Thursday, August 18, 2011

Yunnan vs. Vietnam: A Comparison

When traveling in a new country for the first time one can't help drawing comparisons between their host country and the one they're coming from.  Crossing the border from my current home in Vietnam into China's southwestern-most province, Yunnan, here are just some of the ways the two differ.

Local Transportation
As much as I love the freedom of riding my own motorbike in Vietnam, it can get tiresome having adventures everyday when all I'm trying to do is go pick up some milk.  Those that never take the risk of driving on their own hire xeoms, which is fine if you don't mind having to negotiate your bike fare five times a day.  Kunming, Yunnan's capital, is about 50/50 cars and electric bikes.  The buses are clean both on the inside and out, so E-bike riders don't feel the need to guard themselves from massive black clouds of exhaust emissions.  Also, both the buses and E-bikes do something that they never do in Saigon.  They stay in their lanes.  In fact, thanks to a more orderly traffic system you can enjoy many activities in Kunming that you can't in Saigon such as "walking on the sidewalk", "listening to birds" and "not having a migraine".  Honking is discouraged by a digital sign that reports the overall decibel level in the area.  The one transport Saigon comes out ahead in however, are taxis which are cheaper than in Kunming and easier to acquire. Verdict: Tie.  Because motorbikes are almost fun enough to make up for getting lung cancer in your 20's.

Regional Transportation
In Vietnam, you can rent a motorbike for $5 a day and go anywhere.  Collateral?  Don't need, just pay up front and they'll assume the best from you.  Travel is practically limitless.  Take any road you want, stop whenever you want, flirt with any village girl you want.  If you'd like to travel in more comfort, the train line hits up all of the major destinations from Sapa to Saigon and if you're felling particularly cheap than you can always go from place to place by bus on less than $10 a trip.  In Yunnan, you'll be lucky to get a bicycle rented for $5, and luckier still if all the gears work on it and there's a mud guard on the rear wheel.  Do you want to travel to a nearby town?  Better check the bus schedule and not miss the last one out.  Any "hidden gems" you may have heard about are only reachable by renting a car and driver and are guaranteed to be souvenir lined a week after some tourist posted about it on their blog.  Bus trips between cities within Yunnan often cost about $40. Verdict: Vietnam.

[Did I mention that buses are infested with cranes?]

Yunnanese food is delicious if you like chili oil and peppercorn.  And if there's not enough MSG don't worry, just put a couple of spoonfuls of that white powder that's next to the soy sauce.   Meat portions are fairly small, even by Asian standards, except at the barbecues where chicken is bought by the drumstick in the south and yak hotpots in the north.  Vietnamese food is comparatively more bland but there is also a greater variety of things to try from noodle soups and fried veggies to small Hue delicacies.  The options get smaller and more expensive in Yunnan if you can't read or speak Chinese.  Whereas even some cheap restaurants in Vietnam have English translations and with street stalls you can just point most of the time.  Not so in Yunnan.  If you can't read the language, better to ask Lonely Planet's and bring more money in your wallet. Verdict: Tie.  Yunnan if you like spicy, Vietnam if you don't. 

 [Om nom nom]

It's cheaper in Vietnam, but not by that much.  Dali is the popular beer in Yunnan and is pretty similar to light beers in Vietnam.  There is no cheap bia hoi  and the Chinese seem to drink considerably less than the Vietnamese. Although, Yunnan is more feminist in their consumption, allowing their women to drink alongside the men and not nurse on Sprites or stay at home while the men get sloshed as in Vietnam.  Verdict: Vietnam.  Only there can you drink forty glasses of beer without a trip to the ATM.

 [Every shot of beer has to be consumed with song, no wonder we're still sober]

Yunnan has them, Vietnam doesn't.  Vietnam just isn't a country known to suffer public green spaces when the land can be used more profitably on another high-rise or mall.  Centuries-old traditions in gardening really show in places like Kunming's Green Lake Park and Lijiang's Dragon Pool.  Add some funky trees here, some curved cobblestone bridges there and a couple km's of tree-lined winding lake-side trails and you have yourself a Chinese park that exudes oriental romanticism alive in every Westerner's psyche. Verdict: China.

[And plenty of lotuses for good measure]

Water and Tea
Yunnan is ahead in both.  The place is bleeding fresh water like an Ethiopian's wet dream.  We did a two day hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge with one bottle between us refilling on waterfalls along the way.  As for tea it's no contest.  Yunnan has the oldest tea culture in the world whereas Vietnam mostly uses tea to prove that they've boiled their water before serving it to guests in restaurants.  Currently, Yunnan's oldest living tea tree is 1700-years-old.  In other words, when that tree was just a sapling Vietnam wasn't even a sovereign nation, it was under Chinese rule. Verdict: China.

