10 interesting facts about Vietnam you didn’t know

Sebastien Chaneac

“Guys, take my hand, stay together and slowly cross the road. Just don't stop or go back. Walk with confidence and all the traffic will work around you. Trust me it's super safe!”

“Are you f*****g kidding me?” I said to Stefan…

Yet our friend Quan was right. The chaotic and seemingly neverending traffic of Saigon and Hanoi all seem to work together in this sort of messy ‘union'. It's overwhelming for first-timers. I can tell you I was terrified out of my skin at the prospect of crossing the streets of Saigon when we first touched down Vietnam. But you quickly realise it's absolutely fine…like our friend Quan told us, start walking slowly, but with purpose, and all the traffic just negotiates its way around you!

Crazy traffic aside, we loved Vietnam. As a gay couple, we loved how welcoming we were made to feel at the hotels we stayed in. There's even a large LGBTQ community in the main cities with a handful of queer hangouts to check out. As foodies, we couldn't be happier.

Vietnam is one massive culinary adventure, from the rich “pho” broths of Saigon to the yummy “cao lau” noodle dishes of Hoi An and the delectable tiramisu-like “egg coffees” of Hanoi. We pretty much ate our way from the bottom all the way to the tip of this unique S-shaped country in Southeast Asia. Read more about the delicious foods of Vietnam in our blog post about our favourite traditional foods of Vietnam.

The gay scene and tasty prizes aside, Vietnam also has a rich cultural heritage, with its first independent monarchy dating back to 900 AD, a period of French colonialism from 1850-1945 and a subsequent period of division when the North and South became divided into two opposing rival states. Since reunification in 1976, Vietnam has evolved into a crazy, fascinating and above all else, thrilling destination in Asia. We loved it and would zip back in a heartbeat!

Here's a flavour of precisely why we fell in love with Vietnam set out as our 10 fun facts which we learnt about it during our big trip.

1. The unique S-shape of Vietnam

Our personal favourite interesting fact about Vietnam is its S shape. Not only because we love our funky shaped countries (like the ones that resemble glamorous high heels – Italia), but because it honours both our first names: S for Stefan, S for Sebastien and S for S-shaped Vietnam!

When you think about it, it's actually quite a remarkable shape for a country, long and thin, just like Chile in South America. The top of the narrow S curve starts in the North with the capital, Hanoi, bordering China, and Laos in the West.

The S then trails down passing Hoi An, Hue (both must-see cities for any traveller to Vietnam!), sharing a border with Cambodia to the West and a long narrow coastline to the East with the South China Sea. The S then curves out at its southern tip which is where you find the economic and transport hub of Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City (also referred to as “Saigon” locally).

And that also sums up our month-long trip through Vietnam! Beginning with Saigon, we flew up to Hanoi, visited the famous limestone cliffs of Halong Bay, then headed to the central region to explore Hoi An and Hue, before returning back south to the bustling Saigon.

Vietnam map shaped like the letter S
Vietnam is shaped like the letter S

2. The Kingdom of Motorbikes!

We really weren't kidding about the hectic traffic in Vietnam, particularly the abundance of motorbikes. In Vietnam, motorbikes are everywhere, hence it's nickname: The Kingdom of Motorbikes

To give you an idea, the population of Vietnam is almost 100 million. According to Vietnam's Ministry of Transport, there are almost 60 million motorbikes in the country and only 2 million cars. This is largely down to cost and practicality. Owning a car is incredibly expensive because the tax is around 100-200%, so it’s a luxury reserved for the very wealthy. The tax for motorbikes is far cheaper, making it a more affordable means of transportation for everyday folk.

Motorbikes are also a handy way to get around, particularly in the tight narrow streets and tiny alleyways. They're also much easier to park than cars.

Interestingly, Vietnam is the country with the 4th highest number of motorbikes after India, China and Indonesia. But with all the air pollution and traffic congestion this all causes, where is this heading? Well in 2017, the government announced it will ban all motorbikes in the capital, Hanoi, by 2030 and invest more in public transport, such as a Sky Train, much like the ones in Bangkok and Vancouver.

And the bit above about how to cross the road in Vietnam? Check out our video to give you an idea:

3. Crossing your fingers is super rude!

You hoping to pass your grades at school…you cross your fingers for luck! I pray Stefan won't take 3 hours to get ready for our next date night, so I cross my fingers for luck…you get my gist…

…not so in Vietnam!

Do not, I repeat, do NOT cross your fingers to a Vietnamese. It is seen as an obscene gesture, akin to raising your middle finger and saying “F*** You!”

