It has been a week since I arrived in Vietnam and I think I’m experiencing something of a reverse culture shock. The Bangkok-esque neon lights are back, the selfie sticks are out, and I haven’t even seen a squatty-loo! Within the first three minutes of my taxi from Ho Chi Minh Airport I knew Vietnam would be far more developed than Myanmar – it was abundantly apparent that Vietnam was not a country that had been cut off from the world well into my own life time.
Despite political and social communism (flags bearing the hammer and sickle appear like bunting along the main streets), the economy is a hive of activity and competition. And tourism is just one, yet a very substantial, source of wealth. Westerners have long been a normal feature here and no one really bats an eyelid at this fair, red-headed girl walking down the street – unless of course they’re selling the iconic ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ t-shirts and they reckon I’m the perfect prey. In some places it can even be difficult to find a menu that doesn’t include pasta or pizza. It seems everything is tainted by Western tourism.
Some advice I was once given went a little something like this: ‘A country isn’t designed to make you, a visitor, feel comfortable; it is designed to make its own people feel comfortable’. Those were sage words for travelling in Myanmar where western influences are rare. Tourism is certainly becoming a ‘thing’ for them, but so recently and rapidly that it is still very much ‘Myanmar’. This is a country where coca-cola arrived a mere two years ago and no one knows what pizza is. Yet in Vietnam the only ‘discomfort’ I have experienced is a bit of sunburn and a few nauseous days as a result of my anti-malaria tablets – and I can hardly blame Vietnam for them!
I can see why most of the people I’ve met travelling in South East Asia adore Vietnam and count it among their top favourite places. It has still got a strong local culture, but it is also easy, and it is fun. On every street there are shops selling familiar products, be that a Kit-Kat or Nivea suncream, and finding somewhere to eat is only ever difficult because of the unquantifiable amount of choice (a real problem for someone as indecisive as me). In contrast, we were thankful in Myanmar that the places we stayed at (budget hotels because hostels haven’t yet been introduced) sold water – it could be a struggle to find somewhere selling something as basic as that.
On top of that, 80% of the population don’t consider themselves to have religious faith, so alcohol is not at all frowned upon, as it was in densely Buddhist Myanmar. Bars and clubs are as prolific as in any city back home. The standards of music might not be quite the same, and seeing a bouncer smash a glass bottle over a (sleepily) drunk customer’s head was (to say the least) a little disturbing, but the party lifestyle is certainly not lacking out here. On the plains of Bagan and the shores of Inle Lake it was very rare to have a story start, ‘oh my god I was so wasted…’, yet here that seems to be a running feature of traveller tales.
Vietnam certainly has its charm, and only a third of my way in, ticking off only cities and beaches, I am sure to come across more authentic Vietnamese culture as I head up north. The prevalence of people here doing what I’m doing, the hostels that cater for backpackers and the cafes that use mineral water to make their ice, certainly make travelling a more comfortable experience. I think that had I been travelling solo for my stint in Myanmar it would have been a lot more difficult – but I’ve barely had a day to myself and have pulled out the lone diner card just a couple of times. Vietnam is lively, buzzing, metropolitan. One thing is for sure – I am not in Myanmar anymore.