Vietnam is a bit of everything. It’s South East Asia at its best and worst. Overwhelming to not only the taste buds, but also the ears, nose and sometimes lungs from the dry hacking of exhaust. It’s definitely a place where you can sit on a street side stoop and have some of the best spiced chicken pho the world has to offer while enjoying some of the worst beer in the world. At the end of the day your tummy will be full and happy and the rest of you will likely want to sit in a sensory deprivation chamber devoid of all earthly stimuli.
We had just come from Taipei Taiwan, which is a city full of hustle and bustle, and everything you could ever want out of an Asian capital. The streets of Taipei are spotless, there are hordes of people everywhere and yet not a trash can in sight, and no one would ever dare cross an intersection without guidance from the animated neon green walking man crosswalk sign. Flying into Hanoi from Taipei was like taking the elevator down from the executive offices in a high rise to the mail room. Things still worked, just in a very different, loud, chaotic and slightly icky way.
Unfortunately we didn’t give Vietnam the slow treatment we gave some South American countries. So all of our time was on the well paved tourist trail from Hanoi to Saigon. Starting in the old city of Hanoi we spent a couple days exploring and seeing the sights, but really just walking around Hanoi was an adventure on its own. It was a term I would like to possibly coin called urban-trekking, which is really just like trekking in the mountains, but instead of watching every foot step for rocks, cracks and other natural hazards in Hanoi every step was carefully placed to avoid things like a sick dog, a hot tea kettle, various pieces of rebar and construction tools, or a puddle of questionable muck. It sounds gross, but it was actually pretty fun.
The one thing that stood out fairly quickly was how everyone, and I mean everyone in every shop, restaurant, hotel, or bar was also a tour booking company. Tourism is not really an industry on its own here, it’s more of a way of life, a cultural calling to every business owner to innately be able to book any variety of any half thought out tour in a matter of minutes. For our first jaunt into the cattle call of anglo-fueled side excursions we booked what seemed like a luxurious three night cruise on Vietnam’s famed Ha Long Bay. Pictures in the hotel’s tour book of a peaceful modern yet antiquity themed yacht and beach side bungalows was a luring promise away from the constant sensory overload of Hanoi. This fable was dimmed fairly quickly when we were first ushered into an overcrowded bus full of other white faces from other hotels all booking the same generic “luxury” trip.
The main port of Ha Long bay was a frantic crowded scene that ushered everyone along to their respective boats. From the very start of the boat trip everything was orchestrated with timely surgical precision. Bags in room, food served, kayaking, trips to caves, more food, sleeping, moving to another boat, more kayaking, marveling at giant rocks, and suddenly two days later we were back at the port having just been churned through the heartless tourism machinery.
However sterile the experience was the best part was our overly flamboyant tour guide who always referred to himself in the third person as “Chris”. The Chris had the greatest of times dressing us all up as ancient Vietnam kings and queens of yesteryear before dinner the first night. He took the selection of everyone’s individual costume very seriously. You simply could not have the wrong complexion to wear the yellow mandarin costume. Afterwards he demanded we all take pictures of each other before awkwardly removing the costumes and eating dinner. I’m pretty sure the happiest part of his week is dressing up unsuspecting tourists in whatever silky vibrant costume his drag mind envisions.
In Hanoi we also had the pleasure of visiting a place that I would not have wanted to visit 50 years ago, the infamous Hanoi Hilton where American POWs were held and tortured for years. Oh, wait, no that’s not right. The American imperialist pilots were treated quite well, feed three square meals a day, enjoyed many leisurely activities such as playing basketball, smoking their pipes and frequently writing back and forth to home.
The Hanoi Hilton was quite educational in these matters. I was in shock to find out that the books I’ve read of first hand testimonials from survivors of the Hanoi Hilton and the training I received in the Air Force were all quite inaccurate. After all why would a communist regime tell anything in a museum aside from the perfect unadulterated truth. This theme of American evil in the “American War” would follow us across much of the country. I honestly wasn’t sure how Vietnam was going to portray the war, but I don’t think I was ready for the sheer magnitude of the evil American imperialist propaganda about the genocide level atrocities we committed on this small peaceful farming country. Being in Vietnam made me uncomfortable to say I was from The U S of A because I knew that much of the population in Vietnam had been raised in this post-war environment and were spoon fed and still are being fed this propaganda about American demonology. Although this country lived and breathed on tourism and if I walked down the street wearing an American flag they would still be happy to sell me a cheap packaged tour, I had the eerie sense that they must all have been taught in school that America is terrible place full of subterranean looking trolls working away in bomb factories while flying their B-52s powered by the tears of Vietnamese orphans. So, for the first time since I traveled Europe ten years ago I said I was from Canada, or Iceland, or maybe the sole citizen of the great nation of Antarctica.
All and all Vietnam is a beautiful place, from the small glimpse I captured I saw a country with some really magnificent landscapes and a happy, energetic, and proud people. Unfortunately I also saw one of the most aggressive, cold, and generally unfriendly examples of mass marketed tourism I’ve come across.
Of course with South East Asia being such a cheap destination it’s a great stomping ground for the classic young, broke, uber low maintenance backpacker. So the market the’ve built is largely structured around that mindset. In all fairness if I had come to Vietnam several years ago when I was of the philosophy of cheap beer and cheaper dorm rooms I may have not even noticed the relative disrespect paid to the budget tourism market. Now, however I see tourists being treated more like ATM machines than people. There is little concern for hospitality and even less for common decency when it comes to how tour operators and guides behave to their clientele. The going assumption is that as a gringo 20-30 year old tourist not only are you a total idiot and you need to be told how to spend your money, but you enjoy generally sexually harassing comments from half cocked guides. And if these things bother you? What’s wrong? Relax! Have a beer! You’re on holiday!