Looking back some time later, what are going to be my abiding memories of Vietnam?
In general, I will retain the sense of wonder at the variety to be experienced in a country which although long and narrow, is only as big as the UK. I won’t forget the the swirling traffic ballets of the huge cities providing the initial culture shock, with the cheek by jowl mix of wealth and poverty and street living. The political system is memorable: the national Communist government definitely rules, and no one can stand for election above city or district level. Even so, the people are allowed to indulge in capitalist ventures which gives them a sense of freedom, attributed to Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary struggles to unify Vietnam to which he dedicated his life. This has led to a burgeoning economy, one of the fastest-growing in SE Asia, and you only need to check where lots of outdoor clothing is made to see the proof of this. A real sense of enterprise, hard graft and providing polite and speedy service helps e.g. clothes altered in 10 minutes flat, tiny laundries providing overnight service for next to nothing in our terms.
The underbelly of this means development is not always sustainable, like the thought of millions of cars replacing the millions of scooters in smog-laden overcrowded cities. Even the UNESCO World Heritage site of Halong Bay was sadly polluted. Sapa too was originally an idyllic mountain retreat, but now is in danger of over-development, and I counted eight cement mixers passing to and fro during one evening meal in a restaurant. We obviously were not shown exploitation, but one wondered about children standing apparently alone on a dark evening …
In contrast, the utter peace of say Mai Chau, or Halong Bay at night, the beauty of the ao dai traditional outfits worn by young and older women, and the silk lanterns in their thousands will all linger long.