City Life in the 21st Century Vietnam

All Vietnam’s urban centres, and especially Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, would be almost unrecognisable to someone returning to the country after a five year or more absence.

Some changes in city centres would be immediately obvious .......

More variety
The jumble of open shops spreading over the broken pavements, war-damaged buildings shored up or in ruins, and poky Vietnamese cafés and ‘bia hois’ have all but disappeared. In their place are smart new Western-style shop fronts displaying international products, chic boutiques, supermarkets, neatly paved walkways, and restaurants and bars offering a huge range of menus from all over the world.

Fin de siecle for the ‘cyclo’
In both cities, the famous Vietnamese ‘cyclo’, or bicycle taxi, ubiquitous in 1995, are dwindling to become tourist attractions, elbowed aside by the cheaper and quicker ‘xe om’ (motorbike taxi), and barred from main streets as a traffic hazard.

From bicycles to motorbikes to cars
Our imaginary visitor would also be surprised by the traffic – not so much the volume (Vietnamese city traffic has always been busy), but by the number of motorbikes, buses and cars. In 1998, bicycles outnumbered motorbikes by at least a factor of ten. Today, the positions are reversed. The growth in motorbike ownership has been exponential to the extent that local authorities are limiting registrations, and even stopping them altogether in the large cities.

Car ownership is also beginning to rise. Sales doubled last year, and luxury brands such as Mercedes, Lexus and BMW are becoming commonplace on city streets.

Public transport
The battered old buses, built on lorry chassis, belching smoke, and picking up passengers wherever they appeared, are now an endangered species. Most have been replaced by large fleets of spruce new vehicles painted in bright colours and stopping at regular bus stops.

Ridiculously cheap fares, clean comfortable seats, and frequent services have made them very popular – both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are rapidly expanding their fleets to ease traffic congestion.

The air services are expanding rapidly – Vietnam Airways is now a fully-fledged international carrier with a growing reputation for high quality and an excellent safety record.

Our imaginary visitor would feel more at home on the railways – although the trains are faster, it still takes thirty hours to travel from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, and the food is still awful!

Supermarkets are already beginning to eat into a consumer market previously dominated by a multitude of small shops. Roads are being re-laid, with new drains, pavements and ‘motorbike-friendly’ curbs. City authorities are beginning to experiment with turning some roads into pedestrian-only areas.

The decline of the street traders
Our imaginary visitor would soon notice that the number of women wearing a conical straw hat and carrying goods in baskets hung from a bamboo pole has dropped, and that there are far fewer pavement cafes. Faced with a situation of pedestrians being forced to walk in the road by parked motorbikes, street trading and other activities, the police force is now starting to enforce a long-standing (and long-ignored) regulation prohibiting blocking the pavement in some urban areas.

.....but some things never change!

What are traffic regulations, anyway?
Our visitor, confused by the shock of the new, would begin to feel more at home upon noticing that plenty of Vietnamese people still wander across the road without looking and ride their bicycles on the wrong side of the road (Vietnamese pedestrians and cyclists continue to believe that they are exempt from both traffic regulations and using their common-sense).

More noise than ever
The noise would provide further reassurance. Although bicycle bells and the thunder of antiquated lorries and buses have been transformed into a cacophony of motorbike and car horns, the streets remain a comforting bedlam.

Business as usual
Vietnam has always been a nation of traders. The venues and means of commerce may be unrecognisable to our visitor, but the activity itself is as prominent as ever – in offices, shops, on the streets – anywhere a deal can be struck. Computers may have superseded the abacus, and credit cards may be starting to replace hard cash, but negotiation, barter, bargaining and haggling is still a way of life throughout the country.

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