I believe I’ve been to 50 countries so far, and to Vietnam four times. On this trip, I concluded that Vietnam ranks highest in “friendliness.” Many countries are friendly, especially to visitors, and Japan no doubt ranks very high. But there is something special about Vietnam — to me, the friendliness of the Vietnamese seems authentic — from the heart, not a mere formality done as part of one’s job (in Japanese, 建前 tatemae “face,” “public attitude”), but derives from an inner, genuine desire to be nice, kind and considerate (本音 honne “true feelings”). Here are some examples.
— The Hanoi streets are teeming with an endless stream of motorbikes, sometimes with up to five people on one vehicle! As there are few traffic lights, crossing the street feels like “a dangerous challenge” (but is actually safe if you walk slowly). My wife Michal was too scared to try. An old lady saw her hesitation, took her arm, and they safely crossed together. How nice!
— My wife Michal was sitting on a bench at the Hoan Kiem lakeside when a young man, without warning, suddenly sat down on her lap, leaned against her chest, took a selfie, got up, and left! Now this may sound “rude,” you say. My son Baraki tells me that in Japan that’s not just considered rude, it is actually “a crime.” Though I agree that not asking for permission can be considered rude, I see this act as an extension of “human warmth” and a kind of friendliness.
— I was walking along the incredibly beautiful beach-side of Danang, as I did every day while attending the Esperanto conference, and became real thirsty — Danang is soooo hot. I passed by a stall selling snacks, so I asked the seller (of course in Vietnamese) if I can buy a bottle of water. He said “we don’t sell water,” but he then suddenly pulled out a huge bottle of mineral water, holding his arm out as if trying to hand me the bottle. I first thought that he wanted to give me his bottle, but then realized that he was actually offering me to drink from his personal water bottle!
Can you imagine this happening in any other country? It’s probably rare in Vietnam too. I was almost moved to tears by this heartwarming act of kindness. I thanked him profusely, took a picture, and continued my walk.