20 hours to go before I leave ‘Nam and return the the relative sanity and civilisatiion of Thiland. Kinda sad because there have been some amazing moments over the past few weeks but overall I’m brimming with happiness cause it means in 36 hours I’ll have Em back in my arms again 🙂
But enough sappiness, what’s the overall verdict on the ‘Nam experience? Well, it’s hit and miss to be honest. The good parts first…
As I’ve posted already, Sapa and Hoi An are absolutely fantastic places. They’re both imbued with such a creative vibe it’s impossible not to like them and they both look stunning in different ways – Sapa for the mountain scenery and Hoi An for the immaculately preserved colonial town centre. Neither felt overly developed or touristy, managing to retain an ‘authentic’ atmosphere (sorry, I hate the whole myth of authenticity as it relates to travel and culture, just couldn’t think of a better word at the time) despite both being heavily populated by farang. I could happily return to either of these places for an extended holiday any time.
Secondly, among locals we tended to find people were pretty friendly – always interested to hear where you’d been and where you’re going, offering advice and basically not treating you like a walking wallet (see later…). The best example of this was Hoa’s Place on China Beach outside Danang. We arrived on a Lonely Planet recommendation to stay a couple of nights and Hoa instantly made us feel right at home, insisting we sit and chill over a (very cheap) beer before even thinkking about paperwork or prices. Rather than paying for food and drink as we consumed them we simply logged our beers and burgers in a notebook and worked out our own bills before leaving. One night we played cards after they were closing up the bar and, rather than cut our game short, they showed us how to shut up shop and left us to it. LIttle touches like that can really make a holiday.
(NB – Hoa’s Place is in danger of being closed down thanks to greedy scumbag chain hotel developers trying to buy up the whole of China Beach. This is happening all over the country, if you want to visit ‘Nam and have it be anything other than a giant 4-star resort best get there soon.)
The other major point, something I also mentioned earlier, is the legacy of the French occupation – beer, beef, bread, coffee, chocolate and wine. One thing Thailand lacks is any concept of food from outwith their own borders – not necessarily a bad thing as I love Thai food but sometimes you need a change. The Vietnamese recognise the importance of the six major food groups above and in a mere three weeks it’s played havoc with my waistline 🙂 Mind you, the Vietnamese do some amazing food of their own, namely the best spring rolls in existence and stunning dishes involving liberal sprinklings of garlic, lemongrass and chili – my new favourite.
It’s not all roses though. Some of Vietnam is just plain ugly – partly due to overdevelopment for the sake of tourism and also as a result of the communistic/Catholic (yes, Vietnam has both in spades, what a combo…) tendency to breed like rabbits. Population 80m at the moment, expect to rise to 150m in 50 years, something like 60% under the age of 30 – that sort of growth just isn’t sustainable in a barely surviving pseudo-communist economy and it shows. Hanoi and Saigon are, outside the shiny tourist centres, just row upon row of wasteland covered in corrugated iron shacks, crumbling concrete houses and other assorted ruins housing god knows how many people. Pretty soon the country will exhaust its already strained natural resources, the tourists will have gone elsewhere thanks to overdevelopment, tourist industry incompetence and rising prices and the population will be screwed.
And about that incompetence… The industry here seems to be populated by liars and imbeciles in equal measure. Tour companies will omit hidden costs, quote one price then charge another minutes later, describe one kind of transport yet book you on its poorer cousin, charge commissions reaching as high as 50%, pull departure times out of thin air – anything they can do to make your holiday that much less enjoyable. If you see a bus journey scheduled to arrive at a given time, take the overall quoted journey time and add at least 50% to get a reasonable ETA. That takes into account general bumblefuckery and the repeated stops at middle-of-nowhere restaurant shacks where you’re herded in to eat barely mediocre food at Hilton prices – you have no choice cause the bus won’t stop anywhere else. Oh, and as for booking a specific seat on the bus – they’ll tell you it’s a done deal but when you get on it’s first come, first served.
Hint – If you’re ever going there yourself make sure you book NOTHING through a hotel or tour company. Go directly to train or bus stations and make the bookings yourself, it’ll save a whole heap of trouble in the loong run. Oh, and always bargain with hotels, start at 50% of their quoted price at most and try not to go above 70%
Last thing (honest) is the hawkers. In Sapa it’s kinda cute – I mentioned in a previous post that the tribe girls are just lovely once you get past the sales pitch and start actually talking. They’re doing some honest work and they’re keeping everything they make, or at least they’re earning it for their families. Compare this to Hoi An where if a child comes up to offer postcards, wooden toys, whatever, you just have to say no, no matter how sweet they are. They’ll not get a cent, they’re put out onto the streets to work by hellbound Fagin-esque characters, and the best you can do is refuse in the hope that eventually the scheme will cease to be profitable.
It’s worst in Saigon though. I haven’t been here 24 hours and I’m already itching to leave. If you dare sit outside to eat a meal or have a beer you’d better prepare for the onslaught, a halfarsed sales pitch every two or three minutes ill you can’t take any more and head back inside. This morning a motorbike taxi propositioned me while I was eating my breakfast and, after I angrily dismissed him, proceeded to sit and wait till my plate had been taken away then try his luck again. Afterwards I sat and Skyped Em, during the course of which I had to shoo away several seedy sunglasses salesmen (awesome alliteration), some of which interrupted me while I was spekaing to her. Seriously, it was all I could to not to go off on one. They even act offended when you say no, seeing you as a walking wallet whose sole purpose in life is too dispense cash into their grubby mitts. Add to that the peddlers of photocopied books, each with a sideline in marijuana, the ten-year old kids selling cigarettes, the tat saleswomen (lighter? scissors? elastoplast? mercury tilt switch?) and the endless bar-crawling whores and you have a recipe for a generally unpleasant city.
Now I know spent a fair bit of time ranting there and it probably gives the wrong impression. I’m just letting off a bit of steam and overall Vietnam has a lot more in its favour than it does to detract from it. Final opinion though? Worth a holiday but get there soon, in a few years the price increases, economy (basically the pressure put on the population to try and make a buck from tourists)and overdevelopment are going to make it a different proposition altogether.
But on the good news front? In the time it’s taken me to write this I’ve gotten a whole half hour closer to seeing Em again. Whooop, holla, etc, etc 🙂
(Just remembered – there is one oasis of goodness in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, a small cafe called Sozo at 176 Bui Vien, District 1. It has the best coffee and cinnamon rolls I’ve tasted in god-knows how long and the place is staffed by disadvantaged local teenagers as a way to give them the skills they need to escape from poverty and make a good lives for themselves and their families. Make sure to drop in if you’re in the area. They’re also providing the free wi-fi I’m using to post this)