Trip Start Jun 05, 2011
195Trip End Feb 28, 2013
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It was with trepidation that we even went to Vietnam. For years, it has been on our list; a war-ravaged rough and tumble back route to travel overland into southern China. That was 20 plus years ago. Back then we had heard how difficult it was for foreign tourists to travel, with the overly aggressive touts and thieves. You always needed to be on guard. Always someone was trying to separate you from your money. Others who had been there agreed with this sentiment. Then 10 years ago, we began hearing stories about how great of place Vietnam was for people looking for someplace a little different. Even six years ago, we traveled briefly with Astrid who told us she wished she had spent less time in Vietnam and more time in Laos. Laotians are so much more laid back and friendly, she said.
Upon crossing the border from Cambodia, we immediately noticed a difference. The people of Vietnam appeared to more entrepreneurial. Everyone seemed to be in business. Selling vegetables on the roadside wasn’t good enough. Some set up their vegetables in the middle of the road to better serve the customers driving by on motorcycles. People were pleased to get us into their hotels and restaurants.
Sure we were overcharged on buses and probably paid too much in the markets. There are tourist cartels in some areas set up in an attempt to keep prices up. But nobody took our money and ran. Everyone always kept their end of the bargain.
We tried to be vigilant. Never did we have someone try to run off with one of our bags or rummage through our hotel room. We never had anything go missing. (Okay, my bossy cow toothbrush holder disappeared somewhere along the way - BOO HOO). We ran in to one guy who had his camera disappear from his table in a Hanoi restaurant while he sat right there. He did not know who to suspect. It was there when he sat down and gone when he got up to leave. Overall, it is not anymore dishonest than anywhere else in SE Asia.
We, as tourists, didn’t even notice much heavy-handedness by government officialdom. The press is monitored and policed if they speak out against the regime. But we don’t read local papers. The internet is said to be censored and controlled like in China. But we never experience any blocked content and the transmission rates were good. Controlled capitalism seems to be alive and well! But don’t look for McDonald’s or Walmart (yet); KFC and Big-C, yes. Lack of the international chains is one of the charms of Vietnam.
Also don’t expect to see environmental damage from napalm or agent orange used in the wars. Nature has a remarkable ability to recover. Vietnam is green and lush and even greener and lusher than its neighbors. Many towns will have a war monument or war museum but it doesn’t seem to be dwelled upon. Young people we saw were raising babies, many babies, growing food and working hard to make better lives for them and their children. Evenings are spent relaxing and socializing on porches and in coffee shops. People seem to be looking forward and not back.
Except for a few hundred kilometer strip between Saigon and Dalat, we didn’t see ostentatious religious monuments. This strip seemed to have its share of Catholic churches and overt homages. Most the country is Buddhist and the many temples are small neighborhood affairs. We didn't see anything you’d call 'a palace’.
We steered clear of the many beach settlements.
Cuisine: Two words, "Bun Cha". Two other nice words; “Nem Nướng”. Or two more; “Cao Lầu” Most Vietnam dishes are served with garden fresh vegetables and they don’t pack on the oil like seems mandatory in China. They do a lot of great things with tofu.
Coffee: In restaurants, coffees are definitively hit and miss. We’ve had some of the best and some of the worst. Ice coffee, served as a tiny cup of syrupy coffee with sweet condensed milk over ice, is nice in hot climates. They have the best instant Ca phe hoa tan, a red package you see all over with a #7 on it.
Motorcycle Explorations: Most tourist destinations rent motorcycles or scooters (automatic or manual. Or if you don’t ride, hire an Ex Om for the day, who can show you the best places. The Easy Riders motorcycle guides seem overpriced for what they are.
Ethnic Groups: still easy to find different Minorities with their own dress and traditions.
Mekong Delta: Venice of Vietnam with its maze of waterways. Great place to rent motorcycle or bike and get lost. The floating markets are fast disappearing as more road are built, so see these now.
Dalat: Laid back and scenic with lots of possibilities to discover surrounding area. LOVED the dried (maybe fried) vegetable chips, mixture of sweet potato, carrot, beets, green beans, okra. XQ Embroidery and Silk was a nice surprise.
Hoi an: Touristy, for good reason. Old town and great shopping with beautiful countryside.
Sapa: This town and surroundings begs to be explored by motorcycle and don’t forget breathtaking hikes. It was one of our most memorable stops and a nice place to linger.
Halong Bay: Yes, it is touristy but this place can’t be skipped. See the reason why it was voted one of the world’s 7 natural wonders.
BOTTOM LINE ON VIETNAM
It is a great tourist destination. Cultural Tourists, who are in to observing the different minority cultures with their unique traditions and customs will find opportunities plentiful in the mountainous areas in the central highlands but more so in the northeast and northwest. Packaged Tourist will love Halong Bay and Hoi An. Independent travelers will love backcountry adventures. Everyone will love the food.
We loved it all. The prices are easy on the budget and the hotels are an extremely good value for the level of the accommodations. Our spending went up a little bit in Vietnam because of big ticket items we bought; air tickets to get out and the Halong Tour.
We visited between the tourist high-season (Nov-Mar) and the rainy season (June-on). Except for in Hoi An, no place was crowded with tourists. It was a bit too hot and we didn’t see much rain. Those with a high temp tolerance will do fine! The weather allows you to travel light any time of year!
Yep, we recommend Vietnam for all type of travelers.