I remarked in my intro post that virtually all the expectations of Vietnam I arrived with were to be confounded in the 3 weeks of travelling that followed. I elaborated on this in some detail in my previous post, and more briefly in earlier ones. This final post of the series is an attempt to complete the picture – a summary of surprising aspects of the trip, if you like.
- The number of tourists! I’d imagined Vietnam to be still quite rough going as a travel destination. People I’d talked to who had been there 5 or 6 years ago had given me this impression. One gal said she was stared at in some places where tourists were evidently a rarity. Well, it ain’t like that now! Despite Feb/March being one of the less busy tourist periods according to hotel staff, District 1 in Saigon was pretty packed with all manner of foreigners (but mostly Caucasians). Other centres less so, but still plenty of tourists around. Dalat was the only exception – very few other foreigners when we were there.
- The tourist infrastructure. Very well set up. Obviously, there’s been some massive recent progress in the Vietnamese tourist industry. There are plenty of hotels to suit all budgets in the main tourist spots, lots of bus companies servicing the large volumes of tourist traffic, a good range of tours on offer, free wifi just about everywhere…
- The number of middle-aged backpackers (typically two or more couples travelling together – shudder!). Of course, young backpackers proliferated, but I wasn’t expecting to see so many backpackers of my vintage wandering around.
- Backpacker parents travelling with young kids. Lots – and good on ‘em! Must be a challenge for the parents at times, as well as the kids, but down-and-dirty travelling through a developing SE Asian country is a hell of an education – beats any other classroom.
- The nationality mix of travellers. We were surprised at the number of Canadians, and the legions of Russians in Nha Trang (where many of the restaurant menus are in Russian). Fair proportion of Brits, a lot of Euros, and more Aussies the further north we went, especially in Hue (visiting the DMZ, no doubt). Surprisingly, relatively few Americans.
- The popularity of combining Thailand, Laos and Cambodia with Vietnam in traveller itineraries. Obviously a well-worn trail – I’d have thought Laos and Cambodia were still zones for the adventurous, but it seems I’m way behind what’s travel-hip. This route must have taken off only relatively recently, but taken off it surely has! And going by the cruises being advertised, not only with young low-budget backpackers…
Surprising aspects of Vietnam
- So few people speak functional English. Outside the hospitality industry, the great majority speak NO English. While some hotel staff were reasonably fluent, many struggled to understand basic queries and requests, or had such poor pronunciation as to make communication problematic. The language barrier made the culture difficult to access on any but the most superficial level. Before my next visit, I will attempt to learn some basic Vietnamese.
- The Saigon motorbike miracle. This impossibly well-functioning community on wheels was one of the highlights of the trip. A spectacular traffic phenomenon. For more details, see here.
- The muted colours of the Mekong Delta landscape. See this earlier post.
- The worker exploitation, and the chasm between rich and poor. What sort of ‘communist’ government fails the majority of its people like this? See previous post for more details.
- Good food was everywhere, but GREAT authentic Vietnamese nosh was hard to come by. Usually, we sniff out well-regarded local eating venues and regional specialties by asking the locals for recommendations. The language barrier precluded this in Vietnam. The best strategy could be to venture far off the tourist trail, where there is nothing on offer but local food. Next time…
- The occasional hostility of some of the people. The declarations on sites like TripAdvisor that the Vietnamese are ‘beautiful people’ I disregarded as hyperbolic nonsense – as, indeed, it turned out to be – but it did set up some expectations. We met some truly delightful people, which was unsurprising given the build-up! Conversely, I was taken aback at the rudeness/aggro meted out to us at some of the markets. Understandable, I guess, that rubbernecking tourists who buy little, but oooh and aaah a lot and linger to take pics, possibly obstructing prospective local customers, should become a source of irritation for vendors. Bawling “Go!” and violently motioning the pesky tourists away was a bit over the top, though. A more subtle indication that we should move on would have sufficed! And in the extremely congested aisles of the massive Cholon markets in Saigon, being bodily and wordlessly shoved aside by workers comin’ on through was a first. Funny, rather than offensive, but I haven’t had this happen anywhere else in SE Asia – or elsewhere – and I’ve travelled a lot of the world. Still, coming up against the unexpected makes travelling the exciting and stimulating venture it is. I’m not whinging, just documenting the remarkable.
