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Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth Craze

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Alternate Routes · Asia · vietnam · Vietnam · Andis Sīlis

Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth Craze

Author: Andis Sīlis0 COMMENTS

Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth Craze

Those who usually try to avoid well-beaten, brushed up tourist tracks and wish to immerse themselves into unique environment of each country they visit should keep in mind that in Vietnam it's hardly possible to avoid limits set by the local tourism industry.

Foto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth Craze

For example, to get from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, a geological phenomenon with its thousands of islands, you inevitably have to join the general stream of tourists. The only leading there road goes through areas cluttered with nightmarish examples of Vietnamese new architecture, making this trip a traumatizing experience, especially if you are an architect. Vietnam's economic boom over the past few decades has actually contributed to its architectural monstrosity. Favorable weather conditions allow the country to obtain three harvests per year; Vietnam ranks as the 3nd largest rice producer and also grows its own tea, coffee and boasts an abundance of seafood, and thanks to that, simple people have achieved certain prosperity. Building their homes, they are trying to outshine their neighbor's, which seems to be a matter of honor there. Over the past fifteen years, the descendants of the former communists have cluttered up Vietnamese cities and other building areas with questionable architectural creations and shocking with their "sense of beauty" anyone, who is accustomed to western controlled environment. With perhaps only few limiting regulations in place, these houses are erected without involvement of any licensed architects and everyone builds according to their own skills and understanding.

Foto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth Craze

It was explained to me by a local Vietnamese architect that in smaller rural towns no professional architects are available and it's not entirely clear to me according to what laws of architectural harmony those big city pros have acquired their education. Moreover, powerful Vietnamese corruption and mafia have opened the way to construction of huge and monotonous hotels that are now scattered along those once virginal beaches with their beautiful fishermen's villages. The saddest part is its irreversibility - even building something beautiful wouldn't improve the situation.

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Ha Long Bay
The same way as your trip to Ha Long Bay, scattered with numerous islands and rock formations, also navigation within the bay is provided by only 3 to 4 companies. Ha Long Bay tour boats are furnished with at least ten double cabins, yet you can rent a boat just for yourself and enjoy this marvel of nature only in the circle of your own friends on board. On shore, there is an option to stay at one of those new, lacking any personality hotels on the largest Cat Ba Island, or else - rent a cozy bungalow and enjoy serenity of the opposite side of the island.

Foto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth Craze

During your trip you can savor authentic Vietnamese cuisine, observe local people rearing pearl oysters or crocodiles, while the most fascinating pastime seems to be meandering among lush green rock formations of the bay.

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Hanoi
From an architectural point of view, the city can be divided into two parts - the old, French colonial-style Hanoi, sited on the both sides of Hoan Kiem Lake on one hand and exotic expressions of contemporary, junk architecture of the Old Quarter and other parts of the city on the other. The latter one features also some towering hotels and a few more ambitious constructions here and there.

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There are many good and affordable backpacker hostels in Ma May street area of the Hanoi's Old Quarter and many eateries where you can get cheap, tasty and authentic Vietnamese food or drink a cup of coffee or some cold beer right on a swarming street corner.

Foto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth Craze

Simple plastic tables and parked scooters are scattered on the pavement, and you can order exceptionally fresh seafood, like huge prawns and variety of mussels with simple and natural side dishes, cooked right on the street there.

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Vietnam boasts also large quantities of exotic foods unfamiliar to the Western palate, including dog's meat, which locals praise as the best meat that you can ever get. If you wish to try this local delicacy, perhaps it's better to avoid seeing raw meat at the local marketplace, however.

Foto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth Craze

Hanoi streets are jam-packed with scooters and other types of two-wheeled vehicles. It's curious to see that there is even some competition among their owners, much like in the west among car owners. Crossing a street is almost a mission impossible, especially on the first evening when you stand perplexed by an unceasing stream of traffic that flows like water. You have to learn to walk across slowly, as if traversing a river, trying not to make any abrupt maneuvers.

Foto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth Craze

It's advisable to see the Buddhist temples of Hanoi, which perhaps are even lavisher than the ones in China itself. The most impressive, however, is the Thousand Buddhas temple in Ho Chi Minh City. It's architecturally alluring and boasts a truly unbelievable number of Buddha statues.

Foto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth Craze

There exists a certain rivalry between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh as for which one is more glamorous and pricy, yet both cities are equally backpacker friendly.

