Vietnam- A land of surprises
Written by Megan
Apart from the obvious benefit of an affordable trip, we travel to meet people and learn about their culture. We found the Vietnamese people truly open and incredibly friendly and because of that we were able to have some experiences that really shaped the way I viewed their culture.
Sometimes you meet people who truly inspire you, lift you up, and encourage you to go forth and do what you have always wanted to. We can become quite desensitised to the struggle of those around us especially when we find ourselves in a particular group of people for a length of time. These people; their behaviour, education and lifestyles become our norm.
Traveling through Vietnam we were lucky enough to learn about and meet people from a few of the country’s many ethnic minorities. It is impressive enough to meet someone who has reached the peak of academic excellence in their field, be it a Masters degree or a PHD. What is even more impressive, I should say profound and astounding, is when that person comes from a minority group where most do not progress through the education system at all, and most spend their life in poverty. In addition, after putting themselves through University overseas to reach such heights, they returned to their communities to improve the lives of those that they sprung from at the peril of their potential careers and pay packets.
Before traveling to Vietnam I didn’t know much about the country, aside from the information that the rest of the world wanted us to have; i.e communism is bad, Vietnam is communist. On the ground I didn't get that sense at all. The Vietnam War, in Vietnam, is called the ‘American War’ and there is a very strong national pride regarding their success. As it was explained to me, on several occasions, the Vietnamese people wanted a chance to be their own and not to be ruled by a colonial force as they had been by the French previously, by a particularly oppressive regime.
I was completely taken away by the beauty of the Champa, a kingdom which existed in Vietnam between the 2nd and 19th century. Something akin to Khmer culture and draws its linguistic and artistic origins from India, the ruins of My Son (pronounced: Mi Sun) made me feel like an archeologist. With barely any other people there it gave us the chance to explore unfettered and imagine how this holy site would have looked in its heyday. Unfortunately though these grand structures were marred, and in some cases completely decimated, by bombs dropped during the American War but it didn’t diminish its charm.
We also made the decision to take in as much of this ancient culture as we could, visiting the world’s largest collection of Cham sculpture. In addition we also visited the exhibition in the Museum of Vietnamese History, Hanoi, that contains some Cham drums and sculpture. After seeing all this I imagined an ancient culture that had died out, I was surprised to find out that there were still people who identified as Cham and delighted to meet someone who identified as Cham and was able to tell me more about the intricacies of their history and culture.
In the North of Vietnam we spent 5 days among the Hmong people, predominately it’s women. We were lucky enough to meet a woman from the Black Hmong culture, who was our guide for our trek through Sapa. Not only did she guide us on our, at some points, dangerous journey, she also shared a lot about her life and her culture. I felt humbled by my inability to descend the steep and muddy hills, unlike the skillful grandmother who accompanied us. At times she held my hand to stop me from falling and we laughed together when I fell on my butt and slid 100metres down the hill on my backside.
It often astounds me how open people can be from other countries when I compare them with my own culture. Westerners can often think someone has an agenda when asking questions rather than a healthy curiosity to explore a different culture. It has been something I have quickly adapted to whilst living in Asia, and all for the better.
There is little else to do when you are trekking through the hills, so chatting becomes a way to pass the time and ignore the growing sensation of muscle soreness. One thing that became glaringly obvious was the difference in affluence between the minorities of extreme North and the ethnically Vietnamese. These minorities; Flower Hmong, Black Hmong, Red Dao, Tay and Giay- live a predominantly agrarian life supplemented by the handicrafts manufactured and sold by the women of the group. Perceived archaic practices such as eating dog and cat meat are still popular and many families in the hills live in simple one room structures shared with 2 or more generations. They work the land and they work hard, for the land is their life, if it fails they will have nothing to eat.
Sapa is a humbling experience both in the sense of imposing landscape making one feel insignificant and meeting such hard working individuals makes you appreciate the things in your own life that we may take for granted.
For us it brought home the reason we started our journey, why we left Australia. We left to experience the world, to discover our happiness and find where we belonged. As soon as we got off the plane and were back, in the comfort of our little apartment in rural South Korea, we booked a flight to South America. After all it was the reason we started this journey. We have to thank all the people we met along the way, in Vietnam, they made us realise that we could achieve whatever it was we wanted so long as we worked for it.
To read more about out adventures in Vietnam, check out our blog articles on Vietnam here