Vietnam

FebRUARY 24th — March 4th

I wrote this entry in two parts: the first is a thematic list of what stood out to me in Vietnam. It’s the meat of the entry, and probably the most worth reading, while the second one is a shorter chronological recap of our trip in Vietnam, which I keep to help remember the exact chain of events in our trip, months or years after it has passed.

  • The communist propaganda: as soon as we exited the airport in Hanoi, it was omnipresent. Small signs planted at regular intervals along the highway, big billboards downtown. The billboards look transplanted from Stalinist Russia. Picture workers and families lined up in a row in front of a red background, a handful of communist symbols, and a slogan. The colors are half washed away and the billboard is just as dirtied by pollution as the walls of the building it is on.

  • Dat communist vibe: there is a sober, somber, stoic, atmosphere in some areas of Hanoi. The quarter surrounding the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh is a good example of this. Tall, monolithic, modern, concrete buildings decorated with a yellow star in a big red badge make these districts feel stern, devoid of life. It's a bit of the same vibe you get when watching a document about North Korea. Of course it's far from being the same but there's a tint of it.

  • Littering: More than anywhere else to this point, Vietnam felt the dirtiest. The countryside especially is littered all over the place. Villages have areas with trash stacked for god knows how long. This surely comes from the lack of proper garbage collection services but it's also the result of poor habits on the part of locals who toss trash on the side of the road without a second thought.

  • Driving: Vietnam had by far the worse driving. People honk constantly for the smallest thing. See another bus driver? Honk. Passing someone? Honk. Someone didn't see you? Honk? Think someone didn't see you? Honk all the same. Mad at someone? Honk repeatedly. But the honking pales in comparison to how people drive. There are no real highways to speak of. Multiple lanes going in the same direction are rare. This makes passing hell. Add on top of that the fact that most people drive mopeds, which drive rather slowly, and this results in the most gruesome passing-fests I have ever seen. Mopeds drove on every side of the road, in both directions and others are left to dodge. But the most jarring aspect is that people refuse to stop for anything less than a cas de force majeure. I mean, picking up speed with their subpar engines is understandably painful, slow, costly in gasoline, and besides, you're the king of the road anyway, right? If you’ve ever seen what a four way traffic intersection looks like in a world with only self driving cars, that's kind of what it looks like.

It's beautifully efficient in a way since no one has to stop. The hidden side of this is that traffic lights and stop signs are optional. This works just fine until someone dies, which happens to 25 of every 100,000 inhabitants yearly. That may seem high but it's not outrageous for South East Asia. It's 3 times less than Lybia, but 5 times more than France.

  • Crossing the streets: we found a contender for Bangkok! When it comes to getting to the other side of the road, Vietnam is surely the most intense place I've been to. Of course my opinion is impacted by my multi-day stays in Hanoi and Saigon, but it's still noteworthy. Crossing the street is a science in and of itself. As mentioned above, vehicles do not stop and it takes a whole lot of faith to march into 5 lanes worth of traffic. But somehow, it all works out. A few rules:

    • The river flows around the rock in the stream. So it is for you and motorbikes. Pay them no heed and they will be to you as the Red Sea was to Moses.

    • Never look them in the eye. Of course, take a good look at the road, but do not engage into the losing game of chicken also known as establishing eye contact. If you acknowledge a driver, you have no plausible deniability, and they have the killing machine. Check mate! You must stand down.

    • Strength in numbers. A group of pedestrians can intimidate even a torrent of traffic. A temporary alliance of circumstances is always advisable.

    • Cars usually respect stop signs and red lights. If you have the right away, take it.

    • Never fuck with a bus.

  • Villages and driving in the countryside: Once you are out of a city and driving on a main road or ‘highway’ a stream of endless houses, shops and fields begins to unravel before you. It's as though there is no central city district and that the economy revolves around roads, and not around cities. Along the road, you see people, usually women, toiling in rice fields, the tall and thin houses so specific to Vietnam, and a never ending backdrop of small businesses, many of them desperate for customers.

  • Not smiling: Now I know that I can't require people to smile all the time, nor would I want that to be the case. The world is a tough place and I certainly don't require all to cheer up at my mere presence. Still, people's’ propensity to smile says something about the country you are in. After a week in Thailand where locals seemed eager to talk, were obviously proud of their country and always very polite, it was clear that Vietnam wasn't in the same state of mind. I noticed early as we collected our visas. The immigration personnel wore no emotions. They were cold, stoic. I took note but shrugged it off. I would see the same thing in our taxi driver, in the faces of people in the street and in shops. I came to read despair in those faces, or a sense that they had given up, that they were resigned to facing their frustrations day in and day out with no hopes of improvement. There were exceptions of course, but I kept getting glimpses of this on our journey, and after a while it signals rather clearly that you are not meant to engage, that you are a tourist, that you are interacting because there is a process to follow and profit to be made. Once again, this omits a few counter examples but they were far and few inbetween and overall, I think it's fair to say that this crept into our experience of Vietnam in a noticeable way.

