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The north-south divide

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Although Vietnam was reunified in 1976, there still exists a palpable north-south divide, one that many tourists end up picking up on as they head across the DMZ. Of course, many of the differences stem from the ideological division that followed World War II, and the protracted, bloody war between the two sides; however, there have long been other factors at work.

One of these is the relative fertility of the soil – parts of the south get three rice harvests per year, while in the north it’s usually one. This is said to feed into a great difference in character between north and south – northerners are said to be more frugal and southerners more laidback, partly because the latter have historically had less work to do for the same reward.

There are also notable differences in tradition. Ho Chi Minh City flaunts its Westernisation, while Hanoians are just as proud of their city’s colonial- and dynastic-era structures.

Then there are dialectical differences – ask a traditionally-clad Hanoian girl what she’s wearing, and she’ll say it’s “ao zai”. Ask a lady from Ho Chi Minh City the same thing, and it would be an “ao yai”. Trained ears will also hear that there’s another dialect at work in the centre of Vietnam.

However, for visitors, the most enjoyable aspect of the north-south divide is likely to be the food. The quintessential northern food is pho bo – this beef noodle soup is found throughout Vietnam, but originated in Hanoi, where it’s still at its best. Other northern dishes include hotpots, rice gruels and sweet and sout soups. Southern flavours include curries and spicy dipping sauces, often married with a touch of sugar and coconut milk to balance the heat. However, most renowned nationwide is central cuisine – both Hoi An and Hué boast dishes of astonishing variety.

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