by Todd Squitieri, photos by Hugh Bohane
Even just a cursory search on your friendly neighborhood search engine will reveal some pretty impressive statistics on Da Nang. According to The World Trade Organization (WTO) for example, Vietnam’s overall total trade revenue was estimated at $107.32 billion in the last three months, and that is to say nothing of Da Nang which now has 461 foreign direct investment projects that are worth more than 3.6 billion USD, as of September 2017, mostly in tourism, services, and real estate.
Today, the Da Nang streets are swarming with hawkers, cab drivers, taxi runners, and all manner of merchants eyeballing their next opportunity, whilst calling “Xin Chao, buy sunglasses, very cheap!” Those who speak competent English work in the lush hotels and with the greeters on the street corners. If there’s any group that has collectively perfected the art of canvassing and “getting your numbers up,” it’s the Vietnamese. They have the “cold sale” down pat, not afraid to look you directly in the eye and ask if you’d like to buy something from them, whether it’s a taxi ride, food or a good massage. And yet, the Vietnamese have a clear philosophy of “work hard, play hard,” as evident by their endless appreciation for karaoke nights within their households and their established businesses. We often get called out on our self-limiting beliefs preventing us from moving forward with projects and experiments, people and places. But the Vietnamese have nearly perfected the art of the hustle. Beliefs come only second to taking action in this country and they work HARD, with a capital “H”.
Even in New York City, where I am from, the level of salesmanship is reserved compared to what happens in Da Nang, the fourth largest city in Vietnam, boasting a population of over one million people. When you walk around in New York, you don’t get eyeballed as much, usually except perhaps in the tourist mecca of Times Square. But the street vendors don’t have quite the same kind of assertiveness as in Da Nang. In New York, people just seem to allow you to mind your own business. Cars stop and go, and there’s a structured logic to the city that is mostly missing from bigger Vietnamese cities. However, Da Nang’s city planning is a lot better than many other cities in Vietnam. These days, construction is booming around the expat area of An Thuong, My An and while some people argue it is overkill, regardless of which side you are on, when it is eventually completed the neighborhood should hopefully develop its own sense of character.
It’s inspiring to observe and partake in the city life – the street theatre has a buzz to it, especially with the ladies in traditional Conical hats serving Banh Mi, motorbikes whizzing past and the locals sipping their Café sua das. Having survived the Great Recession where people were repeatedly reminded that nothing was going to be served to them on a silver platter; people have learned that they would have to get out there hustle, sell and be grateful for scraps. Had I known Vietnam years ago, during this period, The Great Recession probably wouldn’t have felt quite so great.
I think there’s a lot to be learned from a city that hustles. Take the Han market ladies, for instance, who spend 7 days a week hawking their wares. These ladies are a TRUE sales force, bartering, negotiating and deliberating with any foreigner who comes within their vicinity. One quality we like about the Vietnamese is there directness, what you see is what you get and there is no room for phoniness.
As you read this, I wonder if you have seen women work this hard before in your entire life and they do SUCCEED here. They will not only sell to you, but also extract the most money from your pocket as they can get, and make you feel happy about it. Their main industry is tourism, for sure, and they are wise merchants. You see this everywhere, and the energy is quicker, faster and more immediate. It’s clever and inspiring, and fun to watch! Rejection isn’t considered at all, it’s just a part of the overall game with everyone as happy as they allow themselves to be on any given day.
Many people go to Vietnam for the historic sites or the beautiful scenery or the history. But occasionally, some of the true wonders of the world can be found in the people themselves and the ways they teach us about our own differences and more specifically our own limitations. “Vive le difference” as the French says!
I’m very grateful to be here right now. When my parents were around my age, during the presidencies of JFK and Lyndon B. Johnson, they didn’t have a clear idea of what Vietnam is. These days, it’s an emerging economy with so much opportunity for locals and foreigners alike, all within the span of 50 years. This was after nearly a decade of war in the country and then later, beginning the process of rebuilding. It often makes you stop to wonder about some of the as-yet unresolved issues that still plague America–racial prejudice, religious prejudice, wars between neighborhoods and cities and entirely different states. If the Vietnamese can “get over it,” why do Americans still hold a grudge? Is grudge-holding something that’s built into the Puritan origins of the country? Vietnam is a very forgiving country, arguably due to its Buddhist roots, and so if Vietnam can forgive its former foes, why can’t we?
Don’t misunderstand. There are a lot of great aspects of the United States, like freedom of speech, the freedom to criticize the President and not be worried that you’re going to go to prison for it. Freedom to marry whomever you want and reap all of the benefits of such a contract, the freedom to start your own business – using the tools from all over to help you do so. The United States does have unprecedented freedoms, which is why going to a place like Vietnam is so amazing. It reminds you how many of the freedoms in the United States that people take for granted and that if they only had the same level of drive and hustle as the Vietnamese, maybe the country would be better off?
The two countries were at war, but there’s still a lot of intermingling and a lot that can still be shared between the two nations as they work toward moving on from the past while not forgetting the horrors of war. This is a part of travel that doesn’t get talked about enough; and that is meeting new people. The Vietnamese raise your consciousness – teach you about yourself and the potential opportunities that may await you. There’s a sense that you can be doing new things with people who have a contrasting life-script from your own and a different sense of work ethic. This is why I started traveling in the first place. It’s because I knew that the United States didn’t have it all figured it out and that maybe some of the solutions lied beyond its borders. I realized the importance of engaging in dialogue with the wider communities of the world with whom we share this planet with. I know this sounds very cheesy, but to think globally, in a way, is also to think locally. You really can’t have one without the other. Not in this life.
In the coming months, I will be working on filming a documentary about the life of a woman named Elizabeth Powers, who has been guiding some clients here toward accent reduction while also running a private practice for her self-awareness and personal development courses. This woman is astounding and I am very excited to be working with her and other folks to spread the wisdom of the elderly, a custom taken seriously here but one that we hope to transfer a little bit back to the West. It is an honor to be working with her and others in this magnificent country and I am grateful to be part of this community.
Traveling is what you make it. It can be a small trip to the beach or a climb up the Eiffel Tower. It can also be something on a grander scale, which always leads to a number of personal self-discoveries. I choose to travel for discovery and project development, and I couldn’t have chosen a better place for it.