Vietnam was the first destination along my five-week backpacking tour of Southeast Asia last month. I touched down in Ha Noi and was immediately swept away by the rich culture and history to discover in this country.
Having been colonized by the Chinese for over a century, briefly by Japan in 1940 and most recently by the French between 1887- 1954, Vietnam is not short of colonial influences upon its culture. The French influence is most noticeable in cuisine, with ca-phe (coffee) and bahn mi (French baguette) now having entered the staple diet, alongside Vietnam's national dish - Pho.
Here are some more fun facts I learnt during my travels through Vietnam:
1. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is one of the four technically* remaining one-party states in the World, along with China, Cuba and the bordering Laos. Like China, Vietnam is a communist state but with a capitalist system.
* I say technically because there are other countries which operate like a one-party state, such as Cambodia, whose democracy has not seen a change of government for forty years due to corruption.
2. Nobody is unemployed in Vietnam.
"What? I thought it was a developing country?" I hear you say... Due to no government support other than healthcare to under 6-year olds, earning a living is solely down to the individual. If you don’t go out and find a way to make money, then you do not eat. This is why, according to my local guide Khang, nobody can "technically" be unemployed in Vietnam because anybody can go out and sell something on the side of the road to earn a living. Hence, why there are so many street vendors around Vietnam.
3. ‘The American War’ is how the Vietnam War is referred to in Vietnam. Both refer to the same war - where a greater loss than the Second World War and the Korean War was incurred.
4. To be elected as a local officer in Vietnam, (the only part of the system which allows for public votes) you must:
A) be a member of the communist party
B) be “three generations clear” – meaning if your father or grandfather worked alongside the Americans in the war, you are not allowed to run for an elected local officer.
5. The population (according to the 2017 census) is 95 million people, making Vietnam the World’s 14th most populated country.
6. It is rare to see an elderly person in Vietnam.
Vietnam has been left with a young population due to the tremendous loss from the War, amongst other factors, making this wonderful couple even more precious.
7. No word in the Vietnamese language is longer than one syllable.
8. The pronunciation of a word can determine its meaning.
For example: “Xin Cao” can either mean “hello” or “get me a bowl of rice” depending on the pitch you use to say it. I’m not making this stuff up, I swear! After this was explained to me, I realised why I received a few odd looks from people I believed I was greeting.
9. Vietnam is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
10. The Capital city is Ha Noi, but the largest and more modernised city is Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in the south.
11. Saigon used to belong to Cambodia until the French handed it over to Vietnam.
12. Vietnam is the third largest exporter of rice in Asia, after Thailand and India.
And now for the really fun part... Vehicles:
13. There are 37 million registered motorbikes in Vietnam, and only 2 million cars.
Perhaps this figure is influenced by the fact that there is a 100% tax incurred on car purchases, upto 160% on imported cars!! Not to mention the cost of shipping an imported car back every couple of years for an MOT! This is a dramatic example of the wealth gap between rich and poor in Vietnam.
14. Motorbike accidents are the number-one cause of tourist deaths in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Leave it to the experts!
15. Talking of biking experts, did you know that the Vietnamese motorbiking license is obtained through just a two-day driving test?
Day one consists of theory classes and day two is the practical test, where candidates must prove they can manoeuvre the bike around a figure eight drawn out on the side walk. And that’s it! If you have $10 and two days to spare, you can apply for a license for life. Unless of course, you're Jeremy Clarkson...
16. It is cheaper to take your motorbiking test again than to pay a speeding fine.
A local I met in Saigon told me that he once had his license confiscated for speeding and a fine of $40 had to be paid to retrieve it. Instead, he retook his test and paid $10 for a new license! Crazy – right?
17. Your scooter is like your Tinder profile.. swipe left to the Chinese makes!
A Japanese branded scooter may set you back $300, but it will also attract a girlfriend according to Khang – who has a Chinese scooter and tells us he will be single forever with one of these - best get saving up then Khang!
18. The legal limit of people on one motorbike is two adults and two children.
- This does not mean you can have three adults in place of the two children. It is also illegal to ride your bike on the pavement, but many do not obey this rule when police are not looking, so watch your back!
As for any other object you can fit on to a motorbike? I guess that’s left at your own discretion...
19. Buildings in Vietnam are very narrow and long because...
when purchasing a property In Vietnamese cities, you are paying for the frontage. This is why, particularly in the old quarter of Ha Noi, buildings are very narrow at the front, but tend to stretch back and up a lot further. I stayed in a small boutique hotel in the old quarter of Ha Noi similar to the example in the photo opposite. True to form, my hotel only had two bedrooms on each floor but went up about six floors.
Many hotel bedrooms across Vietnamese cities will also be without a window for this reason.