I found Vietnam exhilarating. Thailand is an easier country to travel in, I found the poverty in Laos very disturbing and I’m still trying to reconcile the wealth we observed in Phnom Penh and Siam Reap with abject poverty in rural Cambodia.
But of all the South East Asian countries we’ve visited, Vietnam is definitely my favorite. The country is brimming with energy and industry.
Murph challenged my assessment of Vietnam.
“Why do you think it’s so full of life?”
“What makes you say that poverty is less of a problem there than in Laos or Cambodia?”
I have to admit that I haven’t read about Vietnam’s economic condition or examined the country’s socal justice and support systems. In this personal travel journal I only present my understanding of what I saw as we moved through Vietnam from country to city and North to South.
We crossed into Vietnam from Laos in the rural, mountainous North-West. It was as if someone was traveling just ahead of us adding color back into the roadside scenery. Gone were the dull, lifeless rice paddy fields of Laos and in their place a hundred different hues of green. Multi-layered paddy fields, irrigated with water from wind-powered bamboo pumps, section after section green with rice in every stage of the growing cycle. Harvest here is not a short, single, annual event. As we continued down the country we saw this style of cultivation and even more: fish farms in ponds along the paddy fields; fruits and vegetables between houses and paddies. All of this agricultural abundance visible in technicolor glory at markets all over the country.
In Northern Vietnam the roads are better than in Laos and Cambodia – if only marginally, a single-lane, pot-holed road is most common. A functioning car horn, good brakes and nerves of steel are required to drive here. It was hard to see the road conditions on our night bus journey through the center of the country but the frequent honking, violent braking and stomach-churning lurching of the bus made me think that the roads were pretty much the same. Until Danang when all of a sudden there was a modern, two-lane highway.
“The government wants to build motorways all the way to Hanoi” our Sinhbalo Tours guide told us while showing off a beautiful new bridge spanning the Mekong in the delta south of Saigon.
“On the day this bridge opened, people rented cars and came out from Saigon just to drive over it.”
Change always comes faster in cities than in the country. Both Hanoi and Saigon are modern cities with traffic, traffic problems, high-rise buildings and western-style shopping malls. Which is not to say that they are characterless – anything but. The Old Quarter in Hanoi, with it’s warren of tiny streets and grand parks gracefully blends traditional Vietnamese with faint traces of Europe left by the French. On the streets of Saigon, even among the furore of claims on my tourist time and wallet, I saw beautiful, locally designed and made contemporary fashion. Young Vietnamese designers tired of churning out “Good Morning Vietnam” t-shirts and bringing fresh new ideas to the market maybe?
In Danang I counted three resort developments by familiar international hotel chains. Our friends at Rainbow Divers in Nha Trang told us that just six years ago (2004) there were no high-rise hotels on the waterfront in this bustling seaside town. Now there are more than I could count and even more in progress. But don’t be fooled into thinking that all of Vietnam’s rapid development is being fueled by external investors. Hanoi’s new skyscraper, for example, the first in the city, was build by a Vietnamese businessman.
As I said at the start, I haven’t researched Vietnam – not yet anyway. I may be way off in my assessment. Coming from Laos, which seemed to be under a cloud of oppression and corruption, the sights and sounds, the constant motion and industry in Vietnam, blew me away. Time will tell, but if you have a vacation planned any time soon, put Vietnam on your bucket list, you’ll be glad you did.