  • North vs South: there is a stark contrast between the North and the South of Vietnam. For starters, the weather was winter-like in Hanoi. I wore my windbreaker and a scarf my entire time there which was a shocker after hot and sticky Chiang Mai. The south on the other hand was warm and humid, probably just as much as Chiang Mai. But the most interesting was the change in overall atmosphere. It's hard to qualify exactly where it comes from but it's very palpable. It's most probably rooted in the fact that I haven't actually seen most of the North (just Hanoi, really) nor most of the South (just Saigon and the Mekong delta), but what started as a simple hunch ended up being confirmed time and time again either by speaking with locals or… simply reading up on a bit of Vietnamese history. On a superficial level, you could say the north feels communist while the south feel capitalist. But it's not just that. Of course, the north is the seat of power of a country ruled by a communist party but the amount of people in the streets, the buildings overgrown by seemingly knowing trees, acknowledging the passing of eras of Hanoi gone by, the cold, grey weather, the bustling but modest street life. All of this contributed to a unique and charming experience of Hanoi. Saigon, ironically named Ho Chi Minh city, is the polar opposite of what most would guess him to have wanted as a legacy. It's like a roaring middle finger raised up in direction of Hanoi. A modern, vibrant city, economically booming, with a very hip nightlife. What both have in common unfortunately is what most of the cities of south east Asia have shown to me so far: noise, dirt, pollution.

  • Tours: we hadn't taken a proper tour since the beginning of our trip until we arrived in Vietnam. This kind of constrained group experience is something we usually shy away from. It starts with a landscape on a website, or a recommendation from a friend. It then takes the form a cheap, seemingly valuable package and unfolds as a sub-par, grimey experience which leaves you wondering where all your money went and who is pocketing that margin. Experiencing this once didn't make us any wiser since we decided to go on a second tour to the Mekong delta after our first one in Halong Bay. such tours are an entire industry. Both in the Mekong and Ha Long bay (but especially in Ha Long bay), droves of tour buses and beat down boats await throngs of tourists. When you go on tours like this, there is no concept of relaxing. You wake up at 6 something and get herded like cattle from activity to activity all day long. If you want it to just stop, you're out of luck: the show must go on. What we paid for wasn't advertised as a luxury cruise, granted, but the quality of transportation, food, accommodations, and even most of the activities were sub par. It never felt like we got a good experience for our money and it never seemed like any of the economies of scale achieved by traveling as a group were ever passed down to the customers. Sometimes, such tours are necessary to see some of the things you want to see. For example, I'm unsure I could have seen Halong bay up close the way we did if it weren't for the crappy tour boat that took us there. I don't think we could have gone as far into the Mekong delta as we did (although I’m not sure why one would want to), but having to go through the tour experience definitely casts a veil of mediocrity over the trip.

  • Poverty: even more than South Africa in some respects, Vietnam struck me as a particularly poor country. When you’re in the streets of a busy city like Hanoi, a host of small things give that impression. First of all, many people in Vietnam are seen squatting down. This may seem like just a detail, but it portrays the fact that many make a living doing menial tasks, and they do so spending their time close to the grime of the street, the pollution of passing traffic and other people’s trash. This could mean street cleaning or cooking, but even meals are had on small chairs or on the ground directly. You can also read a sort of desperation in people when they speak to you. An example of this would be on our first night in Hanoi when we found a small restaurant (quite good). Before we were even presented with a menu, a pamphlet detailing the backstory about the establishment was handed out (the owner supports a cause that helps youth make their way into economic independence) and asks to leave a 5-star review on trip advisor, before you’ve even tasted the food or selected an item on the menu. Soon after, the owner of the place came by our table (we were the only customers in the restaurant) to tell us more about his project. He smiled but didn’t spare any details about how difficult life was in Vietnam. He spoke of how lucky he was to be married, because most youth cannot afford to support a wife, let alone an entire family. In fact, life is so difficult in Vietnam that, according to him, there is an industry that supports South Koreans coming to Vietnam to find wives. Women (and most likely their families) take the deal because the ease of life and support they can send home is presumably worth it. He explained that he lived 60 Km outside of Hanoi and had to commute insane amounts every day for his work. He explained that most people get by with slightly over $100 per month. He begged for that trip advisor review so insistently and with so much desperation that it broke my heart. I saw that same look in other people, especially in Hanoi, things weren’t as bad in Saigon, but poverty manifested itself in other ways in the South. The Mekong delta was eye opening. As mediocre a tour as it was, it gave an up and close insight into how people live in the countryside. By navigating through small arms of the river, up villages that border the water, we got to see people’s houses, but it was more than that. Rather than seeing the front of their house, ie the part they want to show to passersby on the street, we got to see the back of the houses, the part that faces the river, the part that most don’t see. In doing so, we saw the beat down part of their house, their back porch/living room/kitchen hanging on the edge of a couple of precarious concrete pillars. In some homes, the glare of a TV illuminated the hovels. Most of these homes were no more than shacks, most likely assembled from stray wood and metal sheets. Some had concrete to support them, but they all looked like their inhabitants had built them on their own. I wouldn’t wager this was a professional job. In the midsts of these villages, Children seem to have little supervision. Many of them roam the streets on bikes, or just running by at times where one would imagine they should be in school. While visiting a vermicelli factory, I walked by a small street and noticed from the corner of my eye a woman raising a baby slightly above the trash piled up in that street for it to do its baby business. Passing another corner, a small mountain of trash built up, indicating that there is no regular trash collection to speak of. The ‘homestay’ night we experienced as part of the tour was another glimpse into the daily lives of Vietnamese people. This must have been a richer family too given how many tourists they housed, but their home still betrayed so much of what is troubling in Vietnam. Passing from the courtyard to the rows of bungalows in the back, a section of the house was demolished, with rubble on the floor. The accommodations were probably the best they could muster, but everything felt half way done, from the sink with no pipes to drain the water, to the insect infestation in the door, the useless mosquito net. Families bury their dead in their own backyard, with more or less impressive graves depending on who passed away. Again, nothing wrong with this at all, but it feels borne out of a pragmatism inflicted by the dire realities of everyday life in Vietnam.

