This was my second visit to Vietnam; after Saigon a few years ago, I spent time in Hanoi this time. Here is what I learned.
It’s all about the people
The Northern Vietnamese strike me as an exceptionally stubborn but courteous and somewhat curious people. After such a long period of communist reign you expect people to be hollowed out. That’s not the case in Hanoi – it’s so self-organized it’s almost as if the government doesn’t matter.
There is so much to do
Hanoi is chock-full of things to do and see. There are few real sights but the sheer hustle and bustle and the sheer amount of things to see is incredible.
Communism is dead – long live communism
The form of communism Vietnam got is very hands-off and there is a lot of personal freedom here. I was amazed by how gentle police and security were. I wasn’t bossed around or harassed a single time by security or police while in Vietnam.
Vietnam strikes me as exceedingly safe. I even felt that the constant southeast Asian motorbike scammers and touts are much more tame here; they mostly leave you alone.
Traffic is a (beautiful) mess
It’s better than in Saigon, but still, the huge amount of moving parts on the roads here is staggering. Traffic hits you from all sides, all the time. There are no rules but drivers are incredibly skilled and zoom past other objects. Just watch out for taxi drivers, who are really aggressive.
Vietnam is 10-15 years behind China
Vietnam gets plenty of comparison with China and for good reason. It’s 10 to 15 years behind in GDP and it’s just about to take off into middle income country territory. I have no doubt it will happen and the country will have no problem sustaining growth for a long time to come.
Vietnam comes with a set of stubborn entrepreneurial people who are ready to work hard to make their country a better place. However, the country is so much more fun than China, with so many more things that will warm your heart as a tourist. China is easily 15 to 20 years behind Vietnam in terms of service industry.
Good luck naming your food
While Vietnamese food has a set of ingredients, the local street food eateries have found numerous ways to combine them. I quickly gave up trying to find out what a dish was called and just ordered whatever was popular. I seemed to end up with something I’d never had before that usually tasted great but often had subpar meat as an ingredient.
No more visa
Vietnam allows visa-free 14-day stays for most European and ASEAN passport holders now. It’s rumored that US passport holders will get the same treatment soon.
It’s the real deal
In many countries locals and foreigners live in their own ghettos and rarely share the same tastes. Not in Hanoi – cafes are as crowded with locals as with foreigners. The same goes for food and everyone pays the same price. Dual pricing (as is the norm in Cambodia) is unheard of here.
It’s a rather equal society
Not all post-communist societies turn into rather equal ones. Russia has managed to create way too much wealth in the hands of the elite. Vietnam seems to do much better and appears to do a great job at building an equal society while still creating opportunities.
It’s really not religious
Vietnam must be one of the least religious countries the world has to offer. Yes there are temples, but religion plays a minimal role in people’s lives.