Verfasst von: rbontour | April 9, 2011

Vietnam – “Same Same But Different”

Whoever traveled to Southeast Asia knows this one famous and most favorite expression of locals, especially street vendors: “Same Same But Different”. It basically means that things are very similar, but just a bit different (or you’ll never really get what you expected). The phrase is almost like a mission statement – there are even t-shirts printed with it.

Reflecting on the level of hospitality and kindness of Southeast Asian people we always felt it’s a bit of “same same”. No matter where we traveled in this region… Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia or Laos… we have met an uncountable number of friendly, welcoming and warmhearted people. However, in Vietnam the “but different” part of the phrase applies much better…

Please let us say this: we do not want to generalize things on our blog and we don’t intend to put Vietnam in a bad light. We only talk about our very personal experiences. Other travelers may have a totally different view, but for us… when we left Hanoi 2 days ago we were both, happy and relieved to get away.

South vs. North Vietnam – What a Big Difference
Culturally, we thought the difference between South and North Vietnam is enormous. We stayed over 5 days in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) – actually way too long, but we had some issues with our Visa for China and for the first time of our journey, we got stuck.

Anyways, at first we were surprised to encounter such friendliness in the south, especially because we heard some negative stories from others beforehand and also it’s a huge city (~8 Million people)… as you know, the atmosphere in cities is always a bit different. Sure, everyone was trying to sell us something and Vietnamese are definitely more assertive than sellers in other countries. Opposed to the north (!), in the south we found they bargained in a funny way. Food-wise, South Vietnam was amazing – a complexity of flavors that is truly delicious (but no worries, we didn’t taste the frogs)! We never thought another country in SE Asia can compete with our all-time favorite Thai kitchen, but South Vietnamese kitchen definitely can. Lastly, it was warm and sunny down there, which always adds to one’s mood and personal comfort.

Once we arrived in the north, we immediately noticed that something is different and, in fact, it was so different that we wouldn’t be keen on returning. We had the feeling that people can be incredibly rude, aggressive, pushy and cold. Especially towards foreigners, some are mean and miserable. So many times we felt treated poorly. There were restaurants in the countryside that didn’t let us eat in their location because we were foreigners. With an expression of dislike on their faces, they just sent us away or closed their doors in front of us. Honestly, this never happened to us in 7 ½ months! In addition, we felt constantly ripped-off, hassled and overcharged. Some vendors pulled on our arms and yelled at us – they were pissed off if we looked at something and didn’t buy it. For a bottle of water some guys tried to charge us twice as much, although the bottles displayed the proper local price. Once, a taxi driver pulled over and stopped somewhere so remote just so he could blackmail us. He wanted us to pay a higher price than agreed – and man, he got so aggressive and screamed at us in Vietnamese that it was hard to stay calm.  Actually, Robert is gifted with a great characteristic called “patience”… and if he is losing his patience or temper, something is really wrong. In Vietnam this was the case several times!

Again, maybe this country is an awesome destination and we just experienced a combination of bad luck and too much cold and rainy weather… We don’t want to make big judgments here – it’s only our travel experience.

Communism or Capitalism?
Vietnam is still run by a communist regime, but more the „light edition“ as to us it didn’t seem communist at all (besides the government posters in the cities). BTW, since 2 days we are actually in China and here daily life seems much more communist than in Vietnam.

We expected that things would be rather structured, ordered/controlled in this country; or no real classes exist, wealth is divided equally among all citizens and eventually limited supply of some goods. This, however, was not the case.

Well, many sites on the web are blocked and, for instance, Facebook is not accessible (although it works on the Blackberry :-)), but on the surface Vietnam is no obvious police or communist state to us. What we found is a vast artificial landscape of shops, souvenirs and street vendors everywhere…well, one could say “mass consumerism” to this. There are not a lot of streets, we think, without any vendors and all of them show this apparent greed kind of mentality.

In regards of order and structure… not in Vietnam. The cities are extremely noisy and quite polluted.  Traffic is bad and very aggressive… Saigon is simply crazy! With a population of approx. 8 Million, there are 4 million scooters. Crossing the street can be a daring act and driving with local buses is a nightmare. We claim to be experienced driving with local buses in Southeast Asia, but in Vietnam it was more frightening than anywhere else. The bus drivers are overtaking in such risky ways that sometimes we closed our eyes and hoped for the best. Everyone is honking as anywhere else in the region, but the Vietnamese honk out of habit as opposed to necessity. Lastly, street lanes, traffic lights or so called driving politeness do not exist on the roads of this country.

