My wife and I recently spent about 3 weeks in central Vietnam, and a few days in Singapore. As I’m absolutely hooked on history, our trip largely revolved around exploring the history of Singapore and Vietnam, and Vietnam’s in particular is vast and very colorful. Over a series of blog posts, I will be giving a personal account of the history of central Vietnam and a little bit of Singapore, that we explored during our recent holiday. As the first blog post in the series, I won’t discuss any history, rather just give a very quick overview of the things that most South Africans ask about, when we discuss our holiday in Vietnam.
From Singapore, we flew directly to Da Nang, where central Vietnam’s airport is located, then moved to Huế, and finished our holiday in Hoi An. Also keep in mind that my opinions are based on my experience in central Vietnam. The bigger cities in the far north, Hanoi and south, Ho Chi Minh, might be quite different, just like Cape Town is vastly different from Johannesburg.
Why We Chose Vietnam
It was an inspired, intuitive decision, based on the Vietnam Eyewitness Travel Guide . My only criteria for our overseas holiday, was that I’d like to visit any country with an ancient, rich and vibrant history. I think a further motivation was the exchange rate with the Rand and the fact that things are just cheaper in Vietnam (in comparison I realized South Africa isn’t such a cheap place), which made things a lot more affordable for us. I would say, on average, things are about 50% cheaper in Vietnam than in South Africa. That goes for everything from hotels to buying things at a street market. I envy how cheap a holiday in Vietnam must be for the Europeans and British.
By the way, about the Eyewitness book. It’s a wonderful little book to get inspired about the country, but don’t depend on it to get around Vietnam day-to-day. Your Swiss army knife of info, to survive in Vietnam will be the Lonely Planet’s guide on Vietnam. That book was essential to ensuring an enjoyable stay in Vietnam.
The American War in Vietnam
The first thing most people asked, is if they have yet fully recovered from the war against America. The answer to that is an unequivocal, Yes! There are absolutely no signs in any of the cities, that there has ever been a war like that in Vietnam. And I would hope so, the American war in Vietnam ended almost 40 years ago. At historic buildings and sites some signs of the war are still visible. This is hardly surprising, since these buildings are historically significant and a heritage, therefore major restorations are not really possible or allowed.
When South Africans ask me this question, I realize just how little we know about Vietnam (and the same is true of them about Africa), and that the only, outdated, knowledge South Africans have of this amazing country and people, is that which they got from western news back in the 1970s and American war movies.
In short there are few rich people in Vietnam. But, there are very few people that are desperately poor. Unlike South Africa, where there is a small group of people earning a decent living, and then a massive number of people struggling to make ends meet. Something that really got my attention, was the fact that there are no informal settlements in central Vietnam. Almost everyone has a pretty little house to live in, and many even have a small holding, that they can cultivate. There are also none of those characterless, mass cloned, little matchbox houses, that the South African department of housing builds. Each little home has it’s own style. The main buildings all have the same narrow, rectangular structure, but each building has been given its own unique style by its owner. Everyone wants to sell you something, but you won’t find any beggars at the street corners.
As anyone that has spent some time with South Africans would know, we are always obsessing about crime. I’m therefore pleased to announce that Vietnam is a very safe place indeed. Safer than South Africa. We’ve heard of people’s wallets being pinched, and someone might try to scam you in a transaction at the market, but there are no armed robberies, where peoples’ expensive valuables are stolen at gun point or knife’s edge. For example, you can walk around in the street, late at night, taking pictures with your expensive camera, without fear of being robbed.
The Vietnamese people seem to be a happy bunch, that’s content with life. Everyone was extremely friendly, and helpful (especially if they have something to sell you). Compared to the Singaporeans, I found the Vietnamese to let more of their emotions show. Warm, hearty laughs and smiles, frowns and even arguments in public were more frequent. Whereas the Singaporeans kept an efficient straight face most of the time. In Da Nang we even saw an older lady (I’m guessing the mother) have a massive argument with a younger lady (I’m guessing her daughter), where she later took off her sandals and started hitting the younger woman.
I got a strong sense that the average Vietnamese really doesn’t know a lot about the world outside their country’s border. From the confused expression on their faces when we answered that we’re from South Africa, it was obvious that most Vietnamese would struggle to find South Africa on a map. Most of them thought we were German (but I don’t blame them for this, I would draw the same conclusion listening to Afrikaners talking), and then some went on to tell us, after realizing that there is “Africa” in our country’s name, that we can’t be from South Africa because we are, you guessed it, white!
Twice Vietnamese were so amused to see some westerners, that they started taking photos and videos of us, right in our faces. Now that was a strange, and slightly awkward, experience.
No surprises here: Vietnamese speak and write Vietnamese. However, I was expecting the English conversations to be a much bigger problem, but it turned out that most people’s English is good enough to get the job done. English of younger people from cities are actually good enough to allow a decent conversation.
As I’ve already mentioned, I’m completely addicted to history. So our holiday was specifically targeted at exploring, experiencing and learning about Vietnam’s history, mainly until about the 1920s (i.e. we didn’t really pay attention to the anti colonial revolution against France, and the American war in Vietnam). We visited as many historical places as we could, and often had to walk or cycle long distances in +35°C temperatures. This isn’t very comfortable, and sometimes even a little stressful to find your way, by yourself, in an unknown place. We also stayed in the heart of each city’s centre, which isn’t always the sexiest location, but it’s closest to the action.
However, if you prefer to have more of a resort type holiday, where you relax all the time and enjoy long walks on perfect white sandy beaches, then Vietnam can offer you that as well. There are a large number of modern, luxurious beach resorts to choose from, on the beach from Da Nang to Hoi An (called China Beach). So if you’re thinking of spending a holiday at a Thailand resort, maybe also check out its equivalent in Vietnam. I can highly recommend the Hoi An beachfront for those looking for a hassle free, chill holiday. Hoi An is an old town, that has been beautifully maintained and restored. So if you stay at the Hoi An beachfront, then you will get the best of both worlds – the beach resort and classic town lifestyle. Personally, I found Hoi An to be a little boring, and too much tourist focused. For example, in Hoi An’s old town, there are literally more tourists, than Vietnamese.
We absolutely loved Vietnam. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life. The vibrant history, people, temples, pagodas, tombs and natural beauty was unforgettable. During a three week stay we hardly scratched the surface of what Vietnam has to offer. We will definitely return in a few years (permitting finances allow it), probably to Hanoi, as that is the heart of Vietnam’s northern history.