With very few exceptions, it has been the experience of me and my colleagues here during our very brief time in northern Vietnam that the Vietnamese people are extremely friendly and interested in helping and understanding foreigners. The most prominent example of this is their use of the exclamation Hello!, which seems to be the most well-known English word, to greet any Western visitor. This may have happened somewhat more frequently in Hanoi, which has a surprising amount of Western tourists, than in Haiphong, where I haven’t seen a single Western tourist outside of our hotel. There is one very good reason for that, which is that Haiphong is a heavily polluted industrial wasteland. It has tremendous potential for economic growth, but doesn’t attract any tourists that we can see outside the occasional Westerner passing through on their way to Ha Long Bay, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
My colleague Jean-Michel and I have been getting up and going running along the main street in front of the hotel at 5:30AM every morning for the past 3 days. Neither of us expect this to be a sustainable model, so to speak, since the only reason I’m up is because after 4 days my body still thinks I’m in New York and I can’t sleep past 4AM, and also because as time goes on we’ll probably be more time-constrained than we are even now.
Apparently, for whatever reason, Vietnamese people don’t usually go running. According to some of my travel books, the idea of taking a walk just to take a walk, even, isn’t something they’re familiar with. They can’t imagine you would want to walk or run unless you needed to be somewhere or unless someone was chasing you. So when we run the 8-10k at 5:30 in the morning along one of the main drags into Haiphong, we get a lot of blank stares with mouths open, and pointing. That’s probably mostly because a) we’re two of the maybe 10 Westerners in the city of population 2 million, b) we’re running, and c) Jean-Michel wears black spandex shorts.
A lot of people are sitting in the front of luncheonettes – I don’t know what else to call them but I wouldn’t really call them restaurants – having breakfast and watching the city wake up. When we run by, everyone stares, and some people, younger ones mostly, have enough of their wits about them this early in the morning to shout Hello! or to wave. It makes you feel like a celebrity to wave back, and they always smile in return.