HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Thailand v. Vietnam

Now that my thoughts on Thailand are all nice and organized, I'd like to compare some aspects of the country with those same aspects in Vietnam. I saw three distinct regions of Thailand over ten days, and I think I got a pretty good sense of what the country is like, although my ideas are by no means comprehensive or authoritative. Some of these comparisons are somewhat trivial, while others are pretty significant.

There are kids everywhere in Vietnam, while there are noticeably fewer little ones in Thailand. This isn't exactly surprising - Vietnam is expected to crack the list of 10 most-populous countries in the world soon (it's currently 13th), while Thailand has a steady birth rate near the developed-world average - but it's a little strange to see. It will be interesting to see how these dramatically different demographic trends affect the economies of these two countries in the coming decades.

Both countries are full of dogs. They wander into restaurants, lounge in guesthouse lobbies, and basically just wander around aimlessly. In Thailand, most of the dogs actually look pretty normal and worth owning. In Vietnam, however, most dogs look like disease-ridden crossbreeds of seven equally ugly breeds. I've almost lost my appetite after seeing some of the dogs here, and it's a wonderful day whenever I see the rare pure-bred golden retriever.

Thailand is far more Westernized than Vietnam, probably thanks to the fact that the former's economy has been open to the world for much longer than the latter's. Also, Thailand gets millions more tourists a year than Vietnam. This Westernization is especially evident in the fashion of Thai teenagers and young adults. On the streets of Bangkok you'll see goth, punk, emo, and hipster styles that either haven't made their way to Vietnam yet, or are just starting to appear.

There are also Burger King, Starbucks, and 7-11 outposts all over the place in Thailand, while Western chains are still pretty rare in Vietnam, although that is changing fast. The first Domino's in Saigon opened a few months ago, and Subway will join the list tomorrow.

On the streets of Thailand you'll encounter two things that are totally absent in Vietnam - courtesy and patience (I'm not saying Vietnamese people aren't nice - most are lovely - but not when it comes to driving). When I first got to Chiang Mai I tried to cross the street the same way you do it in Vietnam, when I realized that cars were actually stopping to let me cross! In Vietnam traffic sort of flows around you, but you always have to be looking out for that one guy that isn't paying attention. When you're driving in Vietnam it is normal to get cut off every few seconds, viciously honked at, and nearly run into many times a day. Vietnamese drivers are extremely aggressive. They do not give way to anyone, including pedestrians, and the ability to honk seems to be second in importance only to the ability to breathe. If you hesitate at a light for a second you will be honked at approximately 476 times. In Thailand, people only honk if they are actually about to have an accident. You don't see anyone pulling the Vietnamese "AHHHH I'M DRIVING THROUGH AN INTERSECTION SO I'LL JUST LAY ON THE HORN THE WHOLE TIME!!!" On Koh Tao, I saw an oblivious Western girl blocking an alley with her suitcase. Three motorbikes were waiting to get by, and the drivers just sat there until she finally moved. No honking, no shouting, no running over. That would've been a totally different scene here in Vietnam.

Biggest Cities
I've been in Saigon for six months and I only spent 3 nights in Bangkok, but bear with me. Comparing the biggest cities of two countries is a useful way to gauge how the given countries are doing. While Saigon isn't the capital of Vietnam, it is at the forefront of the country's rapid economic growth and modernization. Bangkok is Thailand's primary city and by far its largest, whatever trends or problems are evident in the country will be evident in the city as well.

I'll say right away that Bangkok is far more modern than Saigon. If Saigon is 20 years behind Kuala Lumpur, it is probably 15 years behind Bangkok, which has a subway line and two Skytrain lines. (It will be a while before these systems reach every section of the city, but that's more than can be said about Saigon, where the first subway line won't open until at least 2015.) Cars are the main mode of transport in Bangkok, while motorbikes will rule the road here for the forseeable future. While Saigon has just one skyscraper, Bangkok is littered with them. Street food is everywhere in both cities, so eating well is easy wherever you go.

There are some other strange differences between the two cities. If you walk around Saigon at night you will see rats everywhere, but there are almost no homeless people. In Bangkok, the reverse is true: despite the general filth of some streets, I didn't see a single rat, but there are homeless people everywhere. I've yet to figure out the logic in all of that.

Vietnam's is better. I think there is more diversity in Vietnamese cuisine, and the flavor isn't as dependent on spice as Thai food. I do enjoy spicy food, but Thais go a little over the top sometimes. That being said, Thai cuisine does have a bit of a sweet side that isn't as prominent in Vietnam, and as someone with a dangerous sweet tooth that was a very enjoyable part of being in Thailand.

Con artists
This is probably a side affect of Thailand's much more advanced tourism economy, but it is much easier to get conned or scammed there than it is in Vietnam. I recounted my issues in Bangkok in a previous post, and I've never had anything like that happen to me here. Thai people were great, but you definitely have to be careful when you're in heavily-touristed areas. Hopefully that plague won't befall Vietnam as it becomes a more popular vacation destination, although I'm not hopeful. I should note that there is one place where scamming is common in Vietnam - the taxi line at the international arrival hall here at Saigon's airport. (I assume it's probably the same in Hanoi.) When I came back from Thailand, the drivers tried to rip me off bad. It costs 100,000 dong to get from the airport to my house, and the first guy wanted 300,000. I laughed and moved along to another dude, who wanted 250,000. I finally found a driver that said he would use the meter, and he did, dropping me off at home with exactly 100,000 showing. So, here is some practical advice - if you fly into Saigon, tell the driver to use the meter. If he absolutely refuses, it shouldn't cost more than 150,000-200,000 to get into the downtown area. Don't get ripped off, because they will just keep doing it if people keep falling for it.

So, those are just a few of the areas in which you can compare Vietnam and Thailand. The comparison isn't a perfect one: Thailand went through the stage of development that Vietnam is now in 15-20 years ago, so it is much more advanced in terms of infrastructure and other economic categories. Also, I may be a bit biased, considering how much more time I've spent in Vietnam. Nonetheless, as two of the biggest countries in the region, both are vitally important to the future of Southeast Asia. They are also hugely popular tourist spots, so I hope that, if any of you are planning on visiting, you gained something from this post. If not, then I apologize for wasting your time.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I have been to Saigon, and I absolutely loved it, but I am thinking about spending some time in Bangkok next year. This really helped me understand some of the differences, now I am really looking forward to going back to South East Asia!