The Definition of Freedom

11-3-2015Enjoying-bia-hoi-in-Vietnamese-way

I know, right? Intense title for a blog post.

I’ve been around the world a couple of times, and I’ve learned a few things. One of the most prevailing is this: freedom is a completely subjective concept. Some of the most liberated individuals I’ve met have come from countries we view as oppressive. To illustrate this, let’s compare Vietnam with the good old US of A.

Vietnam is a (mostly) communist country, and minor police interference is common in daily life. Locals know that if they are pulled over, a bribe is required. I saw police wagons confiscate belongings from fist shaking bia hoi (fresh beer) sellers in the street, and was present when the law shut down a Hanoi nightclub for no apparent reason. Pretty shocking stuff. However, when speaking to expats about how life is different, I was told with no uncertainty that the Vietnamese are more free. And I completely agree.

Now, let’s look at the Land Of The Free. In the US, jaywalking is illegal. You can be fined for crossing the road. You can be fined for parking your car wrong. Drinking in public. Being too noisy. Causing a disturbance. You can be fined and/or arrested for just about anything, and to catch you in the act, every building on every corner is rigged with CCTV. Your communications are monitored. It’s not just the excessive legislation and constant observation that is restricting, either. People restrict themselves, spending their evenings sheltering and cowering from each other behind walls and thick curtains and mobile phone screens.

In Vietnam, people are connected. And no, not fucking O2 ‘better connected’. I don’t care what anyone says, apps don’t bring people together. The streets of Ho Chi Minh City buzz with life. On a sweltering evening, locals lounge in chairs on the street, fixing motorbikes, cooking food, playing checkers, drinking beer with friends. I only spent 2 weeks in Vietnam, so my opinions are only based on that hectic fortnight, but in that short time I saw a country that had got something right.

You’re free in Vietnam to play around with life. The state doesn’t smother people in a bubble wrap blanket of useless legislation supposedly designed to keep them safer, and the people don’t complain. You can fit your whole family on your motorbike. You can not wear a helmet. You can skip the lights, drive off road, sell goods, whatever you want. You might suffer for it. When the Vietnamese ride their motorbikes through their chaotic city streets, they risk injury or even death. But that’s their choice – and that, to me, is freedom.

The grainy photo below was taken at 5am on the beach in Nha Trang. The locals bathe in the warm sea before work every day. Friends, families and coworkers all gather together to take in the sunrise. If that isn’t freedom, I don’t know what is.

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