Snippets from Vietnam Trip: Like and Unlike India



HCMC-ShopIt is easy to forget every once in a while, that you are not in India. Roads, traffic, styles of sign boards, markets and retail outlets look eerily similar. Construction is going on everywhere. International brands and shining showrooms existing alongside the traditional shops lining the streets represent a rising, well-off middle class. Beneath that shine, however, is also the daily struggle and poverty of masses. Just like India! The similarity of appearances is aided by the script used for the Vietnamese language. Vietnamese is written in Roman script (enriched by numerous diacritics) and for a while, you may not realize that you don’t understand what is written even though it looks readable. It is also difficult to learn the words through signboards. You may think you are seeing the same word, but unmindful of the diacritics you might be looking at a word that has a completely different pronunciation and completely unconnected meaning.


Politics and Corruption

IMG_20171202_113655Politics is different. The government is supposedly communist, nowadays “more socialist than communist”, in reality, corrupt capitalist. Okay! Maybe not so different. But corruption among the political bosses is perhaps more blatant than in India. Starbucks franchise in the communist country is owned by the son-in-law of the Prime Minister. Our British walking tour guide in Saigon compared the corruption to that of other countries in Asia, including India. Abhaya wanted to counter that our top politicians indulge in corruption at a much higher level.  They are not petty that way. They do under the table defense deals and all. They leave Starbucks and McDonalds to the market. Although with Robert Vadras and Jay Shahs of the world that counter may not hold much water.

Religion or not!

IMG_20171204_150611Another impact of the communist regime is that religion is not fashionable. Reading about the country before visiting I was under the impression that it is a Buddhist country. Technically most people may describe themselves as Buddhists if pressed to answer the question. But on talking to the tour guides it seemed like irrespective of their professed religion, the only religious practice Vietnamese actually care for is ancestor-worship. Even during the stricter communist days of rationed food, many would save whatever meager meat ration they received for the death anniversary “feasts”.

Two curious Vietnamese Buddhist things I came across were a Buddha with a Swastika and a female deity they kept calling “Lady Buddha”. Our guide gave a strange story for the former, where enlightenment of Buddha was supposedly not completed under the Bodhi tree and he had to go to the Himalayas and take the help of Agni to finally attain it. The swastika is supposedly the symbol of Agni. I got no explanation whatsoever about the Lady Buddha. I suppose she must be a mixture of some ancient female spirit and some Hindu Goddess wrapped up nicely in some supposedly Buddhist story.

IMG_20171204_141957In some sense religion in Vietnam is similar to that in India. A curious mixture of practices indigenous, imported and borrowed. The way somebody coming to India with a straightforward definition of Hinduism would be disappointed by the rather dispersed, fragmented and varied practices that are prevalent here, you have to keep the notions of a “Buddhist country” aside while looking at the contemporary religion in Vietnam.

Many Vietnamese tour guides claimed that they were atheists, which is perhaps politically prudent and socially fashionable. Catholics feel particularly unwelcomed by the regime.


Hanoi-StreetParticipation of women in the workforce is high. You can see it on the streets (with a majority of shops and eateries “manned” by women, even in wholesale markets) as well as in statistics. This might again be a result of the communist past. It hasn’t necessarily resulted in social equality though. People hanker after a boy child much like in India. The preference stems from the importance of ancestor-worship, which is the prerogative and responsibility of the sons of the family. Running a family business is perhaps seen as a woman’s work, much like a lot of farming activities are considered so in small and marginal farming families in India. Hence, so many women in the shops. In the higher echelons of business and politics, the participation of women may not be that high (a guesswork, but those numbers might still be better than in India). We never saw the villages, where the story may be similar to India. That is, high participation in agricultural work, but not necessarily an empowered social position.

An interesting historical curiosity is that there are reasons to believe that before Chinese imperial influence brought and imposed Confucian patriarchy on the natives of current Northern Vietnam (people to whom Vietnamese trace their history now) their society could have been matriarchal, or matrilineal or at least much more gender-egalitarian. They identify China has their biggest enemy today. But the Chinese patriarchy is considered their own! Much like how some of our current-day nationalist bristle at Britain’s past enslavement of India. But insist on treating oppressive Victorian morality as their own.

