Roundup Vietnam: A country of many facets

Hanoi Museum, VietnamI was meant to travel Vietnam a lot earlier, right after my Cambodia trip, but a rather spontaneous change of my itinerary forced me to postpone this adventure by more than three months. Having finally booked my ticket to Hanoi and a rough outline of places to visit in my head, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. A good amount of fellow travelers told me a lot of good things about the country. Others said that they didn’t like the people and their attitude and that the country has already become too touristy. By that time I had already been to 7 other countries and I was worried that Vietnam would just not be able to fascinate me anymore. Luckily I was very wrong and it turned out to be a great trip, with all kinds of different adventures, beautiful places and memorable encounters with the locals.

For many, arriving in Hanoi is sort of a huge culture shock. It is loud, it is busy and it can be quiet dirty at times. I wasn’t too overwhelmed and actually got to like it pretty much right away. It’s a very dynamic city, the street food is marvelous and, contrary to what I have heard before, I found the locals very friendly. What I found very striking and what accompanied me as we traveled across the country was Vietnam’s ambivalent relation to the past and present. On the one hand the country’s history plays a very important role and sometimes seems to even dominate its society. The colonial times, the Vietnam War but also all of the ancient history – in an abstract way it is something that is ever-present wherever you go. On the other hand you will see a country that is on the move, values change, a new middle-class is emerging and the young people want to advance, leave things behind and move forward. In Hanoi this interesting mix became most evident.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi. One of the most sacred places in Vietnam.

Inside the Temple of Literature ...

Inside the Temple of Literature …

Hanoi streetfood, Vietnam

Some good street food in Hanoi

So what about the tourism in Vietnam? It is said that Vietnam is the touristiest Southeast Asian country just after Thailand. It is true that these days the country gets a huge influx of tourists of all kinds – backpackers as well as all inclusive tours from Europe, the US and China. But there are still ways to dodge the crowds. Our motorbike trip across the mountains of Ha Giang was a perfect example for this. It is a bit out of the way, it takes some time, it might be inconvenient for some but for us the adventure we got in exchange was more than rewarding. Beautiful scenery, authentic hill tribes and yet not a lot of tourists made it one of the best trips of my entire journey.
At the same time, things can become very touristy. Good examples would be the tours of Halong Bay (which I did but did not even cover here), in my opinion one of the most overrated things ever, the still picturesque Hoi An and beach getaways like Nha Trang. I guess it depends what you are after and how you define a great holiday. The good thing about Vietnam is, that it offers a little bit of everything.

Only 56km to go ...

Only 58km to go …

Exploring the countryside around Dong Van.

Exploring the countryside around Dong Van.

Ha Giang Motorbike Trip - New friends

New friends made on the road from Ha Giang to Dong Van

One thing is for sure though; Vietnam is the perfect country to be explored by motorbike. As most of you might know by now, it is my preferred type of transport anyhow. But Vietnam offers a great variety of exciting and interesting tours. At first my plan was to buy a bike in Hanoi and then drive down all the way to Saigon to sell it. But I soon realized that, in order to travel without time pressure, this endeavor would take more than a month. Some people do it in 2-3 weeks but I think besides the riding and a severe butt pain at the end, a trip like that wouldn’t be that enjoyable. I opted for renting here and there, either for day trips or extended road trips. Looking back at it, this was the best decision and enabled us to make the most out of the 4 weeks we had. I can recommend doing the Ha Giang loop in the North, going from Hue to Hoi and via Danang and day tours in Dalat or the Mekong Delta. Every one of these trips was worth it and with an average price of about 5-7 USD per day for a bike, it’s affordable as well.

Ha Giang Motorbike Trip

Taking a break from riding somewhere in Northern Vietnam

I was positively surprised by the Vietnamese people as I heard a few bad stories before. Everyone was friendly and helpful and we had some great encounters with the locals. They can be very straight forward and they do let it show if they are not content with something. But once you learn how to interpret this, everything is fine. What I found frustrating at times was the fact that you had to haggle for literally everything. Transport, goods and sometimes even a bottle of water. To a certain degree this can be found in all of Southeast Asia and it’s normal but here it was a little too much. It seemed like people perceive Western tourists as moneybags and always try to extract the biggest amount of money as possible. As I later learned, this as well has its roots in former governmental policies and is only slowly changing. At the end of my trip the constant haggling and the abstract feeling of being overcharged just became very tiring.

I finished my journey in the Mekong Delta which somehow felt like coming home or the end of an important part of my trip. I had followed this “Mother of Waters” all the way down from Thailand, through Laos and Cambodia before making it here, where the stream empties into the South China Sea. The river had accompanied me for a long time and it made for some great memories along its banks. As different as the countries are the Mekong flows through, as different are the many faces of the river itself. From a slow and lazy stream to wild and roaring waterfalls and finally branching out into a network of small distributaries – the Mekong represents the many facets of South East Asia and I am sure that one day I will explore its origins in China and Tibet.

