Maybe. It’s been fun, but we're also ready to go somewhere new.
This will be my last post about Vietnam. Our thirty days suddenly came to an end, catching us by surprise.
After our busy time in Hue we wanted to go somewhere a little more relaxing, so we headed out to the historic town of Hoi An. It’s a popular place for tourists – especially those who like crafts and clothes shopping (*) – and don’t the locals know it! I can sum up Hoi An in just three words:
“Hello. Buy something.”
Morning, noon and night, wherever you go, people are nagging you to enter their stores. Still, with over 300 tailors and 190 souvenir shops it is easy to understand why they are so desperate for custom. It’s hard to see how any of them make a living. Plus it’s especially difficult right now because the recession and fear of not-swine flu means that there are fewer tourists than usual.
However, they find creative ways to get money out of you. When the taxi driver dropped us off in the town centre, the first thing he told us to do was buy a ticket. We erroneously assumed that we needed this in order to enter the town at all. Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so it kind of made sense that there would be an entrance fee. This wasn’t strictly speaking true. The ticket allows you to visit 5 historical places within the town, but you don’t actually need one unless you plan to see those sites. We saw 2/5; the ticket is valid for three days, but it was just too darned hot to go wandering round a bunch of old, non-air-conditioned buildings, even though some of them were pretty impressive-looking.
Trieu Chau assembly hall in Hoi An.
Despite Hoi An being primarily about shopping and clothes, we were there longer than expected. The place has its own peculiar charm, and we liked the prevalence of restaurants and bars that we could chill out in and escape the heat.
When we were feeling totally chilly, we decided it was time to move on. We couldn’t leave without taking a peek at the largest city in the country, so we then flew down to Ho Chi Minh City. Well, we got there eventually – our flight was delayed for over 2 hours. They apologized, of course, but with an excuse that would have made British Rail (**) proud:
“This flight was delayed due to the late arrival of the plane.”
We’re leaving late ‘cos we didn’t get here on time.
Yeah, we already worked that one out, geniuses!
Anyway, one way or another we made it to Saigon.
My first impression was, “Oh no. It’s just like Hanoi!” The same chaos: crowds, cluttered streets, heavy traffic and too much noise with car horns constantly blaring. At first it didn’t seem to have much to recommend it.
We spent a day or two exploring, however, and I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by the more central districts. Saigon has a very strong French influence which is visible in the architecture (and surplus of bakeries); the European look and feel was comfortable for us, and I didn’t feel as stressed here as I did in Hanoi.
A couple of bits and pieces we saw while we were there:
Notre Dame, Saigon. Nowhere near as impressive as the famous Parisian version, and you can only get in for a good look around at certain times of the day.
Inside the Emperor Jade Pagoda. We’ve seen a fair few temples and pagodas on our travels, but this one was pretty special due to the fantastic carved figures they had inside.
The Independence Palace. The one fact I remember about this place is that during reunification after the Vietnam-American war, they battered down the gates with a tank. Now that is a job I would have wanted. (Except for the fact that I probably would have gotten carried away and rammed the building too!)
At the end of the day…
Our stay in Vietnam was unusual – for us – in that we spent so long here and saw a large chunk of the east coast. There were good bits and not-so-good bits, but I wish now that I had done a bit more research beforehand so I wouldn’t have been caught by surprise. We came here in a hurry, however, keen to escape Bangkok while the riots were going on, so our sudden arrival here was in unusual circumstances.
Below is a short of summary of my personal highlights and lowlights, including some things I wish I’d known before I got here!
The majority of towns and cities have a series of loudspeakers along their streets, and twice a day The Authorities (or someone) blast out very long and very loud speeches. At first we didn’t know what this was for, but we later found out that it is a mixture of news, public service announcements and propaganda.
The really annoying thing about them? They generally start at 6am, and there’s usually one directly outside your hotel window!
I think the proper way to start this section is with a public apology to cyclists in Japan. Those of you with good memories will remember my complaint about the prevalence of bicycles on Tokyo’s city streets, but I understand now that I completely overreacted. Sorry, guys! Compared to Vietnam, getting around Tokyo is a pleasurable stroll in the park!
