It would be easy to come away from a trip to Vietnam with all the wrong memories.
Yes the constant beeping of motorcycles, the mass of humanity, the sombre faces mirroring the ravages of war and poverty, the sadness in their eyes, the poor shopkeeper trying to put a morsel of food on her table by imploring you to buy - it would be easy to be overawed by it all.
But what memories of Vietnam do I have?
- The serenity of Hoan Kiem Lake. Smack bang in the middle of bustling Hanoi is this oasis of peacefulness and tranquility.
- The look on the old woman's face as we bartered over the price of a hat. Starting at 100,000vnd, haggling with smiles on our faces we settled on a price of 60,000vnd. The look of incredulity when I told her to keep the 40,000 vnd change was quickly replaced by a look of understanding and a genuine smile. That smile, I'm sure, was a mixture of thanks for a little extra profit but I'm also sure there was an equal measure of sharing the moment.
- The absolute beauty of Halong Bay. In amongst this natural beauty we sailed in a junk of manmade beauty.
- The efforts of the crew trying to cope with the unfamiliar idea of providing starchy 5 star silver service. It isn't natural to them and nor should it. Their natural charm and beauty came to the fore when they offered to baby sit a 6 month baby that was on the cruise. The 'goos' and the 'gaas' of the male staff as they played with the baby was more worthwhile than any formal waiter service.
- The streetkids of Hoian. Your heart goes out to them and it's hard to do the 'right thing' as they beg you to buy a 50c ceramic whistle. Their wide bright eyes and cheeky smiles break down the barriers.
- The shopkeepers of Hoian. "You buy from my shop", "$1.00 T-shirt". You want to buy from them all.
- The motorcycle drivers - "motorbike sir".
- All said with a smile on their face and all knowing its a game. A little grasp of English but enough to barter with you and share a joke with you.
- Dinner on the riverside in Hoian. Dinner and cocktails for 2 for under $20. All served with a smile and a promise to "share the moment" when meaning "just a moment".
- The 15 year old kids of Hoian playing an impromptu game of soccer on the banks of the river. I joined in the celebrations of a goal which prompted the spontaneous response from one of the kids to come over and 'high five' me and shake my hand. I wondered if a 15yo Australian would do similar with a Vietnamese man.
Overall my lasting impression of Vietnam is the smile. It comes free of charge and it comes from the heart.