The best way I can see to describe the comparison is that China is the equivalent of America to Vietnams Western Europe. The scale of things in Vietnam seems tiny with small old streets, stylish architecture and small towns with a population of 100,000 being considered places of note. In China it is a tough challenge to find anywhere with a population of less than a million.
After two months in China Vietnam is a refreshing change, the streets are full of independently owned little stores and in my 10 days here so far I have only come across one American chain, that being a single KFC in the capital of Hanoi. This is in stark contrast to Nanning, my last destination in China, which had an ultra-modern, oversized high-street featuring three KFC’s and four MacDonald’s, as well as a selection of Chinese chains including Dico’s and Best Foods, besides food there were many clothes shops like Converse, Adidas and Zara. Even in the tourist areas of Vietnam I am yet to see any of these Western generic franchises.
Despite going through hundreds of years of wars, repression and turmoil the Vietnamese seem to show a general respect for the fellow man and respect each other’s space in a way which is unknown to the Chinese. The Confucianism and Buddhism which were introduced to Vietnam during the multiple Chinese invasions appear to be stronger and more prolific than they were in China. All homes and shops, and even some trees appear to have small shrines with incense burning and some form of garishly coloured statue. This may well be a completely different form of Buddhism but the general air of peace and respect would be very welcomed in any noisy Chinese restaurant.
Despite being poorer and less educated on the whole the Vietnamese speak quieter, don’t hock (if they really have to spit they just subtly drop it out), don’t push and don’t drop litter on the floor. It is hard to say what can make people as a whole act so differently I think the main problems in Chinese culture are that of the Cultural Revolution which seemed to be a period where everyone turned into barbarians and destroyed anything which represented anything of worth in culture and society. There is also a definite issue of overpopulation, because there are just so many people nobody seems to have any individuality and has to push and fight to be seen and heard. This makes queuing one of the most traumatic things to do in China. Nowadays the Chinese do respect their history, to the degree that they have banned films about time travelling lest they be inaccurate, but even in temples and pagodas there will be people shouting and dropping litter. When it comes to dynastic things with kings and temples China and Vietnam have a lot in common, it seems to be the French rule of Vietnam in the 19th century which has drastically changed the directions of modern culture. Or perhaps it is an ingrained sense of community which has evolved from going through so many hard times together against a common enemy.
There is much European influence in Vietnam from architecture and mannerisms to cuisine. Vietnam has its own unique coffee culture where, just as in France, the shops face the street for people watching. The architecture in general is very grand despite the country not being wealthy and having so much bomb damage in the Vietnam (American) war. I’m currently in Dong Hoi, a place that was literally flattened by the Americans but it has all been rebuilt with beautiful three storey buildings with grand spiral staircases lining long boulevards and painted in various shades of pastel. This effort and respect for where people life is very telling of the culture and can be compared to the hundreds of solid tower blocks being constructed on the outskirts of all Chinese cities keeping the people as you may keep livestock.
Although Chinese cuisine is world renowned, the good stuff can cost a lot and will only be in nice restaurants, what most of the common people there eat is generally bland noodle soups slightly varying throughout the country. Vietnam on the other hand, being mainly made up of the unwealthy have a variety of cheap eats from a light tasty salad to their own noodle soups which can be bland or can be really intricately flavoured. I am slightly biased against Chinese food because I got so many disappointing or unbearably spicy dishes. But the few times I went to nice restaurants the food was quite delicious, unfortunately my budget couldn’t cope with doing that too regularly though.
I look forward to moving on to Cambodia in a month or so and see how another different culture compares. I am so glad I chose to travel so slowly so I get to really understand the various societies and cultures, I think this is something that would be missed by spending two weeks in each country.