We're not quite sure why the word is so offensive to the Vietnamese, but one thing's for sure – avoid crossing your fingers like this when in public to avoid any unwanted confrontation:

Quan showing us rude finger sign
Quan showing us this rude Vietnamese finger sign

4. Vietnamese coffee!

We're both coffee addicts, especially Stefan who can't seem to function as a normal human being until he's had around 6 cups of coffee…

Coffee in Vietnam (called ca pheI locally) is actually serious business. Just like many countries in Latin America, Vietnam is a huge exporter of coffee beans. It is, in fact, the world’s second-largest coffee-producing nation after Brazil, producing 16% of the world’s total coffee (Brazil’s is 40%).

As well as exporting it, the Vietnamese also love to consume it and have accordingly developed a rich culture for consuming coffee. The most common is through a small metal drip filter called a “phin cà phê”, which is then served (either hot or cold) with condensed milk used as a sweetener.

The most unique way of drinking coffee in Vietnam, and possibly one of our favourite ever coffees we've ever tried is the famous egg coffee of Hanoi. You read right – the “ca phe trung” is served with egg yolk whipped into the condensed milk. It originated in the 1940s when milk was scarce and egg yolks provided a convenient replacement. It's also delicious – like going face down in a mini cup of tiramisu as Stefan so eloquently put it:

Stefan trying delicious egg coffee in Hanoi
Honestly, I can't take him anywhere!

5. Queen of the cashew

Vietnam is the world's largest exporter of cashew nuts, producing 37% of the global number. Cashew is big business here, hence why we added it to our list of interesting facts about Vietnam. In 2018, the country produced 339,700 tons of cashew nuts worth $3.09 billion, exporting mainly to the US, China and the Netherlands.

Interestingly, the cashew nut itself is, in fact, the seed that grows at the bottom of the cashew fruit unlike other nuts which grow inside of the fruit. The cashew's fruit is called a “cashew apple” and is super healthy, containing five times the amount of Vitamin C found in oranges.

Final cashew fact: November 23rd is National Cashew Day!

Cashew fruit and nut
A Vietnamese cashew fruit and nut

6. Ong Tao the Vietnamese god of the kitchen

Vietnam is the only country we know of that has its own deity for the kitchen! His name is Ong Tao or “the Kitchen God”!

According to legend, Ong Tao makes his appearance just before the Vietnamese New Year (Tet) festival, which is usually in mid-February. During this time he rushes up to heaven to give his annual report to the Jade Emperor (the King of Heaven) on the activities of the family, which determines the fate of each household in the new year.

But spare a thought for poor old Ong Tao who doesn't have much money to buy new clothes, so he simply goes around clad in a long robe and shorts. Another legend claims he wears a robe because he's always rushing around and forgot to do up his trousers properly!

Ong Tao the Vietnamese kitchen god
Ong Tao is the Vietnamese kitchen god

7. Introducing the breast milk fruit!

If you like exotic fruits as much as we do, then you'll be in paradise in Vietnam. Every trip to the local fruit market is like a new adventure, always with a new discovery whether it's rambutans, langsats, mangosteens…and the breast milk fruit!

We're not kidding. Vietnam actually has a legit fruit that translates to “milk from the breast” (“vu sua”) in Vietnamese. The actual name for it in English is “star apple” because when you cut it in half horizontally, the segments form a star-like shape.

We tried the star apple from a street seller in Hoi An and found it to be juicy and sweet. As you continue to peel and eat away at it, a few white milky drops dribble out, which explains the analogy to breast milk!

Breast milk fruit: the star apple
Discovering a new fruit: breast milk fruit, also known as a star apple

8. White skin is considered perfection

In the West, we tend to regard tanned skin as the “ideal” – usually, a sign of wealth because you've just come back from an exotic holiday. We love it so much, we have the culture of tanning and going to sunbeds. Not so in Vietnam! Here, the exact opposite applies.

In Vietnam (and across much of Asia), white is considered the ideal skin colour. Having tanned skin is frowned upon as a sign of being a labourer working hard in the sun. As a result, whitening products are big business across the country and many even have expensive surgery to make their skin paler!

This is perhaps most striking at the beaches. We visited An Bang beach near Hoi An (another must-do tip from us!) and this was a common sight…ie women completely covering up to avoid the strong sun rays from tanning their skin:

In Vietnam white skin is prized, so it's common to see women all covered up on the beach to avoid getting a tan!
A Vietnamese woman completely covered up at An Bang beach near Hoi An

9. Vietnam currency is called dong!

This made us giggle like little school girls a lot!

