Lifestyles in Vietnam
Vietnam is still a highly agrarian society, but increasing numbers of farmers, fishers, and hill tribe people are moving to the cities and towns. As result, the larger population centers suffer from a lack of jobs, overcrowding, and increasing poverty. Many of the people moving to the cities are doing so in search of a better life, but they do not have the skills or education to function well in big cities.
As a result, there are many young men trying to make ends meet by selling postcards and travel books, while women and men may sell crafts or offer to change money on street corners. Crimes against persons – especially foreigners – are increasing dramatically across Vietnam. At the same time, the economy is growing at a huge clip (7% or better), so things are improving for the general population. In the early 1990s the government began allowing a limited amount of free enterprise, and this has begun to dramatically improve the lot of many people, especially city dwellers who have contact with tourists. Hotels, restaurants, shops, and used bookstores are springing up like weeds, and seem to be thriving.
The idyllic days of girls in the traditional ao dai riding bicycles are long gone. Now it seems everyone has a motor scooter and no one has a license. Cars are appearing in rapidly increasing numbers, too. Noise seems to be a unifying factor in Southeast Asia. Its absence makes the local people nervous, so expect to hear horns, shouts, bells, and other sounds almost constantly.
Traditional markets are still to be found, but retail shops and hotel arcades are making inroads. Old women still ride around Old Hanoi with heavily laden bicycles and women walk home from their daily shopping expeditions balancing their purchases on their heads or carrying them in string bags.
Much of the country has largely recovered from the effects of the War, and many people continue their rural lifestyle. That means you’ll see women in conical hats planting rice by hand, standing knee-deep in water. Water buffaloes are still a mainstay for plowing the fields. Coffee beans are spread by the side of the road in late fall and early winter to “roast.” The people still count on the rise and fall of the Mekong and other rivers to fertilize the fields and clean the countryside.
As more people have access to private transportation and the roads improve for public transportation, the boats that used to ply the rivers are becoming harder to find. It’s still possible to catch a ride up or down the Mekong River, but the buses and trains are so much quicker that even the local people are turning their backs on traditional transportation. Flying is within the reach of many people now, too, so Vietnam Airlines flights are often full and the fleet is being rapidly converted from prop-planes to modern jets. The country is becoming increasingly industrialized, but without much consideration of the consequences. As a result, the air can be very smokey and polluted, and the rivers are still the main means for disposing of waste.
Still, the countryside is bucolic, if you can get deep enough into it.
The feel of Hanoi is more “Old Europe,” with narrow, winding streets, its shops spilling to the sidewalks and beyond. Saigon (HCMC) seems more open, with wide, tree-lined boulevards. Maybe some of the difference has to do with the minimal amount of bombing in Saigon during the War. The shorter time under communist/ socialist domination has had an impact on HCMC – it seems more capitalist – freewheeling without being overbearing.
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