what some previous blogs may have suggested, I’m grateful to be here.

I am a proud American. I always will be. But I am now enjoying a more relaxed lifestyle in this country than I would in my own.

Here in Vietnam, we maintain our vigilance toward the coronavirus, but I don’t stress about politics or football scores, firearms or forest fires. My income is modest but given the low cost of living, it’s sufficient to allow me to save for future travel.

I am learning and growing in a new culture, which is the very reason I travel at all — not to see things, but to experience them.

These are a few things that I love about Vietnam, in no particular order, and with varying degrees of importance and whimsy.

Giant prawns are the best of the best when it comes to fresh seafood. (JGA photo)
  • Fresh, delicious food. Cooked with a minimum of butter and salt, but with ample chilies and other spices, it is at once high energy and low calorie. The seafood is remarkable, as it should be in a country with a coastline of 2,000 miles (3,260 km), about as long as from Miami to the Canadian border of Maine. The quality of pork and chicken are superb. And the vegetables and fruits are abundant and nourishing.
  • Street food. From phở tái nam (beef noodle soup) to bánh mì (crispy baguette sandwiches), I can eat like a king at street stalls for only a few dollars a day. (When eating soup, it’s polite to slurp, by the way.) And for a midday snack, fruit markets offer a cornucopia of delectable choices.
A young woman squats in her family’s kitchen to stuff bitter melon with pork. (photo courtesy Nhat Nguyen)
  • The floor. If you’re cooking at home, this is also a prep table for meals. Whether severing a chicken’s head and feet from its body, or stuffing a bitter melon with minced pork and vegetables, the kitchen floor offers the ultimate amount of space for completing chores. That’s why it’s so important to keep it CLEAN! (And it’s one more good reason to take your shoes off before you enter a home. No one would be so gauche as it step into a home without removing their footwear.)
  • Coffee culture. Vietnamese coffee is strong and delicious. In fact, this nation is the world’s second largest exporter of the ancient brew (after only Brazil). In cities and towns of all sizes, there are more cafés than you’ll find Starbucks in Seattle. A single urban block may have a half-dozen tiny independent cafés serving the caffeinated beverage (usually iced, with condensed milk) as well as various teas and fruit juices. Here people of all ages, notably the young, gather for conversation and often romantic trysts.
Young people gather at a coffee shop in Ho Chi MInh City’s vibrant District 1. (JGA photo)
  • Craft beer. The wine in Vietnam is mediocre, but no matter: The beer is good, and it’s the beverage of choice for evening hours. In Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Ha Noi, in particular, the craft brewing industry is booming. Brands like Heart of Darkness and Pasteur Street Brewing have found a place on many better restaurant menus. And we don’t say “Cheers!” here.  We say “Mot, hai, ba,” (One, two, three), Yo!”
  • Health care. Short of a medical crisis, the cost of curative care is remarkably inexpensive, even without insurance. I had a full physical exam, including X-rays and an extensive blood panel, for under $100.  I had an outpatient dermatological surgery for which I paid $75, including post-clinical prescriptions.  For my blood-pressure medications, I pay about $15 a month. Prescriptions, for that matter, are all available over the counter from myriad pharmacies.
The author’s US$300/month home in Buon Ma Thuot. (JGA photo)
  • Cost of living. I am leasing a newly built three-bedroom, two-bath house, less than a mile from the downtown core in the city where I live, for US$300/month, including electricity and water. When was the last time I could have done that in the States? Or in Australia? Or Western Europe? Maybe 50 years ago?
  • Teaching. Educators, especially those immediately identifiable as foreigners, don’t have to earn respect: It already comes with the job. I would never abuse that respect, so I’m grateful to be greeted with: “Hello, teacher!” and “Hello, Mr. John!”
The author’s first week of teaching in Saigon in December 2019. (JGA photo)
  • Age stigmas. There is none that I’ve discerned, especially with regard to male-female relations. As a man still active at 70, I have dated women as young as their 20s. (Don’t be shocked. They certainly aren’t: I’ve even been offered marriage. On the other hand, to be fair, I’m not aware of any older women who have dated significantly younger men.) My most successful relationships have been with women in their 40s. Sexuality is very matter-of-fact, and same-sex relations are widely accepted.
  • Motorbikes. In a country as heavily populated as this one, motorized two-wheelers absolutely make sense! Indeed, many urban streets are constructed specifically for bike traffic. Thus it also makes sense that motorcycles are far more prevalent, and far cheaper, than automobiles as taxis. Taxi companies like Grab and Gojek do 24-hour business delivering passengers and goods in major cities as well as smaller ones.
Nothing but motorbikes on the street during rush hour in Saigon’s Go Vap district. (JGA photo)

Dak Lak’s night market offers a plethora of fruit. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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