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Ho Chi Minh
Finding Ho Chi Minh's backpacker district is a little more difficult, yet definitely worth the efforts as the area gives the best perspective of the city itself. It is located in Quan 1 (the 1st quarter) at Cong Vien park between Ngu Lao and Bui Vien streets. The park is a favorite gathering and socializing spot for youngsters, hundreds of them swarming there in late evening hours. Bui Vien Street, in its turn, is full of dawdler from all across the world, some lured by the chill-out atmosphere of this place while others attracted by ads offering "Ice-Cold Saigon Beer for just 10.000 Dong" [~25 santims].

Foto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth Craze

To find the best Ho Chi Minh eateries, it's best of all to rely on the advice of locals. As a surprise and a sign of genuine hospitality you may receive unexpected compliments in addition to, for example, fish that you have ordered. In my case it was a fowl submerged in some undeterminable dark fluid and served in a little bucket. I took the liberty not to touch it, however. Delicious spring rolls are one of Vietnamese signature dishes and in many places it's even possible to make your own rolls from the served ingredients - rice paper, fish strips, fish sauce, etc.

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Ho Chi Minh City, spreading on both sides of rather dirty and pitch-black Saigon River, certainly gives a feel of a modern city with wide streets, yet at the same time preserving its ancient, exotic aura with small waterfront bungalows. Difficult-to-define "art of building" flourishes outside the historic center of the city. People are selling their goods and scooters streaming along the crowded roads like anyplace else in Vietnam there.

Foto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth Craze

Mekong Delta with its jungle-like areas and the famous Vinh Long floating market - a genuine fruit paradise, is located not far from Ho Chi Minh. It's possible to experience a boat trip through Mekong Delta channels, although these trips organized by the official tourism industry are quite short but reaching the Delta itself requires several hours.

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It's a chance to feel the authentic local flow of life, however, and to try exotic foods, like crocodile, snake or turtle meat, at the same time exposing yourself to pushy efforts of local vendors or becoming a target of deft underage pickpockets. An all-pervading and tiring chaos and services of tourism industry is somewhat possible to escape only if you are lucky enough to hire a good local guide just for yourself and your family. Then you can enjoy a privacy of a Home-stay bungalow at night and have an individual kayak trip through the channels. (E-mail: homestayc@gmail.com).

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Da Lat
Vietnamese themselves acclaim Da Lat to be the most beautiful spot of their country and a popular honeymoon destination. It has plenty of cheap hotels, great eateries, kitschy parks, waterfalls, historic temples, specific to the area pine trees and verdant coffee bushes underneath them. Air in mountain areas is a little cooler, making Da Lat a perfect location for bicycle tours.

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Being in Da Lat, be sure to visit Bao Dai palace - the residence of the last feudal king of Vietnam and an authentic gem of art deco architecture. Da Lat presents a different face of Vietnam, although it is not entirely fee from gardens of dubious taste, adorned with plastic gnomes either.

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Almost everyone in the mountains grows coffee or is involved in this trade. Coffee industry in Vietnam is devoid of complexity and beans are dried right on the streets.

Foto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth Craze

Treading higher up in the mountains and away from the city, a thick blanket of clouds suddenly enfolds you, exuding a somewhat eerie feeling, somewhat like in Coppola's movies.

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Hoi An
Hoi An stands out for its beautiful French colonial style architecture and Japanese covered bridges. Being one of UNESCO World Heritage sites, it is fortunately safeguarded from invasion of contemporary architectural expressions.

Foto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth Craze

It's also pleasant to enjoy the city's waterfront, yet better avoid it during a flood season. Vietnam is usually facing serious challenges due to flooding and information about flood zones is a regular part of weather forecasts in this country. A bar set-up inside an old bungalow on the water's edge, which you perhaps have chosen for your dinner, may easily turn out to be soaking in water up to ankles already in the afternoon. It's interesting that flood levels are usually marked on the walls and sometimes these marks reach very close to the ceiling.

Foto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth CrazeFoto: Vietnam. Bits of Authenticity and Economic Growth Craze

A multiple entry sightseeing ticket allows you to enter some of the old Hoi An family houses and, with or without commentaries of their dwellers, to explore ancient ornaments and household belongings inside and get a better idea of peoples' daily lives there. Except repeated offers of a cup of tea, no one will even pay any attention to you, if that's the way you prefer it.

-- It's better to avoid Vietnam Open Bus Tours, offering daily trans-Vietnam bus tours for a comparatively low price of about 50 dollars. The service description promises that you can get off the bus in any town and board it again on another day upon reconfirmation in advance. In reality, it is possible only in few towns and in limited number of stops, and a hotel pick up service, included in the price, too, often is not available at all.

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