The first thing I noticed about Vietnam was the smell. I hadn’t even stepped outside yet, but as I drug my suitcase out of customs the unmistakable scent of pho wafted across my nostrils. At least I thought it was pho. But then it dawned on me that it was merely the same smell of the Vietnamese restaurant back home that I had come to relate with pho; I realized with awe that that little place in southern California—the one I went to for the magical noodle soup that always managed to cure hangovers—had actually managed to recreate the smell of Vietnam within its cozy, dilapidated walls. I took a deep breath in and smiled at its comforting familiarity.
My cab driver spoke about as much English as I speak Korean. In an attempt to make conversation on the drive, I asked, “What’s the weather like this week?” He nodded and replied in a thick accent, “About 40 minutes”. I nodded and looked out the window at the dark city streets.
I took my first walk the next morning and as I stepped outside the doors of the quiet, air conditioned lobby an explosion of activity burst before me. Scooters whizzed by from all directions and honked mercilessly. Locals lined the roads as they sat on their tiny plastic chairs and ate noodles. Chickens weaved through feet and men called out to sell a ride on a chair they pulled with a bicycle.
Women drove by with motorcycles piled with flowers and vegetables to such heights and dimensions that it seemed to defy the laws of physics. Older women trudged through the streets with a long pole over their shoulders and baskets of produce weighing down on each end. Most of the women wore the traditional pointed straw hats and a look of weathered determination. Bird cages swung from branches and power lines.
I walked past a lake and dozens of people sat under its shady trees; couples leaned together, groups of girls laughed, and a solitary old man gazed thoughtfully at the water. Everyone seemed so laid back and content, and it caught me off guard to see so many locals relaxing on a Monday afternoon. Korea was never like that.
So far, Vietnam is mesmerizing. At times it is overwhelming and the language barrier is daunting. But it has a kind of energy and appreciation for life that soaks into your pores and infects you with the same. I think the next month is going to be quite incredible.
Have you been to Vietnam? What was your first impression?