Vietnam was a new country for both of us. Oddly inspired by a Top Gear special back in 2008, where Jezza, May and Hamster rode motorbikes from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Halong Bay, we’ve attempted the journey in reverse .. by train … with a few extra bits thrown in.
We’ve cruised in luxury on Halong Bay, trekked in the mountains around Sapa and embarked on the epic 1,000+ mile train journey from Hanoi to Saigon on the Reunification Express. But what has stood out for us? What have been the big surprises?
1 – The first one sounds a bit ignorant, but neither of us knew that this is a communist country – one of only 4 Marxist-Leninist states. [Can you name the others?] Of course, we knew the US involvement in the Vietnam War was to counter the rise of communism, but we hadn’t followed that through to realising that that was the political system here today.
2 – Motorbikes and scooters are used to transport everyone and everything … from 4-person families, to truck windscreens, from texting teenagers to men carrying 6m scaffold poles.
3 – Vietnam is the 2nd largest coffee exporter in the world after Brazil. And yet we haven’t seen a single coffee plant. What’s more, everyone here seems to prefer tea.
4 – There are 54 recognised ethnic tribes in Vietnam, and this diversity was most in evidence in Sapa. Our guide’s village of 3,000 people is shared between two tribes and they can’t understand each other’s language.
5 – Pha Bo is the national dish. A beef noodle soup, that has an array of fresh herbs, chillies and other condiments served separately so that you can make it your own. It’s delicious and is sold everywhere, in the swankiest restaurants, as well as by street-side grandmas.
6 – It’s one of the easiest places in the world to be a millionaire. The currency is the Vietnamese dong (no sniggering at the back, please!) and there are, at the time of writing, about 27,000 of them to the pound. That means that a million dong is about 37 quid or 45 bucks.
7 – Water puppetry is a big thing here. This involves puppeteers hiding behind a bamboo screen manipulating puppets on sticks that emerge from water in front of the screen. It’s certainly worth a look if you get the chance as you probably won’t see it anywhere else.
8 – The water in rice paddies is primarily to keep the weeds down. Who knew?!
9 – Fresh lychees actually taste quite nice. So much better than the canned things that are served up in Chinese restaurants in the UK.
10 – From what we see, women hold this nation together. Jane is planning a separate post on this subject, but it’s hard to think of a nation where women work as hard as the Vietnamese, whilst lovingly attending to their families. It’s very inspirational.
We did our Vietnam and Cambodia adventure independently as part of a round the world trip. If escorted tours are more your thing, this trip with Titan Tours covers a similar itinerary:
Been to Vietnam? If so, what did you learn? Thinking of going? Maybe you’ve got a question for us … Let us know.