China Vs Vietnam
A well-traveled friend recently asked my take on the difference between Vietnam and China.
What’s the difference between any two countries? The United States and Mexico? France and Italy? India and Pakistan? It seems that the moment you cross a political border, you enter a new culture.
Of course, it’s likely that the language, or at least the dialect, will be different. But the differences often go well beyond that, which is what makes traveling this region so rewarding.
Vietnam and China have separate and distinct languages. Both are tonal, but Vietnamese uses six tones while Chinese only uses four. Being a Vietnamese speaker helps very little, if at all, in China. And, most Chinese I’ve met in Hanoi struggle to speak English with their Vietnamese hosts instead of using Mandarin to make themselves understood.
The written language is also different. Both Mandarin and Cantonese use Chinese characters, whereas Vietnamese uses a modified Roman alphabet, similar to English.
English speakers have a relatively easy time making themselves understood throughout Vietnam. But you’ll have much more difficulty finding anyone in China that will speak to you in English.
Both countries teach English in their schools, but it seems that most Chinese youngsters know few, if any, words beyond a simple “Hello” and “How are you.” It’s different in Vietnam. Whether it’s the curriculum or the quality of the educational system, it seems that more Vietnamese children can speak full sentences in English than we’ve ever heard in China.
China has an excellent railway system that serves just about every population center in the country–far surpassing the train system of Vietnam. Chinese roads are better, too–wider and generally better maintained. Motorbikes rule the road in Vietnam; automobiles outnumber motorcycles in China.
However, for ease of travel, it’s much less complicated to get around in Vietnam, where English is understood by more people and special buses (designed with tall Westerners in mind) offer extra legroom and cushioning.
China offers few concessions to foreigners, while Vietnam works hard to accommodate them. It’s easier to get around independently in Vietnam; many Westerners prefer to let a tour operator help them see China.
Food is generally fried in a hot wok in both countries and eaten with chopsticks. While the ingredients may be similar, the preparation sets them apart.
Overall, China is much more prosperous than Vietnam. Its cities are newer with more gleaming skyscrapers than you’re likely to find anywhere in Vietnam. Modern subway systems in the major cities make getting around easy. China’s booming economy has been on an upward trajectory for several years. Meanwhile, Vietnam’s growth has been in spurts, hampered at times by high inflation and other complications. It will take Vietnam a few years to catch up to its powerful neighbor to the north.
The people of Vietnam tend to be polite, almost to a fault. Rarely would a Vietnamese person ever raise his voice in anger to another, or even confront a person directly. People are so polite that they avoid being on a first-name basis with anybody, even their family. Mother, Father, Mrs. Wendy, Younger Sister, Brother Number Three are all proper terms of address in Vietnam. Even speaking in the first-person is avoided. It’s more polite to say “This older woman would like to buy some bread,” rather than a simple “I’d like to buy some bread.”
The Chinese tend to be much more outspoken. That’s not to say that they aren’t polite people (they are). But it isn’t uncommon to overhear an argument or to happen across a fight following a motor vehicle accident. Although direct verbal confrontation is generally avoided in China, people tend to be more direct in their expression.
Vietnamese people display an uncommon curiosity with foreigners. They are genuinely interested in who you are, where you come from, and what your life is like.
In China, people tend to be more aloof. It’s not uncommon for a Chinese person to stop in their tracks to stare open-mouthed at a foreigner, going as far as to take a photograph of you without your permission, or even worse, to pull your hair to see whether it’s real or not. I’ve never experienced this in Vietnam.
If you come to Asia, it’s well worth it to visit both countries. You’ll see differences in the most unexpected ways and find that Asia is much less homogenous than you might think.
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