Vietnam was one of the only destinations we knew for sure we wanted to visit when we started to plan our our itinerary. After living in what could be considered Vancouver’s “Little Vietnam”, we were mostly drawn to the food (which I’ve since discovered is so much more than phở and bánh mìs) and the fact that travelling there would go easy on our budget for a couple months as our travel fund recovered from Japan and prepared for New Zealand. Since it’s impossible (or at least to us not appealing) to plan every detail of a year-long trip before starting it, we really hadn’t done a ton of research on Vietnam before we arrived. And for that I’m grateful as this country has surprised us in so many ways as we’ve made our way from South to North over the past month. Some of our most memorable experiences were in the places we knew nothing about until we hopped on a bus and made our way there. Here are some thoughts and stories from our time in Vietnam so far.
A little white lie in the name of adventure
A few days after we arrived in Vietnam, we caught a flight to Phu Quoc Island on New Year’s Eve. After reading Lonely Planet’s description of the island as an idyllic, white sand escape from the mainland, it sounded like the perfect place for us to find some peace and quiet after spending 4 days in hectic (that’s an understatement!) Ho Chi Minh City. I guess we should have known that NYE wouldn’t be a good time to find peace and quiet anywhere, let alone Vietnam – and especially not Russia’s favourite part of Vietnam! Instead of serene silence, we were welcomed to the island by a lot of hairy Russian dudes in Speedos, obnoxiously loud karaoke, and a flashing building just down from our bungalow that looked like it had been transported from the Vegas strip. I was disappointed to be sure, but consoled by the thought that we’d be able to rent a scooter, go exploring, and find our own slice of secluded paradise that we could enjoy all to ourselves.
The next day we visited every rental shop within a 2km radius (which is A LOT), and they were all sold out of bikes. We Eeyore-sauntered our way back to the bungalow and came up with a game plan to set out early the next morning to secure ourselves a bike. The next day – at last – we found a shop that had bikes. The helmets were on our heads. The keys were in Mike’s hand. I could already feel the wind blowing my hair back as we cruised the island on this hot-pink, two-wheeled ride. Then, Mike innocently admitted to the woman at the rental shop that this was his first time riding a scooter and in an instant it was all taken away. As she shook her head back and forth, my heart sank lower and lower. I was reliving my Bali nightmares all over again when nobody would rent me a scooter there either and I’d missed out on seeing 3/4 of Nusa Lembongan. Now Phu Quoc would suffer the same fate.
But, as my parents can attest to, nothing makes me angrier than somebody telling me I can’t do something. I decided that this would not happen again. I would not let another island go unexplored! I surprised even myself when I boldly told the woman “I can drive it. I’ve done it before”.
It was a lie. I had no idea what I was doing.
She looked at me skeptically as she gave me the keys. The skepticism escalated when I asked for a brief refresher on how exactly I was supposed to make the bike stop and go? “It’s been a little while,” I said. Despite the required tutorial, she let me take it for a test drive to prove my competence. My legs were shaking as I rounded the corner of the bumpy, narrow street of the test lap track, but I somehow made it back to the shop. She seemed to approve of my non-existent scooter skills. My next test was to drive with a passenger. The woman crossed her arms and watched closely as Mike got on behind me. I revved the gas and nearly ran into a wall as I took the corner too wide. Luckily we were out of sight of the rental shop by then so she saw nothing. We arrived back at the shop in one piece and the woman said, “Be back by 5pm”.
We were free! The island was our oyster and we spent the day discovering remote beaches and finding out where random dirt roads would take us. Now that my driving skills have improved and I no longer feel a sense of dread every time I have to make a left turn, two-wheeled transportation is definitely my preferred way to get around Vietnam! Plus, getting tons of stares as we defy gender scooter roles is pretty awesome too.
The paradox of cheap travel
Travelling to a country like Vietnam is appealing to the backpacker crowd (us included) for a number of reasons. It’s cheap, the weather is warm (at least in the South), the food is delicious, there’s plenty to see and do, and there’s a well-established tourist trail to make you feel comfortable, but still a little edgy because it’s not too comfortable.
For the most part, locals are incredibly welcoming to the influx of tourists coming to take advantage of the long list of experiences their nation has to offer and it’s easy to find yourself thinking that this is the way it should be. After all, shouldn’t any developing nation be grateful for our business? Just four decades ago, people were fleeing Vietnam by the millions trying to escape post-war horrors, and now Westerners want to PAY MONEY to visit this place! It’s a miracle, isn’t it? The locals surely don’t mind that we all came here for a cheap vacation because with tourism, everybody wins, right?
It’s hard to give a definitive answer to that question and it’s something Mike and I have been talking about a lot.
