I had some trepidation about visiting Vietnam. I was warned that it would be similar to China in terms of hawking, touts, impatience and aggression, and considering the hard time I had in China, I wasn’t sure about subjecting myself to all that stress again. However, my friend showed me his pictures of Sapa and I knew I had to go. I decided I would spend a minimal amount of time there. I estimated 10 days. Instead, I ended up staying for 3 weeks and left knowing I would like to one day go back again
Vietnam is notorious for being scam central and the start of my trip in Hanoi did nothing but confirm this. After the 28-hour bus ride, a woman met us at the bus station. She struck me as a phoney who tried too hard to be nice. My friends and I thought she was the orchestrator of the long bus ride in order to get us to stay at her hotel. At first we were adamant about staying elsewhere, but the rooms were fine and we were too tired to find accommodation. During our entire stay there, the two women working at the hotel continually gave fake smiles and asked us to book tours with them. We ended up booking our Halong Bay trip with a travel agent instead. On the day of our checkout, the woman had a complete 180 degree reversal in attitude. She was extremely cold. I asked her, what’s wrong? Are you having a bad day. Are you unhappy? She replied with a stern face, “I’m not happy”. She then told us that we drank two Cokes, a Sprite, a small bottle and large bottle of water from the minibar which was all untrue. (This is a common scam in Vietnam.) We promised her that we didn’t and refused to pay. Later, we found out that a few of my friends were overcharged for the conversion of US dollars to dong. They trusted the woman and paid without checking. Not exactly an auspicious start to Vietnam. The unfortunate thing is that these are the first impressions that cause people to leave or dislike Vietnam. These scammers don’t realize or don’t care that their actions reflect on the entire country. It may not be fair to the general populace, but it’s the reality.
Hanoi is a frenetic, claustrophobic city. The old town is a cluster of streets which each specialize in a good such as shoes, toys,or snacks. The roads are narrow and roaring with motorcycles and bicycles. At first, I had a hard time adjusting to traffic and was nearly hit, however you notice that the motorcycles are actually moving quite slow so as long as you keep a predictable pace, the bikes will avoid you.
The highlight for me was the water puppet show, a centuries-old tradition with roots in the rural villages of Vietnam. It is an elegant artistic form and even though I did not understand a word, I thought the show was great. The puppets are on the end of a pole and flutter around in the water while the orchestra provides music. I was enthralled by the dan bau, an instrument which reminded me of an archaic theremin.
I got lost walking down an extremely long street with the most random grouping of stores. Metal-welding shops were beside hairdressers, internet shops and sweatshops. This long street led to a non-touristy area. While trying to figure out how to get back, I suddenly screamed. I saw two racks of funny shaped animal bodies cooked brown. Next to it I saw two racks of cooked dog heads. A woman then proceeded to lay a head on a tray and serve it to a man. I had actually seen one cooked dog in Sapa prior to this but I was still startled by the sight. While I’m not exactly against the eating of dog meat, I think that the way they serve it in Vietnam is absolutely disgusting.
On the first day, I visited a cave which was the most magnificent I’d ever seen. One negative was it was glitzed up to be something like a theme park. Neon lights were illuminating the caves and a path was cut into the floor. We spent the evening on a boat (called a junk in Vietnamese) On the second day, I hiked up the sketchiest trail I’ve ever seen. It was slippery from the rain and the ground comprised of sharp rocks. There were handrails in some parts but they were mostly rusty and sharp. Once we reached the top, there was only space for 20 people but since every tour group did the same thing, there were way more beyond capacity. I was worried about going down the trail but persevered by climbing down with my hands and bum.
The second night was spent in Cat Ba, a chilled out town with amazing sunsets. Hues of yellow quickly turned to orange and red which turned to purple and pink. It was definitely one of the best sunsets of the trip.
Sapa is absolutely stunning. My mouth was constantly agape with awe as I saw the scenery before me. It is green valleys of rice terraces that extend for kilometres with Fansipan, Vietnamâ€™s highest peak, in the background.
Sapa is also home to the Black H’mong and Red Dzao minority tribes who each have colourful costumes.
