Arriving in Hanoi and stepping out on to the city’s streets is to experience a sensual assault which is unlike anything comparable in Europe. The most obvious difference is the overwhelming number of motorcycles. It is estimated that between them, Vietnam’s two major cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, have approxiamtely 12 million motorcycles. They are a formidable sight, especially when trying to cross the road, not least because they don’t slow down or stop for pedestrians, and rarely follow any lane discipline (including riding the wrong way on ‘one way streets’ and frequently mounting the pavement to avoid the traffic jams)
In Hue city the motorcyle wave appeared a little more orderly
Every available space seems to be occupied by parked motor cycles. Until the 1990’s the bicycle was the main means of transport. There are still a few brave, often elderly, cyclists and peestrians trying to navigate the streets alongside a growing number of cars.
When attempting to cross the road, the key advice is not to stop or run as this will not be anticipated by the oncoming motorcycles and cars – just keep walking at a steady pace and the traffic will magically weave its way around you
The (tourist) buses in the above picture are not a common site. Public tranpsort is severly lacking, although the authorities have woken up to the serious problem of poor air quality in the cities, and begun to invest heavily in a city metro service. The most ambitious scheme in Ho Chi Minh city was due to start service in 2014, but this has now been postponed to 2020.
In Hanoi, the railway is an option for a few destinations. One of the main lines travels alongside the front doors of houses where the local residents can be seen brewing coffee and tending to chickens
A couple of minutes later, the evening express passes through
It is possible to travel overnight from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh in the south – the so-called Reunification Express, a distance of over 1000 miles. We sampled it between Hue and Da Nang
Vietnam is undergoing a period of rapid urbanisation – doubling from 20 to 40% of the population in the past twenty years. Many of its cities’ streets seem to replicate village life with families openly cooking, socialising and trading. Indeed, there seems to be a constant stream of agricultural produce being transported along the streets by individual vendors or people delivering produce to the street markets, food stores and cafes/restaurants.
Street markets can be found in every city and village.
Of the many food vendors, the most common sight is Pho – a rice noodle soup with various meat and herbs added. It is eaten round the clock by the Vietnamese.
Aside from food, there are a range of personal services available including hair dressers who offer to clean your ears (of wax) as well as cut your hair
Personal massage services proliferate – the treatment of feet seems to be very popular
As with many Asian countries, hand made clothes is a thriving industry, especially in tourist cities like Hoi An
What is very clear from walking the streets in Vietnam is that its people are very industrious – working very long hours, and despite officially having a communist economic system, there is an irrepressible DIY entrepreneurial spirit.
Politics and history
Whilst Vietnam is rapidly modernising with many of the outward signs of a global capitalist economy, it is still apparent that the Communist Party holds sway. 2018 is being marked as the 50th annivserary of the Tet Offensive when the Communist north launched a huge offensive against the south which many see as the key turning point of what the Vietnamese call the American War of 1964-75.
Memories of the occupation of Vietnam by both France and the USA are very much kept alive throughout the country. For example, there is the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, still known locally by its former name of Saigon, which contains a special exhibition of the devestation of the country caused by chemical weapons such as Agent Orange
In Hanoi, Maison Centrale houses the prison built by the French to incarcerate local rebels, and then later employed by the Communists to house American POWs (nicknamed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’) such as future presidential candidate John McCain
In Ho Chi Minh City, the old presidential palace, now renamed the Independence or Reunification Palace, has been preserved so vistors can see the opulence in which the doomed South Vietnamese President Van Thieu resided, before North Vietnam forces eventually triumphed in April 1975 – the tank which broke through the gates of the Palace still resides within the Palace grounds.
Elsewhere, in Hue you can still see the rusting remains of American military hardware. To the north of the historic city (which was largely destroyed in 1968) there are a number of battlefields such as Hamburger Hill, which can only be toured with guides (to avoid being injured or killed by the large number of unexploded bombs which still blight many parts of Vietnam)
Vietnam is a one party (Communist) state and there are plenty of signs of the party’s role in administering the country
The ex- leader who is most venerated is (‘Uncle’) Ho Chi Minh. In Hanoi there are always long queues to visit his mausoleum where his embalmed body can be seen. There is a constant stream of school parties brought along to learn about their heroic leader.
