A Vietnam experience should encompass both north and south. Here are impressions collected during a three-week tour, this one with a group of five who said "yes" to whatever the guide proposed whenever free time showed on the itinerary.

One of the first things a newcomer to Vietnam must learn is how to cross the street. Swarms of motorcycles come at pedestrians from all directions. Traffic lights sometimes regulate the flow, more often, not. The trick is to watch for the best chance to get across, then, when challenged, keep walking the same way. Do not stop suddenly, lurch or change course. Vietnamese cyclists are more adept at avoiding you than you are of them.

Intensely reliant on noisy two-wheelers, Vietnamese even nap on them. Colorful versions of surgical masks tucked ear to ear under their helmets filter pollution. They make faces even more obscure than hijabs but cause much less controversy.


The stereotype between northerners and southerners about spending habits is that a northerner in Hanoi will buy one, good quality motorcycle, while the southerner in Saigon will buy two cheap ones. Hanoi is regarded as slow to change; southerners are more flexible and freer with their money, while northerners tend to be thrifty.

A coastline of 3260 km/2025 miles makes for cultural, scenic and climactic variations. Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi have different dialects, food and styles.

Southerners are known to be more direct; northerners, more ceremonious and formal. Southerners are more exposed to Western ways, whereas the north is more influenced by neighboring China and communist central planning.

Northerners consider themselves more cultured and concerned about status. Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon is seen as glitz and fun. Most Vietnamese prefer the name Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City. The south Vietnamese don't revere Ho Chi Minh as much as the north Vietnamese do; nor do they favor communism as much, citing that Saigon used to be bigger than Bangkok before it became communist. Now it's smaller and losing ground.


The only fat people you see are some children and westerners. Obesity, a sad sign of the times, seems to happen most often to this generation's first-born sons, who tend to be spoiled. The reason? They will be in charge of their parents in their old age, creating pressure to cultivate enduring affection. No government program provides for the elderly.

Related to this family closeness is the practice of ancestor worship. People burn printed images of cell phones, food and clothing that the departed might need wherever they are, smoke being the transmitter. Along some roads every third structure is a temple to ancestors interspersed with family dwellings. Burial is often in ceramic tombs on a plot on family land. If in a public cemetery, to save face, a tomb outsized by a neighboring tomb may be torn down and replaced by a bigger one - to the tune of $12,000 or more.

Multiple generations live together, children living with parents until marriage--in cities in small apartments, where our guide invited us to meet his extended family. We shared a sumptuous dinner and got to see where dark stairwells lead. Grandparents typically look after children.

Orphans don't have this privilege. A visit to a buddhist-run orphanage shows a well-run effort (reportedly better than state-run institutions). Older orphan girls cuddle and babysit newcomers. Experienced buddhist nuns are in charge. The Intrepid Foundation, part of Intrepid Travel, supports similar causes in countries where they operate.

Others outside of the mainstream are the 54 ethic minorities recognized in Vietnam. Hanoi's Museum of Ethnology explains their colorful history and differences.


Differences extend even to the national dish, Pho: meat and vegetables in broth (pronounced fuh). Hanoi people consider Saigon pho too sweet; southerners tasting Hanoi pho think it's too salty. Basically, food is flavorful and nonfattening. Most people are reed thin. There are no McDonalds in Vietnam. Branches did open in a few cities, but it was too expensive, so they closed.

Sweet or salty, expect unusual dishes - porcupine, snake wine and weasel coffee (the animal sniffs out the best beans, chugs them down to be retrieved at the end of the journey). Hulls on the beans prevent digestion, but the journey through the digestive system supposedly enhances flavor. (Consumer comment: It does.). Dogs are not pets, but a future source of meat common throughout Asia.

A Saigon dinner of Morning Glory sauteed in garlic, eel, chicken, two beef dishes, steamed rice, rice noodles and mint, cucumber, pickled carrots and onions to be assembled into rice rollups cost $7 including two beers. That's 14,000 dong, Vietnam's currency, a nightmare for those mathematically challenged. The equivalent of a hundred dollars at an ATM is two million dong.


The Vietnamese have shown amazing courage and resilience in recent history. They ridded their country of French colonial domination--commonly referred to as slavery--and endured American invasion, bombing and widespread use of Agent Orange. Forty years after the Vietnam war (referred to as the American war by Vietnamese), children are still being born with deformities due to Agent Orange. Royalties from Laura Lam's "Late Blossom", go to one of these orphanages. Her book describes the plight of her trying to leave Saigon during this war. Another good read relating to the war is Frances Fitzgerald's Pulitzer prize-winning book, "Fire in the Lake". It cites American errors as well as different ways the north and the south dealt with it. In spite of all of this, the Vietnamese could not be more welcoming to Westerners.


A Vietnam experience should encompass both north and south. Three weeks is minimal, this one with a tour group of five who said "yes" to whatever the guide proposed whenever free time showed on the itinerary. Boat, motorcycle and bicycle outings supplemented usual sightseeing. Vietnam is do-able on one's own, just allow more time. However different, north and south Vietnamese are all easy to like - unpretentious, consistent, conducive to discovery.

– as published in Romar Traveler online magazine