 [Big imperial balls]

I used to think that people smoked a lot in Vietnam, but what little is saved by reduced exhaust emissions, Yunnan makes up in tobacco smoke.  Once on a bus from Lijiang to Zhongdian a bus driver stopped the bus just so that a passenger can pick up some smokes.  When the passenger came back he offered the cigarettes around to several passengers, including the driver, in the front of the bus and they all began to smoke.  Kunming was the one exception where no smoking on public buses is strictly enforced.Verdict: Vietnam.  This will probably come as a surprise to even the Vietnamese.

Trash and Pollution
Walk down the street in either Dali's or Lijiang's old town and look down at the ravines that line the street.  There, floating along you will find...nothing! The streets are clean, both in the big cities and in the country side.  Everywhere buildings and apartments are topped with solar-powered water heaters.  The buses and cars in Kunming moving along without leaving a trail of emissions in their wake.  Compare this with Saigon where a face full of smoke from the back of the bus is a condition so common that there are now Biore facial cleanser ads about it.  In Dali, we saw a post in one of the small villages advising the residents on different ways that they can reduce waste and be 'green'.  In Vietnam, you sometimes have to duck people throwing Lotteria drink cups at you from their bikes.  Verdict: China.

 [Telling residents how much washing powder they should use]

It's China.  Everything is blocked, including this blog.   Vietnam is ahead when it comes to speed and availability.  Although, there's something to be said with blocking people's access to Justin Bieber.  Verdict: Vietnam. 

In terms of raw beauty Vietnamese girls win with their easy smiles, super petite bodies and other well proportioned assets.  However, an education system that teaches nothing but math and science has left Vietnamese filling up their cultural void with mangas, Cosmo and Youtube.  When it comes to fashion and sophistication, Yunnan girls take lead.  As for my Vietnamese lady friends, I'm totally not talking about you.  Just your friends.  Verdict: Tie.  Depends on your personal tastes.

Knocking on beautiful guesthouses in Lijiang for an hour we finally had to settle for the one white-man hostel in town.  In China, tourism is mostly from the Chinese and their spending power is greater than that of Backpacker Joe.  In Vietnam there are so many competing guesthouses that build nice rooms and charge low rates.  You can forget about dorms and hostels, unless you're trying to do the country on $2/day.  Verdict: Vietnam.

Mandarin is a much milder sounding language than Vietnamese and easier to learn.  The Chinese expect you to make an effort and are willing to understand you when you make small mistakes. Whereas executing a request for a spoon in perfect Vietnamese will still likely be met with a blank stare.  We ran in to more Westerners speaking fluent Chinese in our one month in Yunnan than Westerners speaking even conversational Vietnamese in our two years in Vietnam.  However, if you're traveling with no local language, Vietnam is better as more Vietnamese in the tourist industry can speak English than in Yunnan.  In Yunnan, most tourists are Chinese anyways so they don't need to make an effort.  Verdict: Tie.  Chinese for learning.  Vietnam for traveling. 

[The Chinese are still better at these than Vietnamese]

Coming into a Vietnamese public bathroom one will often find that the toilet seat has been removed and the rim is marked with shoe prints.  Instead of toilet paper you get a spray hose and you flush with a bucket of water.  At least the toilet was free, as opposed to Yunnan where you pay 1RMB. That price does not include toilet paper, spray hose, toilet, bucket of water or even a door.  Stalls are separated by a short wall and there is one trench that stretches through all the stalls, men's and women's.  Squatting skills are a must in China, as is bringing your own toilet paper.  Verdict: Vietnam.  This will likely come as surprise to Vietnamese as well.

[Some Yoga before your trip might help]

Final Say
A score of 15 to 12 makes Vietnam the winner in most fields.  When it comes to traveling cheap and easy then Vietnam is the best choice for backpackers.  Nevertheless, if you have a more flexible wallet and know Chinese then Yunnan will have much more for you.  Regardless of where you go, don't forget that traveling is about adventure first and comfort second.  If you want comfort you should take your next holiday at home. 


  1. Tiger Leaping Gorge is my favourite place in Yunnan, apart from the Stone Forest of Shillin of course...

    Did you try Across The Bridge noodles in Kunming?

    If you want to really try spicy, forget Thailand and even forget Southern China - head to Chengdu and try some Sichuan Hotpot...

    Philip (ILA Vietnam Alumnii)

  2. Yeah, Tiger Leaping Gorge was amazing. We didn't go to Shilin because the admission was really expensive, though. We did try the some Sichuan hotpot...very spicy indeed.