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Old animosities persist in Vietnam

North and South in cultural divide decades after war

A woman shopped last month at a store in Ho Chi Minh City run by an owner from Hanoi. The shop sells products from the northern part of the country. (le quang nhat/associated press)

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- Northerners are rude, they talk funny, they are lousy drivers and have bad taste.

When a Vietnamese blogger unleashed this tirade from down south recently, people 700 miles away in Hanoi responded with a flood of angry postings online and a few death threats text-messaged to the blogger's cellphone.

The episode underscored a delicate truth about Vietnam: Hard feelings die hard. The United States has had 142 years to recover from the civil war. The Vietnam War's north-south division ended just 32 years ago.

Vast cultural differences divide the former republics of North and South Vietnam. Hanoi is as far from Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, as New York City is from Atlanta . The two cities have different cuisines, different dialects, and different styles of doing business.

Relations are generally civil, even friendly. But occasionally, something stirs up old animosities. And nothing has stirred them like Nhu Hoa's shot in the country's thriving blogosphere, which she wrote after a weekend visit to Hanoi.

"I came to realize that Hanoi was not a place for Saigonese, who are food connoisseurs," wrote Hoa, a university student who complained about everything from the condensed milk northerners use in their coffee [sticky and sweet] to the speed of their Internet connections [very slow].

"I don't like anyone who isn't from Saigon," Hoa declared.

"I pity the parents who gave birth to this devil baby," Hanoi resident Bui Dung shot back in a typical online riposte.

Since the war ended in 1975, legions of northerners have moved to Ho Chi Minh City, the country's business hub and a testing ground of stereotypes.

Northerners tend to think of themselves as more cultured, and view Hanoi as Vietnam's capital of art, literature, and scholarship. Some see Ho Chi Minh City as a place of glitz and fun, but a bit shallow.

Southerners consider themselves more dynamic and tend to see Hanoi as a quaint, sleepy town. They have been more exposed to Western ways, while the north is more influenced by neighboring China and by communist central planning.

Southerners with money take their friends out to dinner; northerners tend to be thrifty and prefer to visit friends at home, said Kim Dung, a journalist who moved to Ho Chi Minh City from Hanoi 12 years ago.

But northerners generally are more concerned about status and will buy one expensive motorbike while the southerner is more likely to buy two cheap ones, she said.

Dung says she misses the village feel of Hanoi's winding streets and street vendors balancing baskets of fruit on their shoulders.

Many northerners relish the nightlife and business buzz of Ho Chi Minh City, but the adjustment can be difficult.

"I felt like I was coming to a foreign country," said Tran Thu Huong, 37, who moved here to direct an Australian educational exchange program. "People spoke Vietnamese, but I didn't understand what they were saying."

At school, classmates ridiculed her daughter's northern accent. "I hate Saigon. I want to go back to Hanoi," the girl would proclaim.

Six months later, the 11-year-old had transformed her accent and won acceptance.

Northerners and southerners often use different words to describe the same thing. Southerners are direct; a northerner's yes may mean no, says Phan Cong Khanh, who owns a Ho Chi Minh City chemical company.

He says he sometimes has trouble reading his Hanoi customers' wishes.

"Southern companies tell you what they need right away," Khanh said. "With northern companies, it's like a winding path."

While plenty of southerners still harbor grudges over the war, many are willing to put them aside.

Phan Ho Thien Vu, 26, a Ho Chi Minh City attorney, comes from a family that worked at the US military base in Cam Ranh Bay and lost everything after the war. His grandparents had to go to a reeducation camp and absorb communist dogma.

"It's just the past," Vu said. "Forget it."

Far more unites the regions than divides them, Vu said

But he does have one big gripe about the north. "The service is terrible!" he said. "If you go to a restaurant and ask for an extra chopstick, the owners get angry at you."

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