And now for something completely different

After the weeks and months we’d spent traversing Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, we figured we had a decent handle on South East Asia. We knew some of Vietnam’s cultural roots were pointing in a different direction from its westerly neighbors, with heavier influence from China over the centuries, so we arrived anticipating a variation on a theme. What we discovered, however, was a whole new melody all together.

For starters, Vietnam is highly developed in comparison to the countries we’d just come from. Perhaps there are areas of the country that are different, but in our travels, I observed only a handful of wooden houses. This was in village that was not on the typical tourist stop, and even there, most of the homes were made of concrete. There was not a single bamboo hut to be seen, neither in the places we visited or during any of the bus rides we took.

Vietnam has capitalized on its best sights, creating a slick and efficient tourist industry. Of course there have been tourists in all the countries we’ve visited. You expect and tolerate the song and dance and the crowds at places like the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat but then you go to some place less famous and can get some space from all that.

In Vietnam it was difficult not to feel like part of a herd of Westerners that was being shuffled through the country. Most of the places we looked into that were not on the tourist trail sounded dull to somewhat unpleasant. We got off “the trail” for one destination and while it was drop dead gorgeous countryside, still we had some mixed experiences there too.

Like in any village we’d visited we got a lot of attention from the kids living there. They had a new way of greeting us though. Whenever we ran into some children, inevitably they’d start calling out “Hello, money!” Hmm…

Other differences and signs of development: This was the first country we’d been to that didn’t have any tuk tuks! I couldn’t believe it. Discovering each country’s take on this Asian, three-wheel wonder has been one of the little things I’ve really gotten a kick out of as we’ve been traveling (Northern India’s uber-compact green and yellow autorickshaw remains my total favorite!) and it felt like something was missing when Vietnam failed to produce one.

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A small flock of tuk tuks outside a train station in India (I can’t believe I didn’t take more/better photos of them while we were there!)

Although it does have the cyclo – like a backwards tricycle with seating at the front for passengers. It’s a really lovely way to get around a city – if you don’t get scammed or into an argument with the driver about the price.

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A couple of cyclo drivers observing the traffic outside the Reunification Palace in Saigon

We noticed that there were no street dogs anywhere – also a first. I wonder what they do differently from their neighbors to keep the population in check.

The primary mode of transportation, famously, is the motorbike. I was amazed and pleased to see the majority of people where headgear. The helmet comes in all colors and styles in Vietnam. There are even women’s versions that have an opening in the back for pony tails. It also was the first country where I saw any kids in child-sized helmets too, although even in Vietnam the vast majority of children ride without.

One thing that I hadn’t realized and that took getting used to was that Vietnamese is written in the Roman alphabet. Any time I’d seen letters I could recognize in Asia, almost inevitably the words would be in English, so I was used to keeping my eyes open for the alphabet for possible useful information. It took a while to adjust to the fact that seeing Roman letters didn’t equate to me being able to read and understand anything.

While Vietnam, like most of the other countries in mainland Southeast Asia, is primarily Buddhist, it primarily follows the Mahayana form of Buddhism, while in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, Theravadin is the prevalent branch (You can learn a bit more here).

Visiting Buddhist sites in the other countries we’d been to has been one of the highlights of travel in Asia for me. For me, there has been something about just stepping into a temple that has often helped quiet my running mind and something familiar and comforting about the peaceful faces of the statue work that can often be found around or within them.

The temples we visited in Vietnam were fascinating and beautiful but had a completely different vibe to them. I enjoyed seeing but couldn’t connect to them in the way I had in other places. They were dark rooms, decorated with lots of red and dark wood, with altars full of impressive but sometimes gaudy statues. Even the incense burned had a whole new smell from what I knew from other countries.

We hardly saw any monks. The cheery orange I’d come to associate with monks’ robes in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand in Vietnam had been assigned to trash collectors’ jumpsuits. The handful of monks we did see in Vietnam were dressed in somber maroons and greys.

Monks in Cambodia

A trash collector in Saigon at night

Buddhist temple decorations

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A totally different feel in the temples we saw in Vietnam:

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I wonder if this description is tending too strongly towards the negative.  Along with all the other differences, it was the first country in which we actually experienced the “dangers and annoyances” always listed for each location in Lonely Planet, with some flagrant rip offs on the part of taxi drivers and of course my iPhone episode. Throw in catching a flu in Saigon and my bout with food poisoning in Hue and I’d say some days it felt like Vietnam was defying me to like it.

It wasn’t all bad though and for all the less-than-positive experiences we had, there was still something I liked about Vietnam that I’m still trying to put my finger on. Maybe its unapologetic attitude. 🙂 And there are certainly positive points to all the development and tourism like plenty of hotels to choose from with a pretty consistent and decent level of quality, wifi virtually everywhere, etc.

There is a lot of beauty too: From the glorious green rice fields to the impressive karst mountains. From the intriguing red and black temples to the forlornly lovely French-colonial architecture. From the picturesque vendors in conical hats bearing their baskets of wares hanging from poles slung over one shoulder to the blinding rainbow of neon that comes to life in the cities after sundown.

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So if you’re thinking of going to Vietnam, I’d say that you can hope to fall in love with it – just don’t expect it to love you back. 🙂

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