After just three weeks of traveling through one of the most touristy routes in the far East, we don’t feel as well versed in Vietnamese culture as we did in Korean. Nonetheless, we are going to try to sum up our cultural insights of Vietnam and its people… So bear in mind that this piece is purely based on our – very minimal – personal experience. Louise and I had varying experiences in Vietnam: what Louise found baffling, I didn’t glance at twice; what I thought would be worth our time and money (like coffee), Louise thought was uninterested… So, good luck trying to figure out whose point belongs to who – we leave that up to you, dear reader.
We have enjoyed the long travel, which took us from the North of the country right to the far South. Here is an approximation of our route:
- We are starting to discover that inefficient plumbing seems to be an epidemic suffered by much of Asia. In South Korea we perpetually found ourselves with wet feet from water escaping the sink and whatnot – in Vietnam, on the other hand, we were introduced to the Bum Gun. Across most of the country you are not allowed to flush toilet paper (suddenly making the name “toilet paper” very much redundant) and instead you are encouraged to aim a small water pistol at your butt.
- Speaking of toilets, check out these signs that we would see in nearly every bathroom:
- One of the first things we noticed upon arriving in Vietnam was the length of each word we’d see on signs, buildings and everywhere. For little more than two weeks we never saw a word longer than six letters, which we speculate might reflect the pronunciation of the language (which I, personally, am not a fan of) – it is very much a language of monosyllable sounds.. interesting.
- Apropos language, another interesting observation we made was that we never heard a deep male voice. Vietnamese seems to be spoken exclusively in soprano.
- To my initial shock and horror, there seems to be no rules in the traffic whatsoever. Having barely stepped a foot outside of little Denmark to suddenly be forced to cross a road alive with ceaseless traffic hurrying along in both directions was, for me, quite a cultural shock – to say the least.
- The traffic being dominated by mopeds you will sometimes catch a funny, baffling or alarming sight; a pair on a moped where the driver is texting on their smartphone; a pair riding with an infant in their arms; five people loaded onto one moped; a dog standing between the legs of the driver; a moped driving with boxes and sacks tied and stacked impossibly high.
- Our tour guide for our day in Phong Nha, Ken, referring to alcohol as happy water.
- Having spent most of my young life in effective and well-functioning Denmark the sight of live stock roaming free and crossing the streets was a recurring surprise that bewildered me equally every time.
- On our Top Gear trip from Hue to Hoi An I noticed that along side the roads are shrines periodically positioned similar to how we place emergency phones on the Danish highways.
- On the same trip we also caught several glimpses of extravagant and colourful cemeteries situated by the side of the road with no apparent religious building in sight. In these instances, the dead seemed to be buried overground. Whereas the little cemetery we happened upon on our biking trip through the periphery of Hoi An looked poor and miniature, and lay in the middle of a field surrounded by crops.
- The architecture is an interesting mix of oriental, Southern European, and Dutch. You have these pastel yellow houses that sometimes have a height of four or five times their width.
- When I say ‘Parks in Asia’, what do you think of? Pretty bonsai-like trees and colourful flowers – Vietnam has it. People practising Tai Chi in the mornings – Vietnam has that as well! It is absolutely amazing how active these people are. In the evenings you see everyone from toddlers to grandparents doing some form of physical activity. It is all so interactive as well – something you don’t see much back home. But in all honesty, who wouldn’t want to spend all their time in one of the abundant, lush parks and lovely lakes (alliteration not intended)
- Speaking of how interactive the Vietnamese are, let’s talk about how they close down the main streets in the weekends so that only people on foot, bicycle, stilts, toy cars, etc., can pass through. For a whole weekend people hang out with friends and family, while listening to street performers, eating street food, playing games, and getting their portraits painted. It’s wonderfully interactive!
- Karaoke seems to be an even bigger deal than in Korea… Also ‘Korean Karaoke’ is a huge deal in Vietnam.
- “Vietnam is the new Thailand” – said by one random dude, appears to be a quite accurate description – at least for certain parts of the country, e.g. Nha Trang being flooded by Russians. Down the coast and especially between Da Nang to Nha Trang there’s a lot of constructions of resorts and whatnot taking place to fully take advantage of the tourism potential. But, despite Vietnam being a huge emerging tourist economy, there’s still a long road ahead of them to reach any real proficiency of the concept of service. This might be a slightly harsh assessment, seeing that the moment you establish a sorta personal relationship with the service provider they immediately become super helpful and kind, paying you their full attention.
- Once the clock strikes a certain hour in the evening you’ll find street vendors on every corner. However, it turns out many are not allowed to be where they are/sell what they are selling, which makes for an entertaining circus when the police decides to show up. One evening in Da Lat we were walking through the night market where there are long lines of food vendors and small plastic table and chairs lined up as if the entire street was an outdoor cafeteria, but suddenly entire place starts to buzz with rapid activity; people are running, pulling away their grills and whatnot, and stacking tables and chairs. Next, just a couple of seconds later, a police car slowly cruises by surveying the crowd. Then, as soon as the police turns the corner, everything is being put back into place again and the feast continues as if there’s been no interruption.
- With so many mopeds plaguing the streets, necessarily there’ll also be big parking areas reserved exclusively for mopeds.
- People squat. Everywhere. All the time. You’ll stop somewhere on one of your many long Bus rides and the entire busload of Vietnamese will unload and squat by the bus, smoking a cigarette or chatting. It really impressed us, and Louise often pondered over how it was possible to sit like that for so long and not cut off the circulation to your legs.
- As in most Asian countries, shoes aren’t allowed anywhere – pagodas, busses, some restaurants.
- Even though we have been warned to be careful when going about in Vietnam by many different people, even some locals, we have felt just about as safe as we did in Seoul… So on this one we had a bit of a disagreement. I (Niamh) felt like, although Vietnam was surprisingly safe, I didn’t feel the same ease and security as I did in Seoul – I definitely wouldn’t just leave my computer in the basement of a hostel, as I did on multiple occasions in Seoul.
- Where Korean chopsticks where dainty, metallic, and flat, the Vietnamese are chunky, wooden, and rounded… It was a difficult transition to make, especially for Louise who had learnt the art of chopsticks only a month prior in Korea.
- All food very sweet.
- It wasn’t until we were cruising on the back of motorbikes towards Hoi An that we saw the posters. Red posters with cartoons and pictures of Ho Chi Minh and other communist propaganda you’d think belonged too a different time.
- We also noticed how all official buildings and institutions are painted in the same shade of yellow and often decorated with different coloured flags and a big red badge/shield above the main entrance.
- Oh, the coffee! Although the budget is tight (and thanks to Louise I am actually somewhat managing to stick to the budget… my time at cafes is kept to a minimum) I just had to get myself one of those Italian inspired coffee filters. So, family beware – you think you drink a lot of coffee now? Wait until you try an iced Vietnamese coconut coffee! The coffee culture in Vietnam is wonderful. Every second door that you pass on a street will be blocked by people sitting on stools and drinking coffee and ice tea while munching on sunflower seeds. The coffee comes in all variations from hot to iced, from coconut milk to egg coffee… You can add condensed milk, you can simply add ice… Do you get how excited I was about the coffee scene in Vietnam yet? Heres a blurry, dark picture of us enjoying a cold drink, just like one of the locals:
//Louise and Niamh