Wednesday, May 15, 2013

How to act like a local in Vietnam

The French have their berets, Russians wear their fur hats and Moroccans don the fez. In Vietnam, the conical hat is the head wear of choice. This sturdy, wide-brimmed topper is well suited to a country where rice farmers endure both fierce sunshine and pelting rain out in the fields.

Along with the Vietnamese traditional dress, it has become an informal national symbol. Vietnam is a fascinating country and a highly photogenic one at that. But beyond this - what lies beneath the conical hat?

Quite a lot, if you know anything about Vietnam's thousands of years of history. A hardworking people, their culture has been influenced by many civilisations: the native ethnic groups that once inhabited their land, the Chinese, the French, and most recently, the Americans and Russians. From all these outside influences, plus centuries of war and hardship, their culture has been formed.

Respect your elders, and your teachers, and everyone else too - this type of attitude is at the very heart of Vietnamese culture. While respect is also valued in Western society, the emphasis is more on friendliness. But it's the cornerstone of interpersonal relationships in Vietnam, whether that be within family, between friends or couples, or in an employment situation.

It's even reflected in the language used by Vietnamese in their daily lives. For example, while in the English-speaking world the word "yes" is used to express agreement and is generally neutral, a Vietnamese person has to choose between three different words to express agreement. In their reply to someone they may mean "yes, I am listening" or "yes, I am confused" or "yes, I do not want to offend." 

Saving face is an entrenched part of Vietnamese culture and no more so than in the language itself. Modesty and humility are closely linked to this attitude of respect.

And in Vietnamese culture, older people are deeply revered - unlike Western society, where age is often seen as a liability and youthfulness is celebrated.


Vietnamese Smile
Expressing yourself verbally tends to come naturally if you're a Westerner, however the Vietnamese prefer non-verbal communication for expressing certain feelings. The humble smile is one such non-verbal symbol - and it's used to convey the all-important attitude of respect.

For the Vietnamese, the smile is a proper response in most situations when verbal expression isn't needed or isn't appropriate. It can be used as a substitute for "I'm sorry", "thank you" or "hello" instead of a ready yes, as the Vietnamese like to avoid appearing over-enthusiastic.

Because Vietnamese society places significant value on stability in social interaction, relationships tend to be very close. The Vietnamese have strong feelings towards their extended family, ancestors, home village and country.

As they believe they must treat their forebears well, many people practice ancestor worship. The building of shrines in homes and burning incense for their deceased family members is common among Vietnamese. They are also very superstitious, believing certain things must happen on certain occasions, or their family will have bad luck.

The Vietnamese love a good chat and can be very candid when discussing their lives. For instance, when chatting to a local, you might be surprised to discover that many topics that are regarded as personal or confidential in Western culture are openly discussed in Vietnam. 

You may be asked about your age, whether or not you're married, whether you have children and how much money you earn.

It might be different from Western society, but then again, it's all about getting beneath the conical hat.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam offers escape from humdrum city life

For the first time in months, I concentrate on breathing the clear fresh air, relax and feel my tense muscles unclench. Finally, I can hear myself think and am alone, surrounded by nature and centuries of evolutionary miracles.

Trekking Cuc Phuong National Park
Such a welcome break from the buzz of Hanoi. The sound of birdsong disturbs the silence. That's right, complete silence. Such a welcome break from the buzz of Hanoi. No motorbikes, no horns, no market vendors yelling, no drilling. Just complete and utter silence.

I have come to Cuc Phuong National Park, after a 90 minute motorbike ride from Ninh Binh City. After leaving the city, the road winds its way through small villages surrounded by rice paddies. Soon the houses give way to more rice paddies, interspersed with stunning limestone karsts. The landscape is very similar to the karst formations of Northern Vietnam's Ha Long Bay, yet, due to its in-land location, obviously lacks the marine features of its coastal counterpart.

Cuc Phuong national park
Cuc Phuong is Vietnam's oldest national park and was established over 50 years ago. The scenery that unfolds before my eyes is breathtaking, and the calls of insects, birds, and primates lure me into the dense forest. On walks I explore the park's extensive trekking trails, listen to the mystical sounds of the jungle and visit some of the villages in the area, where I could see some of the traditional stilt houses, agricultural tools and, luckily, musical performances by some of the region's ethical minority groups.

The park is also home to some of the region's most successful conservation centres, where injured and confiscated animals from the wildlife trade are rehabilitated and prepared for their re-release into the wild.

