Southeast Asia and my visit to Vietnam

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By Simon J. Lau

I had the opportunity to visit Asia twice last winter. I planned the first trip with Jean well in advance, and included time with family in Hong Kong and Sichuan, and a side trip to Central Vietnam and Hanoi. This second trip, however, was unexpected: I found myself with 3+ weeks between jobs. To make the most of this time off, I organized a whirlwind tour through Hong Kong, Macau, Saigon, Phuket, Phi Phi Island, and Bali. Since this was a solo trip, I was able to make the sole purpose of my visit to capture beautiful photographs. Fast forward a month later and, I not only returned home with a portfolio of some of my greatest photographs, but also a deeper appreciation and understanding for the historical circumstances that shaped and influenced the many places that I visited. Without further ado, below is the first part of a series of posts that I intend to share regarding my recent adventures.

Vietnam is the most exciting country that I’ve visited.

Vietnam is exciting because of the great level energy and optimism that emanates from its people. This is partly explained by significant differences in global demographics. More specifically, Vietnam, when compared to more mature economies, has a very young population. The average age of a Vietnamese citizen is 31 years compared to the US, UK, and Germany at 38, 41, and 47 years, respectively (CIA – World Fact Book 2017). From my own experience and across both of my trips, it was hard to ignore just how youthful and energetic the Vietnamese are. One example that stands out to me was from our first night in Hanoi. As we enjoyed our final stop on our evening food tour of the French Quarter, we were overwhelmed by the sheer number of mopeds crowding the street and people pushing through the sidewalks on foot. This included large groups of friends, young families, and many young couples. Although this created a hectic environment, it also created a dynamic and lively atmosphere. This atmosphere, however, was not unique to this one instance. Indeed, it was something I felt, saw, and experienced throughout my trip. From Saigon to Hanoi, most Vietnamese that I spoke with appeared very optimistic about their future and the future of Vietnam. This shared outlook greatly enhanced my experience and motivated me to explore more of the local scene and learn more of the history of Vietnam.

Vietnam is exciting because of the hospitality and curiosity of its people. We were initially drawn to Vietnam by the recent release of Ken Burn’s 10-part documentary series, “The Vietnam War”. This was a fascinating primer on Vietnam and its modern history as a war torn country. Vietnam has been fought over and occupied by foreigners for over a century. The French occupied Vietnam, then known as Indochina, for much of the 19th and 20th century. The Japanese occupied Vietnam for moments during WWII. More recently, the US had a heavy presence during the Vietnam War. For nearly two decades, the US government destroyed much of Vietnam’s fragile urban infrastructure and poisoned its people. In fact, the chemical commonly known as Agent Orange, an herbicide used to defoliate large battle regions, has had a lasting negative health impact on the Vietnamese. It wasn’t until the US withdrew troops in the 1970’s that the Vietnamese had relative peace and prosperity. Despite the tumultuous history of conflict that preceded generations before, I was greeted with optimism and hospitality everywhere I visited. As an American, I never once felt unwelcomed in Vietnam. In fact, the majority of Vietnamese people that I met were just as curious about America and American culture as I was about Vietnam and Vietnamese culture. It was thrilling for me to learn from them – about their history, their customs, and their home.

Vietnam is exciting because of its growth potential. I’ve never sweat so much watching someone else work so hard. If hard work and work ethic were quantifiable measures of the economy, I would not be surprised to find Vietnam ranked among the most industrious of nations. Additionally, Vietnam’s academic performance has ranked among the highest in the world (BBC). Given these promising aspects, I’m led to believe that Vietnam has far more runway to grow than other countries. To illustrate this point, I’d like to use my hometown of San Francisco as an example. San Francisco is at the epicenter of technological innovation in the world. It is a city that is part of the largest and most prosperous state in the union, a union that is the most wealthy and among the most mature economies in the world. Given these facts, San Francisco is at or near the current global ceiling when one considers income, lifestyle, and other quality of life measures. San Francisco can only meaningfully improve with greater levels of technological innovation and improvements in business and politics. Saigon, Vietnam’s largest city, on the other hand, is nowhere near fully deploying these technologies or best practices. In fact, it simply needs to adopt existing technologies and current best practices to grow meaningfully. That said, growing Vietnam’s economy and improving the quality of life of Vietnamese feels far more accessible, especially in light of their existing assets and infrastructure, when compared to many other economies. It is something that the Vietnamese have already begun to harness and it won’t be long before they catch up to other developed countries.

As the most exciting country that I’ve seen, Vietnam is also my favorite country to visit. Besides its people and its history, I dearly miss many of the creature comforts I grew accustomed to on my trip there: leisurely breaks over Vietnamese coffee, ban cha and pho, and sidewalk dinners with Hanoi beer. Vietnam may very well be the most underrated country in Southeast Asia, possibly even the world, and definitely a country worth visiting.