Anyways, the Spaniard and I had an incredible time in Vietnam. It's a great country with tons to see that definitely lived up to expectations. While there we traveled to Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hoi An, Da Nang, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). I'll get to a detailed travelogue later, but before I do here are some of my overall impressions of the country.
- There are plenty of tourists, but the country still feels a bit unspolied. They know how to deal with tourists, but it hasn't gotten too commercialized. For example, there were virtually no western stores or restaurants. In fact, restaurants and stores were often extensions of a family's home.
- The Vietnamese, on average, definitely tend to be on the smaller side (I'd say even smaller than the Chinese), maybe it's all the healthy food they eat. . . The spanish language has institutionalized this observation as I discovered that the spanish word for vietnamese is "vietnamITAs." For those of you who know spanish, the suffix should mean something to you. I was told by the locals a few times that I was Vietnamese sized (yes I know I'm short why did they need to point that out), but we as a group tended to stick out a bit due to the Spaniard. One of our guides provides an excellent example of how much he stuck out.
- The people in Vietnam, by and large, are extremely friendly. Given the history between our two countries I expected more of an undercurrent of hostility or at least stand-offishness. However people were generally friendly and smiling, especially when they had something to sell. Although, even when they didn't they would say hello as they passed us on motorbikes or on the street. The Spaniard's friend, who traveled with us and works at the World Bank in Hanoi, explained that the leader of the communist party, who lost many family members in the war, posted online to a citizen's forum (which apparantely is pretty big there) a response to a question about whether he held any ill-will to the Americans. He said something like "Yes the american government was imperialistic, but we should not hold that against the citizens of the country. Plus that was the past and we need to look to the future."
- Two types of architecture predominate and battle it out on the streets, french colonial and chinese. The influences are everywhere.
(a tomb outside Hue)
(the post office in Saigon. . . oops I mean Ho Chi Minh City)
- There is no doubt that the country is poor. The Spaniard's friend, said that the governments goal is to lift GDP/capita from $650 to over $1000 in order to be considered a "middle income" country. That being said, it appeared that people's basic needs were being met, it was more that things were less developed. This is especially true of their infrastructure. To get between Hanoi and the center of the country and then to Saigon the options were two 1 hour flights or a total of 40 hours on a train. . . (We definitely chose the more civilized way).
- The entire country is cheap, incredibly so actually. At 16,000 Dong to the dollar we had to get used to a completely different price level. Good meals where we'd order appetizers, entrees, beer, etc would be $5 per person. Opening bids at markets and stores would be $3 for a T-Shirt, $4 for a tie, $5 for a shawl (and quoted in dollars which are accepted as easily as dong). Even overpriced tourist bottles of water or coke would be $0.66. It almost made haggling not worth it, but fear not I still did it (remember cheapskate here.) However I would request that we negotiate in dong. I don't know. . . getting a discount of 5,000-10,000 dong felt better than a discount of $0.33 - $0.66.
- Despite being incredibly cheap, the food was incredibly good. Full of fresh healthy ingredients stir fried with tons of exotic and great flavors. It's also pretty healthy (as long as you stay away from deep fried spring rolls. . . ) I've grown a new appreciation for Vietnamese food, which I will be indulging on Argyle street upon my return.
- Traffic is a nightmare . . . everywhere. The only cars you see are mostly buses, taxis, and official vehicles. However the lack of cars is more than compensated by an abundance of motorbikes. Everybody in the country seems to have a motorbike which they seem to drive 24 hours a day. We read a statistic(in the inflight magazine upon departure of all places) that says there are 25 (unofficially 50) motorbikes for every car and despite the source we have no reason to dispute this. Moreover, these motos are always overloaded. . . dangerously so. . .You will see families of four perched on 1 moto all the time (Yes that little head you see is a child standing on a moto).
- Unfortunately, despite the massive amount of motos at every turn, there are few traffic lights. Supposedly they've only started installing them in the last few years. As a result, crossing the street was always an adventure and I felt a little uneasy everytime I did it. The local trick, which is very disconcerting, was to just start crossing the street at a constant predictable clip and let the motos avoid you. The spaniard's friend employed a modified technique of directing traffic (ie using hand motions to tell them to tell them to stop or go). As you can see it took a bit for me to get used to either method.
Despite my concerns, I ended up being a street crossing pro by the end of the journey. Needless to say I survived to have plenty of adventures in the country. More on those later. . .