Anyone who travels the length of Vietnam will notice many changes that occur from one region to the next. From landscape to language, climate to culture, etiquette to ethnicity: the list is long and fascinating. Whether you’re a traveller, an expat, or even a local, one of the most interesting aspects of travelling through Vietnam is observing and experiencing these changes. In the past, some regional differences evolved into divisions, leading to animosity and, in some cases, conflict. But today, although there’s still plenty of healthy and (mostly) good-natured rivalry between regions, Vietnamese and foreigners alike are embracing the different characteristics of southern, central, northern, coastal, highland, urban, and rural Vietnam. I’ve always enjoyed noting down the changes, whether superficial or significant, that I observe when travelling the length of the country.
- Manners, Etiquette & Hospitality:
In the south, people are extremely hospitable, warm and open to foreign travellers, much more so than in the north. But this friendliness and openness can, occasionally, be overwhelming. Sometimes southern hosts are so excited about their foreign guests that their hospitality runs to excess. Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a wonderful characteristic of southern people, and an encounter with southern hospitality is a highlight of many travellers’ experience in Vietnam. But the point I want to make is that, in the north, hospitality is more restrained and formal. As a guest, I feel more comfortable with the latter. With northern hospitality, in my experience, I’m less likely to be forced to drink until I can’t stand up; and, because speech is clearer (i.e. not slurred), I’m more likely to be able to follow what’s going on.
Dogs are a common sight all over Vietnam: whether pet dogs, guard dogs or dogs bred for consumption, you’re never far from a canine in Vietnam. I’ve always noticed that dogs in the north are more sedate, well-fed and healthy-looking than those in the south. This seems strange, as they are also far more likely to be on the menu in northern Vietnam.
- Roads, Riding & Driving:
Road conditions get worse as I ride north. This is mainly because of the terrain and weather conditions in the northern half of Vietnam. Mountains, valleys and rivers mean that almost every northern road is a network of passes, hairpin bends, dykes and bridges. Harsh winters and summer typhoons mean that landslides and flooding often wipe-out large sections of road. Potholes and mud are common, and progress is much slower than in the south.
Northern drivers have a tendency to honk their horns more than southerners, and basic road rules are more commonly disobeyed in the north than the south. One of the most obvious of these is skipping red lights. Nowadays, in Saigon, drivers do actually stop at red lights and wait for them to turn green before shooting across. But, in Hanoi, a red light is still treated as a suggestion rather than a rule. Drunk and reckless driving is a problem all over Vietnam, but in northern areas it seems much worse to me. Perhaps this explains why there appears to be a larger traffic police presence in the north.
- Aromas & Perfumes:
There are certain smells that define the north for me. One that stands out is a vine leaf, often referred to as betel leaf. Used for cooking in many northern dishes, the scent of this aromatic green leaf fills the air as I ride further north, especially in mountainous regions. The fragrance brightens up grey, misty days on the Ho Chi Minh Road north off A Luoi, for example. Another common smell in the north is the sweet scent of rice alcohol, which fills many a roadside eatery and permeates the air in highland villages. And I have already mentioned the citrusy tones of fresh leaf green tea.
- Weather & Climate:
There are many climatic differences between north, south and central Vietnam, which I have written about here. But, aside from seasonal differences, I find weather to be simply more unpredictable and changeable as I move northwards. North of Hue, regardless of what month I’m travelling, each day consists of multiple weather conditions. Hot, cold, humid, dry, wet, windy, overcast, clear – there seems to be no pattern to it, and I never know what to expect.
There’s more of a sense of history as I travel north. From old farmhouses and stone walls to temples, shrines and citadels, the past is more tangible in the north. And I like this very much.
- Street Food:
Street food is not as ubiquitous in the north as it is in the south. In southern towns, no matter how small or how far off the beaten track they may be, there are always plenty of street food vendors lining the roads in the early mornings and late afternoons. This is not the case in small northern settlements, where street food is less readily available. This is especially true in highland villages. On a recent south-to-north trip, I noticed the lack of street vendors first around A Luoi. And, even when there are lots of food outlets, the variety is not as rich as it is in the south. I remember arriving in Huong Khe, a town on the Ho Chi Minh Road in north-central Hà Tĩnh Province, at dusk. I was excited to try all the bustling street food stalls, but, on closer inspection, most of them were selling the same thing.
- Guest Houses:
The quality of local nhà nghỉ (guest houses) deteriorates as I reach central and northern Vietnam. In the south and the Central Highlands, $10 gets you a very clean, very nice room in a family-run guesthouse; in central and northern provinces, standards and value for money are (in general) not as good. This is mostly the case in the mountains or in off-the-beaten-track towns, rather than in large cities. However, the beds get harder as I travel further north, which I consider a good thing.
- Rice, Noodles & Meals:
I love eating at cơm bình dân – cheap, local rice eateries. In the south, these places usually offer at least a dozen different dishes from which to choose. But, as I travel north, cơm bình dân offer a set menu instead, consisting of whatever happens to be in season. I like this idea, and the quality of the food is often excellent.
