Summit a chance for Việt Nam to shine

February 28, 2019 - 08:00

As the world’s lens turns on Việt Nam, the country has had a rare chance to put on a show and demonstrate its status as one of Southeast Asia’s brightest stars and worthy of a place in the international political arena.

Media scrum: Thousands of journalists have descended on the Vietnamese capital to cover the summit. — Photos by Ollie Arci
Viet Nam News

By Ollie Arci

As the world’s lens turns on Việt Nam, the country has had a rare chance to put on a show and demonstrate its status as one of Southeast Asia’s brightest stars and worthy of a place in the international political arena.

However, away from the pomp and pageantry there’s the real Việt Nam – the country that, like many expats, I have come to love. The flags and flowers are a nice welcome for visiting dignitaries and journalists, but I hope the fourth estate will choose to wander from the freshly-manicured streets and find themselves quickly lost in the back alleys of Hà Nội. It is there that the authentic heart of the capital city beats.

Even just a few hundred yards from the International Media Centre, decked in regalia and poised to broadcast, stand the bia hơi with their raucous crowds perched on plastic stools. Forget the clever cocktails and pun-based burgers – you’ll get a far better insight into this place by clinking glasses of cheap local beer and making new friends across language barriers.

The cheap stalls and ramshackle restaurants carved out of people’s homes not only provide delicious sustenance for a couple of dollars, but give a glimpse into daily life. Not everyone can afford to quaff Kim Jong Ale, but the ubiquitous plastic stool doesn’t discriminate. From suits on a lunch hour to street cleaners taking a break – pull up a pew and see for yourself what makes Việt Nam tick.

Hoàng Nhân Chính, Secretariat Director of the Vietnam Tourism Advisory Board, agrees that “to experience real Hà Nội, one must head onto the sidewalk.”

If you’re looking to while away the day, “sit in Lý Thái Tổ Flower garden in the morning with a cup of tea, watching locals go about their exercise routine. Have phở for breakfast and watch the city come to life from a cafe off Tràng Tiền. In the afternoon, try some egg coffee or che as a treat. The best way to experience Hà Nội is to explore and savour it like a local.” Chính suggests.

Cheap and cheerful: The best way to see the city is from pavement-level.

Of course, the summit on its own is a momentous event and is sure to raise the country’s global standing. Pundits will try and predict how successful these talks really are. But the event also provides a chance for the media to illuminate an often misunderstood nation and tell the folks back home of the warmth found in family-run eateries across the city. As part of a Vietnamese family myself, food and drink are the lifeblood of culture here, and (even if I can’t always understand what’s going on) I know I’m always welcome to grab a bowl and dig in. Even dining alone, it’s a rare occasion when I’m not invited to join a table a strangers or share in their celebrations.

Một, hai, ba, zô! Một, hai, ba, zô!’ Those are the cheers that’ll be echoing in the ears of correspondents as they start their journeys home.  

The gimmicky t-shirts are cheap headline-grabbers and the hot takes will eventually run out of steam. The best stories come from conversations in limited English and a realisation that cultural chasms aren’t as wide as one might assume.

The main event may or may not bring success or immediate peace to the Korean Peninsula. But, as Trump and Kim sit down for their second tête-à-tête, glasses will be filled and dishes served across the city, as usual.

Lee Kirby, a local businessman, said: “I think it’s a wonderful thing that the two of them can sit down with a positive aim to achieve peace for the future. It’s also a great chance for people to get to know the city. I hope this will make Hà Nội a more attractive tourist destination.”

Việt Nam is vast and beautiful. With stunning natural scenery stretching from Hạ Long Bay to Sơn Đoòng Cave, to the waterways of the Mekong Delta. Those sights alone are major tourist draws. They fill up the postcards and sell the tours. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Maybe not as photogenic, but for me there’s plenty of beauty in the blue plastic stool.

It’s the great equaliser. And it’s where most of the action happens.  

Now that the planes start to depart and endless op-eds are filed, Việt Nam has shown how it puts on a spectacle. It’s unfortunate but inevitable that the posh hotel lobbies will get the lion’s share of press. Partially obscured by the spotlight, and perhaps lost a little in the din of attention, lives the often chaotic, sometimes confounding, and utterly charming city more than 8 million people call home. — VNS