A tale of two Vietnams

Last November 2017, I was in Hanoi and Cat Ba island in the province of Hai Phong. I have always wanted to write about my time there, but (insert excuses here). Life happened, but fret not this time because I’m making sure I’m going to make time to write something about Vietnam.

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Hanoi’s Old Quarter

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Through the waters of Cat Ba Island

On October 12, 2018 I flew to Ho Chi Minh City. To say I loved Vietnam seems like cliche, but I will say that it is one place that’s always been interesting for me. I suppose it’s the romantic in me. Maybe it’s the melodramatic Venus that’s always looking for something to be teary-eyed about. I’ll give you a short background.

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Busy HCM

My interest with Vietnam started when I watched YouTube videos of Ms. Saigon and how it always pulled at my heart. Then last November 2016, as if the world conspired to bring it to me, the 25th anniversary performance of Miss Saigon was shown in selected local cinemas. Without a doubt I bought my ticket and I cried myself out watching the show. From then on I was interested to see this historical place where hearts were broken, spirits were shattered, and lives were taken.

Vietnam – the North and the South

Surrounded by the South China Sea, Gulf of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and China, Vietnam is a vast area of land with history as colorful as it’s culture. For geography enthusiasts, you can pinpoint Vietnam at 14 deg N latitude and 108 deg E longitude (please do correct me if I’m wrong). With this location, not only is history contrasting between north and south but so is the weather, with the north being colder than the south.

As with other SEA countries (with exception of Thailand), Vietnam had a colonial past. The French occupied Vietnam up until 1954 when nationalists led by the Viet Minh won the first Indochina War. However this would not be the end of the conflict for with the withdrawal of French forces from North Vietnam, eventually the country was divided into North and South Vietnam, with a dimilitarized zone (DMZ) that divided the two. This started the infamous struggle between the communist-backed North Vietnam trying to unite the North and the South into one country and the US-backed South Vietnam (1). Soon after the Vietnam War (or the American War as they call it in Vietnam) erupted, and with every war comes all the unwanted results of prostitution, crimes of aggression, and poverty.

Vietnam – the present

Currently Vietnam is a communist state lead by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). To give you an easy picture of its current economic state, the poverty rate in Vietnam is less than that of the Philippines, India and China. Its economy is based largely on agriculture, with the country being the number one producer of cashew (1) and the second largest coffee exporter (2).

The North, with its capital of Hanoi, and the South, with Saigon, is also no longer separated. After the end of the American War where the communist north emerged as victors, Hanoi was made capital of Vietnam and Saigon, combined with other towns, was renamed as Ho Chi Minh. All the terrible events which transpired during the wars, the country has moved forward from these and is now showing the world an enticing new Vietnam that is worth visiting.

Vietnam however is not for everyone’s taste buds and in my opinion, it takes open-mindedness and an interest in history to fully appreciate Vietnam. There are always talks about scams experienced by tourists or street robbery and pick pocketing. Moreover, some travelers and backpackers even discourage their fellow to go to Vietnam because “there is nothing to do in HCM… Hanoi has lots of scammers” etc etc etc.  In my biased opinion, I say why not do it? There may be so many reasons to not see Vietnam, but look if you can find several reasons to visit Vietnam then decide for yourself and not because others tell you not to. It may be the history, it may be the food, or it may just be the thrill of a new experience in another country.

Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh?

One of the traveler’s dilemma is choosing between Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, especially when you have limited time. The two cities are not exactly near each other but it is definitely worth the experience to see both cities. However if you can’t then you can choose which to visit based on what your preferences are.

 

I come from Manila, and forgive me for the analogy but for me HCM is to Vietnam as Manila is to the Philippines… or HCM is to Vietnam as Bangkok is to Thailand. Although history  will always recount all the batteries and tragedies received by the south, with its political seat in Saigon, currently it is hard to find traces of these except when you go inside the War Remnant Museum in HCM. I walked the street along the US Consulate and tried to imagine how the helicopters hovered above it to repatriate the American citizens and to bring with them some South Vietnamese during the American War. You don’t see any sign of it now on the walls or the buildings, but history tells us it was there.

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Buildings of HCM

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at HCM’s Ben Thanh street market

While HCM has leaped into the modern world with enthusiasm, Hanoi has been this individual sauntering in the present and carefully choosing between options – modernity or tradition. In contrast to HCM’s skyscrapers and wider streets, Hanoi is a maze of narrow streets and low buildings. It’s a puzzle, it’s noisy and it’s so full of life.

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Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Most of the fancy hotels and taller buildings of Hanoi are situated in the French Quarter

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Walking street every Friday around Hoan Kiem Lake

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Roof deck Coffee shop with view of Hoan Kiem Lake

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Hanoi’s French Quarter

What is definitely common between the two cities are the French influences. Both have remnants of French Colonial architecture.

If HCM has an Opera House, so does Hanoi.

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HCM

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Hanoi

Both cities also have imposing cathedrals.

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Notre Dame of HCM

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St. Joseph’s Cathedral – Hanoi

You can also sit and have coffee in both cities. However I must say that I enjoyed my coffee more in Hanoi than in HCM. My experience was that I felt so lucky to have discovered 2 gems of coffee shops in the hustle and bustle of the old quarter. One of them served egg coffee that I absolutely loved, while the other one was a place with such a history that I felt I was transported back by the paintings that hung on its walls.

In HCM, coffee culture is also very strong but to my unprofessional opinion it feels less authentic because all in all HCM felt more modern and hence the feeling must have made it less “Vietnamese” than one expects in their imagination. However let me argue with myself and say that both cities probably use the same Vietnam-grown Robusta (or Arabica) beans. I don’t know if it would have mattered but I believe that the taste buds of HCM has been more modern, with its coffee places probably run by younger people. In Hanoi you see the older places with older people and that must have made a difference in the coffee-making. Just a guess…

A Tale of One Vietnam

The war may have been over and the North and South is now considered as one Vietnam but this country continues to tell its tale to people – in the taste of its food, the origins of its people, the suffering it went through, and how it emerged victorious and united. Vietnam is truly worth seeing.

 

 

P.S. will be adding another post later about each city. I have more pictures unposted that waited a year to be posted. Thanks for reading! 🙂

 

Sources:
1 https://teara.govt.nz/en/map/34536/the-two-vietnams
2 https://english.vietnamnet.vn/fms/business/187522/vietnam-remains-world-s-no-1-exporter-of-cashews.html
3 https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-25811724

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