At local rice eateries in the north, rice is served from a big, communal bowl at the centre of the table, and then eaten from a separate small bowl, rather than on plates, which is more common in the south. Rice is stickier, tastier, and more fragrant, and there’s more of it compared to the south. Because it’s stickier, diners eat rice with chopsticks, not with a fork and spoon as they do in the south.
Phở, the famous beef noodle soup, gets richer and better along the coast and delta regions as I travel north. However, in the mountains, the phở gets more watery and, in some cases, pretty darn bad.
- Fish Sauce:
The essential Vietnamese condiment, fish sauce is served with (or in) every meal, whether in southern, central or northern Vietnam. But, the further north I go, the more likely I will be served salty fish sauce, as opposed to sweet or sour fish sauce. I prefer the salty variety because it’s a purer form of fish sauce, and it goes really well with plain steamed rice. But it should also be noted that northern cooks sometimes dump a spoonful of MSG in the fish sauce, to give it a ‘fuller’ flavour.
- Flavours & Ingredients:
Sweet and spicy are fundamental elements of southern and central cuisine. But, as I move northwards, there’s more saltiness and sourness to the food. Pickles are common, and certain herbs and leaves are used in northern cooking that I rarely find in southern dishes. Aromatic vine leaf (often referred to as betel leaf) and dill are two of my favourite examples.
- Rip-offs & Overcharging:
Although it gives me no pleasure to say this, overcharging of foreigners is much more prevalent in northern provinces than southern. This has been sadly true of all my trips between Saigon and Hanoi. Of course, having lived in Vietnam for 11 years, I’ve come to expect and (in some cases) accept a certain amount of overcharging. But the regularity of it in the north is a constant source of irritation and sheer disappointment to me. Everyday purchases, such as water, food, and even gasoline, often result in being ripped-off. In most cases, the amounts are small and insignificant, but I don’t like setting a precedent for other travellers by accepting the rip-off, so I tend to argue with the proprietor (as politely as possible). Many a time in the north have I sat down to a fabulous meal and, afterwards, the experience is ruined by an absurd bill. And so I have to make sure that, before any meal or drink, I ask the price before consuming it. This is tiresome, but it’s the only way to prevent being constantly overcharged.
Architectural features that seem particular to the north are pitched roofs and turrets. From Dong Hoi onwards, many ordinary townhouses sport pitched, tiled roofs; some of them are at such an angle that they form little turrets. Southern rooftops, on the other hand, are either flat or gently sloping. Perhaps the pitched roofs have something to do with the influence of the astonishingly elaborate ecclesiastical architecture in northern provinces. Some of the churches – even in remote, rural villages – are fantastically overblown: Disney-esque creations of fairy-tale turrets, domes and decorative flourishes to rival the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. Take a look at some examples here.
People are more likely to wear full-face motorbike helmets (with visors, chin and jaw protection) in the north. However, I suspect this is as much about keeping warm during the cold winter months, as it is about safety.
In the northern countryside, many farmers, laborers, and the general population, wear the green or camouflage army surplus overalls and pith helmets, that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a Vietnam War movie.
There isn’t quite as much ostentatious display of wealth in northern towns and cities. Fewer people flaunt new technological gadgets, don fashionable clothes, wear expensive jewelry, roar past on superbikes, or cruise around in luxury cars. This could be simply because people have less money in their pockets, or it could be the old stereotype that northerners save while southerners spend. Certainly, when I fly between Hanoi and Saigon, the latter is, on the surface at least, much more affluent: it’s bigger, busier, shinier, and people are ‘better dressed’. But this could just be the facade of conspicuous consumption that characterizes 21st century Saigon.
- Landscape & Countryside:
Going north has always been about going higher: there are more mountains, and there’s more mystery, in the north. Central and northern landscapes are often characterized by limestone. Whether in Ninh Binh Province, Ha Long Bay, Pu Luong Nature Reserve, the remote northeast, or on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road; limestone karsts define the northern landscape. This is the scenery that I always look forward to, and this is the landscape that captures the Western imagination more than any other, when dreaming of exotic, tropical Asia. On any trip from south to north, the first sight of a limestone mountain covered in jungle is a thrill.
Although WiFi and 3G is readily available absolutely everywhere in Vietnam (well, almost everywhere), the connection is less reliable as I travel north. Because I tend to spend the early mornings and evenings writing up my guides online, I’m often frustrated by bad connections while travelling. However, each time I travel the length of the country, the connections are better and stronger than the time before.
Travelling the length of the country is when I’m most aware of the ethnic diversity that exists in Vietnam. This is especially true in mountainous regions, where most of Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups live. Even without much knowledge of the more than 50 ethnic groups currently residing in Vietnam, it’s easy to see the difference in facial features and, in some cases, dress. (Anyone interested in discovering more about this might like to look at Tim Doling’s book, Mountains & Ethnic Minorities.)