Visiting the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre was my highlight, and I spent close to two hours watching over 100 primates of over 15 different species of gibbons and langurs play, feed and nurture their young. At the Turtle Conservation Centre close to 20 different turtle species that have been rescued from the wildlife trade are housed and bred, and possibly will be re-introduced into the wild eventually.
Endangered Primate Rescue Centre
As most of these species are endangered, the conservation centre also functions as a place of education and provides vital information about the key turtle species in Vietnam. For example, did you know that it can take up to 30 years for a turtle to hatch from an egg, mature, and procreate? The life cycle of these stunning creatures is unbelievably slow, and sadly the high demand for turtles (as pets or meat) is devastating turtle stocks across Vietnam.

Cuc Phuong National Park - mushrooms
The Small Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Centre next door is home to some of the most endangered small mammals in Vietnam, such as the Owston civet or leopard cat.

After visiting all three centres and learning about the natural heritage and biodiversity of Vietnam, I walked back to my lodge contemplating the beauty of it all: the landscape, the conservation efforts of so many dedicated individuals and organisations, the fascinating species of animals and plants that are unique to this part of the world, and our role of humans within it all.
Faced with such spectacular surroundings, I felt very small. Standing there, alone, in the middle of thousands of years of evolutionary processes, I couldn't help but wonder what the future would bring – would we as humanity manage to come together to preserve our natural beauty, or would we continue in our path towards destruction and extinction? I guess only time will tell.

Thousand year old tree
However, I can say for certain that Cuc Phuong National Park is a wonderful place to escape to and provides the perfect backdrop for profound thoughts and musings about life.

You can book a trekking tour to explore Cuc Phuong National Park though travel agencies in Hanoi. I can recommend an adventure tour operator I knew, ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA. They offer adventure tours at Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, including hiking and trekking, biking, motorcycling and family travel packages.
You can refer Trekking Cuc Phuong National Park Tour via:

Friday, May 10, 2013

Exploring the largest floating market in Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Apart from Cai Be and Phung Hiep, Cai Rang in Can Tho City is one of the three most popular and biggest floating markets in the Mekong River Delta. It is a great place for tourists in Vietnam  to enjoy exciting atmosphere during the early morning market hours.

Cai Rang Floating Market

The Cai Rang Floating Market, the largest wholesale floating market in the Mekong Delta, starts around 05:00 and runs until around midday, meaning that you’ll have to get an early start to the day if you want to visit. Most tour boats along the riverfront leave between 05:00 and 07:00, so if don’t make it to the water by then you’ll have a hard time finding a tour.

The market is about six kilometres from Can Tho, or about a 30-minute boat ride. While floating down the river, you will glimpse life along its shores. You’ll pass vibrantly painted boats anchored along the shore, merchant vessels carrying loads down the river and houses built on stilts over the water.

Cai Rang float market, Vietnam
Once you finally reach the market, it’s an impressive site. A stretch of boats selling all variety of goods lines the river. Not really a place for souvenirs, people come here instead to buy large quantities of goods, mostly foodstuffs, and you will get an idea of what water commerce in the Delta looks like. Your guide on the boat will usually give you tidbits of information about Cai Rang as you weave through the hordes. You’ll learn that boats identify what they are selling by hanging a sample off the top of a long pole; if you want pineapple, simply scan the horizon for a hanging pineapple. You’ll also get the opportunity to interact with some of these floating merchants; most commonly this happens when a small boat selling drinks latches onto the tour boat’s side.

Many kind fruits are sold
 During the early morning market hours, larger sized boats anchor and create lanes that smaller boats weave in and out of. The waterway becomes a maze of hundreds of boats packed with mango, bananas, papaya, pineapple, and even smuggled goods like cigarettes. 

Sellers do not have to cry out about their goods because their goods can be seen in a distance and their cries would not be heard in the vastness of the river and the noise of boat engines. Small boats that sell beer, wine and soft drinks go among the other boats to serve market-goers and visitors in Vietnam travel. Sellers tie their goods to a tall pole so that buyers can see from a distance what they are selling. 

Each boat is loaded with plenty of seasonal goods. Activities at the market are also an occasion for tourists to study the cultural aspects of southerners. You can see the market in the distance; it does not look like much, just a mass of boats. The boats all display their wares on a mast so you can see what they have available.

Exploring Mekong Delta
Coming to Cai Rang Floating Market, you can join a tour of the Mekong Delta. Several tour operations can arrange tours combine adventure activities like biking to explore Mekong Delta. I’d recommend you an adventure travel  company I knew, ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA (ATA).   In this special trip, ATA ride through beautiful areas of lush fruit orchards, endless paddy fields, lively floating market and busy canals.

If you are planning travel in Vietnam and to vist Can Tho City, let’s take a 30 minute boat ride to the market. You will be actually awake and enjoying it! You will find it very peaceful floating down the river in the early morning and you will feel how great the floating market is!