Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hype vs Reality

Vietnam must be one of the most hyped travel destinations on the globe right now. The following blurb from Lonely Planet demonstrates the sort of over-the-top stuff I’m referring to:

Welcome to a world where the colours are more vivid, where the landscapes are bolder, the coastline more dramatic, where the history is more compelling, where the tastes are more divine, where life is lived in the fast lane. This world is Vietnam, the latest Asian dragon to awake from its slumber…

It’s pedantic and obvious to bitch about use of the comparative making no sense without a referent (eg: ‘more vivid’ than what; ‘bolder’ than where?), although you gotta wonder about Lonely Planet – this crap comes across like advertising blurb. Anyway, grammatical whinges aside, let’s have a look at a few of these claims.

Colours more vivid? If anything, the colours of Vietnam are muted relative to other SE Asian countries. Maybe they’re referring to the traditional dress of some of the minority people…

Tastes more divine?
Not going by my experience of Vietnamese cuisine. The food was good, but far from great, and not even close to ‘divine.’ And I say this as a devotee of SE Asian cuisines, street food in particular.

Life lived in the fast lane? In Saigon, certainly. But otherwise it was all pretty laid back. While the Vietnamese could never be said to be lacking in get up and go, there’s also a lot of sitting around playing board games, sipping coffee, drinking beer (beginning in the morning!), snacking etc – and good on ’em! But life in the fast lane? Pah!

The hype doesn’t stop with guide book and travel promo ravings. Many posters on TripAdvisor and other travel forums wax lyrical about the country, its food, the “beautiful people” blah blah. I’m not seeking to invalidate the views of those who see things differently from me. However, some of the hyperbole cannot be put down to subjectivity or difference in perspective – it’s just plain bullshit!

For example, a blogger I came across recently likened Dalat to “a European Alpine village.” Conjures up Swiss chocolate box images of cows on felty green slopes beneath snowy mountaintops, dunnit? Dalat is nothing like that. It’s set in the highlands (which do not remotely resemble any European alps I’ve seen), but there is not a yodel to be heard – plenty of motorbikes, though. There is an extensive central market as is usual in major Vietnamese towns, the food is typically Vietnamese, and conical hats are everywhere. No triple cheek-kissing that I saw, and no lederhosen (mercifully).

As for the ‘beautiful people’ – come on! Those who make claims like that must have taken a wrong turn and ended up in Shangrila-la Land, not Vietnam! It’s naive in the extreme to project that type of rose-coloured perspective on to an entire nationality. We encountered some lovely Vietnamese folk and a few that were rude to downright hostile! Most were somewhere in between these extremes. Just like any other country.

No foreign traveller really gets more than a glimpse beneath the surface of a culture as they travel through a country. To think otherwise is to delude yourself.

This is particularly true of Vietnam, where very few people outside the hospitality industry speak English. Therefore, as a foreign traveller, your impressions of the people derive largely from interactions with hotel staff. Of course they are helpful and pleasant in their dealings with you – that’s their job!

Further, generally speaking, the higher your budget, the less you get to poke around under the bonnet of the country. Folk staying in high-end accommodation tend to be more insulated from the culture proper than backpackers in budget hotels. The more luxurious the hotel, the more professional the staff. You’re less likely to have the staff open up to you in a 4 star hotel than in no-star budget backpacker premises, where workers receive basic training, are paid less, and tend to confide in guests who probe beyond the parameters of small-talk.

And here, I come to an aspect of Vietnam that I find deeply disturbing: worker exploitation. We got talking to one of the reception staff at our first hotel in Saigon, and were appalled to learn that this young guy worked 7 days per week, 52 weeks per year with only one day off – the Tet (New Year) holiday. Worse, he was expected to be on call when he was off duty, so slept behind the reception desk. In effect, then, he was virtually chained to his workplace. He alternated 12 hour shifts with his colleague, who also slept on the premises when off duty. The pay? The equivalent of around $100 per month.

We asked about the hotel owner. He had several hotels and a big house. His children were attending university in Melbourne. What sort of boss was he? Did he reward good work with praise or bonuses? No. But he blasted his staff if they made mistakes. He was “good”, though, we were assured, our informant adding that this is just the way it is in Vietnam.

We checked this story with the staff in virtually every other hotel we stayed at. All worked under similar conditions. Most had university degrees. We asked why they didn’t seek better jobs in which they could make use of their knowledge and skills. The answer was always the same: in Vietnam, good jobs come with a fee starting around $5,000AUD (the better the job, the higher this fee). This fee goes to the boss.

