For Westerners from a certain background, it gets a lot easier to understand Vietnam if you imagine that it’s like your home country was in the 1950s or ’60s. The crux of this simplistic metaphor is the turn away from traditionalism that the US and many parts of Europe made back then, and that Vietnam is still going through today.
This overlap of the traditional and the modern brings stark contrasts with it. Women unmarried by 25 aren’t simply concentrating on other things in their lives — they’re fighting off questions from every family member, coworker and cab driver, often daily. One friend was thought to be “weird” because she liked lying down in the grass instead of on the people-sized cardboard slabs that drink-sellers rent out to their patrons.
This same friend ran away from home at the age of 18, because she wanted to become a lawyer and she needed to go to a university 300 miles from her parents’ house to do so. Now, 10 years later, she’s achieved her dream and changed the world around her in some small way. Her sister is a successful tour operator in Ho Chi Minh City, which would probably never have happened if my friend hadn’t first shown her family it was possible to move away from home and succeed on her own terms.
It’s said that the West is run by law, while Vietnam is run by tradition. This societal pressure grinds some people down, but those brave enough to buck the trends quickly learn to stand on their own. They are the leaders of the country that Vietnam is becoming.
These changes bring seeming opposites into close proximity, like those photos of traditionally-dressed street vendors posted up outside of slick office buildings that tourists are addicted to taking. These incongruities cut the other way too — local Instagram feeds are cluttered with well-dressed modern types posing by crumbling bridges and peeling walls. These are the scenes of a country in transition, living in the moment.