Vietnam: Celebrating Around the World


Fiori Lee

Motorcycles flood a downtown Hanoi street in December.

Fiori Lee

Pho, a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup, is one of my favorite dishes. However, I am embarrassed to say that pho was the only thing I knew about Vietnam until recently. In December, I had the chance to visit Vietnam to learn about its people and culture.

When we landed in Hanoi, I first noticed the inescapable sound of hundreds of vehicles honking. Since many people in Vietnam cannot afford cars, over 55 million motorcycles navigate the country’s roads. I saw many creative Vietnamese transporting huge boxes, numerous pots of plants, and caged chickens on their motorcycles. Astonishingly, people even carry their water buffalos on their motorcycles. With such a high number of motorcycles on the roads, combined with cars, buses, and trucks, it can be challenging for foreigners to cross the street. Rickshaws are a popular mode of transportation that tourists can ride on, although experiencing the narrow streets with other vehicles going in different directions can be intimidating. One can see many rickshaws streaking the streets as the drivers coax tourists to ride. I had the opportunity to ride one, and to say I was scared is an understatement. The streets are narrow and other vehicles were driving in different directions, crossing and cutting each other off. Numerous times, motorcycles came at high speeds right toward our rickshaw and swerved around us at the last second. 

Alongside the roads, trees and flowers adorn doorways and sidewalks creating an aesthetic atmosphere for residents and visitors. I didn’t expect to see numerous public workout equipment sprinkled in the city. From our hotel, we had a clear view of some nearby equipment and I was surprised to notice older people constantly exercising, even as early as 5 a.m. The level of exercise activity among Vietnamese elders is strikingly high compared to that of their counterparts in the United States. Another sight, also vastly different from the United States, is the presence of vendors lining the streets with small, low stools and tables, serving food to locals, and passing pedestrians. Vietnamese of all ages had no trouble sitting on the stools so close to the ground. It was a stark contrast to the culture I was familiar with and I was amazed at how quickly the vendors were able to cook and serve their dishes.

After leaving Hanoi, I boarded a cruise and sailed along Ha Long Bay. It is home to 1,969 islands and is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the new seven wonders of the world. The Cua Van floating village is located in the heart of the bay and visitors can kayak or take a traditional row boat tour to observe the daily lives of the fishermen and families who live there. Boating is a central part of Cua Van culture, and all village residents own boats. Children are taught to row before they learn to read, and many locals have learned how to row with their feet and simultaneously use their hands to fish. 

While Americans anticipate the annual winter break to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s Day, Vietnamese do not get either day off from work or from school. Instead, they celebrate the Lunar New Year, called Tet in Vietnam, which can be between January and February depending on the Lunar calendar. Vietnamese will have eight to 10 days off for the occasion. It is a significant celebration for the country, as families come together and honor their ancestors. The streets are bombarded with parades and performances. 

Looking back on my travels, I am grateful to have experienced Vietnamese life and culture. Seeing the lifestyles that greatly contrast with my own life in California, such as that of fishermen living on an isolated floating village, makes me appreciate simple things, such as grocery shopping. Sitting on a small stool along the streets gave me a sense of local life, and watching the constant bustling streets never grew old.