That’s a small fortune – virtually unattainable – for hotel staff in Vietnam, many of whom are from Hanoi and send almost their entire, meagre earnings home to their elderly parents. Which begs the questions, why are so many hotel staff from Hanoi – and are these poor exploited folk actually the lucky ones? Could it be that the Hanoi government favours its own, that the Saigon locals are relegated to menial work, hawking CD and book knock-offs in the street, etc?

The answers were suggested to me during a fascinating and lengthy email exchange with a young Australian-born Vietnamese guy who contacted me in response to my intro blog post on Vietnam. He wishes to remain anonymous, so I will call him M.

The child of boat refugee parents from Saigon who fled to Australia to escape ‘re-education’ and worse at the hands of the triumphant communist regime at the end of the ‘American War’, M told me that Vietnam remains a country divided. The people of the south detest their Hanoi-based government which does, indeed, discriminate against them. And according to M, the reason Saigon locals refuse to call their city by any but its traditional name is that they hate Ho Chi Minh, whom they regard not as a national hero, but as a ruthless dictator and war criminal.

M went on to express disgust at the more radical elements of the Vietnam War protest movement of the 60s and 70s (eg: those who waved North Viet flags on the steps of their national parliaments), and added that whenever he meets an Australian Vietnam veteran he shakes his hand and thanks him for being part of the war effort against the Viet Cong. M is adamant that the south of Vietnam has suffered terribly under the communist government, and asserts that the country would have been better off divided along the DMZ into two separate countries, as per North and South Korea. He believes the south would be an economic powerhouse today if this division had taken place, and scoffs at the notion of ‘unification’ under the communist government.

I do not know whether M’s claims are factual, but he wrote in such detail – and with such fervour – that I have no doubt that he was accurately expressing the views of his parents. He added that these views are shared by “almost all” the Vietnamese constituent of the Australian population.

I confess, I was left reeling. I had come across other Vietnamese Australians expressing similar, but never in such detail, or with such passion. I was forced to confront the reality that my views as an anti-war protestor back in the 70s were Western-centric and fragmented, taking no account of the situation or attitudes of the south Vietnamese people – of which I, and I believe almost all my fellow protestors, were entirely ignorant. And the fond imaginings I expressed in my intro post that Vietnam is now a country united and thriving had been put to the torch.

Whether M’s views are truly representative of a great proportion of the south Vietnamese people I cannot know. I can say, however, that I formed the impression while in Vietnam that the government is failing its people.

There is much inequality. Pity help the handicapped and elderly without family support – they have no option but to drag themselves through the streets with begging bowls. So much for the State taking care of its own.

And what brand of communism tolerates extreme exploitation of workers on a massive scale by the wealthy few? Who are these rich, and how have they managed to prosper while the vast majority of their countrymen struggle to eke out a living? Could they be beneficiaries of the corruption that is reputedly rife in the Vietnamese government? Are some of them former government officials or their offspring, enjoying the spoils of war seized from the people of the south?

These are some of the questions that posters on travel forums like TripAdvisor who gush extravagant purple prose about Vietnam might do well to consider.

More posts in this series on Vietnam:
Travels in Vietnam 2011: Intro
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Saigon
Travels In Vietnam 2011: The Cu Chi Tunnels
Travels In Vietnam 2011: War Remnants Museum, Saigon
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Mekong Delta
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Dalat
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Nha Trang
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hoi An
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Sleeper Bus Nightmare!
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hue
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Eating and Drinking!
Travels In Vietnam 2011: Reflections & Wrap-up

2 thoughts on “Travels In Vietnam 2011: Hype vs Reality”

  1. Hi,

    I just want to thank you for your information and experiences of Vietnam. My friend and I are travelling there at the moment and stumbles across boomtownrap after experiencing the horrors of a 28hrs sleeper bus. To read that someone had been through the same and written such a witty piece about it had me in stitches!
    After that I started reading the following pieces you’ve posted and they are so truthful and accurate in their portrayal of Vietnam; I particularly found your comments from M interesting.

  2. Sincerely, Sarah, thank you for making the effort to comment on my posts as you have. I have to confess, I was dispirited with the absence of reader response to most of my posts on Vietnam, and for that reason haven’t been moved to post on my subsequent travels in Thailand.

    I am gratified to find that someone else perceived aspects of Vietnam as I have described here.

    As for that sleeper bus – never, never, never again. I feel your pain!

    Cheers, and pop back any time. Would be interested to hear your observations on your experience of Vietnam, if you feel so inclined.

    I should make it clear in parting that despite my questioning the hyperbole and rose-coloured nonsense commonly peddled about Vietnam by western vistors – and Thailand even more – I would return without hesitation. There is much to see and far more to try to understand than could ever be possible on a travelling stint…but ya does what ya can. Maybe next year, after my next trip to Thailand…


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