Why does one travel? For many, it’s an opportunity to relax and unwind from the stresses of everyday life. For others, it’s the chance to taste new cuisines and experience new cultures.
For some, it’s the opportunity to meet new people and experience their daily lives.
I recently returned from an extended period of travel that included a significant amount of time in South Korea and Japan. These two countries might share the same continent as Vietnam, but their differences are evident, particularly regarding their economies and tourism. Japan consistently welcomed over 10 million more tourists than Vietnam pre-pandemic and both countries boast GDPs that comfortably dwarf Vietnam’s.
Ultimately, the experience of travelling in Vietnam is extremely different compared to these two countries. At times it appears that officials here fail to recognize that tourists visiting Vietnam often recall the chaotic, unpredictable and frenzied nature of the place as the most memorable elements of their trip.
This is particularly timely due to Hanoi’s recent “sidewalk order” reemerging, attempting to clear the pavements of vendors that sprawl into the streets. Tourists are fascinated with witnessing the daily lives of Vietnamese people, which play out in front of them as they cook, socialize and relax directly outside their homes. Often the lines blur between home and business, but that’s part of the allure.
On a similar note, despite the dangerously close proximity between pedestrians and the track, Train Street in Hanoi has long been considered a leading tourist site in the capital. However, its future as an attraction for visitors is in doubt with regulations repeatedly being introduced.
The sprawling nature of everyday lives on the sidewalks might not lend itself to sparkling clean streets, but it creates a social environment full of surprises and unexpected interactions. Although I greatly enjoyed my time in South Korea and Japan, I felt this was lacking, particularly in the major cities such as Seoul, Busan, Osaka and Tokyo. Although you find raucous behavior and bundles of life within the exuberant hubs of barbecue restaurants and sake karaoke bars, often the streets are bereft of activity compared to Vietnam.
Dawn in Hanoi will be welcomed with a cacophony of noise and a range of smells as the city comes to life. Contrastingly, in these East-Asian countries, it is very still with just the occasional runner’s footsteps breaking the silence. I couldn’t believe my first morning walking the Seoul streets at 8 a.m. to discover an absence of activity.
The two East-Asian countries pride themselves on their cleanliness, with levels of recycling and waste management that contribute to the empty streets. This significantly contrasts with the limited efforts of Vietnam. Throughout my time in Japan and South Korea, I was stunned by the orderliness and surveillance on this matter. Several expatriates living in Seoul that I spoke to recalled visits from apartment security guards and local police for failing to follow guidelines. In fact, according to a recent article in the New York Times, penalties for noncompliance are 1,000,000 Korean won ($785) and rewards for those who report violators reach up to $235. Whereas in Vietnam, an option for a cutlery-free takeaway on delivery apps is about the extent of their effort to reduce waste and single-use plastic.
I recall a conversation with an elderly Japanese gentleman I had during my time in Kyoto. He had recently visited Hanoi and Thai Nguyen and was extremely excited to share his thoughts with me when he discovered I had lived here for many years. He was a very composed and considerate gentleman, but his eyes lit up with excitement and a great sense of wonder as he remembered the streets of North Vietnam. “Such a great smell from the restaurants as I explored” and “it was so busy and full of life every hour of the day” were two memories in particular that stayed with me. He went on to highlight the dirtiness of the cities, which seemingly surprised him compared to well-kept Kyoto. However, a momentary attack on the nostrils was forgotten as he had experienced what we all hope to feel when we travel. A sense of wonder. A snapshot of daily lives. A serendipitous moment that stays with us forever.
Yes, Vietnam could be safer. Yes, it could be cleaner. But we should be careful what we wish for. Cities like Hanoi encompass so much of what one desires when we travel, I say we should embrace that and enjoy the ride. It will likely make for more memorable moments and spontaneity along the way.
*Darren Barnard is an English teacher in Vietnam.