Vietnam and Cambodia: A study in surprising contrasts


Fashioned of recycled broken glass and ceramics, the Linh Phuoc pagoda (more photos just below) is decidedly bizarre, making Gaudi’s creations in Barcelona seem banal by comparison.

Please forgive my naïveté about having recently discovered some differences surprising to me between Vietnam and Cambodia in view of, or despite, the two nations’ tangled history, which I will ignore here.

After my return early this month from spending nearly two weeks in Nha Trang, Dalat and Saigon (which I prefer to the official “Ho Chi Minh City”), I saw for myself how Vietnam has changed in the dozen or so years since my previous brief visit.  It also proved impossible to avoid comparing Cambodia with the progress its more populous neighbor has made.

Regarding cultural distinctions, I had been warned that the Vietnamese would refuse to be helpful. Indeed, there was one bus driver who made a point of ignoring me when I asked in English and sign language whether another local bus with a different route number also stopped where he was.

But he was a minority of one.  I saw that virtually every Vietnamese returned a smile, even on the occasions when I inadvertently bumped into one of them.  Their sense of humor also shone through as it did when I negotiated (poorly) the price of half a kilo (1.1 pounds) of cashews: I ultimately purchased them from the good-natured vendor for $5.60, $1.12 below the asking price.

thumb_P4030850_1024When I ordered noodle soup in a sprawling restaurant open to the street, the waitress pleasantly added three condiments without asking, including chili and fish sauces plus one unknown to me, so that I ended up with the best version of pho I have yet to ingest.

As opposed to Vietnam, Cambodia is legend for its smiles (as is Thailand).  Yet Phnom Penh has a quarter the population of Saigon and I suspect that our relatively small amount of urban tension makes for easier smiles in the capital, and certainly elsewhere, than in most other nations.

Saigon traffic

The crush of motorcycles in particular makes crossing streets a daunting experience.

Then there’s the traffic in Saigon.  Although we have a swelling horde of motorcycles and motor scooters in Cambodia, the density of them that swarm Saigon’s streets dwarfs what we have here.

Crossing a road in Saigon requires steely nerves and unparalleled watchfulness, significantly more than in Phnom Penh.  I remember having to venture into a roadway there in the past with faith that the traffic would give way and that I’d make it to the other side uninjured.  But today’s volume requires prayerful passage at corners, on crosswalks or simply mid-block with a daring possessed by the locals.  The process works, but the occasional motorbike or I had to stop short or veer with disarming frequency.

A friend of mine who was in Vietnam at almost the same time as me had reported that she and her companion vainly tried to walk 15 minutes to their destination during the rush period and ultimately surrendered to a taxi.  It took them well more than an hour to arrive even that way, though we bravely — or blindly — managed to travel on foot efficiently and safely during the same hours.

Saigon sidewalk

Even with all of Saigon’s motor vehicles, there usually is space preserved on the sidewalks for pedestrians, unlike the impenetrable mass of cars and motos that force us to walk in gutters here.

Such a volume of traffic occurs here rarely — for example, when the police block roadways to make way for a high government official or on the cusp of major holidays, of which there are three among many somewhat lesser ones.

Another difference has to do with electricity.  We in Cambodia import most of our power from Vietnam and pay a hefty price for it.  (In my apartment building, we are charged 25 cents per kilowatt hour.)  Because businesses also pay dearly, most are parsimonious about lighting.  As a result, shop interiors, storefronts and thus streets can be noticeably dim in Phnom Penh. Not so in the the touristy parts of the Vietnamese cities that I visited.

I also was struck by the cleanliness of the streets and sidewalks, plus the virtual absence of street urchins and homeless Vietnamese, no doubt because the government puts everyone to work.  In Cambodia, beggars crowd the relatively few intersections with traffic lights urging strung flowers on the occupants or ineffectually dusting cars.

The most compelling contrast outside Saigon that I saw between the two countries concerns agriculture.  On the four-hour bus ride from Nha Trang to hilly Dalat, we passed lush fields of rice (which is said to be inferior to Cambodia’s) and farms with a variety of fruits and vegetables.

In and around Dalat, vast expanses of greenhouses and cultivated fields mean to me that big business predominates in Vietnam’s agriculture, while Cambodia appears to depend in large part on family farming.  I am no expert, so perhaps my impressions are incorrect.

On the ride from Saigon back to Phnom Penh, most of what we witnessed were parched fields with the exception in some areas that boasted mango trees and other vegetation that I was unable to identify from our nearly seven-hour comfortable bus ride.

Much of the produce that we consume here is imported from Vietnam and Thailand for reasons attributed to their better weather, irrigation, reliance on chemicals and knowledge of modern farming methods.  So the boxes of fresh sweet strawberries, mounds of artichokes, piles of red tomatoes, heaps of avocados and hillocks of bright green Chinese peas dazzled me in Dalat’s market.

Many here are suspicious of the additives that other countries use in agriculture, so organic produce is beginning to catch on slowly along with an enduring strong preference for locally grown fruits and vegetables.  Although chickens and cows tend to be free-range or imported feed otherwise spare, the range is so unproductive that their flesh is thin and tough.

Aside from the Crazy House and what I term the “crazy monastery” pictured toward the top, my most vivid memory of Dalat was my 2,167-meter (1.35-mile) hike to the peak of Lang Biang mountain. Although I got lost in the pine forest on the way up, it proved to be a rewarding experience that perhaps I’ll detail in a future post.


Almost under Elephant Falls in Dalat after a treacherous climb down.

Nha Trang is a beach community that is favored especially by Russians.  I wanted to scuba dive there and spent only $75 for a half day out to decide once and for all whether I wanted to continue that activity.  I learned that 1. there isn’t much to see in Nha Trang’s waters, or wasn’t only during that outing, and 2. I can live without making a point of diving anywhere again.

Nha Trang offers other pleasures.  Among them were 1,000-year-old ruins (Po Nagar Cham Towers in the photo above), a temple with looming large Buddha at the top of a hill, a tacky night market, many expensive seafood buffets, and a nice beach, which was virtually empty on our first full day, when the skies were overcast and the air chilly.

I found the Saigon of today to be virtually unrecognizable from the city I last saw in the 1990s.

Where there once were family-owned shops on modest streets gleaming towers loom brightly. A long pedestrian mall complete with dancing water fountains between skyscrapers (Citibank among them) is at the city’s core.  The Rex Hotel — from which roof bar war corespondents famously covered not-so-distant bombing during what is called in Vietnam the “American War” — now boasts a Starbucks on the ground floor.


The Bitexco Financial Tower dominates Saigon’s skyline.

Among the three buildings that I recalled from the last time I saw Saigon were the Opera House and the memorable structure that now houses some of the government’s administrative offices.  If anything is more telling about the change, it is the inescapable construction of a subway in the area whereas we in Phnom Penh have nothing more efficient than limited service with second-hand buses on three routes.

Another street (Dong Khoi) is reminiscent of Madison Avenue in New York City.  In addition, we stumbled across two and a half modern shopping malls with high-end fashions (Valentino, among them) and other products, the half being one so new that some of the shops have yet to open.  While Phnom Penh has a couple of up-to-date malls, they seem to be used mainly for family outings in air conditioned comfort, not purchases.

Even in the remote event that the announced construction of a $1 billion, 133-story building actually gets going and completed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia clearly has a long, long way to go in contrast to Singapore, Malaysia and, of course, Vietnam.  It is a pity, no?


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