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
Here 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
Vietnamese 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!