Now, I know I have already ranted at length about Vietnamese drivers, but I have news for you: drivers in Saigon are even worse than their northern counterparts. They drive their motorcycles on the pavement then have the nerve to honk at pedestrians! It is unlike anything I have ever seen, and makes leaving your hotel room a dodgy prospect indeed. Saigon bikers are also the rudest, most impatient drivers I have had to deal with so far. When I am driving in New Zealand I don’t tend to get road rage, but walking down the street in Saigon brings on a bad case of Pedestrian Rage. Here’s an example of what we had to deal with:
We actually had to cross this road, and only managed to do it by cheating: we latched onto a local and followed her! We couldn’t face crossing back again when it was time to go home, so we stayed where we were and hailed a cab.
As you may have gathered, the vendors in Vietnam are, on the whole, very pushy. They see you coming from a mile off, and will start shouting at you before you get anywhere near their stalls. Many of them won’t take no for an answer, and some of them act angry or offended when you refuse them. (The teenage girls are the worst; they have perfected the Death Glare!) We understand that it’s just business and they are trying to make a living, but at the end of the day neither of us likes being bullied at or feeling pressured. We got very good at refusals in the end. The first time they asked, we gave a polite, “No thank you”; second time we simply said, “No”; and thereafter we ignored them completely and walked away. On the whole we tried to avoid vendors who nagged; if we had a choice, we’d always go to the one who asked politely.
The constant horn honking, yelling and general aggressiveness of some of the people here can feel very rude by Western standards. On the surface, Vietnam seems a quite inconsiderate nation. We’ve been woken up more times than we can count by locals having ‘conversations’ (i.e. shouting) outside our door at all hours of the morning; the pavements are constantly crowded with bikes and café furniture; pedestrians have no rights whatsoever; and don’t expect anyone to move if they’re standing in your way: you’ll just get a blank stare if you ask to get by. It can be quite some time before you recognise that they’re not deliberately being difficult and trying to raise your blood pressure to boiling point, it’s just the way things are here. The differences in cultural standards and social interactions are easier to cope with once you understand that you need to ignore your Western filters and start thinking like a Vietnamese.
Despite everything I’ve just said, we met some genuinely lovely people during our time in Vietnam: Thao, our tour guide from Ninh Binh, and Long and Ken, the cheerful cyclo riders from Hue who invited us out for a beer with them after our second trip. Even though English is not prevalent here, the majority of locals tried hard to interact with us, and many took obvious pleasure in simply being able to say, “Hello”. Also, whenever we stopped to consult our map, someone would invariably wander over and offer to give us directions. Although there is poverty here, the Vietnamese people seem happy with the little they have, and we saw no evidence of the social problems (violence, vandalism, etc.) that plague certain first-world nations. Crime rates are low, and we felt safe on the streets both day and night (apart from having to play dodgems with the traffic, of course!)
Sailing down the Tam Coc River
For me, this particular trip will always be memorable for two reasons:
i) It was my first glimpse of Vietnam’s stunning countryside.
ii) It was here that I first realised that I could enjoy Vietnam after all.
All in all, it was a very peaceful and relaxing couple of hours.
The Vinh Moc tunnels
It was a goal of mine to see Vinh Moc, and I am still in complete awe of the ingenuity and stamina of the locals who created the tunnels. It is one thing to read about something or see it on TV, and quite another to experience it for yourself. Me, I’d have gone stir-crazy in such a confined space in no time at all!
I’m glad we saw Vietnam, even though it is not a place I plan to revisit any time soon. It is a beautiful country, and has the added bonus of being cheap, making it a great destination for anyone on a budget. I did have a problem with culture shock for a while, and although I am glad I was able to work through that, I think perhaps it would have been more sensible to leave such a challenging country until later in the trip. (On the bright side, though, now I’ve survived Vietnam, I’m pretty confident I can survive anything!)
So, goodbye, Vietnam; it’s been fun, but we are now ready for something new. We’re off to Malaysia next.
Bye for now
Julie & Pete
(*) Apparently if you want custom-made clothes, Hoi An is the place to go. We discussed having some things made briefly, then decided that we could do without the extra weight to carry. We may pop back on our way home… if we have any money left, that is!
(**) For those of you lucky enough never to have experienced train travel courtesy of British Rail, check out this list of excuses. Some of them are incredible. This is one of my favourites: “There will be no further trains due to a giraffe becoming entangled in the overhead wires”. It’s comedy gold!