Vietnam (Part 1): Challenging stereotypes in Hanoi and Halong Bay

It’s the summer holidays and I’ve returned to South East Asia to continue my explorations. I’ve started in Vietnam, a country whose shift from one of the poorest in the world to a lower middle-income country has been remarkable over the last thirty years. I teach about Vietnam as part of the Global Migration topic for A level but I admit that my knowledge of the country is limited and, for me, this trip is about equipping myself with a better understanding of this region so I can challenge the stereotypes we come across in the classroom when teaching about it. This is the first of a series blogs about my travels through Vietnam (written and posted as I’m exploring the country).

My travels started in Hanoi. A city famous for its scooters and photos of them as if everyone is in a continual competition of how much can they get on the back. The first night’s walk to the restaurant for dinner was mildly terrifying as they are everywhere. Crossing roads seems impossible between the scooters, bicycles and cars and just walking along the road required the old step or ten onto the road (stepping over the rain gutter – which is also where everyone throws their litter). But with time you realise it’s not that impossible. Everyone walks or drives quite slowly and if you walk slowly and don’t hesitate then the scooters just scoot around you. Record seen for most people on a scooter equals 5 but I lost count of the boxes/goods tied on their he back I’d some.

Knowing very little about Vietnamese history, on the Monday morning we headed to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (currently unoccupied as I believe he’s having his regular ‘beauty treatments’ in Russia to maintain his embalmed body) and complex. The square with its pristine white dressed guard of honour (with the occasional toot of a whistle when a tourist crosses the yellow line trying to take a selfie of themselves and the mausoleum) strikes me as very stereotypical of communist regimes, always ready for parades and inspection. A walk round the complex including the two ‘houses’ where Ho Chi Minh lived still has this feel of order and instruction that I associate with recently communist countries with clear signs directing foreigners and all others. This is a popular place and tours groups are clearly all on tight schedules with one swooping into look a the next ‘thing’ as one leaves. Yet the presence of the pagoda and the One Pillar Pagoda breaks this stereotype by showing how deep rooted Buddhism is in Vietnam (Buddhism is the most followed religion in Vietnam with the second most followed being Catholicism with 20% of the population) – my communist stereotype doesn’t allow for freedom of religion.

In the afternoon we headed out on tuk-tuk through the old town. It was time to be part of the traffic mayhem and the whole experience was a bombardment of your senses. The sound of hooting horns, shouts, continual chatter of people sat at street food stalls, banging of building sites and sanders come from all directions. Waves of smells from frying chicken to diesel fumes, from fresh fruit to rotting garbage in the rain gutters hit you are you’re taken through the city. As the humidity became more intense so did the smells with the sky turning darker and darker with every second, and then the rain came. Big fat dollops of greasy smelling rain began to add to the mix as the downpour arrived.

It’s as the downpour began that the most remarkable sight happened. With the first few dollops of rain everything stops. And I mean everything. Scooters and tuk-tuks stop on the side of the road. After an initial 30 seconds of nothing but calm and quiet as the hooting and engine noises cease, the hive of activity starts again as everything gets covered in plastic. It is the most spectacular array of wet weather gear I have ever seen. Ponchos, rain coats, hats, ponchos that single-handedly cover the scooter, rider and their cargo. My tuk-tuk gets wrapped in plastic from all sides with the instruction to hold down the front when I want to see. Then before you know it everyone is back on the road in their new plastic covered looks and we’re off again.

The ride ends at the theatre showing the water puppets. And I have to say that it is here I experience what I’d likely to be the most stereotypical thing of my trip. A traditional show put on entirely for tourists. You haven’t a clue what’s going on and it’s all a bit surreal seeing puppets dance on water but it is entirely and wonderfully all part of being a tourist in a foreign country.

The next day (Tuesday) we head north to Halong Bay. Driving out of the city we pass through the factory belt and then into rice fields before hitting the wealthy coal mining region. The region with its well built roads, well maintained buildings (both condo and more traditional long houses) and 10 million USD arch over the highway is clearly rapidly developing. With regional governments overseeing most aspects, this region has hugely benefitted, particularly from exporting coal to China.

We stop off at an arts centre for ‘disabled adults’ where they produce a wide range of products to sell and is clearly the toilet stop for all tourists travelling to and from Halong Bay. With no social security system, 12% unemployment and the legacy of the use of ‘agent orange’ during the Vietnam War, schemes like these are vital to support individuals and their families.

In Halong Bag we boarded a converted junk boat (better described as a floating hotel) and sailed out into the bay. A UNESCO site since 1997, Halong Bay is a magnet for tourists and there are no calls to limit all human use of the Bay. Starting with 1 boat carrying tourists overnight in 1997, the government have just put a cap on there being a maximum of 600 (so it looks like the boats are just getting bigger and bigger!). There are many stories in the news about pollution and rubbish in the bay and it is clear why with floating plastic and the water having a distinctly brown tinge. Yet despite the boats, pollution and rubbish, it’s a world away from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi as you sail through the stunning Karst landscape. Waking up on the Wednesday to a beautiful sunrise and Tai Chi on the top deck was sublime.

During our overnight trip we left the boat twice to explore further. First for a rowing trip around he remains on the floating village and second to visit some limestone caves. UNESCO have tried to remove the floating villages as part of their increasing restrictions on human activity in the bay so the village no longer has a school and the fisherman now have to employ their own nurse. Yet being taken round the village shows just how vital these floating villages are to protect the bay and maintain a way of life. Each rowing boat scoops up rubbish from the water as it carries tourists and the money boosts the local economy. With UPVC doors and windows and solar panels, these fishing villages are not the stereotypical floating village you see in textbooks. These are fisherman whose livelihoods demand their continued presence on the water. It’s a shame to see the remains of the floating villages just becoming a tourist attraction rather than UNESCO also aiming to preserve this way of life in the bay.

On the Wednesday we returned to Hanoi stopping off at a Pearl Farm to see each stage of pearl production and some beautiful, if a little out of my budget, pearl jewellery. Another classic example of a tourist trap with its queues for the toilets! On returning to Hanoi, there was time for some last minute shopping to buy snacks and have dinner before boarding the overnight train to Danang. The story of my travels and thoughts and impressions along the way will be continued…

Note: With thanks to Explore and their Highlights of Vietnam and Cambodia trip – see http://www.explore.co.uk for more details.

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