Consequently, Sapa is a major tourist destination in Vietnam and you can see how the livelihoods of the two groups have been bastardized by this boom. Both groups primarily make a living by selling handicrafts to tourists. The Black Hâ€™mong are especially aggressive sellers. The moment I showed interest in a bracelet to one girl, I was suddenly surrounded by 15 girls all asking me, “You buy from me?” which freaked my claustrophobic self out.
Not only are the minority groups hawking, you are also constantly harassed by local men offering motorcycle rides. To be honest, Sapa is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen but it would have been much better if there weren’t so many hawkers. At first I was really irritated with the sellers but later I had a moment of realization: it’s just as annoying for them to be bugging us and for us to reject them. Since then, I’ve generally had more patience with the different vendors of SE Asia…generally.
I paid for a personal tour through the villages and rice fields of Lao Chai and Tavin by a Black H’mong guide named Baa.
This trail was a huge tourist trap. As you walked along, a cute young girl would tag along. In my case, the girl was Zaa. I knew that she would eventually ask me to buy stuff but I still tried to befriend the young girl and she was sweet and reciprocated. I took photos of her and promised to print them out because I knew she didn’t have many of herself; I also shared my lunch with her. She then asked me to buy something. I asked her how much, and she quoted a price four times above the market rate. She wouldn’t budge from her price. I eventually bought something I didn’t need. I felt betrayed but I kept my word and left her some photos with my hotel reception.
The tour wasn’t a total loss. Not only did I see spectacular scenery, I also learned a bit about Black Hâ€™Mong culture. Most girls marry at 18 and have babies immediately. There are some H’mong girls who have married foreigners, Norwegian, Korean and Canadian amongst them. And they are allowed to intermarry with other cultures but would have to change from one traditional costume to another.
At the Sapa train station, I went to use the toilet which cost 5000 dong. An Asian girl paid ahead of me but only washed her hands which I knew was an indication that the toilet was dirty. It was also an indication that the girl was a fellow traveller, not a local. I went to look and said, “Oh my god”. The girl then turned around and told me she’d experienced worst in the Hanoi train station. We struck up a conversation and I learned that she was also from Toronto. The girl was extremely friendly and introduced me to another friend, a Kiwi. She suggested we travel together…all this without knowing me! Luckily we got along and travelled through Vietnam and Cambodia together.
The bus ride from Hanoi to Hue was our first sleeper bus in Vietnam which is basically a bus chassis with three columns of mini bunk beds that can barely fit me, let alone the average Westerner. I don’t think the bus would meet safety standards back home. Whenever the bus went over a pothole, the entire bus shook and everyone on the top bunks would have to grab on to something to stop themselves from falling to the ground. Still, the concept is funny and it was an interesting experience to be on it.
Unfortunately it was raining our only day in Hue. We hired motorcycles and drivers who took us to the major sites, two of which are designated UNESCO world heritage. The Citadel/Imperial Enclosure was pretty once you got past the scaffolding. We saw a few pagodas, includng one where we saw a group of Buddhist monks chanting.
And we passed by the perfume river which was foggy from the ran. We ended at Tu Duc Tomb but I was so cold at this point I was just going through the motions. I don’t remember much about it.
The town, however, is most known for being the tailor capital of Vietnam which is why I call it the Land of Elves, or the Land of Oompah Loompahs. It is a place where any apparel you desire can be made-to-measure in a 12-hour turnaround. Do you want a new suit, a new dress, shoes, a new bag? Go to Hoi An.
There are over 900 tailor shops in Hoi An, a small town of just 75 000 inhabitants. The shops are not clustered in one area but have permeated the entire city. I was overwhelmed by all the choices and if not for my friends, I would not have bought a thing. There are so many tailors, it is hard to distinguish the makers from the fakers. There is no concept of originality in Southeast Asia. This is especially true in Vietnam where there are no copyright laws and every business has the exact same name or product. Once someone develops a good idea, everyone jumps on the bandwagon.
In the end, I bought a couple of jackets, a few dresses, a skirt and pants. However, it was nothing compared to my friend who had planned back in Canada that she would have lots of clothing made. The quality varied amongst the stores, although nothing was really bad. You still had to have an extra fitting or two to get the clothing to fit. However, we finished with a wonderful tailor shop called Faifoo. The gentle husband and wife pair are experienced tailors and actually train their staff themselves. They made us nice dresses and also fixed some of the other shops’ mistakes.
