The country starts at the Tropic of Cancer and extends just over half way to the Equator. Bordered by three other countries to the North and West and the South China Sea to the East, it contains around 90 million people and probably half as many bikes, motorcycles and scooters. It’s lush and green, hot and humid, noisy and quiet, hectic and tranquil, friendly and distant, grubby and clean. But most of all Vietnam is an interesting place to be and see.
THE TRIP: A two week guided trip for three with personal guide and transport:
- Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh at the Kingston Hotel; included Market near the hotel, Thien Hua Pagoda, Presidential Palace, War Remnants Museum, Mekong delta and My Tho, Chu Chi tunnel network and Cao Dai Great Temple
- Danang and Hoi An at the Van Loi Hotel; included the Cham Museum, China Beach, Marble Mountains, wandering around Hoi An markets, Quan Cong Chinese Temple and the Japanese Covered Bridge
- Hue at the Asia Hotel; Imperial Citadel, Thien Mu Pagoda a cruise on the Perfumed River and a visit to the markets
- Hanoi at the Demantoid Hotel; Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Quarter and Museum, One Pillar Pagoda, Temple of Literature, National Museum of Fine Arts, Ethnology Museum, Water Puppets, a cyclo ride through the older quarter of Hanoi
- Ha Long Bay; cruising on a junk and overnight in amongst the islands.
Thanks to “Wendy Wu Travel” who we dealt with in Australia and thanks ‘with bells on’ to “Trails of Indochina” who operated the in-country tour with superlative skill and expertise and provided the guides (excellent), drivers (excellent) and transport (also excellent and air-conditioned). The hotels were also good, 3 to 3½ stars, and with a little more attention to detail and to the quality of some of the structural finishing could easily be classified as 4 to 4½ star.
Vietnam proudly professes is Communist political system and yet the great majority of its populace are rampantly Capitalist. The communist approach is best demonstrated in those state owned institutions that you deal with as you transit through the country. The airports have the customs and security people that possess the faint look of disinterest, contempt or disdain for the itinerant traveller entering or leaving their country and ensure that due process almost borders on a permanent go-slow with attitude. The assistants at the duty free and food shops also lack an eagerness to sell you the products on offer, many of which appear to have been there for a long time. This is in complete contrast to the hustle, bustle and carpet-bagger approach in the markets and in the towns. It’s all sell, sell, sell and persuasiveness: ‘You handsome man, you buy’. You look, and its ‘you like, you want to buy, good price’. You touch and the serious business of negotiation begins, ‘we have many colours, sizes, shapes, give you good price, how many you want, etc, etc’. Sometimes not so much a buying experience as a “shock and awe” assault on rational decision making about a purchase. If you are an ardent shopper and bargainer, then it’s fun, fun, fun and an experience not to be missed. If you are the contemplative browser type who is not into encouragement bordering on physical assault and into bargaining then avoid the markets and other places selling things like the plague. You’ll only work yourself into a tizz at what you perceive as unwarranted harassment resulting, ultimately, in a paranoiac response to anyone who says hello. If you are one of these, go do lots of sightseeing and walking around wherever you are. There is lots to see, do and consider. A wander around back streets and by ways looking at how people live and work is eye-opening and illuminating. Hoi An is a great place to wander around the back streets.
Like China it will be interesting to see how Vietnam eventually reconciles the Communist/Capitalist divide into something that delivers the best of both viewpoints. Wherever you go Vietnam is going gang-busters in developmental activities and it is obvious that external investment is flowing into the country in large amounts. This was especially obvious in Danang (China Beach) where the crass, gated ‘community bubble’ hotel resort developments are spreading like a cancer along the beachfront blocking the sea from the occasional tourist, the locals, as well as the fishermen. This represents the very worst type of investment in the country. We were particularly disappointed to see that Greg Norman was also in on the act building a resort and golf club at the beach. As Australians we got involved in bombing the hell out of the country and now we’re back with concrete crapola (Western style).
The traffic in Vietnam has to be seen to be believed. At first experience it is absolutely catastrophic and chaotic. An endless, raucous, hair-raising cacophony of sound and a melee of vehicles, predominantly motorised bikes going in all directions at once and with complete disregard for any rules at all. There are however some rules, and these are, apparently:
- There is a middle of the road, usually marked. This however, is a general indicator that the road is divided and doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to pay it any regard whatsoever. Feel free to drive on it, over it, around it as is convenient.
- Driving is on the right had side in Vietnam, usually. This however is a general rule and should not be taken has being one that is hard and fast. Feel free to drive on the other side of the road, into oncoming traffic, or even off the road, should the need arise.
- Honking of vehicle horns is mandatory (I suspect). Horn honking means (and not in any particular order): Hi; I’m Here; Look Out; Whoops!; Get out of the way or I’ll run you over; Bugger off; My horn sounds better than yours; I am turning left or right or going directly ahead.
