VIETNAM. Let Saigons be bygones

I HAVE JUST SPENT two weeks in Vietnam, backpacking alone, traversing the thousand mile length of the country by train and bus.

It has been lots of fun. I have met many travelers – some, like me, doing it totally independently, some on package tours.

Many have combined the two. They organized their travel to Vietnam by themselves, then while here they have taken a succession of short organized tours. One New Zealand couple I met in Hoi An had initially planned a group tour, but they said to me that the more they researched it, the more they realized they could do it all themselves.

Because I  was alone and I was researching a travel book, I took every opportunity to engage other travelers in conversation. Some of them I’m sure I annoyed. I was particularly interested in their philosophy of travel. Especially the extent to which they are able to be – or even want to be – independent, and the extent to which they are happy to have others do it for them.

The bottom line

The bottom line is – and I talk about this a lot in my upcoming book 'Do it Yourself Travel' – that there is no one size fits all answer. Even a totally independent traveler like me takes day tours when it makes sense to do so.

One Australian couple I met live in a small regional city, and their travel agent did it all door-to-door. She arranged a taxi from their home to the local airport, a flight to Sydney and then on to Saigon, and all the short tours around Vietnam. But even with this amount of structure, they still had lots of spare time to meet people like me who were just wandering around.

Lots of people said to me that they would not have learnt nearly so much, nor had nearly so good a time, if not for their guide.

Everybody I met loved Vietnam. It is very popular with visitors, young and old. You get hippies, you get families with young children, you get uptight French Canadiennes and adventurous Germans and half lost Italians.

The major attractions like Hoi An and Hanoi’s old town and Ha Long Bay are as tourist-ridden as anywhere on earth. But there’s a lot of beaten track to get off. It’s a wonderful country, and very big, with nearly 100 million people.

Nearly 50 years after the end of the war (referred to locally as the ‘American War’) there is still a notable cultural divide between North and South. What was South Vietnam is still much more capitalist, Christianity is stronger (about 10 percent of the population is Catholic), and the father of the nation Ho Chi Minh is less revered.

The main attraction in Saigon, that everyone goes to, is the War Remnants Museum. It catalogs in pretty graphic detail the mess that Americans made of this country in the 1960s and 70s.

It’s not propaganda, though I heard a few people in the museum say it was. The US totally ruined this country, in defiance of international law and the United Nations, for the most spurious of reasons. I only recently finished a detailed history of the war, which reminded me once again why I was threatened with expulsion from high school in 1971 for opposing the crime against humanity that was the Vietnam war.

The worst bit in the Museum is the display devoted to Agent Orange and the hideous deformities it caused in children unborn. There’s a room next to it with children’s paintings, which must have been part of some school project.

(‘OK children, today we going to talk about how the Americans poisoned and bombed our country and how they caused millions to die horrible deaths or live hellish lives. Paint what it means to you’).

Goodbye Saigon

I didn’t overly like Saigon (that’s what everybody still calls it – Ho Chi Minh City is for official use only). If you want a big bustling Asian city, Bangkok is much better. Or Hanoi. Hanoi’s old town is quite compact and easy to visit or stay in. Is a jumbled cacophony of bars and restaurants and hotels and shops that is enormous fun. Plenty of Westen tourists, all having a good time.

I spent five days there. I had a suit tailored. They could have done it all in the time I had, but I asked them to take their time and post it to me. Total US$400, from the best tailor in town (Kitonali). That’s top dollar – you can get two suits and some shirts in Hoi Ann for a coupla of hundred dollars (so I am informed – I hope they’re OK). I was limited to hand luggage only with my cheap airfare. No problem traveling ‘Nam with a small superlight backpack as my only luggage,

I liked Hoi An, but it is so touristy it is almost a theme park. Accept that, and it’s worth a visit. But my favorite place on this short trip was the old imperial capital of Hue, in the center of the country. It’s a city of about a million people, so it lacks the frenzied bustle of Saigon or Hanoi. The old Citadel across the Perfume River is modeled on Beijing’s Forbidden City. It is largely ruined, thanks partly to the battle of Hue in 1968’s Tet Offensive, but it is slowly being restored.

What made Hue for me was the fabulous Hotel Saigon Morin, right in the middle of town on the banks of the river. Is one of the few true old-style colonial hotels left in Asia, built by the French in 1901. For less than a lousy hundred bucks a night you can be transported back to the 1930s – and it’s the real thing, not some reimagining of it. And I was upgraded to a suite!

Ha Long Bay

I made a day trip yesterday from Hanoi to the famous Ha Long Bay, with its thousands of spectacular limestone formations jutting from the sea. Like the Taj Mahal in India, is one of those places that take your breath away when you actually see it, no matter many pictures you have seen of it beforehand.

If you’ve never been here, I strongly suggest you put Vietnam on your list of destinations. It is extremely good value for money. The people are wonderful, the food is delicious, and there arelots of things to see and do. Internal travel is easy, with lots of flights between the major cities. I got the train – two overnighters – but that’s just me – I love trains.

It really is an easy country to visit. Vietnam is the perfect example of a country that may seem outside the comfort zone to someone who has not traveled much, or who is wary of independent travel in developing countries. But it is easy, it is cheap, it is safe (though watch out crossing the road!), and it is great fun.

It is altogether fine for anybody, of any age, who is happy to travel independently. I would rank it with Thailand and Malaysia as South-East Asian countries where you can be completely confident that all will be OK. And it’s cheaper.

I had a couple of cabbies try to rip me off. I had some dud street food and was ill one day (maybe it was too much beer for a week). There’s far too much urging from the street hawkers. The money is hard to work out. The toilets on the trains are disgusting. Try to avoid officialdom or some ‘cousin’ will mysteriously appear and offer to solve your problems for a few hundred bucks.

All of which is petty stuff that pales into insignificance compared to the general quality of the food, the delightfulness of the people, the cheapness of the beer, and the sheer joy of being here.

I saw no abject poverty, I saw no crime, I saw no road accidents (astonishing, given how chaotic the traffic is). I met only wonderful people – locals and travelers. I horoughly enjoyed it.

Have you ever been across the sea to V'etnam
Then maybe at the closin’ of your day
You will sit and watch the moonrise over Hanoi
And see the sun go down on Ha Long Bay

I feel like I’ve hardly scratched the surface. I’ll be back. I love the place.

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