Tourist Friendliness

IMG_20171209_151526Vietnam (and perhaps most places in the world, even most Asian countries) surpass India in tourist-friendliness of its infrastructure and businesses. Even the smallest restaurants, cafes and hotels have wi-fi and they proactively offer you the password. I think some (or most?) taxis also have wi-fi, although I never used one in a taxi. Getting clean bathrooms is not a challenge, especially not at tourist places. Money exchange is easy, although converting to VND at the airport will fetch the best rates.

The Great Indian Influence

I almost forgot! Dubbed Indian serials seem to appeal to Vietnamese audience. A guide described an Indian serial that was super-popular and it seemed like she was talking about Balika Vadhu.

Photo Credits


प्रिविलेज को पहचानो!

एक बड़े नामी अख़बार में एक जनाब ने बड़े पते की बात कही। कि दलित लोगों को भीमा कोरेगांव को लेकर इतना उत्साहित नहीं होना चाहिए। उस लड़ाई को दलितों की सवर्णों पर विजय बताना बेवकूफ़ी है। वह विजय अंग्रज़ों की पेशवाओं पर हुई थी। उस लड़ाई का जश्न मनाकर वे देशभक्त भावनाओं का अपमान कर रहे हैं।

बाकी उनको इससे कोई ऐतराज़ नहीं है कि दलितों का शोषण होता है और उन्हें आवाज़ उठानी चाहिए। लेकिन उस लड़ाई और उस कहानी के साथ नहीं।

क्या लगता है आपको, सही कहा उन्होंने?

मुझे शर्मिंदगी होती है यह कहने में कि कुछ सालों पहले तक ये तर्क मेरे लिए भी इस मुद्दे पर आख़िरी बात होती। इसके आगे कुछ बहस करने के लिए रह ही नहीं जाता। एकदम खरी बात जो है। वह लड़ाई दलितों और सवर्णों की नहीं थी।

लेकिन आज मैं इसपर आगे कुछ कहने को मजबूर हूँ। जो एक चीज़ मुझे तब समझ में नहीं आती थी और आज कम-से-कम थोड़ी-बहुत आती है, वह है प्रिविलेज। आप, हम, कई सवर्ण लोग, और वो जो इन अखबारों में लिख सकते हैं, अक्सर अपने प्रिविलेज को भूल जाते हैं। प्रिविलेज सिर्फ बंगलों में रहने वाले करोड़पति लोगों का ही नहीं होता है। अगर मेरी परवरिश एक धनी घर में नहीं भी हुई थी तब भी मेरा प्रिविलेज ये है कि मुझे कभी नहीं सोचना पड़ा कि किसी सार्वजनिक जगह पर जाने की अनुमति मुझे है कि नहीं। कोई माँ-बाप अपने बच्चे के कानों में नहीं फुसफुसाए कि वे मेरे साथ ना खेलें। मेरे गांव में रहने वाले संबंधियों को कभी गांव के बाहर, गंदे, उपेक्षित टोलों में रहने के लिए मजबूर नहीं होना पड़ा। उन्हें किसी ने नहीं कहा कि वे गांव के स्कूल नहीं जा सकते हैं। मेरी रिश्तेदारों में मेरी उम्र के वे लोग जो किसी काम के नहीं थे, उन्हें भी सड़कों पर रहने की नौबत नहीं आई। अगर मैने भी कुछ नहीं किया होता तो भी भूखी नहीं मर रही होती।  प्रिविलेज सिर्फ सोने की चेनें और दरवाज़े पर खड़ी गाड़ियां नहीं होती हैं। उन लोगों के मुक़ाबले, जो मुख्य समाज से बाहर पैदा हुए और कभी उसके अंदर घुसने का मौका नहीं मिला, हमारी रोज़मर्रा की रोती-झींकती ज़िंदगी बहुत बड़ा प्रिविलेज है।