  • Food: I had such a good first impression just because of what I had tasted in the west. Bahn Mi, pho, crab vermicelli, etc. I have to say that I was slightly disappointed, but this was strictly a result of the high expectations I came in with. We tried all the well known dishes, and then some. We had some good stuff and some bad stuff, like in most places. In fact it was rare that something would be genuinely bad to the point where you stop eating it. Most of the time, the fault of these dishes was to be bland. That said, we did manage to have some decent dishes of the main types mentioned above. In the end, I would say that I'd rather have Vietnamese food in the west. This may seem like heresy to any Anthony Bourdain fanboy out there, but I feel like someone with a mixed influence could do a better job of exacerbating the qualities of Vietnamese food. I certainly would not make the same statement for Thai food, or Indian food, but for Vietnam… sorry!

Now for a chronological recap of the trip.

We arrived in Hanoi by night, after a short stop in Laos. We were a little tense because our visa application was done a little late. Rumor had it that the visa on arrival process could be a little hectic and that having all your paperwork ready and being first in line could be a huge time saver. So we prepared our backpacks inside the plane as soon as we landed. This had already become a ritual, despite only being a month into our trip: lay the big bag on its back, loosen the straps, grab the small bag, ease it jerk the zipper, tuck the shoulder straps underneath, force the zipper to the other side, unzip the the shoulder straps out of this large bag and fold the cover underneath it. It's a pain in the ass to do, but fitting so much of our lives into so little space is worth it. Also, not waiting for luggage at a carousel, and not losing our stuff is definitely worth it.

People in airports are kind of slow, and despite exiting the plane last, we made it first to the visa booth. First in, first out is the rule. We were called to the booth by a female immigration officer who processed our paperwork. To make these kinds of interactions a little more seamless, people habitually use common courtesy words, maybe an occasional smile. But not here. This woman was placid, not an expression out of her face. Now I know you don't want to draw all sorts of conclusions based on a single interaction, especially the first one after entering a country, but it did set the tone and I couldn't help but reading the same kind of attitude (or lack thereof) in people behind various counters for the rest of our stay. Our taxi driver just confirmed that impression. He was stoic, made no conversation, just drove. It was late and we didn't mind some calm, besides we were absorbed by the landscape and all the details we noticed through our car window.

Arriving in Hanoi by night is quite impressive. The airport appears modern and well kept. The highway is clean and smooth. Communist party propaganda lines the speedway until you reach a bridge and the city skyline is revealed in the horizon. Tall buildings, bright lights. Pretty modern indeed! But that wasn't where we were heading. Our destination was the old city of Hanoi, a maze of small streets in which flowed a steady stream of mopeds and bicycles. We noticed people’s attire: thick pollution masks (some ‘brand named’) and scarves. The weather was cold compared to Chiang Mai, and we were almost happy to experience a bit of winter seemingly for the first time this year (if you omit our short stint in France).

We had the entire following day to visit Hanoi. There's something charming about the city, almost mysterious. It also gives off an ancient feeling. It feels like history permeates the place. Maybe it's the trees that grow through buildings, or the houses that look so old, but I found it exciting to visit. It's fairly easy to go though the old city and see the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh within a day and that's exactly what we did.

Next up was Halong bay. This would be our first cruise / group tour. I've spoken about the touring experience above so I'll leave it that but despite the mediocre experience, I have to say Halong bay is a sight to behold, and the people we met on the cruise were all lovely.

After a night in Halong bay, we headed back to Hanoi for a night in the same hotel we had stayed in the first time. We took an early flight to Saigon where we were to meet Michael and Lina. We met them that evening and played the first in a long series of pool games (which Anaïs and I won, for the record).

We spent the next two days visiting Saigon. We even met with Sutee again on the second day! The third day, we got on a bus to our cruise in the Mekong river. After driving south for most of the day, we were dropped off for the horrible homestay experience in a small village. I wouldn't be so salty about it if it weren't actually more expensive than the hotel option.

We had a bunch of activities the next day, mostly going through the Mekong and visiting a few villages. We stayed at an actual hotel that night.

We left Vietnam and crossed the Cambodian border the next day.