Author of an entertaining take on Vietnam

Walter Mason backs his book

How many times have you been to Vietnam?
I have been to Vietnam 11 times over the past 16 years, but the longest period I spent there was six months in 1999, when I studied Vietnamese at the Ho Chi Minh Social Sciences University in Ho Chi Minh City. I spent three months travelling in Vietnam over 2008/2009, writing Destination Saigon, and way back in 1996 I spent three months travelling the country visiting Buddhist monasteries. All of my other visits have been shorter holidays – from two weeks to two months.
What brought you to write about Vietnam?
Vietnam is now one of the most popular travel destinations for Australians, and many are keen to hear stories about what Vietnam is like in the 21st century. But, really, I wanted to write down my own stories, and share some of the insights I have gained . . . over the years. I wanted to write about a place I know and love and can never stop learning about. I wanted to convey in my book a sense of how very special Vietnam is. We should travel not to see sights but to make connections and learn something new about our sisters and brothers all over the world . . . we can make friends wherever we are in the world, and . . . these friendships can be special and long-lasting. I also want people to know that Vietnam has a rich and fascinating history and culture that dates back thousands of years – it is not just about a war.­­

What impresses you most about Vietnam?
The spirit of the people. People are so kind and so generous, even if they might live in poverty. I am always amazed by how willing people are to share their lives with me, a complete outsider. No matter where I go in Vietnam I meet people who are curious, open-minded and filled with a generosity of spirit that is truly rare and precious.

 What characteristic of Vietnamese people makes them different?
The Vietnamese are very honest. If you are fat, they will tell you so. If there is something strange about you, they will ask you about it straight away. At first I was afraid this would make me uncomfortable, but soon I grew to love it. In fact, I find this honesty quite liberating.

And a characteristic of Vietnamese people that you don’t like?
Well, because I feel so at home in Vietnam now there is very little that I can say I dislike. Of course, there is still room for misunderstanding, because I have grown up in a very different culture. The most annoying thing? Sometimes people say ‘yes’ to be polite, when really they should just tell me ‘no’. So I have learned that ‘definitely’, ‘chắc chắn’ means ‘probably’, ‘should be OK’, ‘chắc’, means ‘maybe’, and ‘maybe’, ‘có thể ’, means ‘no chance at all’. But mostly I love everything about Vietnamese people. In many ways I feel more comfortable, more ‘at home’, in Vietnam than I do in my own country.

Can you talk about an unforgettable memory from Vietnam?
So many. Vietnam is filled with extraordinary people and wonderful places that are truly unique. It is these kinds of places that fill my book. But one of my happiest memories in Vietnam was travelling in a boat . . . from Saigon to Can Tho. This is one of the most beautiful boat trips in the world. The views from the river are endlessly fascinating, and it is a cool, comfortable trip. Seeing the churches, temples and houses looking out on the river, with people arriving home via boat, at small landings – it’s just such a beautiful way to live.
The book has a lot about religions. Perhaps you are interested in religion.
I am very interested in religion, and the spiritual lives of the Vietnamese people are endlessly fascinating for me. There is so much that is interesting about Vietnamese religious culture and history, and every time I return to Vietnam I discover something new and amazing that I was never aware of before. Buddhism, Catholicism, Cao Daiism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism. It seems that all the world’s religious traditions are present in Vietnam, in a totally unique mix.
What makes your book different?
. . . thousands of books have been written about Vietnam, but almost all . . . have been about the war and Vietnam’s history. In fact, very little is written in English about Vietnam as it is right now. Foreign tourists visit Vietnam expecting to see a French colony ravaged by the war, because that is the image they have absorbed from books and movies in the West. I wrote my book to tell people that there is a whole other side to Vietnam, that it is a country that is dynamic, exciting and filled with hope for the future. Hopefully I have captured that element. People tell me the book is funny and educational, and also filled with warmth for the Vietnamese people, an obvious love for them and their country. I hope so. That is what I intended.

You are planning a second book?
. . . It will almost certainly be about Vietnam again. I am hoping to write about Quan Am, the stories about her and how she is loved and worshipped in Vietnam. But maybe that’s my third book.

Interviewer: Di Li
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