Here comes the science bit - We've spent just under a month savouring the different flavours of Vietnam. From a culinary perspective, it's been a welcome relief from Indo's egg and banana diet, with steaming bowls of Pho Bo, sizzling hot plates of sea food, delicious fresh spring rolls dipped in chilli sauce and even some decent Dalat red wine for two bucks. But it's the aftertaste of the Vietnamese culture that we've been chewing on as we now venture on.
The land allegedly created by an odd affair between a dragon and a fairy has a bloody and evocative history. First they fought the Chinese (though they did learn about irrigation systems which led to rice being their staff of life and working on the terraces or fields their way of life, so the Dynasty dominance wasn't all bad). Then the Khmers, the Chams, the Mongols and 100 years of the Frogs. When France fell to Nazi Germany in 1940, the Indochinese government of Vichy France collaborators acquiesced to the presence of Japanese troops in Vietnam. The resulting resistance from Uncle Ho's Viet Minh, though, was a false dawn and anarchy ruled. The next 50 years became a confusing, unchoreographed, inelegant and leg-breaking dance between North Vietnam, South Vietnam, America, France and Cambodia. Everyone changed partner when they got a bit bored. Then they changed their names cos someone came up with something better. What they thought was the cavalry, well, wasn't. The side they thought had won, well, hadn't. Johnson and Nixon was very naughty. Chinese people were chucked out on boats that didn't float. Millions of lives were lost. Amerasians - Vietnamese kids fathered by Yankee soldiers - became 'children of the dust' as they were abandoned to the streets as an embarrassing reminder of the American War. The long-lasting effects of the Agent Orange and napalm attacks started to emerge. But eventually, the winner took it all. "Hurrah for Communism".
While we were innocent 14 year olds going on Girl Guide camp and gardening for pocket money, the US was only just lifting its economic embargo on Vietnam. Since then, the international rehabilitation of Vietnam has continued apace. But there is still an obvious North-South divide. Yes, it's partly war, politics, climate (and its impact on productivity) and dialects. The North experienced communist austerity and US bombings; the South experienced the see-saw of American presence. But for the foreign visitor, the two have almost a different persona.
Bluntly, the Northern people we met - particularly from Ninh Bien, Hanoi and Cat Ba - are rude. Very, very, very rude. Try to buy something - even just a pair of pants - from a market stall in Hanoi and you'll wish you'd fashioned a new pair of tighty whities out of a plastic bag and some string. And to ask if you can try on the new running shorts before buying them? Well blow me, that look would have you running back inside your mother instantly. The only exceptions were those from the Northern Highlands, around SaPa, who were super-friendly, particularly the Black H'Mong and Red Dao tribes. But that's because their selling tactic is to make you love and laugh with them, before they follow you for 6km trying (albeit still with a big grin) to sell you their handicrafts.
Meanwhile in the South, it's like you're their long lost child. Greeted everywhere with a grin and an offer of a beer or to hold their baby's hand, you feel incredibly welcome. Admittedly, the Northerners think the Southerners are too superficial and obsessed with bling, but they haven't turned into Katie Price just yet.
But whether they are from Hanoi or HCM City, one thing is for sure: you can't escape them, nor their karaoke machines. Vietnam's population hovers at around 85.5 million, ranking it the 13th most populous country. And it feels like all of them are on the same train as you. Incredibly, two thirds of the population are under the age of 30 and its population growth rate is such that a two-child policy is enforced in urban areas (note to self: get a global trademark on our Indo campaign slogan of "Just put it away eh son"). And this is behind the biggest surprise of our trip: how densely populated and, therefore now, developed it is. Especially as stability has only truly been recognised for 17 years. We had to work really hard, normally astride a Honda Wave 110, to escape the crowds here; not just the tourist crowds but the Vietnamese troops and their 'horny addiction' (as outlined in D Smith's guest entry) on the roads too.
But when we did get away, boy, is it a beautiful country. From the lush rice terraces and deep valley bowls of SaPa to the awesome limestone pinnacles of Halong Bay; from the sweaty jungles of Ninh Bien to the white sands of Nha Trang and, heck, even the flat muddy waters of the Mekong Delta. These are what the phrase 'breath taking' was made for.
The complex seasons of wet, dry and monsoon means you're never quite sure when to go to visit this stunning backdrop. Though told it would be rainy everywhere on our trip and had the potential to ruin it, we had just two days of rain: one when we were on a long bus to Haiphong, and one on our last day. Yet more proof that being a meteorologist must be one of the only professions where you get paid for constantly getting your job wrong.
In our view, Vietnam hasn't yet been getting its job wrong but it's perilously close to doing so. The role of tourism in getting its economy back on track is mind-boggling. The rate of population growth plus the re-introduction of thousands of Viets who fled from the Americans is a strain. The amount of litter mounting up in beauty spots, even on Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam, is sad and the plastic water bottles practically filling up river beds worrying. The development of hydro-electric dams, and attendant destruction of beautiful hillsides, are deemed a necessary evil to cater for the surge in demand. As always, the importance of development must be balanced with maintaining the gentle beauty of the country. A challenge which adds a sweet and sour flavour to any South East Asia trip.