(The photo is of my roommate from Beijing in a bar in his hometown near Hanoi)
My stay in Vietnam lasted about a week. I spent most of it in or around Hanoi. Before going there, the main thing I knew about Hanoi was that it is absolutely packed with motorbikes, and this is the first thing which strikes most visitors. My expectations were not disappointed. Indeed, most of the inhabitants seem to be equipped with a scooter, which they use to carry around virtually anything. What I didn't expect is that most of them do actually wear helmets, because it is now mandatory to do so and fines are given to those who don't comply. My Vietnamese roommate from Beijing came to pick me up at the train station with his own little motorbike. With an experience which comes from years of practice, my roommate (who is about 1.60 ms. tall) stuck my large suitcase on the front of his motorbike, me on the back, and sped off trough the bustling streets of the capital, dodging other motorbikes in every direction. After taking me on a tour-de-force through Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum (which is no less magnificent and displays no less reverence than Mao's one), the museum of Ho chi Minh and a few other famous sites, my friend (whose name is Hien) took me to his home, which is in a small town outside Hanoi. The little town immediately struck me as the "real" Vietnam, lacking the touristy atmosphere of central Hanoi. Although the country is obviously quite poor, I did not see any desperate poverty of the kind one finds in the shantytowns of India or Latin America.
Vietnam's culture is traditionally very influenced by China's, setting it apart from neighbouring countries like Laos or Thailand, which have been more influenced by India. The influence is very obvious in the temples of Hanoi, which display the Chinese characters which Vietnamese used to be written in. However, I found that the country's atmosphere is still relatively different from China's. The economy is far less developed (although in Hanoi nice cars and fancy shops are now in evidence, and I didn't visit Ho Chi Minh city, which is supposed to be bigger and more developed), the pace of life seems more laid back, and the people are also significantly shorter than the Chinese, especially the Chinese from the north. My roommate from Beijing seemed much less short among his own kind! Another thing which struck me was the large number of government propaganda posters along the streets, displaying a typical "Soviet block" kind of style, which has now fallen out of fashion in China.
After staying a night in my flatmate's town and a few days in Hanoi, I visited Halong bay with an organized tour. (I usually abhor organized tours, but in this case it seemed the simplest option, given my lack of time and total ignorance of Vietnamese). Halong bay is the most famous natural wonder of Vietnam, a bay with thousands of little islands in different shapes and sizes. I spent a night on a boat in the bay with a small group of other tourists. The bay was indeed beautiful, although it was also absolutely packed with foreign tourists, and we never spent a moment without various other boat loads of tourists in sight. I also tried my hand at kayaking for the first (and perhaps last) time in my life. The guide's English was characteristically incomprehensible. Although a higher proportion of people seem to know a bit of English in Vietnam than in China (or at least in Hanoi than in Beijing), they seem to have even more difficulty than the Chinese in pronouncing English words and sounds, and it is often a real challenge to understand what they are trying to say. Or perhaps I have just got used to the Chinese accent.
On my last day in Hanoi I went out with some local Esperanto-speakers. The ones I met were very young and surprisingly fluent in Esperanto. One of them, a 21 year old university student originally from the Vietnamese countryside, had only studied the language for six months but spoke it extraordinarily well and clearly, especially given the Vietnamese's seeming inability to speak and pronounce foreign languages. Another proof of the relative ease of Esperanto, I suppose.
In the photos below you can see, in order of appearance, a street from my roommate's hometown, government propaganda posters in Hanoi, a woman with a traditional hat in central Hanoi, and a view of Halong Bay from my ship's deck: