Vietnam: Introduction

  • © babse,

    © babse,


'Bonjour, madame.' The old monk bows hesitantly, as if in slow motion, at the same time removing the wine-red woolly cap from his bald head. In his wrinkled hand, a visiting card bearing the greeting 'Happy New Year'. The novice stoops to present a chom chom, a hairy, red rambutan fruit. Normally it's the visitors who offer gifts here, not the monks, but no one expects any sacrificial offerings from foreigners – sometimes they rush in and, after a flurry of camera flashlights, quickly disappear; the Buddhas and the monks take it all in their stride. Wind chimes tinkle in the breeze that blows through the hallowed halls. Breathe deep, at last here‘s somewhere away from the clatter of mopeds and the cacophony of hooting cars, a place to pause, a place for a dialogue with Buddha.

Welcome to Vietnam, a country moving swiftly into the 21st century. Moss and a patina shroud monuments thousands of years old, but on the streets of Saigon and Hanoi, the modern world is everywhere, leaving new arrivals rubbing their eyes in amazement. A country leaving the past behind, moving away from the clichés associated with the Vietnam War, opium pipes and snake wine.

Today's travellers are taken aback by the species-rich national parks and natural treasures, from the UNESCO-protected Ha Long Bay in the north to the amphibian world of the Mekong Delta in the far south. In between, some 3,200km (2,000mi) of coastline dotted with islands, beaches and remote hideaways. In the cities, beside broad, tamarind-shaded avenues, colourful Chinese temples sit comfortably alongside colonial mansions and weather-worn villas in shades of soft ochre. At the same time, the skyline rises higher with every blink of the eye.

Mopeds, mopeds everywhere − this is most people's first impression of the country. They often just emerge like swarms of bees, laden with boxes full of cola bottles or Tiger beer, bulging shopping bags, chicken cages, and weighed down with two or three children, betel-chewing old men or women in fluttering ao dai gowns and wearing white gloves to protect against the sun and the dirt.

Vietnam can look back proudly on 4,000 years of history, but few other countries have suffered so painfully from wars and foreign rule by the Chinese, the French, the Japanese and finally the Americans. The same nationalities are returning, but this time they come in peace. About 6 million visitors and impressive annual growth rates are spreading prosperity among the Vietnamese. This southeast Asian country is booming, and not only as a travel destination. Most of the 87 million Vietnamese people moved on long ago from the devastating Vietnam War; two thirds of all inhabitants are under 35 years of age and only know about it from history books.

Holidaymakers can now safely give the Ho Chi Minh trail and the Viet Cong tunnels a miss − Vietnam has much more to offer. Now, travellers can go on journeys of discovery wherever they please. It could be to the enchanting pagoda around the corner wafting with scented smoke, the bustling fruit market with rambutan and melon sellers, butchers, Chinese traders advertising their fabrics and pots and pans with dramatic gestures, to idyllic unspoilt beaches with no sun beds or parasols. They may even feel up to negotiating the semi-organised mayhem on the sometimes badly pot-holed roads.

Wherever there's a tay, there's always something to laugh about

And then there’s this friendly, sometimes mischievous curiosity. Wherever there's a tay, a Westerner, there's always something happening, something to laugh about. They do well from selling something to the tay and, it's true, a few travellers regard their methods as intrusive. But if you don‘t react to their sales pitch, most traders quickly lose interest. Children try out their English and shout 'I love you' or 'Hello mister!'. In larger towns everyone is, of course, very polite; they are masters in observing the proprieties.

Important values - hard work, respect and ancestor worship

Respect for others, especially one's elders, is considered a virtue; it's a Confucian commandment, together with ancestor worship and hard work. Often up to three generations live in one room, so that could easily be seven or eight people. An apartment, a little house? Unthinkable on modest wages. A woman working in a factory will take home six to nine dollars a day, if she is prepared to work for up to 14 hours mixing noodle dough, pressing moulds or sorting screws. Living space in Saigon has become unaffordable; the few available plots of land, homes or apartments change hands very quickly for the equivalent of many hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Welcome to turbo-capitalism! Doi Moi, who in 1986 introduced the communist government's economic reforms, has transformed Vietnamese society. Profit is a new word in the vocabulary. The average annual income is estimated at around US$1,200. In the last two decades, poverty has more than halved, but the urban-rural divide is still great. While the largest ethnic minority, the Chinese, dominate the business world, especially in the cities of southern Vietnam, most of the country's 54 ethnic groups live in the mountains and in the central highlands. These minorities are still in the transitional phase between a life revolving around ancient traditions and the digital era. Each group wears its own costumes, celebrates its own festivals and follows its own customs (such as a belief in natural spirits, houses on stilts, betel-nut chewing, tooth blackening).

The 'Vietnamese Alps' and the Imperial city of Hue

Vietnam's scenic beauty is enchanting. In the tropical southern zones, the pattern is damp, sultry summers and warm winters, whereas in the sub-tropical north the climate is more familiar to Europeans, i.e. hot summers, but cooler, wet winters. Many are taken aback by Ha Long Bay, with its towering limestone rocks and darkly shimmering water, but also the breathtakingly rugged 'Vietnamese Alps' in the northwest, which can even get a covering of snow in cold winters. With its Palace of Supreme Harmony and royal tombs, the old Imperial city of Hue on the Perfume River is impressive. Near Phan Thiet, warm sand crunches underfoot on the beach at Mui Ne. Saigon, with its renovated colonial buildings, now looks much smarter, and in the Mekong Delta, the chugging engines of the long-tail boats provide an ever-present background beat.

The whole experience is topped off with a wide range of Vietnamese delicacies, and a perfect holiday schedule of swimming, diving, windsurfing, sailing or walking in one of the country’s 25 or so national parks. Whether you are hanging upside down from rocks, attempting to climb a limestone pillar in Ha Long Bay, joining in slowmotion tai chi exercises, squinting through the incense smoke of a pagoda or feeling overwhelmed on your bike in the chaotic congestion of Hanoi, eventually you will get closer to the Vietnamese, their ubiquitous dragons and mysterious spirits. There‘s no question about it − a trip to Vietnam is an adventure for all the senses.

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