और प्रिविलेज ये है कि हम अपने घरों और ऑफ़िसों में बैठ कर दलितों को ये भाषण देने में नहीं हिचकते की भीमा कोरेगांव की लड़ाई उनकी नहीं थी। और हम एक बार भी ये नहीं सोचते हैं कि हम कौन हैं उन्हें ये बोलने वाले? अगर 1857, जिसमें छोटे-बड़े राजा-रानी अपनी रियासत वापस पाने के लिए लड़ रहे थे, हमारा “प्रथम स्वतंत्रता संग्राम” हो सकता है, तो 1 जनवरी 1818 दलितों के लिए विजय का दिवस क्यों नहीं हो सकता है? हो सकता है कि हमारे विशिष्ट अख़बारी लेखक 1857 को स्वतंत्रता संग्राम भी ना मानते हों। ऐसा है तो वे कम-से-कम अपने सिंद्धांतों पर हर जगह अडिग हैं। उसके लिए साधुवाद। लेकिन दलितों को भाषण देना फिर भी एक प्रिविलेज है। जिस समाज ने उनका शोषण किया है, उसमें 1857 में पहला स्वतंत्रता संग्राम हुआ था, उसमें पेशवाई बड़े शान की चीज़ है, और उसमें अम्बेडकर से ज़्यादा दलितों के मुद्दों में गांधी को तवज्जो दी जाती है। आप ये सब उनके लिए सही नहीं कर सकते हैं। तो फिर उनकी ये ज़िम्मेदारी क्यों है कि वे सबकुछ आपके मापदंड और आपकी सुविधा से करें? जब बाकी का समाज तार्किक मापदंडों पर खरा नहीं उतरता, तो वे क्यों तब तक इंतज़ार करें अपने प्रेरक-प्रसंग ढूंढ़ने में, जब तक उन्हें कुछ बिलकुल सही तर्कपूर्ण कहानी ना मिल जाए? उन्हें भाषण देना आपका हक़ नहीं है। ये एक प्रिविलेज है जिसका इस्तेमाल आपको नहीं करना चाहिए।

और पता है प्रिविलेज क्या है? कि जिन सवर्णों ने भीमा कोरेगांव के उत्सव में जाकर हिंसा शुरू की, उन्हें कोई नहीं पकड़ रहा है। विरोध करने वाले दलितों पर सब चढ़े जा रहे हैं। और प्रिविलेज सिर्फ़ गुंडों की ही नहीं है। प्रिविलेज ये भी है कि हम दलितों से कह रहे हैं कि हमारी अर्थव्यवस्था, हमारी प्लाइट्स, हमारी ट्रेनें, हमारी रोज़मर्रा की ज़िंदगी तुम्हारी बात सुनने के लिए नहीं रुक सकती। ठीक है तुम्हारा शोषण हो रहा है, लेकिन विरोध ऐसे करो कि हमें कोई परेशानी ना हो।

जी। उनकी परेशानी हमारी परेशानी में ना बदले, ये हमारा हक़ नहीं है। ये हमारा प्रिविलेज है, जिसके इस्तेमाल के लिए हम उतावले हुए जा रहे हैं।

कुछ ऐसा ही है नारीवादी विषयों के साथ भी। लेकिन उसके बारे में फिर कभी।

Snippets from Vietnam Trip: Translate and Tripadvisor

Beware of Google Translate

Despite the huge technical advancement in the field, automated translations can be a source of humor, embarrassment, and bizarre inaccuracies. You have to particularly careful in Vietnam if you are relying on knowing English to decipher their script. If you are typing Vietnamese in Google translate, don’t do so without getting the diacritics right. Else you may get bizarre results. A sign we often saw on the road from Hai Phong to Hanoi, translated as “doubtful”. Since it made no sense to see so many of those on the road (coming to think of it, that sign will be scary to see on the roads), we tried again by observing and getting the diacritics right. Then it translated as “motel”. I can’t remember what exact word had we translated there (we might have made some mistake with letters too, not just diacritic). But here is an example I have been able to recreate.