Elsewhere, Ho Chi Minh’s avuncular image is ubiquitous
The Communist Party’s presence is inescapable. In both city and country there are daily announcements relayed via loudspeakers to inform and educate the people. Sometimes, the images of the Party sit uneasily alongside those of capitalist enterprises such as the Vincon retail shopping centre in Ho Chi Minh city.
Despite the authoritarian political system, Vietnam does not feel to be in the grip of any kind of police state. The local police have a low key presence
Although there is no tolerance of any political oppostion, there is religious tolerance. Ho Chi Minh city houses a large Catholic cathedral, Hindu temple and mosque dating from 1935
However, it is the Buddhist religion which has a very strong presence throughout the country. We came across many beautiful historic pagodas during our visit
Unsurprisingly, given the breakneck speed at which Vietnam is modernising, environmental damage is all too evident. Apart from the obvious problem of air pollution in the cities, tourist areas are also suffering from lack of adequate environmental regulation. Phu Quoc Island, with its huge tropical forest and wonderful beaches, is being developed as a tourist centre without there seemingly being any systematic means of disposing of rubbish.
The jewel in Vietnam’s tourist crown is the Unesco World Heritage Site, Halong Bay. However, the popularity of experiencing the unique beauty of the Bay and the local fishing communities has been threatened by a failure to restrict the numbers of cruise ships touring the area and the building of huge hotels, and finally, there is the damage wreaked by pollution from nearby coal mines.
On a more mundane level, health and safety often seems quite rudimentary. Walking the streets of Hanoi often necessitates ducking under hanging electricity wires. The wiring pictured below is typical of neighbourhoods in Hanoi’s Old Town (note the loudspeakers used to provide daily public briefings)
Hoi An: Struggling to retain its charm
Granted World Heritage Ancient Town status by Unesco, Hoi An is undoubtedly a beautifully preserved and captivating town. However, because of its magnetic appeal, it is in danger of becoming a form of Vietnamese Disneyland. The town’s colourful lanterns, ancient buildings and laid back charm are very enticing, especially at night, but unfortunately it struggles to preserve its charm in the face of busloads of tourists
Art is alive and well in Vietnam. Most typically it can be found in the tourist oriented galleries which combine traditional images with more modern abstraction
Ho Chi Minh City has the elegant old Fine Arts Museum dating from 1929 which houses some of the best known 20th century Vietnamese artists as well as inspiring some live artists.
Hoi An’s Couleurs d’Asie Gallery houses the work of French photographer Réhahn who has photograhed most of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minorities
Finally, there is a buoyant market for recycled old propaganda posters from the American/Vietnam war (largely aimed at western tourists). Whilst some of the striking political images seem inspired by soviet Russian propaganda art, others have a very original Vietnamese style.
Ca Phe Culture
Whilst the French occupation of Vietnam was imperialist in nature, the French were responsible for introducing the country to coffee. It is estimated that Vietnam cities have more cafes per head of population than anywhere else in the world. Vietnamese grow their own coffee beans (second only to Brazil in global production) . The roasted beans are put into a crude drip filter called a phin and the outcome is invariably a very enjoyable cup of coffee with its unique distinctive taste.
For coffee afficianados, there are a range of different styles depending upon the beans. Being a generally hot country, the majority of locals prefer iced to hot coffee, and in Hanoi you can also enjoy the delights of egg coffee (ca phe trung) – a sort of Vietnamese version of tiramisu, as well as coconut coffee and other unique combinations. The smooth sweetness of the drink is created by adding Vietnam’s own form of condensed milk.
The Changing face of Vietnam
Vietnam has a very young population – over 70% population are under 40. With memories of the war fading fast, and rapid urbanisation/modernisation, it really feels like the traditional ways of living are fast disappearing.
Below are some images which reflect some of these social, economic and cultural changes.
The last picture of a family’s open front room (in Ganh Dau village, Phu Quoc) seems to epitomise many aspects of contemporary Vietnam – the motor cycle, televison and music centre, a Buddhist religious ‘shrine’ with symbolic offerings, the portrait of Ho Chi Minh, and the children’s fluffy toys combined with the openness of the room to the outside (neighbours and passers by) world.
For further reading about how Vietnam’s development from the 1990’s, Bill Hayton’s Rising Dragon is essential reading. The website Everyday Life provides a useful concise summary of how the country is changing