Anyone who travels the length of Vietnam will notice many changes that occur from one region to the next. From landscape to language, climate to culture, etiquette to ethnicity: the list is long and fascinating. Whether you’re a traveller, an expat, or even a local, one of the most interesting aspects of travelling through Vietnam is observing and experiencing these changes. In the past, some regional differences evolved into divisions, leading to animosity and, in some cases, conflict. But today, although there’s still plenty of healthy and (mostly) good-natured rivalry between regions, Vietnamese and foreigners alike are embracing the different characteristics of southern, central, northern, coastal, highland, urban, and rural Vietnam. I’ve always enjoyed noting down the changes, whether superficial or significant, that I observe when travelling the length of the country.
Maybe it’s something to do with cold mornings during the winter months, but life seems to start later the further north I travel. In Saigon, the Mekong Delta and along the southern coast, the streets and markets are busy long before the sun has risen: life and activity starts from at least 5:00am. But, the further north I go, the later the hour becomes. I’ve been for morning runs at 7:00am in some northern towns, and there’s still very few people in the streets. At this time in the southern towns, I’d be dodging people, vehicles and cattle. When I travelled in India it was the same: life started earlier in the tropical south than it did in the temperate north.
Because Vietnam is such a long and slender country, the northern days are longer in the summer months and shorter in the winter; whereas, in the south, there’s not much more than half an hours’ difference in the length of the days from summer to winter. Personally, I love the high summer days in the north, because it reminds me of the lingering dusks of British summers, where I lived until I was 22 years-old.
- Coffee, Tea & Tobacco:
For me, tea gets better and coffee gets worse as I travel from south to north. Tea in the south is often served iced: the classic southern tea is a tankard of wonderfully aromatic jasmine tea, with a large chunk of ice. This is just what you need in order to cool down on those hot, sultry, southern days. As I travel north, especially through mountainous regions, tea is served warm, tepid and (sometimes) hot. The varieties change too: artichoke, lotus and pandan leaf in the southern Central Highlands, and strong, bitter green tea in the north-central provinces, for example. But, whenever I travel south to north, I’m always anticipating my first glass of chè lá tươi – fresh leaf green tea. This is a large tea leaf that, as far as I understand, has not gone through any drying or oxidation process. The tea leaves are steeped in hot water in large metallic tea pots (often in beautiful woven bamboo tea cosies) and served warm in a glass. The flavour is citrusy, tangy, and flowery. It’s like no other tea I’ve tasted. For many years, the flavour and smell of chè lá tươi defined the north for me. From the mountains north of Hue onwards, fresh leaf green tea is the default variety served in roadside shacks and tea houses. Even the word for tea changes in the north: trà becomes chè.
Corresponding to the change in temperature of the tea, is the presence of thuốc Lào, literally ‘Lao tobacco’. In mountainous regions of central and northern Vietnam, you’ll see men inhaling the powerful vapours through bamboo pipes that make a whistling sound. While in the lowlands they prefer cigarettes, the highlanders prefer the pipe. I’m not a smoker, but I’ll take the deeper aromas of thuốc Lào over a cigarette any day.
Coffee is good, strong and plentiful in the south, but becomes increasingly scarce and lower quality as I travel further north, with the notable exception of Hanoi.
Sit down for a street-side meal in southern Vietnam and you’ll be provided with soft, absorbent tissues (usually toilet paper in a plastic box) to clean your cutlery and wipe any sauce from your mouth and fingers. However, at some point as I move northwards through Vietnam, these soft tissues are replaced by paper squares, which are entirely non-absorbent and only serve to push spillages from one area to another. These paper squares are comically useless at performing their function, but for me they’ve become a indication of reaching ‘the north’.
- Alcohol: Beer & Rice Liquor
A sure sign of going north is rice wine (better described as rice liquor). The southern alcoholic drink of choice is beer, more specifically, lager. Vietnamese brands, such as 333, regional giants, like Tiger Beer, and bog-standard Western ones, such as Heineken, are ubiquitous in the south. But venture a little north, especially into the highlands, and it’s not long before beer mugs are replaced by shot glasses. A notable exception to this rule is bia hơi – known as ‘fresh beer’. This weak but daily-brewed beer is found predominantly in the north: on a recent south-to-north road trip, I started seeing bia hơi drinking dens from Hà Tĩnh Province onwards, which is in the ‘neck’ of Vietnam. There are also plenty of mass-produced lagers from northern provinces, such as Hanoi Beer and Thanh Hoa Beer.
However, lager and bia hơi are but thirst-quenchers with an alcoholic kick when compared to the explosive (literally in some cases) qualities of rice wine. Made from fermented sticky rice (among other things) and often infused with exotic ingredients, such as herbs, flowers, and animal organs, rice wine is almost as common and widely consumed as tea is some parts of the northern highlands. It’s not unusual to find a bottle of clear rice liquor (rượu) on the table at breakfast eateries in the countryside. On many a road trip I’ve been drunk by 7:00am, thanks to hospitable drinking companions over a bowl of breakfast noodles. Rice liquor has deep cultural roots – much more so than beer – and a long tradition of being brewed in people’s homes. It’s still possible to stop by the road and purchase the home-brew of random farmhouses in the middle of nowhere, thus bypassing the (often pretty awful) branded varieties. It’s hit-and-miss, but I’ve had some fabulous ones in the past, the best being a cloudy rice wine with a pale yellow colour, infused with wild jungle flowers, in a homestay in Thanh Hoa Province.
- Accent & Language:
Of all the differences between south and north, accent and language is the most obvious. As a student of the Vietnamese language (and a rather slow one at that), I find it fascinating listening to the accent change as I move northwards from Saigon to Hanoi. But it’s not only pronunciation that changes: some words – everyday words – are completely different in the north. The list of examples is long, but some of the ones you’re most likely to encounter include: bowl (south=chén, north=bát), pork (south=thịt heo, north=thịt lợn), soy sauce (south=nước tương, north=xì dầu), spoon (south=muỗng, north=thìa), air-conditioning (south=máy lạnh, north=điều hòa). Naturally, there’s much grumbling among southerners and northerners about which words are ‘correct’.
The first change in accent that I notice is around Phan Rang on the southeast coast. From here to Quy Nhon, ‘a’ is often pronounced ‘e’. Some say the accent in this region may be a legacy of the ancient Indianized Kingdom of Champa, whose major cities were located in this area. Around Quang Ngai and Quang Nam on the south-central coast, ‘a’ is often pronounced ‘ô’. From Danang to Hue and the rest of the central region, the ‘i’ is much shorter and definite, and the final sounds of some words are clearly pronounced, whereas in the south the final sound is usually silent. By the time I reach Dong Hoi and the Western Ho Chi Minh Road in north-central Vietnam, the accent is becoming very ‘northern’, with its distinctive ‘zzzz’ sounds and shorter, clipped pronunciation, giving it a much more staccato rhythm compared to the long and whining sounds of the southern accent. I also notice that this northern accent comes sooner in the highlands than on the coast: by the time I reach Prao, almost dead centre in Vietnam, the ‘zzzz’ sound is already common. I like the challenge of trying to adapt to the regional accents as I pass through the country, although the further north I go the more frustrating it becomes, as more and more people find it difficult to understand my own, apparently, southern accent.