Lastly a quick warning for fellow travelers going to Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City. As I had to painfully find out myself, the stories about crime and theft are not exaggerated. Be extra cautious when leaving your hostel or hotel, hold on to your stuff, especially your camera. It is extreme and you will get your camera snatched quicker than you can imagine.

Where I have been:
3 days Hanoi
2 days Halong and Batulong Bay
1 day Hanoi
4 days Ha Giang and around
1 day Hanoi
2 days Hue
2 days Da Nang
2 days Hoi An
1 day Nha Trang
3 days Dalat
4 days Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City
1 day Can Tho
2 days Chau Doc

Transportation used:
Taxi, Scooter, Excursion boat, Bicycle, Public Bus, Minivans, Trains, Night Bus, River Ferry,

Like:
Good food, Cheap accommodation, Scenery in the North

Dislike:
Constant haggling, being overcharged too often, Russians in Nha Trang

Types of accommodation:
Hotel, Guesthouse, Boat, Nightbus

Highlights:
Motorbike trip Ha Giang and around, Canyoning in Dalat, The Mekong Delta

Lowlights:
Getting my camera stolen in Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City

Photos shot and kept on file:
522 (due to camera loss)

Next:
Crossing the border into Cambodia to finally see Angkor

Below I put a selection of my favorite Vietnam pictures. I hope you enjoyed my reports and the accompanying photographs. Feel free to message me or share your thoughts about your experiences traveling Vietnam or traveling in general. Thanks all for stopping by and the positive feedback. That really keeps me motivated.

Cheers,
Phil

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Categories: Roundups, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Roundup Vietnam: A country of many facets

  1. Great story and beautiful photographs. The way you travel gives you more of an insider’s view than most visitors get.

    Even locals have to hold on to their possessions. My husband has had his phone stolen a couple of times while talking on it and riding his motorbike – just snatched out of his hand. Ladies/women shouldn’t wear jewellery.

    On the other hand, to fit in a little more, foreigners should wear more modest clothes – long pants and shirts/tshirts with sleeves. I know that it’s super hot, but the locals will notice and feel respected.

    Anyway, it looks like you had a great trip. I hope you have the opportunity to come back and explore some more.

    • Hi Katherine,
      thanks for your feedback, I really appreciate it. I just love to travel the simple way and venture off the beaten path. It just so much worthwhile and gives you a lot of memorable experiences. I try to do it whenever I can. I might also just be a little too old for the party trail over in Asia ;). The thing with theft was pretty bad in Saigon I have to say. I also know a few people personally who had the same happen to them and heard of a dozen more people. It seems to be a problem especially apparent in that city. I felt pretty much safe in Hanoi. But you are very right, when you say that tourists should also do their part to fit in better. I was sometimes ashamed by the way people walk around in Asia. The thing is that these people would probably not even walk around in their hometown the way they do it over in Southeast Asia. Some people lack respect which is pretty sad. They seem to forget that in the end the Asian societies are actually very conservative, even if the touristic layout of some places doesn’t indicate it at first sight. But yeah, what can you do. But good that you mention it here.
      I myself would love to come back one day, even despite that incident in Saigon. It is a great country and there is a lot more to see and explore. Do you live in Vietnam or have you been there for a vacation as well? Have a great week ahead, Philipp

      • Hey Phillip,
        Fingers crossed you get insurance for your camera. Gutting about the pictures. It means that you have to go back to take more 🙂

        I live in New Zealand, but visit Viet Nam almost every year, and plan to visit more, as we’re going to open an online tailoring service via our fav boutique tailors. So, fun times ahead.

  2. Hi Katherine, unfortunately insurance won’t pay for it. I guess you need a special policy for that. But yeah, I definitely have to come back to retake some of the pictures I lost. Some of them were realy good and it still hurts if I think about it these days.

    Good for you though that you get to visit Viet Nam so often. So do you have some tips for me? Any hidden gems or places you would recommend? Good luck with the tailoring biz, sounds like a great idea. Cheers, Phil

  3. Wow! I hope to explore Vietnam like you did someday! Thank you for this informative entry. 🙂

    • Hi Afni, thanks a lot. Glad you liked the blog post … Whereabouts are you from? If you do get to travel Vietnam someday, let me know. It sure is a cool country ….

      • I am from Singapore. I have Hanoi and some other parts of Vietnam on my list of places to visit, hopefully will get to go in 2 years time. I travelled Europe with a friend from Vietnam last year so I insisted she bring me around her own country someday …before we get any older lol.

  4. That’s perfect, traveling with a local will be a whole different experience. I hope yo will get the chance to do it anytime soon…. All the best!

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