Underwhelmed by Vietnam

As much as I hate to say this, I’m leaving Vietnam a little underwhelmed. Now that’s not to say I haven’t had a great time, I have. But, despite the ravings of friends who had visited before us, I don’t feel I have really discovered the Vietnam they so loved. It probably didn’t help that we rode in high on our amazing experience in the mountains of Laos and landed straight into the manic-ness that is Hanoi. From there, we rode the trains up to Sapa and then straight back down again all the way to Ho Chi Minh, jumping off in Hue, Hoi An and Nha Trang.

Now first, let me take responsibility for my part in being underwhelmed. We did not have enough time to see Vietnam. Three weeks is nothing in such a huge country with such great distances to be covered between stops. I didn’t do enough research before we arrived. We came in knowing very little of what there was to see and so had no idea what we even wanted to see, aside from the war sites. I could not get to grips with the language in any small way whatsoever. I did try, but the tonal differences are entirely elusive to me. When I could capture the attention of a Vietnamese person I couldn’t make even the simplest phrases understood. So, with the bad preparation out of the way, let me try and qualify exactly what didn’t grab me about this country.

But that’s the problem isn’t it? Had I been ecstatically overwhelmed and excited about a place I could point to the food, the people, the sunsets, the architecture, the accommodation and say that is what I loved about said place. On the other hand, had I been terribly disappointed and had an awful time, I could point to the food, the people, the sunsets, the architecture, the accommodation and say that is what caused me to have dislike said place. But, I’m left floundering in the middle of the spectrum. I didn’t have a great time and I didn’t have a bad time either.

The highlight for me of our time in Vietnam was visiting the various war museums and memorials. But while that may help me to understand a Vietnam of the past, the country and its people have clearly moved on but, to what, I’m not entirely sure. At no point in our three weeks did I feel any sense of a strong national identity.

The food: Of the countries I have visited in South East Asia, I found Vietnam to be the least Vegetarian friendly. The real charm of Vietnamese food is, I’m told, in its street food and small restaurants swamped with locals. These restaurants often offer only the one dish, they’re speciality. And while I’m sure it’s excellent, it’s almost never vegetarian. There were a few Com Chay (Vegetarian) restaurants which I enjoyed immensely, but for the most part I was left with little choice other than the tourist places offering fajitas, sandwiches and always pizza.

The people: In general, I think the Vietnamese people have a bad reputation among the travelling community. I’ve read such words as ‘rude’. ‘unfriendly’, ‘unhelpful’ and ‘all out to scam the tourists’. I think these, as with most generalisations, are an unfair sweep of the entire population. I think that sometimes uncertainty with English can be interpreted as rudeness. The shake of the hand which accompanies a “no” instead of the shaking of the head we’re more used to can look extremely dismissive. Most of the people I came across (admittedly in tourist focused positions) were very friendly and eager to help. The students we met in Hue appeared to be almost in awe of us as we helped them with some English practice. The father and his two sons we shared a train cabin with were very excited to play some games with us (especially once we introduced the boys to ‘angry birds’) and Dad even insisted on getting a photo of the five of us and phoning his sister so that she could speak some English with me. The people stared far more here than in any other country I have been to. Long, unsubtle, right up close to us staring after a time made me feel quite uncomfortable. I don’t know what they were staring at exactly (although Alan’s earrings got a lot of interest) but not knowing whether it was out of curiosity, interest, disdain or disapproval made it tough not to feel like a zoo animal.

The sunsets: Sapa was beautiful, that I cannot argue. But, aside from that, I didn’t see much countryside which stood out, be it beaches, cities or small towns. Perhaps this is something which is entirely our fault for not choosing our destinations more carefully. One element I can point to and quite confidently say I didn’t like is the littering. I was told by a Vietnamese girl that the Vietnamese people have a low level of responsibility. She was referring specifically to the dangerous driving, but I think more than that I found the people to be quite happy to litter in a way which distressed me greatly, particularly on the beach. There were street cleaners who diligently cleared up all the rubbish daily but keeping the environment clean can only work as a collective responsibility, something which is clearly not encouraged.

The architecture: There were some beautiful buildings to see but, unfortunately, thirty years of war has been unkind to Vietnam. It wasn’t so much of an issue, however, as we rarely had time to look up from the road as we attempted to get ourselves across in one piece. Perhaps my lasting impression of Vietnam will be the deadly roads.

The accommodation: This may be at the root of the problem. Vietnamese guest houses are all very nice and very reasonably priced. We didn’t find any without AC, hot water, satellite TV and wifi (all for about $15 a night). In fact, these hotels were always cheaper than traditional hostels (where there were hostels at all). Without real hostels with a proper social area the chances of meeting new people are pretty slim. I’m a firm believer that it’s the people you meet who make your trip.

There is clearly something I’m missing here, some layer I neglected to peel back. I’m entirely certain that Vietnam is out there, waiting to be discovered, and that we somehow seemed to slip past each other this time. I would love to come back in the future with more time, a little more money and a better idea of the places to visit. For now we leave Vietnam for Cambodia carrying a few more clothes, a few bootleg DVDs and a yearning to get under the skin of the countries we visit a little more. I’m not sure what we can achieve in Cambodia, but we’ll give it a shot.

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  4. Giving Penang a Second Chance
  5. Reflections on a Homecoming