Nearly 13 million visitors came to Vietnam last year so some people are definitely winning at the tourism game. You can tell because everybody seems to want a piece of it. We visited the incredible Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park and took a bike ride to a local joint recommended by our farmstay called The Pub With Cold Beer. The name was coined by the farmstay owner who had reportedly stopped in at the restaurant before there was any real infrastructure in the area (including refrigeration!) and cheekily asked the woman there for a cold beer. Miraculously she presented him with an ice cold brew and henceforth it became known as The Pub With Cold Beer. Now it’s so popular with tourists the we passed not one, but TWO copycat versions on the bike ride there who had also created signs calling themselves The Pub With Cold Beer trying to trick tourists into going to the wrong place!
While many Vietnamese are doing whatever it takes to win our business, others seem less welcoming. On the same bike ride back from The Pub With Cold Beer, one local woman who appeared to have just returned from her work in the rice fields started yelling and gesturing angrily at us. Shortly after, some little kids (maybe hers?) replaced the friendly “hello!” we’d heard all day with the less friendly, “‘BUCK ‘EW!”, which I assume was a poorly pronounced version of FU. On another occasion, a woman who seemed to own the only laundromat in entire city of Chau Doc flat out refused to clean our dirty clothes. She shooed us and our neon laundry bag away with a series of claps and points the way you’d treat a stray dog trying to snatch a piece of meat off your dinner table. Although both these instances were hilariously absurd in their own right, it was hard not to feel a little hurt. As a big advocate for customer service and treating all humans with respect (no matter who they are), that kind of unprovoked treatment seemed extreme to me.
Then again, maybe it’s not that extreme.
One of our guides told us that the average rice crop yields about $30 US dollars. With only two crops per year in the North, that’s an outrageously small profit for work that involves standing in mud up to your knees day after day. When this is the reality for locals, do we deserve to come here to drink their $1 beers and eat their $2 noodles and stay at their $20 hotel rooms AND have them clean our dirty socks with a goddamn smile on their face too? Maybe we don’t. In fact, even suggesting it sounds pretty bloody entitled. When most Westerns are gallivanting around with no knowledge of the Vietnamese language, little interest in the culture, spending more than an entire rice crop’s yield every single day, I can see how that might be fairly annoying to someone living in poverty who just wants to go about their life without anybody taking photos of them in their cute, cone-shaped hats. But all of this is pure speculation. Maybe that seemingly angry woman was just trying to warn us that we shouldn’t bike on that road because we could get charged by a heard of water buffalo. And maybe those little kids were imitating a sneeze, not a swear word. After all, I’m just a tourist who has no idea what they are saying.
The nation’s pride
We were lucky enough to be in Vietnam when the country’s U23 soccer team played in the semi-finals and finals of the Asian Cup. It was amazing to see the entire country get behind this team of underdogs. On the day of the finals, we were supposed to catch a flight to Hanoi in the evening which meant making our way from the rural farming village we were staying at to the airport in Dong Hoi. We thought we’d take the bus to save a few dollars so we strapped on our backpacks and made our way out to the ‘bus stop’ around 2pm. There’s only one bus running this route every hour and when we flagged it down going in the opposite direction of the airport, we were promptly informed that it would not run again until 5pm, or after the game had finished. Like the rest of the country, the bus driver was apparently a soccer fan too. Our hotel found us a reluctant driver to take us to the airport and when we arrived, the shops and check-in counters were completely deserted. All eyes were glued to the airport’s two televisions streaming the match. Even our flight had been suspiciously delayed until after the game would be over!
In the end, Vietnam suffered a heartbreaking 2-1 loss in the finals and we wondered what the mood would be like when our flight landed in Hanoi where the team was headquartered. Was Vietnam prone to riots? Would it be reminiscent of downtown Vancouver after the Canucks lost in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals? There was enough hype around this game that it seemed plausible. As our airport bus approached Hanoi’s Old Quarter, traffic came to a standstill. Hundreds of red and yellow-clad fans waved their Vietnam flags out of car sunroofs, honking and hollering as they weaved their scooters in and out of traffic to join the mass of fans that had converged ahead. The mood was decidedly cheerful despite the loss. Although we were nowhere near our final destination, the bus driver decided this was a good a place as any to make us get out. Outside the shelter of the bus, the atmosphere was completely overwhelming. A constant stream of scooters driving on the (already narrow) sidewalks meant I got stuck more than once in a space the size of my backpack waiting for a break in the traffic to continue onward. But despite the discomfort of carrying my heavy-ass bag through this dizzying mass, it was hard not to simultaneously love it. The sheer joy and pride on the faces of these fans – even after their team had lost – was contagious and as I smiled back at them they stuck their hands out for high fives as they passed me in my little enclave. I think I even heard one girl apologize on behalf of the city for this gongshow we’d arrived in.
When the U23 team returned to Vietnam from China the next day, the fans gathered again outside the Hanoi airport to enthusiastically welcome them home. The crowd was so thick that nobody could get in or out of the airport. Probably more than one flight was missed. It was fucking heartwarming.