This is a question I get constantly. From friends while chatting, from backpackers while drinking, from students while teaching.
There’s a myriad of reasons of course, but this morning came to me as a good example… People are nice, and there always seems to be something funny happening (maybe because I’m easily amused).
As I walk the short distance to my morning Bún bò Huế, an elderly woman who seems as wide as she is short is walking in the narrow street, clad in long pants, socks made to be worn with flip-flops, a long-sleeved shirt and her face hidden by a bandanna tied to a conical hat. Her eyes are peering out and they suddenly catch a glimpse of moi, her exact opposite: a foreigner, of average height and built, but wearing shorts exposing my tattoos, feet in flip-flops without socks, a t-shirt from where my hairy arms and more tattoos are poking out. I’m not wearing a hat. I have a scruffy beard. I just woke up.
She stares (they can’t help themselves). I smile. She smiles back with her eyes, waves awkwardly as we walk past each other.
As I sit in the tiny restaurant set up in someone’s front-room (a sort of multi-usage room every house here seems to have, mostly used as a business during the day, a dining room for the family in the evening, and a motorbike parking spot at night), I gulp down my food and look out in the street. A little kid on his bicycle rides by. He sees me at the last second and I see his facial expression change… “Can’t wait to tell my friends I saw a foreigner!” An older man walks in and orders the same dish as me. When he spots me he gives me a warm smile and a laugh, points at my bowl and shoots me a thumbs up before he lights a cigarette.
Suddenly, a tiny old man wearing only equally tiny, greyed-out shorts arrives on a motorbike, his wife sitting behind him in brown pyjamas and a conical hat. I can’t help but smile, they’re adorable. I wonder for how long they’ve owned these clothes? The little old man spots me and I give him a quick South-East Asian hello: I raise my eyebrows and point at him with my chin. He smiles and does the same but in an exaggerated manner. My second thought: did he fight the Americans?
I’m done with my meal. I get up to the prep station and tell the lady I want to pay. I make a “uh-oh” face and take out my only bill: a blue 500,000 VND, the biggest paper bill here. I’m doing that face because sometimes the clerk has to run around looking for change (happened to me with a taxi, I sat in the cab for about 10 minutes). She laughs and with a wave of the hand she tells me “Khong sao” (no problem) and opens the drawer where she keeps the change, gives me what’s mine and thanks me.
As I walk back home with a belly full, another young boy rides by on his bike. He spots me from a mile away and I can see the anticipation in his eyes. The closer he gets, the bigger his smile, until we’re side-by-side and he yells me a “HELLOOO!”, to which I yell back. We both laugh.
When my students ask me, why do you love Vietnam so much? I answer, because people still look at each other in the eyes when they walk around.
(Or maybe it’s just because I’m a foreigner)