As soon as we found out the name of the Vietnamese currency, our childish humour took over and we wet ourselves laughing. We instantly knew this would be added to our list of fun facts about Vietnam.

Apologies to any Vietnamese who may be reading this, but to see why, check the Urban Dictionary’s more explicit meaning in English slang and you'll see why!

On a more serious note, and to nicely link to our final interesting fact about Vietnam, currency collecting geeks (like Stefan) will find the dong quite fascinating. The currency will feature one of the most famous ever Vietnamese, Mr Ho Chi Minh:

Stefan with Vietnamese dong
Stefan enjoying Vietnamese dong: the latest addition to his currency collection

10. Everyone is called Nguyen, even uncle Ho

Ho Chi Minh and Nguyen (pronounced “win”) are the two most common names you'll see everywhere in Vietnam.

Nguyen is the most popular family name in Vietnam, used by around 40% of the population. It is also the birth name of one of the famous Vietnamese: Mr Ho Chi Minh.

Ho Chi Minh is highly revered in Vietnam. He led the fight for independence against the French and the Japanese in the 1940s. Subsequently, during the Cold War years, he was regarded as such an important symbol of unification. So much so that in 1976 when the country was reunited, Saigon was formally renamed “Ho Chi Minh City”.

Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh aka Uncle Ho
Travel advice for LGTBQ community

Advice for LGBTQ travellers to Vietnam

Vietnam is a gay friendly destination. As a foreigner, you will be treated with immense respect by the Vietnamese. We never had any problems getting a double bed in the hotels we stayed at. Whilst society is still quite conservative, we found the Vietnamese to be one of the most gay friendly in Asia. This is not surprising given they've never had any anti-gay laws and have progressive laws for people with HIV/AIDS, which includes anti-discrimination and free health care. Read more in our interview with Quan from Saigon about gay life in Vietnam and also check out our comprehensive gay guide to Saigon.

For more, watch our Vietnam travel video:

 

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Our 10 interesting facts about Vietnam

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Sebastien Chaneac

Sebastien is the co-founder, editor and author of nomadicboys.com. He is a tech geek, a total travel nerd and a food enthusiast. He spends the majority of his time planning Nomadic Boys' travels meticulously right down to the minute details. Sebastien has travelled to over 80 countries with his partner in crime and the love of his life, Stefan. He regularly shares his expertise of what it’s like travelling as a gay couple both on Nomadic Boys and on prominent publications ranging from Pink News, Matador, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian and many more. Originally from France, Sebastien moved to London in the early 2000s where he pursued a career as a computer programmer for Thompson Reuters and Bloomberg. He subsequently left it all to explore his passion for travelling around the world with Stefan to hand, and thus Nomadic Boys was born. Find out more about Nomadic Boys.

27 thoughts on “10 interesting facts about Vietnam you didn’t know”

  1. My brother was in the Vietnam War. A veteran of that war. I learned alot at that time about the country of Vietnam and it’s History . I wrote to many serviceman at that time. They sent me Xmas cards and jewelry they sent me jewelry box they sent me Vietnam Dong Money they sent me Asian Dress but I certainly outgrew that pretty quick. I actually composed a book of that war and all the letters and tough memories of that Era. But I also learned alot about Vietnam. I also had a pen pal from Indonesia at the same time I was corresponding with, it was a
    very special time in my life
    that, I will never forget . I really thank those that educated me about Vietnam with there pictures and letters. I really appreciated it. Cynthia🐶

    Reply
  2. hi, thank you for sharing all this amazing informations, i have a small question please, is renting a bike safe enough for a family with two kids?
    thank you

    Reply
  3. Hey fellas,
    You have helped me so much with my planning for Vietnam. I prefer to spend my money towards gay or gay friendly establishments. Thanks for hooking me up with Rainbow Tours and The Pink Tulip. I’m hoping to book a tour to Halong Bay. Love my straight people, but to have a tour catered to gays is very special.

    Reply
  4. I love the list, guys! Keep ’em coming! Very interesting and useful trivia. It gives us an overview of a country or a culture presented in a brief and fun (and funny) way! The dong made me laugh! I never thought of it that way until you guys mentioned it 🙂

    Reply
    • Ha ha ha thanks Lindsay! Yes yes – he makes his appearance during the Vietnamese New Years celebrations apparently 🙂

      Reply
  5. Awesome facts – I wasn’t aware of the breast milk fruit one! There were so many kids in our classes with the same names in Hanoi, plenty of Nguyens. They had this song about Ho Chi Minh and photos of him in the schools and classrooms – they really do love him.

    Reply

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