Autocorrect doesn’t work very well if your diacritics are wrong, because slight change or absence of diacritic may very often still make a meaningful word, only a totally different one.

Even if you get diacritics right, the usual precaution of not blindly using the automated translation applies. At Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, there was a box outside the toilet, where you were supposed to give a small voluntary donation. Somehow something like a “voluntary donation box” had been translated to “quadrilateral” in English, much to our guide’s annoyance with the use of Google Translate!

An Altar for Tripadvisor

writereviewflyerThe tourism industry in Vietnam might as well make a pagoda for Tripadvisor in every city and an altar for it in their homes! Yes – like it or not – Tripadvisor has become the biggest source of customers for a large number of businesses in tourism industry world over. And hence far too many of them have gotten too busy optimizing themselves for Tripadvisor reviews. In Vietnam, it seemed to happen at another scale altogether. I don’t mind a gentle request for a review, but in some cases, they were annoyingly repeated. And in case of our very first tour to Cu-chi tunnels in HCMC, it was simply outrageous. The guide kept insisting that we should use our phone and the free wi-fi available at the site or the restaurant to write a review there and then. Because later we will forget. As if it is our duty to write a review! When I expressed my disinclination explicitly (because he won’t take polite hints), he went into the misery-tourism mode of how it is important for him to get all the reviews to keep his job etc. A quiet, young woman from Hong Kong who was also on the tour with us obliged. I was too annoyed to do that. But his continued insistence even after telling him in clear terms that I am not comfortable doing that spoiled the tour for me. It was perhaps no better or worse than a tour provided by any other company would have been. But simply because of this nuisance, if I had indeed written a review, I would have rated them rotten.

Snippets from Vietnam Trip: Drivers and Money Changers

Vehicles, Drivers, and Taxis


A fridge magnet bought in Vietnam

Vietnam is big on two-wheelers. A lot of Saigon traffic jokes are around the number of two-wheelers in the city. Apparently, the number of two-wheelers there stands at 70% of the total population!

Tour guides are perennially apologetic about the traffic and bad driving. But don’t worry about it if you are an Indian city-dweller. The drivers in the tourism industry, to my Indian taste, were driving a bit too carefully and a bit too slow. The snail-pace of the drive from Hai Phong to Hanoi fried my brains with boredom. But our Spanish co-passengers still seemed terrified. So, I couldn’t really have requested them to speed up.

They also seem to wash their vehicles a lot. They stopped, not for a food or toilet break on the five-hour slow, boring drive mentioned above, but for vehicle washing! Given that they dropped us at a handicraft showroom for the half an hour they took to wash the vehicle, I wonder if vehicle-washing is a euphemism of some kind!

Many four-wheelers have a plastic cover on the ceiling. These are well-fitted around the lights, air vents, and other fixtures; so most likely done by the car company/dealership or other professionals. Not sure what for though!

Taxis are the most convenient means of local transport, and rest assured they will scam the heck out of you. There are tons of taxi companies whose cabs you can hail. A couple of them are supposed to be reliable ones, whose meters won’t run faster than a cheetah and whose drivers won’t take you on a wild ride through nowhere just to push the fares up. But they have an ample number of copy-cats ever eager to dupe you. There are precautions you can take to identify the right taxis. From the information available online I compiled a guide for myself. Even then, after a couple of good rides, in the third one, the driver started taking us “for a ride” taking random turns after reaching close to the destination to avoid actually reaching there. When we objected he didn’t understand English (or pretended not to!). The taxi was from one of the “reliable” companies – we had made sure of that. But that went only so far. Finally, we asked him to stop and walked a short distance to the destination. After that, we stuck to grab and there the experience was pretty good in all the cities we went to. The only problem was that sometimes you have to speak to the driver on phone to confirm your location and language problems might surface. One way to deal with that is to choose a conspicuous starting location – say in front of a big shop with clearly visible signboard and enter the name of the shop in the app, instead of just your current location. Or to book from inside the last restaurant or shop you have visited and take help of their staff in talking to the driver.