War Remnants Museum
We had one really educating and memorable experience in Ho Chi Minh City, when we visited the extraordinary War Remnants museum. Well, of course the museum showed a one-sided (Communist) view of the horrible Vietnam War, but the photographs displayed showed more than a thousand words probably. The pictures illustrated the triviality of the entire war – there was definitely lots of careless massacring on both sides. The most moving part of the museum was the exhibit on the defoliant, Agent Orange. During the war, Agent Orange was used by the US to uncover the enemies – they sprayed millions of liters of this chemical compound on trees and vegetation. What we were not aware of is that so many people suffer from Agent Orange until this day. We saw shocking pictures of what this chemical did to the people, who came in contact with it – and how it still affects their offspring. It mutates the genes and once you have it in your blood line, nobody can say how, when or if you can get rid of it. Generations over generations may be affected; it’s heartbreaking to see so many young people with unbelievably deformed bodies and faces as a result of this criminal act.

Understandably, we were extremely sad once we left the museum. All wars are shocking and the dramatic descriptions of irrational hatred and antagonism makes you numb. It creates feelings of disbelief as its sheer impossible to understand what in the world can turn people (or nations) into destructive killing machines.

Finally, if you are interested we would like to share a letter with you that moved us deeply. It’s a letter written by Tran Thi Hoan – a 23 year old Agent Orange victim – to Barrack Obama. Click here to download her words to the President of the United States.

PS: Sorry, this blog was a bit negative – as you can see in our photos… besides the bad and foggy weather, the landscapes here can be fascinating and surely we also had good times :-).

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Responses

  1. Hi Brigitte & Robert,
    After visiting you in Cambodia I feel a little bit what a world trip means, I read your blogs with a different sense now :-). I understand now it’s not vacation, it’s just an adventure with lots of daily planning and short time travel schedule forecasting, cost planning and crazy things happened in between. But I see also the new world you are exploring every day, week and month, it’s fantastic, and you can be proud of it – it’s a life time experience (I would personally liked to have the opportunity some years ago). Looks like Hanoi is crazy hectic and busy I understand your decision the leave earlier. BTW: please make next time a picture with Robert loses his temper and get aggravated 🙂 – yes it’s not nice to feel being treated as foreigner or so I know what you mean as I work daily in 3 different worlds. If I read all of this I’m just asking both of you, “be carefully” and follow your gut feeling if something is not so kosher as we say. The Vietnam war is a story by its own and I learned a lot at my school time, it’s crazy for me even thinking about it. I read the letter from Tran Thi Huan and tears came in my eyes, but reality stays reality and I agree some behaviors in our political world has to change. Your Vietnam pictures are incredible beautiful and again you see a fantastic new world I haven’t seen (yet). I wish you a great trip and positive adventure in Tibet/China.
    …kindest greetings from Dad (Ma says hello)

  2. Hi Brigitte, hi Robert,
    habe eben die beiden Blogs von Vietnam u. China gelesen (die Fotos hab ich mir früher schon mal angeschaut). Auch hab ich den Brief von dem Mädchen gelesen und es ist einfach erschreckend und alles so traurig daß die Welt nicht in Frieden leben kann – und es wäre doch so einfach – leben und leben lassen. Ich denke mal, dass euch Tibet etwas entschädigt und hoffe ihr habt eine ganz tolle Zeit im Land von „Dalai Lama“ den ich wirklich verehre.
    Dickes Bussi
    Ma

    • Hey Ma,
      danke fuer Deine lieben Worte! Ja, der Brief von diesem Maedel ist wirklich heftig und hat uns auch sehr beruehrt…
      Und es stimmt – Tibet ist wirklich toll!! Sind tota begeistert. Nicht nur die Natur ist faszinierend, sondern auch die unglaublich religioese und spirituelle Kultur der Tibeter. Noch nie waren wir an einem Ort wie Lhasa… es ist richtig ergreifend und beeindruckend, wie sehr der buddhistische Glaube das taegliche Tun dieser Menschen leitet. Na ja, bald mehr dazu ;-).
      LG aus Shigatse,
      R+B

  3. good blog

  4. Of course there are plenty of friendly people in the north, but they are far from charming. I’ve been in the south for several weeks and love it. Hanoi? You can have it. Speaking some viet certainly helps, but overall there is no love for foreigners here. It’s still worth a visit, if you have plenty of time. If you have limited time, stay south. Scammers everywhere in VN, but their contempt for us does seem to increase occurrence in north. Every transaction I had yesterday involved someone taking more than they should.

    Thank goodness for the occasional warm and friendly people here in Hanoi, they’re here for sure. In Cuba, where the people have plenty of reason to dislike my country, they universally seperate the U.S. govt and people. I’d have to spend more time here to figure it out but there’s nicer places to be!


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