Vignettes of Today's VietnamVietnam is one of the few remaining tourist destinations where the natural beauty is outstanding and the people are kind. There is a Vietnamese proverb that says "a man is worth more than ten treasures." This attitude of deference for human life is belied by recent history and the chronic poverty that the country faces, making it a land of inherent contradictions. With its stunning but war-scarred landscape and population of what seems like people of infinite patience, Vietnam is becoming an increasingly popular tourist port of call. In spite of the many hardships that the Vietnamese have faced in the past, such as colonization by China for over 1,000 years, colonization by the French for 200 years and of course, the war with the United States, they remain down-to-earth and honest.
Once a socialist country, Vietnam is now in the process of changing to a free-market economic system. This began when the sixth national convention called for doi moi, economic reform. Since then, ordinary Vietnamese as well as the government have been active in efforts to revitalize the country's economy and the tourist dollar plays an integral part in this plan. The tourists have, naturally, obliged, visiting the exotic country in droves.
One of the most disturbing aspects of visiting this country is the prevalence of children begging in the streets. Show kindness to one and you will be inundated by others coming out of what seems like nowhere, pressing upon you, shouting "dong, dong." Sometimes children on the street temper shouts for "dong" with requests for "bonbon" by which they mean candy. With the U.S. dollar now worth about 14,000 dong, the country's monetary unit, the fact of the beggars is discomfiting but symptomatic of the woes of a country struggling to throw off its poverty without a clear consensus as to whether its development path should be along socialist or capitalist lines.
Below are some things that almost every Korean traveller to Vietnam will encounter. They constitute only some of the highlights of this small but fascinating country.
Ho Chi Minh City
There are more than 2.5 million motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, which is home to 5 million people. Another 1 million bicycles and 400,000 cars add to the din and hustle on the streets, creating a spectacle that characterizes a city in the throes of development. In the streets, the lack of traffic signals means cars and pedestrians often get entangled and loud honks from motorcycles at the intersections fill the air. But there is something apart from noise and disorder in these streets. The Vietnamese people, like fish in water, manage to find their way easily through the hectic conditions without showing any signs of discomfort or annoyance. There is seldom a dispute between people who collide on the street or a remonstration from an angry pedestrian. The ability of the people to stay relaxed and easy-going may even prompt visitors to wonder why they no longer have a "laissez-faire" traffic system at home.
Highway No. 1
Highway No. 1, a two-way, two-lane freeway, connects Ho Chi Minh City in the south and Hanoi in the north. This 2,300-kilometer highway is the country's main traffic artery and could be compared to Korea's Gyeongbu expressway. Cars on Highway No. 1 are, however, hindered from making speedy progress like the cars on the Korean expressway as they have to share the road with lurching motorcycles piled high with passengers, carriages pulled by horses or oxen and farm boys with herds of cows in tow. It takes about 10 hours to travel the 480 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang, a sea resort on the south-east coast. Cars that speed up in between obstacles are forewarned by cars traveling the opposite direction about policemen around the corner with flashing headlights.
The chief merit of the highway is its wonderful views, especially around sunset. Heading north at sundown, drivers are treated to a sunset on the left and the surging waves of the sea on the right. Tall eucalyptuses and other gum trees and tropical palm trees litter the landscape. The views are so captivating that the slow movement of the traffic becomes a blessing, allowing you to take in the sights. On the east coast of Vietnam, from Halong Bay in the north to Nha Trang and Phan Thiet in the south, are resorts of global fame. They attract over 2 million tourists every year.
The Golf Courses
"Doi moi" has affected the golf clubs in Vietnam as well. There are as yet only seven golf courses, but they're earning a lot of tourist dollars. The East Course of the Vietnam Golf & Country Club in Thu Duc resort, near Ho Chi Minh City, was designed by Lee Trevino, a legendary golfer. The Ocean Dunes Golf Club which belongs to the Novotel Hotel on Phan Thiet beach, was designed by Nick Faldo and was included in Golf Digest's 10 best golf courses in Asia last year. It costs about $80 to enjoy a round of 18 holes on either course, including the rental fee for clubs, green fee, caddy tip and transport to and from the hotel.
It appears Korean tourists have managed to make a bad name for themselves on Vietnamese golf courses. According to one caddy at the Thu Duc resort, a few months ago a Korean golfer beat his caddy for losing a golf ball. There were also reports of Korean golfers betting up to $50 on a single shot. This ostentatious display of wealth has not endeared them to Vietnamese caddies, who make as little as $100 per month. It is perhaps best to restrain yourself from such acts out of tact and sensitivity to the impoverished local people.
Ao dai is the traditional Vietnamese female costume. Although it covers the wearer from neck to heels, it is often closely fitting and many find it very attractive. Ao dai is made using just two sheets of hemp cloth and every one is tailor-made. It has a slit called an eo that runs down each side of the body from the waist. It is worn with a pair of hemp slacks. Ao dai is not only the national costume, but is also used as a uniform for middle-school and high-school girls. A distinctive sight in Vietnam is that of a woman speeding past on a motorcycle, wearing a white Ao dai. It reminded me of the graceful Isadora Duncan.
Vietnam Airlines offers 12 different tour package programs to the country every month. Call 02-775-7666 for reservation or 02-775-8053 for tour package arrangement(English service is available).
by Lim Yong-jin