Money Matters


An old lady selling fake currencies, which they burn for their ancestors! (yep – those are fake dollars)

Money exchange is easy, although you should be careful about where you do it. When we exchanged USD to VND at the Saigon airport we got a rate of ~22650 VND per dollar. Inside the cities, the prevalent exchange rate with money exchangers was 22500 VND per dollar.

Although it isn’t as official as in Cambodia, most shops and tourism companies will also accept cash payments in USD. But the exchange rate is always tipped in their favor. If they have quoted the price in VND, the scrupulous ones will take payment in USD at the rate of 22000 VND per dollar, the unscrupulous ones at 20000 VND per dollar. If the price is quoted in USD and you are paying in VND, then you need to pay 22700 VND for every dollar. So, the prudent thing to do would be to pay in the currency in which you have been quoted the price originally. That’s what we did most of the time.

There is one exception to this prudent advice though. Converting VND back to USD fetches even worse rates than any mentioned above. So, if you find yourself with extra VND towards the end, it is better to spend in VND even at an unfavorable exchange rate, because trying to convert it back to USD will only get you a worse deal.

Credit card transactions are not welcome and many places charge extra if you are paying by credit card. Many may not accept credit cards at all. We went with cash everywhere except any pre-bookings we had paid by card online. Withdrawing cash from ATMs seems to be a costly and confusing affair. Fortunately, USD we had carried in cash lasted for us and we didn’t have to make any ATM transactions.

Snippets from Vietnam Trip: Bad Water, Tepid Tea, Good Food

IMG_20171207_183004If drinkable RO filtered water is available, we couldn’t find it. You have to use bottled water and there is no way of avoiding plastic. If you are staying long enough in a city, you could buy a 5-liter bottle and keep it in your hotel room, refilling your reusable water-bottles with it. But that’s about it. Most tours specifically include water-bottles in their package. Apart from buying a 5-liter bottle in Hanoi, we almost always had water to drink from the bottles provided on the tours!

img_20171203_145642.jpgFood, on the other hand, seems safe everywhere. Tour guides do not hesitate in taking tourists to small eateries. Food is flavorful and we almost universally liked it wherever we ate. They do use too much pork for our comfort, but we found ample seafood to keep us happy.


At several places, tea served was often tepid, not hot enough for us. I can’t figure out if it was bad service, or that’s how they drink it. With coffee, if you ask for milk on the side, it might come cold, making your coffee tepid. So, you need to be careful about what you ask for! I stuck to black coffee when drinking it hot. Else I went for the iced coffee with condensed milk. It was tasty! Vietnamese coffee is strong and it is brewed with an implement somewhat similar to the south Indian filters.


Egg coffee is a specialty of Hanoi. We tried it somewhere in Hoi An before we visited Hanoi. It wasn’t the real thing; the raw egg flavor was too strong and texture not as creamy. In Hanoi, it was a different experience. You must drink egg coffee in Hanoi. It is made by beating egg (yolk?) with condensed milk and adding it to coffee. It gives a creamy texture to the drink and this invention was, again, a compensation for the unavailability of cream French had to endure in Vietnam. They wanted cream in their coffee! A chef in Metropole hotel came up with this recipe. Don’t know if French found it adequate, but it is quite a rage in Hanoi. And it is super-sweet! It tastes nice, but if you ask us, it is more a dessert than coffee.


Excluding egg coffee, I, personally, didn’t like Vietnamese desserts that much. There are all kinds of sweet soups available, many of them hot.

The local cafes, many a times, may have no food (by design!), and serve only drinks. We discovered that to our annoyance one morning in Hanoi when were hoping to grab a quick breakfast before a tour started. It might even be a Hanoi-only thing because I don’t remember running into this issue before that. Fortunately, we found egg version of their Banh Mi sandwich in a roadside shop and it was pretty good.

