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Tour du monde en autostop - Jeremy Marie

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 Travel Diary : The Socialist Republic of Vietnam

Before to enter Asia, I would never have thought that it was so many differences between each countries in this continent. Between Malaysia and Thailand, between Thailand and Cambodia and lastly between Cambodia and Vietnam.

The cradles of civilization is different in Vietnam. The culture and the facial features have nothing to do with its neighboring countries. The skin color of the Vietnamese people is clearer, his eyes are more slanted. In comparison, I would say that a Vietnamese looks more like a Chinese than a Cambodian. Then, there are also many other ethnic groups, especially in the North of the country, that have very different customs and appearances.

The atmosphere is also unique. Once again, I felt a cultural shock when I cross the border into Vietnam. The conical hats of the ladies, the incredible density of two-wheels vehicles , the water buffalos in the fields, the cuisine, the language, the Roman alphabet that comes back, the more direct interactions with the locals, the perpetual movement... Yes, Vietnam is different.

As Chile in South America, I easily figured out what would be my itinerary. This country is narrow but spread out and some say that it looks like a dragon on the map. From the Mekong Delta in the South to the mountains in the Northwest, so from the claws to the ears of this legendary reptile, here is the map of my itinerary by hitchhiking in Vietnam.

My itinerary by hitchhiking in Vietnam (from the South to the North)

 

Hitchhiking in Vietnam

Many people warned me about Vietnam and the Vietnamese. That hitchhiking would be impossible, that the Western people were constantly cheated, that the Vietnamese was rude...

How is it really?

First, I crossed the entire Vietnam, from the south to the north (around 2500 kilometers, only by hitchhiking. It shows indeed that it isn't impossible. I will add that it has been doable in the absolute totality of the country I crossed since the beginning of this journey, so sixty-one countries so far.

Everywhere in the world, there are people with good intentions who will help is they understand the nature of the problem. In a way, it often only depends of the faculties of the hitchhiker to adapt and to properly introduce the request.

Near Dalat, a family gave me a ride, hosted me, fed me and washed my clothes

Of course, if I want to adapt, I need to know the difficulties and it is true that there some in Vietnam.

The density of the traffic
I have never seen so many scooters in my life. The density of two-wheels vehicles is just unbelievable in Vietnam. Moreover the traffic can be disturbing for a westerner. Prima facie, it seems that there is none. The traffic lights are not respected, everyone is driving whenever on the opposite side of the road, on the sidewalks, the hand on the horn. As a pedestrian, I felt a bit like a bullfighter in the middle of the bullring.

A “sample” of the army of two-wheels in Saigon

Getting out the urban areas is quite tricky. Trying to stop a vehicle means to take the risk to face meanwhile the continuous flow of motorbikes.

At the exit of Saigon, I didn't see the motorbike arriving in front of me, on the sidewalk and contraflow. The motorbike neither.

After some days in Laos, I still have in my head the noise of those backfiring machines. I got used to it, but it is true that we need to be careful if we don't want to have a too close relationship with them.

The motorbikes are often used to carry objects. Windows, fridges or metal cables.

In the suburb of Ho Chi Minh city, I got a sight of something reminding me of some middle age horse game.

The slowness of the journey
The density of the traffic, but also the narrowness of the road, don't help to travel long distances every day. There is no highway like in Thailand, even on the main road going from Saigon to Hanoi. Hopefully, there are still some bypass around the urban areas to gain a bit of time.

The communication
This is surely the main problem for hitchhiking in Vietnam, as in the other Asian countries in general. The concept of hitchhiking doesn't exist and I had to explain it every time. I organize in consequence, traveling with documents that were explaining my project and with pictures that were showing some parts of my journey (helping to create a social interaction but also to make my drivers discover new things).

A young Vietnamese that was passionate about geography and especially the Maya temples

The Vietnamese language, as the Indonesian, is writing in Roman alphabet. However, the pronunciation is much more difficult. Even when I was repeating, which seemed to me the exact same thing, what a Vietnamese told me, it wouldn't always mean something.

And what about the prejudices about the Vietnamese?
« that the Western people were constantly cheated, that the Vietnamese was rude ... »
I experienced it in the tourist places and during the commercial interactions. Hoi An, Hue, Dalat... Indeed, there, the prices seemed to change according to the color of the skin. But like in Luxor in Egypt, Petra in Jordan or Cusco in Peru, the prices in the tourist places of developing countries are always given according to what the tourist seems to be willing to pay.

Here is another consequence of the mass tourism.

Once away of the crowds of tourists, the interactions with the locals change a lot.

Then, the Vietnamese is very different from the Thai. When the Thai seem to accept inevitable his destiny, the Vietnamese behaves otherwise.
After all the invasions that the Vietnamese have been victim of, we can imagine why and understand how.

 

A population of warriors

Colonizations, protectorates, invasions
Vietnam makes me think a little bit of Afghanistan.

For different reasons, but Vietnam has been invaded many times during this last century. Each time, the foreign army surrendered, disgusted by the will and the determination of the Vietnamese people to keep their territory.

The French, American, Chinese armies... Let's say that it isn't the smallest armies when we see how much their government spend on their budget for Defense (or shall I say “Attack”?)

First Indochina War
From 1887 to 1954, France organized and controlled Vietnam in this way: the colony of Cochinchina in the south, the protectorate of Annam in the center and the protectorate of Tonkin in the north. As Laos and Cambodia, all of this belonged to French Indochina.

Like for the baguette and the “Alain Delon” cigarets in Cambodia, it is possible to find remains of the French colonization in Vietnam.

