Same Same But Different

DSCN0706This is my second trip to Vietnam and both visits evoked many memories of my teenage years at anti-war marches in Los Angeles and that time of passion and change that influenced me so profoundly.

Visiting Vietnam also reminds me of the guilt I feel for the torture my country imposed on this one.

Laura says there is a DJ God and I’m sure she is right.  As Carol and I got into our taxi from the Hanoi airport to our hotel last week, the song playing on the CD was “If You’re Going to San Francisco.”

This was a bumper sticker on my first car, which my dad — the city manager of a conservative city — did not like. Kathy and I laughed ourselves silly when he borrowed my car one day.

Painting in Hanoi’s Museum of Modern Art

Wendy posted a comment that she was interested in how Vietnam compared to Thailand and Cambodia and the first thing that came to mind is a phrase that is playfully used in Southeast Asia — “same same but different.”   Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are same same but different. The three countries share certain ethnic groups because their borders have changed many times over the past thousand years. For example, there are many Cambodians (Khmer) in southern Vietnam and many Cambodians in Thailand. The Hmong –originally from China — have immigrated to all three countries.  As a result, their cultures and styles have some common features. The cuisines of the three countries have some similarities and Rice is King.  Their climates and geography are also similar — jungle, lowlands, hills, lots of water. All three are mainly Buddhist and share some Buddhist ways of looking at things.

But the differences between Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are discernible even to a short term visitor.  Their governments, languages and currencies are different.  Vietnam is officially a socialist state but it feels like a capitalist economy. Unlike non-socialist easy-going Cambodia and the non-Bangkok parts of Thailand, Vietnam seems to be on a mission. Hanoi, the country’s northern capital and the part of the country that won the war, is vibrant almost to the point of frenetic (especially after Cambodia).  The central part of the city is wall to wall motor bikes, small retail businesses, and street stands with a feeling that everyone is going somewhere or doing something.  At night, the streets are full of families, young people and tourists eating, drinking, hanging out.  Some kind of music is playing somewhere close wherever you are.

Vietnam is agricultural like Cambodia and Thailand — the rice paddies and truck gardens comfortably share the borders of every city. For a tourist, the food is similar because of its foundation of rice and rice noodles.  But Vietnamese food is quieter than Thai or Cambodian food — not much curry, not very spicy, not much evidence of coconut milk or lemongrass.  You get the chilies, the cilantro and the mint but it’s not featured. To me, it feels closer to Chinese food — simple stir fries, a lot of pork and chicken, brothy noodles, garlic and soy sauce.  Because the French colonized Vietnam until 1954, there is also a definite French influence.  You can find the same pastries and breads you would find in a Paris boulangerie and some Vietnamese menus include dishes that use cream and butter, including desserts like creme brulee and mousse.

Although Vietnam is “very Buddhist,” according to our worldly hotel manager, it doesn’t seem to be as Buddhist as Thailand or Cambodia.  I don’t see the spirit houses or the monks or the little alters on the street, which seem to be everywhere in Cambodia and Thailand. There are also many Catholic Vietnamese, which is undoubtedly related to the French colonization.  There are many beautiful churches here and the ones we have seen are well-attended.

One sight that is very Vietnamese is the traditional woman’s dress, which is called “ao dai,” meaning “long shirt.” When I was here three years ago, many women wore the ao dai.  This time, I do not see many except for those worn by staff in tourist venues, like hotels and restaurants.  The familiar “non la” or bamboo hat is still worn by food vendors who work on the streets and farmers — it seems like the perfect protection from the sun.

Alley in Bangkok

Carol and I are having a wonderful visit so far.  In Hanoi, we went to five museums, drank a lot of frozen lime-y things to beat the heat, shopped for textiles, and attended an amazing performance of Vietnam’s classic water puppets.  Hanoi is a great city for walking around — a lot of interesting architecture from the era of French colonization (mid-19th century to mid-20th century), a beautiful lake in the middle of town and tons of small and very interesting retail shops. But the traffic signals and signs are “suggestions” so watch out for the motor bikes!


Water puppets sold at a local market

Lots of beautiful silks here made with traditional weaving processes.

On Monday, we got on a funky, smelly old train for the 15 hour trip to Hoi An.  In spite of the usual train noises and a lot of activity in the hallway, we actually slept a lot and even shared our sleeping compartment with a young Vietnamese man.

Hoi An is one of the most beautiful towns I have ever seen (and this is my second time so I am an expert).  It sits in the middle of farmland along Vietnam’s central coast. The city is one incredible block after another of French and Vietnamese architecture, Buddhist temples and produce markets.  Because of its historic significance, the Americans and the Vietnamese agreed to leave Hoi An alone when the bombing started in the 1950s.  Today, it is a tourist mecca and UNESCO World Heritage site. It is well known for its silk tailors, an ancient Japanese bridge, its lanterns and its cuteness.  Unlike some tourist towns, however, Vietnamese residents are doing things other than serving the tourist population.  For three days, we ate some of the best food in Vietnam, rode bikes, and hiked through the countryside. Carol even got a custom-made little black dress with a peacock embroidered down the front.  Wow!

This morning we arrived back in Hanoi after another somewhat grueling smelly train ride. Tomorrow, we take off for another, my last, three day adventure.  My flight home is Tuesday, which I can barely fathom, so today I am going to buy some souvenirs.  This is your last chance to put in your order!

Post script:  I fixed my computer so I can type on it but it won’t load my photographs.  So all of these photos are stock except the one with the water puppets and the one on top with the water urns.

All we are saying is give peace a chance.
             John Lennon and Yoko Ono


  1. Awesome post – makes me feel like I am there! And….I didn’t know you decided to come home (for awhile?) after all. Big news! Would love to see you. I come down to the Bay Area fairly often, especially to visit my mom. Let me know your schedule. I would love it if you could pick up a souvenir for me….since you noted it. Any small beautiful silk scarf or earrings or small embroidery if possible. Thank you!!

  2. I loved reading about Hoi An and learning the differences among the countries you’ve just seen all in a row. Happy travels in your last few days, Kim!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s