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How did one of the most populous countries manage to contribute so little to the world? How did one of the poorest countries maintain its independence despite constant preying from its big neighbor China and win the war against both the Americans and the French?

It’s not hard for foreigners who have been to Vietnam to notice that we are a proud people. We talk loudly. We smile a lot. We are gregarious, offering to pay even when dining with foreigners whose monthly salary is more than what our entire family would earn in a year. This uncalled for pride often invites a quizzical look from foreigners: “Proud of what?” Vietnam hasn’t won any Oscar, Pulitzer, Nobel Prize, or Turing Award. No book by a Vietnamese national has made it to a New York Times bestseller list. None of our universities appears in the top 200 universities in Asia, let alone in the world.

Because of our modest achievements according to the Western standards, it’s tempting to dismiss Vietnam as a small, distant country of little consequence. Vietnam is not small. It’s the 14th most populous country in the world. Vietnam is not distant – we are everywhere. Vietnamese represents the sixth largest immigrant group in the US, the fifth largest in Australia, our language the most spoken Asian language in France. Our food is easy to find in most cities around the globe. Everyone living a metropolitan area seems to have a friend named Nguyen. We are not of little consequences either. Vietnam is one of the five countries that still hold dear one of the most feared and hated ideologies, an ideology so many countries have shed so much blood and money to keep out of their borders: communism.

In their first contact with Vietnamese people, many people try to translate us into a people they are already familiar with. Some say Vietnam is like China, but smaller. Many tourists pitch us against Thailand when they decide where to travel in Southeast Asia. I’ve also met people who say Vietnam is like Cambodia and Laos, but more developed, or describe Vietnam as the Cuba of the East. Some Westerners compare it to Rome because of the European feel in its architecture, the outgoing attitude of its people, its proximity to the sea, and scooters weaving from every direction. If you choose to look just beyond the surface, however, you will see that Vietnam is unlike any other country in the world. Vietnam is a bundle of paradoxes – delightful, mesmerizing, and, at times, frustrating.

Photo above by Hung PM.