- Flashing of vehicle lights (excluding motor bikes) is mandatory. Light flashing means (and again not in any particular order): Hi; I’m Here; Look Out; Whoops!; Get out of the way or I’ll run you over; Bugger off; My horn sounds better than yours; I am turning left or right or going directly ahead; There are cops ahead of you. Proviso: If a local bus is coming at you, in the middle (or on your side) of the road, honking his horn, and flashing its lights then get yourself out of the way like NOW! The meaning in this circumstance is unequivocal and absolutely clear. It is: “Get the F*** out of my way you moron/imbecile/yo-yo/cretin/son of a dog (or whatever). I’m coming through and not stopping for anyone except paying passengers”. Local bus drivers are not called “Kamikaze’s” because they are related to the Japanese. And finally,
- Hand signals are optional and are used in situations where horns and lights appear to have been an inadequate expression of the true meaning of the original signal. They can mean: Hi; Hello, Yep, it’s me; Pull over and have something to eat/drink; Sorry I missed that, what did you honk/flash again?
Having experienced the traffic initially in closed vehicles you eventually find that, surprisingly, the apparent chaos has form and function and actually works. There is an ebb and flow which just happens without the anticipated multiple vehicle pile-ups. Vehicles go around, behind, inside, beside, across and in front of other vehicles, all moving in various directions without crashing into one another. Vehicles miss one another by centimetres with any perceived ‘you’re a bit too close’ resulting in a belligerent honk (i.e. one blast lasting more than 5 seconds).
Crossing the road as a pedestrian is really ‘heart in mouth’ stuff for the first few times until you apply the Eastern philosophy of accepting your karma, wait for what appears to be a lessening of the number of vehicles in the traffic and then step out. The criteria are that you walk at a steady pace, do not deviate from your path, assume an attitude of complete confidence, and pray. Chances are that you will arrive at your intended destination unscathed but partially deafened by the sound of horny advisories usually of the ‘Oh God, here’s a foreigner that doesn’t know what they’re doing’ variety along with a couple of friendly ‘Hi’s’.
It’s amazing what can be tied to, and carried on a motor bike. This was one of the best, I thought, but I missed the double bed on a bike, the cupboard on a bike, the pigs on a bike and lots more. Too slow with the camera from a moving vehicle.
Vietnamese food? In the main delicious, delicious, delicious. The key is to get out of your hotel, have a wander around and find something that suits you with regard to ambience, cleanliness price, etc. Hotel food is generally a poor substitute for what you can find in nearby restaurants or even in the markets. The only place that disappointed us in terms of evening meals was Saigon and we ultimately resorted to a Japanese restaurant which was better than some that we’ve experienced in Japan. The hotel breakfasts were fine and the meals provided as part of the tour were also very good quality, varied and tasty. We experienced a couple of meals in out of the way local people restaurants (courtesy of our guide) that were delightful and typical Vietnamese everyday fare. I’ll even go so far as to recommend: Japanese Don Restaurant (Saigon); White Lotus Restaurant (Hoi An); KQ Pub (Hoi An); The Tropical Garden Restaurant (Hue); Koto Restaurant (Hanoi), Hanoi Marina Restaurant (Hanoi). NB: The White Lotus is part of Project Indochina (Australian NGO) supporting the disadvantaged in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The food is delicious and it’s well worth supporting its activities by eating at this restaurant.
The highlights? Pretty hard to pick something particularly outstanding as all that we saw and did was interesting. As ‘get out and and into the countryside’ types we loved getting out of the cities. Our respective guides on each component of the trip were particularly informative and it was interesting to get their personal views on things Vietnamese. So see as much of it as you can, your preferences will be individualistic anyhow. The city of Saigon was probably the one that least impressed but outside the city was wonderful. Hoi An and Hue probably the most interesting and Ha Long Bay a great culmination to the trip.
Couple of points. If you are squeamish then give the War Remnants Museum a miss. There are a lot of very unpleasant photos which are not for the faint hearted. However it is enlightening to see the other side’s perspective. Also if you are not a temple and pagoda freak, then minimise your visits to these. Definitely get out into the countryside as much as possible or have a good walk around and look-see wherever you are.
All in all we had a great time in Vietnam, definitely worth a visit. We left the country well satisfied with the trip and the support from our guides and in-country tour company. Would definitely recommend Trails of Indochina for organising a tour of Vietnam.
I left the country with a couple of unverified and disturbing questions:
- Did the USA really offer slim built South Americans US citizenship if they engaged in clearing the Viet Cong from the tunnels at Chu Chi, and
- Did the USA really get involved in Vietnam to protect their interests in the continuing supply of Tin and Tungsten?