After nearly two and a half full days of shopping, I was getting really tired of the city. The worst bit was that since the tailor shops are found everywhere you cannot not escape the tantalizing mannequins adorned in each store’s doorway. We ended up staying in Hoi An for 5 days but I can’t say we actually saw anything besides the tailor shops in the old town. It was raining hard the last two days which made us even more anxious to leave. I also knew my friend really needed a new environment as she kept worrying about her clothes so much that she was dreaming about tailor shops!
Another great thing about Hoi An? The food! It was generally of superb quality. The Cao Lai and fresh spring rolls were especially good. We also had the best pho I’ve ever tasted in one of our tailor’s shops. The beef broth had a wonderful papaya taste and aroma. We went back to the shop the next day for more food. It was quite hilarious, slurping on noodles surrounded by fabrics and mannequins. The two saleswomen were also interesting. As we got to know them, we started to get weirded out by them. The best word to describe them is special. I think I’ll talk about them more in another post.
We took a night bus to Nha Trang and took one out the same day we arrived. It is supposed to be a great beach town but we only stayed part of a day because of the poor weather. My friend and I walked the streets of the town and stumbled upon a disturbing scene. A woman was lying on the ground with two kids surrounding her. We thought she might have passed out and decided to go help. We gave her a bottle of water and noticed a bag of medicine beside her. We tried to communicate with the kids but they did not speak any English. Eventually a vendor walked by and we asked if the woman was okay. She said that she needed money for medicine because she was sick. We weren’t sure what to do but in the end we decided not to give her money. It was a disturbing scene but we weren’t sure if it was a ploy or reality. I’m sure it was the latter since medical care is rare, but we couldn’t discount the possibility of the former. I felt particularly sad for the kids because if it’s either, it’s something that they should not witness.
We visited the Long Thanh Gallery featuring the works of the Vietnamese photographer. His work was of superb quality, mostly black and white photos portraying Vietnamese life. He used shadows beautifully and had a great way of framing his photos. They have an old-time quality and he said that it is harder to photograph in this age with all the modern distractions (tangible and intangible).
We also visited the Long Son pagoda with a giant-seated Buddha at the top. We went in the early evening, before the sunset. Because it had been raining, there were clouds everywhere giving the Buddha a foreboding, ominous look.
The night bus to Ho Chi Minh city was the worst one I experienced on the entire trip. It was another sleeper bus, but two of us and my friend Jason from the death bus were crammed into the top bunks at the rear of the bus. On most buses, this area has 4 spots but this time, there were 5. I was on one end beside my friend and the window with my legs underneath the seat in front of me. My friend is a tall guy so his broad shoulders were digging into mine. I tried to sleep on my side but my face kept hitting the window. In total, I got 1 hour of miserable sleep. The most messed up thing about this? There were a few free spots scattered throughout the bus including the 5 seats underneath us which one guy had all to himself as his own personal bed. The woman wouldn’t let us lie elsewhere! Total Vietnamese randomness!
Ho Chi Minh City
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh city (aka Saigon) and looked for accommodation with our heavy backpacks. A woman asked us to see a room which we agreed to after she told us the price. She led us to a strange hotel which had a tailor shop on the main floor. The manager showed us the room which looked fine so we agreed to take it, however, he decided to double the price. We refused as we cannot tolerate that kind of duplicity. In the end we found the greatest room: a loft room on the 5th floor of a guesthouse. There were windows on 3 of the 4 walls, a mini-fridge with drinks cheaper than the mart, and neon disco-style lights.
Ho Chi Minh city has a much more relaxed and modern feel than its northern counterpart, Hanoi. Although the city has more than 1 million motorbikes, it felt much less frenetic and claustrophobic than Hanoi. The streets are wider but hence, harder to cross. Generally, motorbikes went the right way, but sometimes a rogue motorcyclist would drive the opposite way on the shoulder or sidewalk which made the streets harder to cross.
We visited The Reunification Palace which was a big disappointment. While the architecture was nice in some parts, it was mostly outdated 70s decor.
