Thoughts on Vietnam

We started a series of blog posts where we summarize a few of our observations after having spent a few weeks in a country. This is not an academic exercise but rather our personal thoughts and observations. Please see here for our thoughts on China and Myanmar. Below are our main observations on Vietnam.

1 // Vietnamese people like it loud

Noise follows you around this beautiful country. Everything seems to be louder than in other places. If you want to enjoy your vacation, it is better to embrace the plethora of sounds, than to be constantly annoyed. Here are some examples:

  • Talking. The people talk rather loudly to each other, especially when they are on their phones. An extreme example for this are markets where vendors often shout conversations with other stall owners across the aisles. What adds to this is that Vietnamese is a pretty high-pitched tonal language to begin with, thus making it sound even louder.
  • Music on night buses. You would think that night buses are quiet so that passengers can sleep. Unfortunately, there was some fairly loud karaoke playing on some of our night buses. If there is no karaoke, then you will likely get to see a martial arts movie from the 1980ies, also with sound on full volume. So pack some earplugs for a little peace and quiet!
  • Construction sounds. Vietnam’s economy is very dynamic and it shows in the unending number of building sites active all week long. So construction noise will definitely be part of your travels.
  • Honking. In Vietnam people liberally honk to let other traffic vehicles know they are coming. (Not to indicate a special danger, like in Europe.) They also honk when overtaking, changing lanes or going around corners. Really anytime they are doing anything. When we asked our motorcycle driver if he even listened to the honking, he said of course, because it has very important information. We thought it would be easier if everybody just honked occasionally, but he just smiled and replied: “We like noise here in Vietnam.”

2 // Vietnamese cities are not for walking

Sidewalks in Vietnamese cities serve two purposes: Parking motorcycles and expanding restaurants.

The traffic is also unpredictable, because motorcycle drivers often drive on sidewalks or on the wrong side of the road. So practice “constant vigilance” or you will get run over.

Crossing a road in Vietnam is difficult and nerve-wracking at first. The trick is that despite oncoming traffic you have to walk across slowly and steadily in a straight line. The motorcycles drivers predict your path and will steer around you (IMPORTANT: Cars won’t move around you or stop, so no walking in front of approaching cars ever!!). If you stop or hesitate, which is second nature if you grew up in Europe, all the drivers are confused and you will likely cause a crash. Before we arrived, we got some interesting advice to just close our eyes and walk slowly in a straight line across the street. It sounded insane, but in hindsight frankly the man had a point.

Apparently, Vietnamese find foreigners’ problems with the local traffic quite amusing.

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Ready to cross this street?

The exception to the walking rule is Hanoi’s lake area on the weekends. The streets actually get turned into a traffic free zone. Happy pedestrians walk, dance, sing, eat and sell stuff, and even play Jenga on the streets. The atmosphere resembles a big friendly street festival. As soon as Monday comes around, however, crossing the street will yet again raise your blood pressure quite a bit.

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Kids enjoying the temporary pedestrian area in Hanoi on weekends (Yes that is a toy tank!)

3 // Vietnam has complicated ties to its neighbours

Overall, Vietnamese do not seem to be too fond of the Chinese. One of the first things you learn about Vietnamese history from guides and museums is that it was occupied by China for 1000 years. The two rhetorically communist countries have a lot in common, but are at odds over the South China Sea or as the Vietnamese call it East Sea islands. Other topics to butt heads are fishing rights and real estate investment.

You can also feel this enmity on a more daily life level. Vietnamese customers nowadays do not seem to like Chinese brands too much. The only reason they would buy a Chinese smartphone for example is because it is cheap, like Oppo. Chinese brands therefore often do not sell their flagship phones in Vietnam. We tried finding accessoires for a Huawei phone, but instead got a lot of shaking heads. High prices in general seem to be no barrier though, because you see ads for the iPhone 8 & X everywhere. You can also buy plenty of Nokia, Sony and Samsung smartphones.

One of our guides even told us a story in which he gave his pupils a prize for winning a small quiz. However, when the winner was handed the prize pen, she just gave it back saying that she did not want it, because it was “Made in China”.

It seems that, at least partially, Japan is taking advantage of the fact that Vietnamese do not really like the Chinese. Japan seems to invest a lot around the country and is trying to increase its influence.

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Japan is investing heavily – here in the form of supporting a new subway in HCMC

On the southern border there are also lingering disputes with Cambodia. The Mekong Delta used to be part of the Kampuchean Empire until the 17th century, which is a loss of land that Cambodia still resents. Today, there are still more than a million Khmer people living in Vietnam’s south. After the American War, Cambodia’s insane Khmer Rouge regime conducted military raids across the border into Vietnam, which prompted the Vietnamese to invade, depose the regime and occupy Cambodia until 1992. Leftover tensions still shape relations today.

4 // The Vietnamese are all about business

The Vietnamese are very entrepreneurial. Many people have several jobs, rent out apartments and operate street stalls. Business and making a profit is important. As a tourist you often get confronted with the Vietnamese entrepreneurial fervor through street vendors or restaurant promoters. To be frank, you often get a bit milked as a tourist, more than in other countries we have visited so far. Whenever you get off a bus you can be sure there are several people waiting just to offer you an illegal taxi ride. Fending them off can be a bit of a hassle. Taxi drivers in Hanoi and HCMC often cheat passengers with meter fares. So as a tourist you better know what you want and how much it should cost.

Despite being dedicated business people the Vietnamese are really kind and friendly though. If you smile, you get a smile back. So don’t take the occasional hassle personally and keep your cool.

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It does not take a lot to set up your business – you want to buy some fruit?


5 // Present-day Vietnam interprets communism very liberally

Vietnam is officially called “Socialist Republic of Vietnam”. Along with China, Cuba, North Korea and Laos, it is one of the world’s handful remaining one-party socialist states officially espousing communism. The ideology is still reflected in land rights, public ownership of certain industries and the one party state. However, at least as a tourist you do not see a lot of communism here. On the contrary, the country feels quite capitalistic (as does China on that note) since everybody is trying to set up their own business and maximize their profit.

Communism in Vietnam: Going shopping but dressing all in red

Hanoi and HCMC are both brimming with fancy shopping malls and luxury brand boutiques. Finally, due to steady high economic growth, Vietnam is the country with the highest rate of newly minted millionaires worldwide. Both outcomes Karl Marx had not originally intended.

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