When you sit in a restaurant, especially in a tourist area, mobile roadside vendors may walk in and peddle their wares. The restaurant staff doesn’t stop them or send them away. I don’t know whether those walk-in vendors are protected by some law, or by some remnant of communist customs. People investing in prime real estate obviously do not like this encroachment. One relatively fancy restaurant we had walked into had a notice requesting their customers not to buy from those vendors, as it will encourage them to come in more often and disturb everyone. But they had no notice for the vendors themselves asking them to stay away. Don’t know what to make of it, but I found this interesting.

Snippets from Vietnam Trip: Like and Unlike Cambodia

Since we had visited Cambodia last year and since it is Vietnam’s neighbor with shared French colonial and early communist history, it was inevitable that we kept drawing a comparison with Cambodia.

The Milk Problem

IMG_20171202_161658_BokehHere is the most notorious similarity. Like Cambodia, fresh milk seems to be missing in action in Vietnam. These guys are wedded to their sweet condensed milk. The famous Vietnamese coffee also comes with condensed milk (when it doesn’t come with egg, but we will come to that later). A guide in Vietnam explained the history of condensed milk. Apparently, milk has traditionally not been a part of Vietnamese diet, but when French colonized them, they wanted milk! Since no milk was to be had in Vietnam, they had to get it from France. And getting fresh milk all the way from France was just not feasible. Hence, they got condensed milk and Vietnamese (and Cambodians, presumably for the same reason) continue to eat condensed milk while the French might have reverted to drinking fresh milk back home!

We heard that now Vietnamese government is pushing to feed fresh milk to children in a bid to make them taller! Vietnamese are apparently the shortest people in Asia.

Misery vs. Pride

One of the biggest difference I felt as a tourist between Cambodia and Vietnam is that Cambodia’s modern history has resulted in a sense of misery and gloom there, whereas despite all the wars Vietnam has fought through the 20th century and the devastation it has consequently suffered, there is an optimism and pride there. Not without reasons. They had to fight one big power after another and they came out on top every time!

The economic condition of the local population in Vietnam is definitely better than that in Cambodia and Vietnam feels more like in India in that regard. A rising and well-off middle class, although beneath that shining layer there is definitely a lot of strife and poverty for the masses, just like in India. The result is that in Cambodia (especially in Siem Reap) spaces occupied by the tourists and the locals seem completely separate, with even the supposedly cheap tourist hangouts being beyond the reach of the local population. In Vietnam that is not the case. The tourists here find themselves sharing space with the locals at the tourist sites, restaurants, hotels, everywhere (and that is definitely more comfortable and natural).

Communism and Communism

IMG_20171202_141205456Vietnamese communist regime had its share of typical communist excesses, but it never became anything like Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. So, despite today’s capitalist economy, technically and politically, Vietnam continues to be a communist country, while Cambodia is not.

It is interesting that in Cambodia today, Vietnamese capture of Phnom Penh is called liberation. For Vietnamese, it was just a war with Cambodia!

The Linga Commotion

Shivalinga produces similar delight and elicits similar suggestive jokes from guides in both Cambodia and Vietnam. Presented as a curiosity it seems to work with most western tourists at both places.


As Indians, visiting any India-influenced historical site (especially Hindu ones) with local guides can be incredibly frustrating. They just don’t have anything to tell you beyond slyly pointing out what Shivalinga stands for! In Cambodia, we thankfully went to the temples with our own research and books. We even revisited the main Angkor Wat temple on our own later because the first visit with the guide was not satisfactory. But we didn’t take the same precaution while visiting My Son temples in Vietnam and we regretted that. My Son contains the most famous remains from the Hindu Champa kingdom, which ruled what is today Central Vietnam. They were ultimately destroyed by the Northern Viets who were expanding towards South. Mainstream Vietnamese today trace their history to these Northerners and the few remaining Chams are a small minority in far south. Multiple tour guides told us that Cham script was undeciphered. But their inscriptions have been transcribed and translated and used to write history books! So that can’t really be true.

We should also have kept time for Cham museum in Da Nang, which might have made up for the deficiencies of My Son tour. But somehow, I totally missed it while planning.

Da Nang, by the way, was a major American air base during the Vietnam war and perhaps features in most American Vietnam-war movies!