Next was the War Remnants museum detailing the atrocities committed by the Americans during the Vietnam War. There were sickening photos of Americans GIs posing beside dead corpses or holding up human heads with huge smiles on their faces. What kind of brainwashing is needed to make a human forget their compassion and humanity?
Lastly, we made a daytrip out to the Cu Chi tunnels, an incredible network of underground tunnels dug by the Viet Cong. The entire network spanned at least 200 km! One realization Iâ€™ve had from visiting here is you cannot be claustrophobic if you want to be in the army. Boy, these tunnels were tiny. We went through one stretch which was widened for Westerners but it was still small. Most Americans, even in the 70s, would not be able to fit which is why the tunnels heavily contributed to the South Vietnam/American defeat.
On our last day, we visited the Emperor Jade pagoda which was a bit of a disappointment. Damn Lonely Planet and their descriptions! The carvings were ornate but other than that, it was nothing special. We made one last stop at the Post Office which is a beautiful French-inspired edifice reminiscent of a train station, and the Notre Dame. HCMC was cool but our Kiwi friend was on a bit of a schedule so we left for the Mekong.
We decided to go to Can Tho in the Mekong delta. It was farther away from HCMC than some of the other major Mekong towns so we figured it woud be less touristy and crowded. The minivan ride was hilarious, us crammed with Vietnamese locals in a tiny vehicle. There was no space for our packs except by our feet, so it was pretty uncomfortable. We had fun watching motorbikes on the road. Families of five crammed onto one motorbike, children conked out on the dashboard. I think the locals thought we were nuts because we were laughing so much.
The rest stop was the best one I’ve ever visited. Rather than the usual tourist trap, we stopped where the locals go. This stop had food stalls, fruit stalls, snack stalls, clothes, shoes. The restroom area was partitioned so that the toilets were closed off, but the sinks were in an open space. All the Vietnamese men wet and patted down their hair, washed their faces and rinsed out their mouths.
We arrived in Can Tho late in the night and headed to one of the guesthouses mentioned in the LP. A lady showed us an attic room with a trapdoor. The first thing I noticed upon entering was a shrine to the lady’s dead parents. I was spooked but my friends didn’t notice the shrine and said that it was fine, so I agreed. It was dark and raining and we were only staying one night. We booked a boat tour with the lady’s neighbour who spoke excellent English.
We woke up at 5:00 am the next morning. At 5:30 am, we were greeted by a different man. He led us to a food stall where we had tea surrounded by yesterday’s man and a few other men. Then another man led us to the boat and handed us to the boat driver. Our guide was to join us later. I’m not sure how our money was being spread amongst all these people. We caught the sunrise which was gorgeous.
Mekong life is much slower than elsewhere in Vietnam. Children would run to the river’s edge to give us a wave and a smile. I loved watching the beautiful faces pass our boat and getting a glimpse of a lifestyle completely different from my own. Our first stop was Cai Rang floating market. Everything was sold, from pineapples to toothbrushes. At one point, a man jumped into our boat. I thought he was passing by to get onto the adjacent boat. But he was actually our guide. I never asked him how he got onto the other boat and why he didn’t meet us at the dock instead.
The Phuong Dien floating market, our second stop, is generally considered the best market in the Mekong since it’s only wooden boats. Unfortunately most of the activity had died down when we arrived because it had been raining. Still, we saw some funny things including a boat with live ducks and a scale!
The rest of the day was spent motoring through canals lined with palm trees. Although it was beautiful, the water was ridiculously polluted. By the end of our trip, our motor caught 12 plastic bags. The water was more polluted and the houses more dilapidated as you approached the city.
After the boat ride, we perused through a few markets. This is the only town or city in Southeast Asia where no one attempted to sell me something. When I asked them a price, they would give one and if I walked away, they wouldn’t run after you. And this was in Vietnam! I love it here!
This is the gateway to Cambodia and hence, our last stop in Vietnam. Unfortunately, our memories from this place will only be negative. Cyclos following us for 20 minutes, motorcycle taxi drivers lying to us and secretly following us, people lying about the exchange rate. Avoid this place if you can!