When we first set out on this journey, we knew that it in our first month I would celebrate my 33rd birthday. I have always loved my birthday for the simple reason that it has always been an excuse to get together all the people in my life at one time to meet, drink, and be merry. Many of my past birthdays were celebrated with big gatherings of friends that are truly some of my fondest memories, even the ones that aren’t necessarily as clear as I would like them (cough cough, thanks alcohol). This birthday, however, was unlike any other birthday that I have had since the dawn of social media and our programmed reminders to wish our friends and family Happy Birthday. Some 15 hours ahead I had the joy of celebrating a birthday with strangers, my wife, and my thoughts. It was simple, slow, and well, bananas.
We had heard from online materials and blogs that the Vietnamese people were incredibly welcoming and warm. I realize as I look back on previous posts, I hadn’t shared some of the beautiful moments that I am grateful for in the short almost 30 days we have been in Vietnam. Instead of my standard city by city experience I want to document some of the acts of kindness from Vietnamese strangers we have come across. Hopefully, when you are done reading you will understand the truly giving, and genuinely kind nature of the people of Vietnam. I am grateful and hope to emulate the Vietnamese spirit in our travels.
Our first trip on a sleeper bus from Saigon to Phan Thiet was a crazy travel experience for us. The chairs reclined, we had to hop up onto what is essentially the top bunk of a bunk bed and hope that our online booking was taking us to the right place.
We were the only travelers on the bus, and as is typically the case in this scenario we drew a lot of stares from our fellow local Vietnamese bus mates. Our first ride was roughly 9 hours which meant there were several stops along the way for restroom breaks and as we learned, food. Dazed and confused at a stop some 5 hours into the ride (we weren’t at our destination said Google) a friendly Vietnamese guy smiled at me and made a gesture indicating that we had stopped for food (football fans of Ezekial Elliot are familiar, imagine spooning soup into your mouth). I located my shoes and hopped off the bus entering unfamiliar territory. As I wandered through the different food stalls with what I am sure was a “what the heck is that” look on my face, I realized I had no concept of what would be good. Google Translate wasn’t going to help me with this one. I wandered for what seemed to be 10 minutes but found nothing that seemed familiar enough to drive me to order. Eventually, I settled on the Bahn Mi stand. It seemed simple enough, and popular. My first Bahn Mi was excellent, simple fried egg with herbs, fish sauce, and chili sauce. Unfortunately, there was no vegan food for Mandy, so we talked and started thinking about Phan Thiet as I ate the sandwich. As we boarded back on the bus the same Vietnamese guy that had signaled we were here for food came up to my “top bunk” and handed me his phone which had Google Translate up. In it had a simple message, “I wasn’t sure if that sandwich would be enough for you. Please accept these cakes as a gift.” He had seen that lost look and no food for Mandy and decided to give. A stranger’s kindness, a simple gift. I never got a chance to properly thank him, or even learn his name as the bus stop at Phan Thiet was a sharp, and quick exit, but I am grateful.
Social media has trained me to look for happy birthday wishes on Facebook and Instagram to trigger happiness neurons. What’s a birthday without scrolling through all those messages from friends and family, am I right? My 33rd birthday started out a lot differently 15 hours ahead of the States, yet as we headed out for the day, I had one birthday message. Although our host didn’t speak English, we were able to communicate through the Airbnb app. Simple, yet, the message touched those same social media neurons of a familiar birthday. We were feeling good in our banana outfits and headed out for a day of fun. We had a long day that included learning simple farming techniques from an 8th generation farmer (that’s 204 years of farming tradition on the same plot of land), cooking 4 courses of traditional Vietnamese food, and flipping pancakes through the air at the Tra Que Vegetable village. Our chef and guide, Hannah was awesome. She kept us laughing, and was constantly ribbing me. As we were about to leave when she asked me to close my eyes I was ready for another joke. When I opened them, there was nothing there! Fooled again, my first birthday cake had arrived, with chocolate to boot!
After the vegetable village Mandy and I turned in for an early evening after stuffing our faces with Indian food and had a nice bike ride through Hoi An back to our apartment. As we were getting ready for bed we heard a knock on the door. Surprised and unsure who it could be I opened it to find our host who had a personalized birthday cake with candles and my name on it. With a big smile he wished me happy birthday. Strangers, and my lovely wife, made my birthday feel warm. For that I am grateful.
These are just a couple of stories that stood out, but there are so many more. Whether it be helpful recommendations, breakfast, coffee, or a simple smile every time we come back to our apartment, our hosts have been so nice. Everywhere we go we get a simple smile and a “Hello!” as we pass. We have been in several photos with strangers and talked with several different folks trying to sell us a trip or some ware for 15-20 minutes. They had accepted we weren’t going to buy, but just wanted to talk with us a little, absorb some of our English, and hear about where we had been or where we were going. Number one question we get asked, “Are you having a good time in Vietnam?” We vehemently exclaim “Yes!”. Their faces light up and we share a smile.
Of course, not every experience is perfect but there have been so many little things that have added up and truly made us grateful for our time and the people we have met in Vietnam.
Cảm ơn Vietnam!