Telephone towers looking like Eiffel tower like here in Dalat

The Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi

After several decades of colonization, the Vietnamese had enough to be told what to do and what to think. The First Indochina War happened between 1946 and 1954 and the Viet Minh won it. Vietnam then got divided in two.

Second Indochina War
From 1964 to 1975, the American army, supporting South Vietnam, got involved in the war again North Vietnam. It was a bit like the capitalist (south) against the communist (north) ways of thinking.

More than a conflict between two armies, it was a real bloodshed.

To give you an idea; 2 millions Vietnamese citizens died during this war.

2 millions Vietnamese citizens died during this war

I could visit the “ War Remnants Museum” (formerly called “The House of displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government ”) in Saigon. I was totally shocked. Many pictures report the butchery that this war has been and some of those shots are extremely violent.

Here is one of the most famous photo in this museum

I still wonder what was the interest to throw chemical products as the “Agent Orange” on the population. Today, there are still misshapen “monster” that are born because of this.

This war was won by North Vietnam. The country reunified and became the “Socialist Republic of Vietnam”.

Third Indochina War
In February 1979, China invades the north of Vietnam. The reasons of this attack is that the Vietnamese army fought the Khmers Rouges in Cambodia, who were ally with Chinese Maoists. Also, the Vietnamese government had good relation with USSR, who was in disagreement with the Chinese government.

The conflict lasted less than a month and ended by a withdraw of the Chinese troops.
 

Here is why today, when I see a Vietnamese behaving a bit roughly to some tourist who try to impose his Western point of view against the Vietnamese culture, I understand.
 

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam
Today, Vietnam is a Socialist Republic.
Some signs help to recognize that Vietnam is affiliated to this government. The influence of the Soviet way of thinking during the USSR is also easy to spot.

The hammer and sickle in a street of Rach Gia

A statue of Lenine in Hanoi

The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum is inspired of the one of Lenine in Moscow

Except for some visual signs, I didn't really feel a heavy weight of the Vietnamese political system on the daily life. The subject never really came in the discussion because I don't think that the Vietnamese socialism does really influence heavily the routine of the locals.

By the way, some capitalist signs are already appearing. Doan Nguyen Duc, for example, is a Vietnamese businessman who is Chairman of the group « Hoang Ahn Gia Lai ». This company is specialized in rubber, furniture, a club of football or even real estate. Doan Nguyen Duc is one of the richest man in Vietnam and built his wealth in a very capitalist way. He is also known to be the first Vietnamese to buy a private jet.

Some Hoang Ahn Gia Lai buildings in Saigon


 

A unique culture

The Vietnamese indeed fought for their right to decide themselves about their future, but also to preserve their culture.

A part of the reason of this century of conflicts is here: “to claim the right to be different and to cultivate it”.

Visually, historically, tastefully, this culture is fascinating to discover.

Visually
From the beginning to the end, I could see them at every street corner, in the middle of the rice fields, in the market... The conical hats.

They are worn by the women to protect themselves from the sun.

Having a dark skin in Vietnam is a sign of poverty, because the people who are the most tanned are the ones working in the fields. Contrary to the tanning cream used in the Western world, the whitening creams are fashion here.

A woman with a conical hat in the Mekong Delta

Sometimes it is possible to see Vietnamese women carrying sticks with baskets attached to it.

A woman walking with a typical Vietnamese burden

The Ao Dai, or the traditional Vietnamese dress. It is often worn by the women during the ceremonies, but it is certainly easier to see it worn by the students. There is two different parts on this Vietnamese garment: the dress and the silk pants.

The Ao Dai, here worn by young ladies in Hue

Tastefully
The Vietnamese cuisine is known and recognize all over the world. The food is very diverse in Vietnam, reaching sometimes some high level of exoticism. We even feel traveling into the plate!

The famous nems of course, the Cao Lau of Hoi An, the Banh Bao and much more.

It was a real pleasure to taste the Vietnamese “nems” or the “Cha gio”, like here in Long Xuyen

Another kind of Cha Gio

In Vietnam, it is possible to eat anywhere and anytime. Street vendors are easy to spot on the sidewalks, and you can gather around little chairs and tables.

A vendor of nems in Long Xuyen

Sometimes, the food gets way more outlandish. In Hanoi, the dog meat is very popular. I wanted to try have this experience at least once in my life.

In Thailand, the insects were difficult to eat because of the sight of it. Here, this is more for ethical reason affiliated to my education that made the thing more difficult. The texture of the meat is quite similar to the one of the beef. The sauce of spicy shrimps, that was served with the meat, was strangely the taste that I liked the less.

Eating dog meat in Hanoi

Historically
The Vietnamese architectural Heritage was also very interesting.

To conclude, I share with you some picture of buildings that I found beautiful in tourist cities as Hue or Hoi An.

The Japanese bridge in Hoi An

The The Mieu temple in Hue



 

Traveling in Vietnam was very interesting. Of course, it wasn't easy everyday. The communication problems, the long walks to get out of urban areas, the humid heat, the motorbikes everywhere, the bargain with the vendors... Yes, Vietnam was intense and request energy.

But I discover a new culture which I knew so little about. I had to get more open-minded, to go without prejudice, to try to get a better glimpse of it. At the end, even when the culture is totally different, in every country I always find traces of humanism. In Vietnam as in anywhere else, there are people with good and bad intentions. I met idiots as well as wonderful people and I tried to focus on this second category.

I end my journey in Vietnam with the feeling to have met a tough population that has suffered a lot. But this population has values and a culture that they protect and they do it well.

I let you on a picture of a misty day in the Ha Long Bay

See you soon,

Jeremy



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