Vietnam was a whirlwind of travel. It seemed as though I was moving from place to place in quick succession yet I kept finding myself back in Hanoi with nothing to do. In between each excursion there would be a whole day of waiting for the bus or train. During that time Saleem and I would wander the city looking for something to do and although we searched and searched we never seemed to come across anything extraordinary. The first day was filled with bewilderment as we explored the foreign city, but the days after that dragged by. Maybe it was because we were anxiously awaiting a van, bus or train to take us to a far away place or maybe Hanoi is one of those cities where if you circled one block you’ve seen them all. It seemed like every street held the same things and although these things were quite fantastic after walking around for five or so hours boredom inevitably sets in. On our third and final day in Hanoi we wandered around aimlessly, during that time I made a list of what I think are the ten best and worst aspects of Vietnam. I’ll start with Vietnam’s undesirable traits.
1. The city that never
sleeps stops honking. Vietnamese drivers never stop beeping their horns, ever. They honk for every single reason and no reason at all. It is enough to drive someone insane, make a reasonable person lash out and cause a courteous lad to lose patience. By the last day I was cursing under my breath at the piercing horns that were blaring out around me. Saleem and I escaped the streets and hung out at a nice outdoor café for a few hours, until we finally stood up grumbling because we were so annoyed with the noisy traffic on the small side street.
2. Organized tours and treks. I don’t blame this one on Vietnam, but more myself. This was the first time I ever tried any type of tour and I confirmed what I knew all along, they’re not for me. They don’t allow for the flexibility that I need and want while exploring. When it comes down to it, each hotel is willing to tell you what you want to hear just to make commission from the tour. If I actually experienced the personalized tour that I was sold I would have had enjoyed it more, but my activities were bundled with dozens of other peoples’ of all ages and expectations which resulted in a mediocre venture. You live and you learn. Package tours are for tourists (hence the name) not travelers.
3. Bad for the bank. Vietnam is really expensive compared to other Southeast Asian countries. I was shocked to pay $15 for a hotel room; usually I spend only $5. Everything from the meals, merchandise and transportation was substantially higher. When you embark on an extensive backpacking trip it’s important to have a budget. I planned on spending $300 in Vietnam, but in the end I spent around $360. Going over budget is never good, especially not on the first of eight different countries.
4. Pounds of pollution. I’m happy to be in Laos so my lungs can take a breather. I felt like I filtered pounds upon pounds of smog, smoke and other pollutants during my time in Vietnam. At first I thought everyone looked comical in his or her facemasks, but by the end of my stay I was wishing I had purchased one.
5. Lack of street eats. I was disappointed that there wasn’t more cheap street food. I figured I would be eating fresh fruit and other simple meals purchased from street vendors, but they were nowhere to be found. I did take advantage of the ladies selling pineapple, oranges and water chestnuts, but other than a few fried food and sandwich stands there wasn’t much to pick from. To my dismay I ended up eating in restaurants more than I had budgeted for.
6. Street spitters. Everywhere I turned there was someone clearing their throat and spitting onto the street and sidewalk. It was obscene how many times a day I heard someone hocking up a loogie.
7. Straight face city. Maybe it’s more prominent in Hanoi, but people there didn’t smile that often. I realize I have been living in Thailand, aka the land of smiles, but geeze Vietnamese people stare at you like the citizens of Philadelphia. I felt like I was getting the cold shoulder from everyone as I walked down the street observing life in Hanoi, definitely not something I’m used to.
8. Censorship. I’m not sure the extent of censorship in Vietnam, but on most Internet servers Facebook was blocked. I also heard from an American working in Vietnam that his friend, a teacher at a Vietnamese high school, was asked to prepare a lesson about how the United States government is structured to share with her class so she googled a bunch of terms. The next week her Google and Yahoo search engines wouldn’t load on her computer anymore, meaning search engines are monitored and her access to information was revoked because someone didn’t approve of the material she was looking up.
9. Pushy sellers and tacky goods. If you’re into metallic gold painted housewares, bamboo placemats and cheap clothing than forgive me, but I think most of the merchandise in Vietnam is gaudy. Besides the beautiful handcrafted wood furniture, frames and instruments most of the goods are mass produced and unoriginal. Even the goods that were sold in the Sa Pa villages were straight out of a truck from China. It’s just not my style, which was probably a good thing because I didn’t need to spend any more money than I already did.
