The Index: Revisiting our Trip to Vietnam

30 05 2012

If you haven’t gotten enough of our Vietnam trip already, check out this piece I wrote for my hometown newspaper, The Index.

As my husband and I crossed the border into Vietnam on the first day of our vacation, it was obvious that we were no longer in Cambodia. We had only moments before left the brown, desolate Cambodian fields when we were greeted by a bright emerald hue that could only be cultivated by expensive irrigation systems and chemical treatments. Both places were experiencing the dry season, but Vietnam’s land immediately looked more productive and profitable.

Green rice fields were not the only thing we noticed from the bus window as we entered the country, approaching the southern capital of Saigon, now referred to as Ho Chi Minh City. For one, motorcycle drivers were separated from the rest of traffic by a concrete barrier instead of weaving precariously through the pickup trucks and oversized SUVs like in Cambodia. On top of that, most motos were graced by only one or two people—not the four or five that we were used to. Plus, all of the drivers were wearing helmets. What a surprise!

During the next two weeks, as we snaked our way up the country to Hanoi, it was these little differences that we noticed the most: lush, green parks dotting the cities, garbage trucks collecting trash from personal and public trash bins, French-inspired pastries for sale, house plants dangling off of apartment balconies. After ten months in a semi-rural Cambodian village, these small signs of comfort and wealth were often the topic of conversation.

Overall, Vietnamese city life looked different than what I’ve experienced in Cambodia. In Ho Chi Minh City, wide boulevards, modern skylines and a slew of international restaurants greeted us when we arrived. In fact, the size of the city was a little unsettling at first. With six million people calling Ho Chi Minh City home, it’s significantly larger than Phnom Penh, which houses a mere 1.5 million Cambodians. With so many people and such a developed tourist industry, Vietnam predictably provides refuge to a large and aggressive group of scammers too. Since Cambodians are well-known for the friendliness and warm smiles, this was one of the most marked differences of the trip.

One similarity between both Vietnamese and Cambodian cities, however, was that the majority of day-to-day life happens outdoors. Streets were packed with a range of vehicles including the obvious cars, motorcycles and bikes, but also ox carts, bicycle-powered taxis and vendors who traveled on foot to sell you fried treats or fresh fruit. Sidewalks in both countries are lined with food stalls or simply with plastic stools, where people gather to chat and pass the morning. The scale of this outdoor lifestyle was intensified in cities like Hanoi, where a network of incredibly narrow streets resulted in a feeling of either sheer pandemonium or invigorating energy, depending on the person.

The differences were not limited to the city scenes, however. For example, in Vietnam, jungle-filled mountains lined the horizon to the west, while bright blue ocean waters provided a border on the east. Although Cambodia has both shoreline and mountains, it is primarily described as “a land of paddies:” flat and green, with the occasional palm tree adding some interest to the skyline. Again, the contrast was stark and immediate, but both countries provide a beautiful and exotic backdrop to any trip.





One response

30 05 2012

I came upon your post and it sure does make one want to immediately schedule the next overseas vacation to the beauty of Vietnam. Thank you for your lovely compare and contrast.

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