- The littering and apparent lack of environmental awareness. Plastic bags and other rubbish put me right off swimming in the otherwise gorgeous Nha Trang Bay. Chucking yer litter wherever it falls seems to be the modus operandi all over the country. The alternative rubbish disposal method is burning off. One night in Hue, the acrid stench of burnt plastic drifted through the restaurant we were eating at – it was issuing from two blazing piles of rubbish on the edge of the footpath right in the middle of an alfresco eating strip. Just unacceptable. We’re not talking slums, here. Grab some self-respect, guys!
- The climatic zones. My prior knowledge of Vietnam was very scant. I’d assumed it was a typical tropical SE Asian country, and in the south it is. The further north you go, though, at least during Feb/March, the more temperate it gets. Of course, the highland town of Dalat was cool, requiring jumpers at night – no surprise there. It was surprising, however, that Hue, further north, was misty and drizzly, and rather cool. We heard that Hanoi was cold, no less! So, there ya go – assume nothing! And maybe educate yerself a little better than I did before you set off.
- The beer! These guys love their brew! They start taking their pews at the bia hoi (‘fresh beer’ stalls) mid-morning. This ‘fresh beer’ is brewed in 24 hours and drunk in the next 24! Very quaffable, and unbelievably cheap @ 25c per 10oz glass. There are more conventional local brews that go for 50c per bottle during ‘happy hours’ – which can last 5 hours or more. Saigon Green was my favourite. Not much drunkenness among the locals, but the backpacker crowd likes to party – naturally. At these prices, why wouldn’t you? As stated in a previous post, this was the pissiest trip I’ve been on since the European excesses of my 20s. Cheers Vietnam!
- The elderly women smokers! Lots of the old gals like their smokes. They roll their own – short fat bombers, like joints. Haven’t seen that anywhere else!
- The commercialisation of the ‘American War’. The War remains a source of fascination for Western tourists, and this is exploited to the full. Eg: the tacky firing range at the Cu Chi tunnels, featuring guns that were used during the war. Step right up, folks, and buy your minimum 10 rounds for a mere $15. And they do! I was intending to join the queue for a go at an AK47, but had an unexpected and profound reaction to the guns once I got there – see here. In Hue, there is a pub called The DMZ. Pretty poor taste if you ask me, but there you go.
- The fresh food markets. I knew that Vietnam was famed for its daily fresh veges, fruit, meat and fish, but the markets were more spectacular in their diversity and quality of produce than I had anticipated. Best pineapple and passionfruit I have ever tasted, and we didn’t even scratch the surface.
- The prices! Vietnam is one hell of a bargain as a travel destination. A good main meal can set you back as little as $1.50. ‘Fresh beer’ 25c per glass, bottles 50c during happy hour. Good clean budget accommodation – $17 per night or less (much cheaper is available if you don’t mind the usual very low budget discomforts). Bus travel cheap. Tours amazing value (eg: 2 day Mekong Delta tour, including accommodation, guide, bus and boat travel, and various visits and excursions, was around $30).
Our trip cost us around $2300 for 24 days away, including 6 in a nice room in KL. That’s for everything: air and bus fares, food, drink, accommodation – the lot.
That’ll do. There’s probably lots more if I keep thinking about it, but who’s reading this blog series anyway? It says something about my Vietnam experience that I needed to process my thoughts by committing them to writing like this.
I have to say, Vietnam is the most impenetrable culture I have encountered since struggling through old communist China of the early 80s. But that’s where the comparison ends. There is nowhere else like Vietnam, and that’s part of its fascination. I am not finished with it as a traveller. I’m left with the niggling sense that I missed so much that I can’t just leave it dangling, unexplored except in the most superficial of ways. Besides, we didn’t get to Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sapa – that’s another trip in itself.
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: Hype vs Reality