By Christine Rochelle
I begin every English class with a dramatic account of my most recent travels for my Vietnamese University students. They always hang on every word of my stories, from unwelcome critters found in guesthouses to terrifying ferry rides and breathtaking pagodas.
After my punch line is delivered and the laughter dies down, a student will raise his or her hand and ask the same question every week.
“How do you feel about that place?”
And my response, without any hesitation, is always the same.
“The people in Can Tho are still my favorite.”
They cover their mouths and giggle, always in shock at my repetitive response.
The largest city in the Mekong Delta, Can Tho is usually just a day trip for travelers visiting the Cai Rang floating market. Besides the market or the calming back canals of the Delta, Can Tho doesn’t have many other tourist attractions. But what makes this Southern city so special is not the pagodas or historical landmarks. It’s the people.
Any foreigner traveling through Vietnam will tell you that sometimes it is a struggle to fly under the radar. The walk from my apartment to the University where I teach somehow results in a one-woman parade. Children chase after me waving hello, women smile, and men laugh at my awkward Western appearance. The attention can be just as exhausting as the humidity, but it is never mean-spirited.
As I struggle with the difficult tonal language, I never have to worry about ordering food at a local restaurant or unassumingly delicious food cart. I can just flash them my best American smile and crouch down on an empty stool, confident that they’ll not only give me the best dish they have to offer but they’ll also most likely pair it with a free mug of tra da (iced tea). Just for being a foreigner.
Every shop owner and xe om (motorbike) driver always have the most recent piece of gossip there is about the American woman. It is not surprising to have a xe om driver ask why I didn’t go to the University on Tuesday, for the sisters at the vegetarian restaurant to ask about my recent trip to Da Lat, or for the silk shop owner to be worried that I need to rest more after getting a head cold.
I bought a laptop at the store after mine had overheated but instead of it being a simple transaction I had walked out with the phone number of the manager and a promise of a coffee date in the near future.
The hospitality shown by the people of Can Tho is unlike any other city I’ve been to in Vietnam. In Saigon and Hanoi, where westerners are not a rare sight, I’m often disappointed with the sudden realization that I’m just another Western tourist, not Teacher Christine. I find myself longing for a Vietnamese local who knows exactly who I am, will shuffle me to the rickety plastic table in the corner of the room, and then serve me the same chicken and rice dinner that will never get old.
Vietnam has so many amazing sights but what you won’t forget about this country is the people. Spending a few days in Can Tho instead of hectic Saigon will give you a chance to experience true Vietnamese hospitality, not to mention some of the best food as well.
Instead of passing through Can Tho, spend some time with the people; sit with the grandmother who makes the best banh mi op la in town, instead of just taking it to go. Talk to the Can Tho University students about growing up in the Delta. Have an entire conversation through hand gestures with the elderly man sitting in the local cafÃ©.
When broken English phrases are soon exhausted, you take a step back and realize that you have a complete understanding for this person who has spent their life on the opposite side of the world. It’s then when you have truly found a home in Vietnam.
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Christine Rochelle is a New Jersey based writer and blogger who has written about everything from celebrity gossip to healthcare, penning copy for MTV, Media Elites, AOL and other various online entities. Christine spent four months in Vietnam teaching English in the Mekong Delta and traveled through the country as well as Cambodia. Find more of her work on her website.
Woman in conical hat: Jos Dielis
All other photos: Author