Vietnam: Same same… but very different

The street is insane with mopeds and humans. Hooting. Talking. Laughing. Living. An oversized foreigner comes to a grinding halt on his undersized moped right in front of us and can’t get it going again.

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A Vietnamese guy walks over, looks at the bike, turns around and walks off only to return moments later with a tool and help the foreigner put the chain back on the bike.

Story by Gavin Moffat

The street is insane with mopeds and humans. Hooting. Talking. Laughing. Living. An oversized foreigner comes to a grinding halt on his undersized moped right in front of us and can’t get it going again. A Vietnamese guy walks over, looks at the bike, turns around and walks off only to return moments later with a tool and help the foreigner put the chain back on the bike.

They don’t know each other but that moment encapsulates the Vietnam of today; a country finding its space in the modern world, a resilient people who are happy to help and wish to share their space and to have our tourist dollars.

Travelling through South East Asia could lead you to believe that the similarities between the countries outweigh their differences and sometimes this may be true. Vietnam is an example of a country that, on the one hand, celebrates and incorporates the essence of one of its colonists (the French), while on the other hand fending off the 1000 year history of the Chinese. These two vast imperial influences – along with influences of the “American War” – means that Vietnam has much to offer visitors in the way of cultural diversity, varied cuisine and an enlivened view of the world.

Few people who travel would not have heard stories of Vietnam. It’s a country that’s just as exotic now as it was 50 years ago. But it’s also a socialist state, one of only four self-declared socialist countries left in the world (the others being the People’s Republic of China, Republic of Cuba and Lao People’s Democratic Republic). This has created a fascinating knock-on effect. If we can assume that a socialist state is in the habit of telling you what, when and how to do things, the Vietnamese people seem to have adapted this mantra. On many occasions we found the locals to be very officious and instructive in their dealings but despite this, we felt very welcome wherever we went.

Most trips to this highly populous nation (roughly 95 million at last count) begin in either Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in the south and head north toward Hanoi, or vice versa. And if your travels have taken you into the tropics then the occasional misting of your sunglasses as you leave your air conditioned room or taxi should not be a bother. It can get a little hot and sticky but that depends on what time of the year you go – and which regions you travel to. With a shade under 3500 kilometres of coastline and three climate zones, the weather is variable so use your friend Google and check out what works for you.

You probably know that the armed conflict of the 1960’s and 1970’s is referred to, in Vietnam, as the American War. We felt very little animosity in the way the American War was discussed – but there is a definite “victor writes the history” stance in the Museum of the Revolution and at the Natural History Museum in Hanoi. The continuous referral to the “puppet-state” of the south (when referencing what happened in South Vietnam during the 10 000 day war) leaves you in no doubt that the north, controlled by the Communist People’s Party, feel that they won the war.

The Vietnam Military History Museum in Hanoi also has an eye-opening section devoted to the use of Agent Orange and dioxin during the American War, with the focus being not only on the immense damage done through both deforestation and the destruction of arable farmlands, but also the long-term effect that they believe is causing genetic defects in today’s Vietnamese. The highlight, museum-wise, was definitely the five floors of the Vietnam Women’s Museum which is focused on showing women’s role in the history of Vietnam.

Halong Bay, a 4-hour drive east of Hanoi, has the epic view that comes from great expanses of water interspersed with some 3000 weathered limestone islands, each topped off with its own rainforest. Three thousand. Yes, someone actually counted them. Try and spend at least three days in this region and indulge in water sports, oyster farms, fishing villages and on-board karaoke.

Heading south, we took an overnight sleeper train to Hue and I recommend that you get a soft sleeper with beds and mattresses, or else your trip will be rather uncomfortable as you attempt to fall asleep upright on a wooden bench or a lightly padded seat. Internal flights are generally cheap (around R650 per person from Hanoi to Hue) so many people we spoke to flew from Hanoi to their southerly destinations.

Our stay in Hue (the former imperial capital of Vietnam) was brief but we visited the Hue Imperial City, a walled palace that closets the Citadel and Forbidden City within its 2.5 kilometre perimeter wall.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site, as with many other historic sites throughout Vietnam, was damaged through indiscriminate bombing during the American War.

In Da Nang, further south, you’ll not be able to miss the Marble Mountains. Da Nang literally means “five elements”, which are Kim (metal), Thuy (water), Moc (wood), Hoa (fire) and Tho (earth). These mountains are a cluster of five marble and limestone hills and the source of much of the marble that can be purchased in some carved form or other across Northern Vietnam. The Buddhist and Hindu grottoes are also well worth a visit.

We continued our sights-and-smells journey southward to Hoi An, a town of a gazillion mopeds, waterways and confusing geography. Old Town is to be visited, but with a caveat: other than a couple of dated houses (which do give you a real insight into the life inside a bustling Asian port town between the 13th and 19th century), this beautiful set of buildings’ traders sell pretty much the same souvenirs that you can buy throughout the rest of Vietnam. At twice the price.

We loved the feel of Hoi An and extended our stay here by two days. It was relaxing and yet busy, everyone seemed driven and very purposeful, welcoming and tolerant. We took a 100 kilometre guided tour on rented-off-roaders to the nearby My Son Hindu ruins which were morbidly fascinating – more for the fact that they were pretty much destroyed during a bit of carpet bombing carried out during the American War. The return journey through their hamlets and paddy fields was most enjoyable and provided an insight into how the locals live.

Saigon is ingrained in the consciousness of many through a variety of iconic images portrayed in Hollywood movies. The city does not disappoint and is full of places to eat; both street food and the more restauranty-fare. Saigon is loud, smelly and busy. The noise comes from the mopeds and vehicles continually communicating with one another via hooter, a surprisingly effective Morse code of sorts. And the traffic is something else altogether. So many humans in a finite space means that at any one time quite a few of them are sharing the roads at the same time. In fact, it felt as though all of the residents were on the roads at the same time. There are many wonderful things to see and do in this city, from visiting the Ben Thanh market (I found the sellers to be way too pushy with their sales technique bordering on aggressive), Bui Vien Street which has an enormous array of foods for every taste, and the Cong Vien Van Hoa Park which we visited by accident. We found it when we were looking for somewhere to sit and eat our Bahn Mi’s (essentially stuff in a bread roll), and this park is a little gem of relative peace and quiet. Let me assure you, the city is loud, and if your hotel does not have double glazed windows you will hear the traffic, even at 3 o’clock in the morning.

So many things to do and so little time. But at least we found a craft brewery in Saigon. Yes, in Saigon. The Pasteur Brewing Company is well worth discovering. Other places well worth seeking out in Saigon are the Independence Palace, the Saigon Opera House, Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral and the War Remnants Museum.

Vietnam is so much more than the story that we are told through popular media. The narrative we have been brought up on about this populous, stoic and resilient nation is a one-sided one. A visit is like an adventure in food, culture and sights. It is a gem, hidden in the jungle of people’s international travel itineraries and waiting to be discovered again.

In the words of the charismatic street sellers, Vietnam is “Same same, but very different”.


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