I am by no means an experienced world traveler. Of course, I have seen more of the United States than most people will see in a lifetime, but when it comes to visiting other nations, my experience is limited. I have spent some time in Canada and Mexico. I have been to Italy, Southern Africa, and now Vietnam. There is much more of the world that I haven’t seen that I have seen.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I can unequivocally say that in all of my travels, including my travels across the United States, I have never experienced a more capitalistic place than the ” Socialist” Republic of Vietnam.Throughout the country, it seems like everyone is in business – offering some product or service in exchange for money. If there are zoning or land use laws, they were not apparent, as nearly every tall, narrow home uses the first floor as a retail establishment. You can have a hardware store next to a food store, next to a hairdresser. It was very rare to see the ground floor of any residence that was not being used for retail. This is especially (ironically) true in the North.
Even in the countryside (Vietnam is a very densely populated country) retail sales were going on everywhere. There certainly is poverty, but I was surprised by the reach and level of the infrastructure in place. The roads are good. There is electricity, cell phone signal and internet nearly everywhere. The wiring may be haphazard and the sidewalks cracked, but it works. I saw very few people at a subsistence level of poverty, and most are doing notably better.
There is significant wealth disparity in Vietnam. Of course, the government officials and high-ranking military officers are the richest. This is still a moderately authoritarian State. However, unlike in the past, people are allowed to keep more of what they earn, and the hardest working, or those luckiest to own the best plots of land, tend to enjoy the highest standards of living. Upward mobility is definitely a real concept in modern Vietnam.
Primary education is compulsory, but not free. As a result, the poorest families can only afford to send one child to school – sometimes none. It is important to educate your child, because you will count on him or her for your support when you are old. Public support for the elderly is very limited. There are many domestic and international charities and non-profits helping to provide education and healthcare to the poorest children in Vietnam.
And speaking of health care, it is a fee-for-service system. Prices are listed and people know exactly what they are buying and how much they are paying. In our case, my wife had a bit of vertigo combined with fatigue and nausea. We had a doctor come to our hotel room, perform an examination, administer an injection for nausea and prescribe (and dispense) meds for vertigo and nausea. The doctor was from the local hospital in Hoi An and the cost was $100 US. We will be submitting the charge to our traveler’s insurance.
The people across the country were uniformly hard-working and entrepreneurial. From the people selling cheap souvenirs on the streets to the owners of high-end shops, everyone would overcharge you if you let them, but once you struck a fair deal, they were honest and friendly. In fact, the Vietnamese are the hardest working people, as a nation, that I have ever seen.
The country (and especially the cities) are alive and vibrant. Because the majority of the people get around on motorbikes, the traffic is very different from what we see in the states. It’s more like a swarm of bees moving generally in the direction of its destination. There are traffic laws, but nobody really follows them. The intersections are free-for-alls, with cars, buses, bicycles, and motorbikes all jockeying for position. I would have thought a system like this would result in permanent gridlock, but somehow it works. When the roads are full, the motorbikes get creative, cutting corners, moving into oncoming traffic, or even driving on the sidewalks, which are generally clogged with parked motorbikes, to begin with. I began to understand the traffic better after we took a cyclo ride through town and got to see it from street level. Later in Hue, we went on a motorbike tour of the city and countryside and again saw how everyone watches for everyone else and yields accordingly. Of course, there are plenty of traffic-related accidents and deaths in Vietnam, but somehow their system seems to work.
Of course, as with anything, all this unfettered capitalism comes with a price. The air pollution is very bad, and nobody seems to have any incentive to change that. Most people in and around the big cities (and there are several) wear face masks anytime they venture outside to protect themselves from the smog and pollution. Within a few days in Vietnam, I was coughing and hoarse and had severe sinus inflammation and post-nasal drip. It took a full week at home before it finally resolved.The common areas in the cities tend to be markets or memorials. While there are parks, they are generally dedicated to commercial purposes.
With respect to taxation, the country has a 10% VAT on all goods and services, and a graduated income tax, starting at 10% and with a top rate of 35%. Not bad.
Aside from the economics, which I think is important in describing my experience of Vietnam, I found that nearly everyone is extremely welcoming to westerners in general, and Americans specifically. These are capitalists, and they are anxious to receive our tourism dollars. Many people wanted to have their pictures taken with us, and especially with our blonde haired son.
The country is extremely affordable. The local currency is the Vietnamese Dong (VND) and the exchange rate is around 22,500 VND to the Dollar. You could get a bottle of water for 10k Dong (less than 50 cents) and most other bottled beverages were around a dollar. Most meals, including multiple beverages, were well under $10/person, and we ate at pretty nice places. The very nice hotels, included in our tour, ran at about $30-50/night.
In Hoi An, the textile capital of Vietnam, I had 3 made-to-measure suits of the highest quality cashmere wool blend material made overnight. The total cost for the three suits was around $900 US. One of these suits made in the US would have been at least $1,500 and probably more. I also had several shirts made, as well as a leather jacket. Abe and Beth had clothes made as well. If you are in need of a new wardrobe, they can make anything and they are very good. The money you save on the clothes just might justify a trip to Vietnam.
