#9 - Vietnam - Too Late?
April 1, 2002
Ho Chi Minh would turn over in his mausoleum
if he could see Vietnam today. Mike and I entered Saigon
from Cambodia and were taken aback by how modern and capitalist
it was. There were neon lights, skyscrapers, modern buildings,
and high-class restaurants everywhere. There were massive traffic
jams, thousands of motor scooters, and foreign tourists galore.
After Cambodia, where infrastructure was lacking and we mainly
saw backpackers, Vietnam came as quite a shock. Since opening
up the country to foreign travellers in 1986, Vietnam has seen
a steady increase in tourism. In 1999, 1.8 million tourists
from all over the world visited Vietnam, and last year saw the
largest increase of Americans and Chinese tourists ever.
Chinese, with their increasing disposable income, find it easy
and cheap to visit their fellow communist country to the south,
and Americans, curious about the little country that couldn't
be beaten by American military might, visit many of the war
sights. As two of the oodles of western tourists, Mike
and I had a go at the country, and this is what we found.
Cu Chi tunnels, a famous labyrinth of Vietcong guerrilla caves,
outside of Saigon had been transformed into a kind of amusement
park for the hundreds of thousands of tourists that visit it
each year. It was sickening that such light was made of
the multitudes of men and women that died on the same ground
that we were tramping around. We were allowed to crawl through
the tunnels on hands on knees, were shown various traps and
given demos about how they worked, given explanations on said
devices in gruesome details, took our photos with tanks and
weaponry, and given tea and taro root in the 'mess tunnel'.
Tourists could even go to the shooting range and fire off a
few rounds from an AK-47 for a dollar a pop. Although
interesting from a historical perspective, I would say give
Cu Chi a miss if you visit Vietnam. There are tunnels
in their 'un-disneytized' condition up by Hue that are supposed
to be far more interesting and in their natural state.
Trang was a major beach town one night bus ride away from Saigon.
We arrived at 5am after a crazy, sleepless night in a bus driven
by a man that could not seem to keep his blasted hand
off of the horn the entire night. Sleepy and sick (from something
that I caught in Thailand), I was amazed to see that the entire
town was up and walking the streets so early in the morning.
Thousands of people in their gym shoes and exercise gear were
pounding the pavement for health. Over the next few days, we
discovered that the people of Nha Trang were quite serious
in their exercise routines. Every evening, while we lounged
on the beach for sunset, groups of men and women would come
down to the beach for afternoon jogs, callisthenics, swims,
etc. We felt quite lazy - and unhealthy. But after all,
we were in Nha Trang for two things, and two things only: relaxation
and diving. Unfortunately, I was diagnosed with bronchitis and
laryngitis the day after we arrived there (I know - lucky Mike
- I could barely even whisper), and so Mike had to go diving
in the crystal clear water without me.
only had time to go to one other city up the coast if we wanted
to get to Hanoi, so we opted for Hue. Big mistake that
turned out to be. Although Hue was once the imperial city
of Vietnam, the palaces and tombs were largely destroyed by
the various wars that Vietnam has been a party to. Additionally,
the prices for entrance into these bombed out and non-restored
ruins were extraordinarily high. We tried to enter the
imperial palace through what we thought was the entrance, where
the ticket price was 5,000 dong (about 30 cents US). No
- we were informed - we must enter through the foreigner entrance....price
- 55,000. 11 times the local Vietnamese price.
you say", "we make much more than the Vietnamese and
so should pay more for certain entrances". Yes, but
I make zero money - I am a student and not working. And
since when was the price of something determined by how much
money one makes. From Pricing classes during my MBA, I was taught
that you should price something according to how much an individual
customer would value that product (as well as how much the product
costs to make, etc. etc.). And believe me, the entrance
to the ruins we saw in Hue should not have been valued at 55,000
dong by anyone. The fact that we were constantly being overcharged
by everyone was starting to get on our nerves. Street
vendors would ask 10 times the real price for a good and haggling
for a fair price was starting to become very tiring. After our
nightmare bus ride to Nha Trang, we opted to take overnight
trains - but because of the overcrowding - and the lack of proper
capacity for the vastly increased number of tourists, we could
never get a sleeping car. Vietnam was starting to wear
tireless night train from Hue got us to our favorite destination
in Vietnam - Hanoi. The old quarter in Hanoi was how we
imagined Vietnam to be before we arrived - quaint little alleys
with vendors selling local goods, fruit markets, women on bicycles
selling flowers. We explored many of Hanoi's sights, and were
pleased to find that entrance fees for foreigners were very
reasonable, although we still had to bargain hard for tourist
paraphernalia. We took a two day trip to Halong Bay - gorgeous
- and then returned to Hanoi for another night, eating fabulous
French food and going to the wonderful Jazz cafe in the old-quarter.
If you go to Vietnam, we highly recommend Hanoi.
We were warned by one of Mike's friends that
Vietnam was a disappointment. The main complaint was that there
were too many tourists, and that the Vietnamese, in their newly
found capitalist zeal, were constantly overcharging foreigners.
I wish that I had had the opportunity to visit Vietnam 5 or
6 years ago. That is when people say that Vietnam was
a friendly, quiet, and unassuming place. Well that no
longer appears to be the case - Vietnam has been corrupted by
too many tourists in my opinion. As an independent traveller
it's hard to stomach the feeling that you are being constantly
ripped off in some manner or another. I would suggest going
with an all-inclusive tour group where you don't have to deal
with it, only visiting the north of the country (including Hanoi,
Halong Bay, and the ethnic hill tribe regions), or just giving
Vietnam a miss entirely.