“I hope I will always be welcomed here”

February 6, 2010

Steve Jackson is a 38 year old communications consultant living in Hanoi.

This summer I’ll watch my third FIFA World Cup in Hanoi – during my third, very different stay in Vietnam.

The first time around I was travelling. Sadly, like many others before me, I landed in Hanoi and was scammed for two days solid. I left pretty hastily and it was on a 24 hour train trip south that I fell in love with the country as it passed by my window.

I should point out at this stage that I had paid extra for a 12-hour express train – I had been conned one last time.

I was to spend a month in the country and after I sailed away up the majestic Mekong Delta I wrote a prophetic email home saying I knew I would come back to Vietnam. 

It seemed like fate when I was asked to return to work in 2005 and in 2006 I watched my next World Cup in Hanoi. This time nobody was scamming me as I learned more about the city during a two and a half year placement with street kid charity KOTO (www.koto.com.au).

It was absolutely the best time of life. I worked with many young people who had nothing and yet rather than complain they knew that hard work was the answer to their desire to improve themselves. This desire was, more often than not, so they could send money to parents or put siblings through school.

I very nearly at that point stayed forever but was lured away to new adventures. However, spells in Nicaragua and later Cameroon only made me pine more for Hanoi. I bored people with tales of how gorgeous it was.

So in September 2009 I returned again. This time though I had a different agenda.

This time I wanted to stay for good.

I often wonder what it is about the place that I find so wonderful. It’s fair to say that Hanoi is bigger, dirtier and more polluted than most western cities and yet I seem to see beauty everywhere.

I find it incredible that a developing country can have the time and resources to invest in so much beauty. It is everywhere from well-maintained pagodas to roses carried in wicker baskets on bicycles.

I’ve been involved in development work in two other continents in countries that haven’t suffered all the hardships that Vietnam has but I didn’t see the desire for improvement that I do here.

In the end I think it is optimism that makes Vietnam special. There seems to be a continued belief that lives will continue to improve. There is youth. There is enthusiasm.

People often talk of Vietnam as a country of contrasts and they tend to mean rich and poor or city and countryside.

But I see it everywhere and in everything. I’ve been the victims of scams but also of humbling kindness. I’ve seen individuals who devote their lives to serving others for little reward and I’ve seen lazy and deceitful people who take.

I read of child traffickers, and poachers of near-extinct animals, and I can’t square such cruelty with the incredible, honest, warm people I meet every single day here.

I think this conflict is always at the heart of Vietnam. The country’s continued development could take either route. Vietnam can be a country of social responsibility, environmental concern and responsible and sustainable growth.

I am sure these ideals would have sat well with those that President Ho Chi Minh wished to build this nation on.

However, conversely, Vietnam’s continued growth could yet be characterised by greed, selfishness and cruelty.

But “My Vietnam” remains a place of warmth and smiles, kindness and humility. A place where ambition is honest and growth doesn’t come at the expense of warmth and beauty.

Finally, as a foreigner who loves Vietnam and now calls it home – I hope I will always be welcomed here.

Steve Jackson (www.ourmaninhanoi.com)

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