10 Lack of sidewalk space. The sidewalks in Vietnam are actually quite wide, but because one has to maneuver around hundreds of motorbikes and scooters there is barely any room to walk. Besides the motorbikes, stores and restaurants spill out onto the street. At first I liked the mix of indoor and outdoor space, but because there is so much going on on the sidewalk you have to walk in the street. The streets are just as busy with crowds of speeding bikes and honking cars; it can be a little overwhelming.
Now that you think I hate everything about Vietnam, let me get to the good stuff. There is a lot more positive than negative, but for the sake of your impending boredom this list only has ten items as well.
1. Fresh water chestnuts. I miss them already. In a few short days I became addicted to the fresh, juicy, crunchy water chestnuts in Hanoi. When I first purchased them I thought they were regular chestnuts, until I took a bite. I was a little confused and weired out, but after the second or third one I decided I really liked this mysterious fruit. A couple days later I found out they were water chestnuts and it all made sense. I love canned water chestnuts and I never had the chance to see or try a fresh one. Over the course of my final day in Hanoi I shelled out $6 and ate three bags.
2. Toothbrushes. I know, it’s a strange thing to be excited about, but every hotel we stayed at gave us free toothbrushes, soap and sometimes even a comb. I’ve stayed in barebones Thai hotels for the past six months. At most places you aren’t even given toilet paper or towels so you can understand how freebies light a little fire in my heart.
3. Pho reals. I’ve had bowls of Pho a few times in Philly, but damn is the real thing a thousand times better. There is no better cure for cold weather than a huge hot bowl of Pho. Ordering pho was the first Vietnamese phrase I correctly completed and most frequently used.
4. Tiny tea stoops. Even though I just complained about crowded sidewalks, I really enjoyed all the little tea stoops I came across in Hanoi. A place would have one, ten, or twenty tiny tables set up for tea drinkers. It was nice to see so many groups of people gathered around just to drink something warm. By the last day I even learned how to order ginger tea, which improved my tea stoop stops.
5. Bathrooms like back home. Vietnam had western toilets everywhere. I only came across one squatter and if you’ve been keeping up with the blog you saw what that looked like. It was horrific and I opted for Mother Nature instead. But that was a lone exception. Almost all the toilets had toilet paper too, it was an awesome change up from Thailand’s dirty digs.
6. Wifi for everyone, everywhere. Each of our hotels and restaurants had free wifi. It was nice to be able to do a quick email check everyday and it made blogging and posting photos a lot easier.
7. Lack of prostitutes. Not a specific characteristic I usually look for in a city, but it was really refreshing to get a break from the scene in Thailand. Spend a day in any city that has tourists in Thailand and you’ll recognize prostitutes before the night is over. I’ll give you a hint: find a middle-aged or older white man and look who is holding is hand. Obviously I have more animosity and disgust for the old white dudes, without demand there wouldn’t be supply.
8. Common space. Hanoi was crammed and crowded like most other cities in the world, but there was a refreshing amount of common space. In the center of the city sat an enormous pond that was lined with a wide sidewalk free of motorbikes and any other obstacles. There were grassy areas, benches and various spots to stop and enjoy the calm within the city.
9. Scooter skills. I cannot glaze over the importance of motorbikes in Vietnam. They must have the most per capita of any Southeastern Asian country. So many things are transported on scooters it would make your head spin. Besides all the goods and products, it’s the main way for people to get around. It isn’t uncommon to see entire families on one bike. Somehow the Vietnamese people have nailed an exact science for substituting their motorbikes for a car or a pick up truck. It’s something you have to see to believe.
10. Natural beauty. Unfortunately I visited Vietnam during one of the worst times. It was cloudy, rainy and cold throughout the week, but I was still able to see all the natural beauty the country has to offer. I’m inspired by the green mountains, enormous limestone formations and sprawling rice paddies that hug the mountainsides. I cannot wait for the chance to come back to Vietnam. Hopefully it will be during June or July when I can experience it all without the mist and fog.
That wraps up the best and worst aspects of Vietnam. It’s a small country that packs a lot of punch and unfortunately one week is only enough time to get a small taste of what it’s all about. I’ll be back, and next time I’ll be equipped with ear plugs, a facemask and a lot more dong to spend.