I was struck by the differences between North and South, particularly between Hanoi and Saigon (for the record, everyone still calls it Saigon). While very friendly, Hanoi was distinctly less western than Saigon. The homes were nearly uniform in style (narrow and tall) and the roads were twisty and narrow. There was a noticeable shortage of large commercial buildings, although they did exist. It should be noted that the people were extremely friendly in both the North and the South. One of my favorite differences is that in the South they use cinnamon in their Pho, which makes the broth a bit sweet. I loved this.
And while I’m on the subject, the food was almost universally good. Of course, being gluten intolerant, we had to be careful, but there were plenty of options. We mostly needed to make sure that soy sauce wasn’t used in preparing our meals. The meats and seafood were fresh and delicious. There were fresh vegetables and tropical fruits in abundance, and there was always ample rice noodles and rice. The fried spring rolls varied by region. My favorites were the seafood spring rolls in the Mekong Delta, but they were all good.
As far as our itinerary, I’ll briefly cover each stop:
Hanoi – One of the most vibrant and alive cities I’ve ever seen. Relentlessly capitalist. Crazy traffic. Great coffee – served hot or cold either black or with condensed milk. I drank it hot in Hanoi, but as we travelled further south I began to enjoy the iced variety. I was struck in Hanoi and the surrounding areas by the prevalence of the Vietnam flag. It is everywhere, on nearly every home, vehicle, boat, store, etc. This was definitely less noticeable in the South.
Ha Long Bay – Stunningly beautiful. Although it was grey and overcast most of the time we were there, I managed to get a few good photos. We swam at a beach on an island named for a Russian Astronaut, Ti Top. It was beautiful, but a bit crowded for my taste, as was the entire bay. It is packed with tour boats of all shapes and sizes, somewhat diminishing the natural beauty of the place. We spent the night on one of those tour boats. The accommodations were comfortable, and the food was amazing.
Hue – After a return drive to Hanoi we boarded an overnight train to Hue. The train was definitely an experience. I shared a berth with another man from our tour and two Canadian women from another tour so our wives and kids could share a berth. I slept like a baby on the train (my first good night’s sleep in Vietnam) but apparently, not everyone slept as well as I did.
Hue is the old imperial capital of Vietnam, and the highlight was the Citadel, a complex said to once have rivaled Beijing’s Forbidden City in size and grandeur. The Vietnamese are furiously rebuilding the Citadel, not for any love of the old kings, but for the tourist dollars. It was spectacular. We also took a boat ride along the Perfume River to the beautiful Thien Mu Pagoda, where we watched the monks tending their garden. A popular tourist site here is the car belonging to the monk famous for immolating himself in protest to the treatment of Buddhists by the south government in 1954. Beth got a really cool 200-year-old ceramic plate with a dragon glaze design, that had been salvaged from the river.
Hoi An – From Hue it was about a 4 hour drive to Hoi An. As I discussed above, Hoi An is famous for its textile works. The old town or old quarter was a bit touristy, but still very engaging. The architecture (as everywhere in the country), was diverse, colorful and welcoming. The peddlers were aggressive, but friendly enough, and the colors were amazing. We spent 3 nights in Hoi An in a very nice hotel with a big swimming pool and it was a very nice rest. Unfortunately, we had packed so much stuff we needed to have our new clothes shipped home. We got them in the mail this week and they are great.
To get to Hoi An, we drove through Da Nang, a very modern-looking city, and along the 30k stretch of China Beach. At the end of our stay, we returned to Da Nang, and boarded a plane for Saigon. Saigon was definitely the most western of our stops. The city, while distinctly Vietnamese, has wide roads and shiny office towers. There are large retail areas, and indoor shopping malls. The traffic, while still crazy (there are over 6 million motorbikes in Saigon) has more cars, and more traffic lights than in Hanoi.
After a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels (interesting, but again very commercial and touristy, and a bit heavy on the propaganda), we returned to Saigon for the night before heading out for a family stay in the Mekong Delta.
The Delta was beautiful, and we had a boat tour to a ceramics factory, a coconut candy making facility and a nursery for tropical fruit trees. Then onto our home stay on the river, where I finally got some good sunset photos (I hope). The food was fish and it was very good. We slept dormitory style (the only night of the trip we didn’t have a private room) and it was fine.The next morning, we visited the floating market and then returned to Saigon for one final night.
After the tour ended we had one final day in Saigon so we hit the Binh Tay Market. This is Pike Place Market on steroids. They are selling everything. As we wound through the narrow corridors we took advantage of our last chance to get souvenirs and gifts before we left Vietnam. It was hot, and Beth and Abe were tired, so after returning to the hotel, they went swimming and I went for a walk through town. I saw the amazing Notre Dame Cathedral, the beautiful central post office, and the outskirts of the zoo. I walked for nearly three hours and always felt safe and welcomed in this vibrant place.
The next morning, we got up early and began our 22-hour journey back home. I’m still recovering from the jet lag, the congestion, and the sinus inflammation, but I would gladly make this trip again. Vietnam is a country filled with natural beauty, but its greatest asset is its people. They are kind, pragmatic, intelligent and entrepreneurial. I would bet money that unless the government messes things up Vietnam will be a major financial power in Asia within the next 50 years. I highly recommend to anyone interested that you go before development engulfs the country.
All photos in this blog post (except the one of Matt with the soldiers) were taken by Matt Dubin.