Loads of motorbikes, a God of the kitchen and a currency called “dong”! Discover our 10 fun and interesting facts about Vietnam.
“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.
2. Motorbikes are EVERYWHERE!
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:
4. A unique coffee made with egg
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 favorite 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:
5. Vietnam is The 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 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!
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!
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!
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:
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:
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”.
11. Halong Bay: the largest limestone island ecosystem in Asia
The name’s Long… Halong. And on top of being the setting of two James Bond movies, I am also a UNESCO listed attraction located in northeast Vietnam.
Though as impressive as those Bond films may be, we are definitely much more interested in looking at the history of Halong Bay. The entire area comprises about 2,000 limestone karst islands, making it the largest limestone island ecosystem in Asia.
It is thought that the limestone has undergone 500 million years of formation. In comparison, the karst has come into existence over a mere 20 million years. The islands are named after their shapes, which is absolutely hilarious when you think about it. Seriously! Two of the most notable ones are Stone Dog and Teapot!
But once you set eyes on the bay, all semblance of laughter washes away due to an overwhelming sense of awe at the emerald waters surrounding these rocky, rainforest-topped marvels.
12. The Ace of Spades means Death!
It’s easy to understand the horrors of war from a logical standpoint. However, it’s a whole different story when you learn about some of the mental games played on the battlefield.
For instance, during the Vietnam War, American soldiers would place the ace of spades on deceased soldiers’ bodies because they believed that the card was a symbol of death in Vietnamese culture. Their end goal was to scare their enemy troops to gain an advantage over them.
And while the ace of spades did not actually have significance to Vietnamese people when the mental torture began, it definitely made its impact by the time the war ended.
In fact, regardless of the effect on their enemies, American soldiers held onto the ace of spades as a morale boost. Some even wore the card in their helmets as a sign of strength and intimidation. And that is precisely how one playing card was transformed into a bad omen!
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.
13. Drink snake wine to boost your health…
Now, we understand if this fact raises a couple of questions, so we’re starting from the very beginning.
Snake wine is an alcoholic drink that can be produced in one of two ways: 1) a whole venomous snake is submerged into a jar of alcohol, where it sits for a few months until totally infused, or 2) a live snake has all of its blood and bile drained into a glass of alcohol.
The first records of this wine come from China, but the practice has moved into Vietnam over time. Venomous snakes are considered to possess medicinal properties that can cure many illnesses. Naturally, those same properties transfer into the wine made from their bodies.
Aside from helping with sickness, it has also been said that drinking snake wine can improve virility, so… if you’re in Vietnam (because it is illegal to export this boozy concoction) and feeling adventurous, why not give it a shot?
14. Hang Son Doong: the largest cave in the world
Do you remember that scene in Coco, where Miguel and Hector are celebrating at the bottom of that beautiful pit? What if we told you that setting can be found in real life?
Hang Son Doong is the largest cave in the world by volume, and it contains two dolines where the ceiling has collapsed. While there are many spectacles to behold throughout the cave – like the underground river, the gigantic stalagmites and the calcite barrier known as the Great Wall of Vietnam – we believe these dolines are the best places to explore.
Over the years, sunlight has been able to travel inside the cave and allow gorgeous trees and other forms of vegetation to grow.
What’s truly astounding about Hang Son Doong is that new discoveries are still being made. In 2019, researchers found that the cave might be even larger than first thought because its river connects to another neighboring cave called Hang Thung.
15. Water puppetry: a 1,000-year-old folk art
If there’s one thing that we gays know best, it’s the performing arts. So, imagine our absolute glee when we traveled to Vietnam for the first time and discovered the wonders of water puppetry!
The art of water puppetry first originated in the Red River Delta area of northern Vietnam during the 11th century. When the rice fields became flooded with water, nearby villagers would gather to entertain each other by making intricate wooden puppets dance across the wet surface.
Nowadays, tourists can find these classic shows either on portable tanks used for traveling performances or inside of buildings built with unique stages capable of taking on a small pool of water.
Suppose you can only do one thing while visiting this wonderful country. In that case, we highly suggest watching these well-versed artists act out the traditional legends, lore and history of Vietnam.
16. The Golden Bridge: held up by The Hands of God!
Just like our beloved Ari, we do believe that God is a woman… and that she has some finely manicured hands!
If you’d like to witness these giant, enchanting hands for yourself, then take a trip to the Sun World Ba Na Hills amusement park in Vietnam. Since its opening in 2018, the golden bridge has become a viral sensation due to its captivating support system.
Though the bridge is intended to help visitors find their way between the gardens and the cable car station within the park, it has honestly turned into an attraction of its own. The hands were crafted from fiberglass and wire mesh before being designed to look like stone. Plus, a ton of work went into the fine details of making the hands blend in with the surrounding forest.
Not only have people found spiritual connections with the design of the bridge, but they have rightfully hailed it for being an architectural masterpiece.
For more, watch our Vietnam travel video:
For more inspiration:
- Read more about backpacking in Vietnam
- Learn about what it's like to grow up gay in Vietnam in our interview with Quan from Saigon
- Then check out our gay city guide to Saigon, aka Ho Chi Minh City
- Find out which are the most gay friendly countries in Asia
- For further travels, have a read of our gay guide to Bangkok
- As well as our gay city guide to incredible Tokyo
- We also have a two-week itinerary for first-timer visitors to Japan
- Find out why Bali is one of our favourite Indonesian islands
- For more idyllic islands, here's our gay guide to Koh Lipe in Thailand
- And a guide to the hidden gem of Koh Adang
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Happy travels are safe travels