Vietnam (The Joke’s On You)

VETNAM – the direct translation of which is “The Joke’s on You”. So I believe it to be; or maybe I just made that up.

I must say first that I by no means claim to be an expert on the country and do not aim to offend those countrymen who are decent honourable folk – very few of whom we seem to have met, unfortunately. So I see fit report as I experienced and you may accept and dismiss from it what you will.

From the minute you arrive you enter the big tourist mincer in one end and it spits you out on the other, short of cash, feeling violated and with severely diminished faith in humanity.

Forget about doing anything independently as this immediatly exposes you to a whole array of opportunities to get conned by a number of people. In Vietnam you are a TOURIST and you belong on a TOUR wherever you go: this means you pay a large sum up front for transport and specified stops, sights and attractions. The services rendered are rarely up to the standard described, some items are generally skipped or curtailed for one reason or another, and whatever you end up doing you’re bound to feel the grip of another tourist trap, with the preying Vietnamese openly ready to bleed you of another dollar and kick you out as soon as possible to make way for the next punter.

Unpleasant as this sounds, you’re almost sure to be rinsed of far more money and suffer significantly more frustration (from plain dishonesty, scams and things generally not working out the way you want them to) by venturing to travel here on your own whims, than if you had paid up front to be crooked on the tour-mincer. It’s really uncanny: sometimes we really got the feeling that everyone in town was part of the same plot to trick us so there was no one to turn to for a reality check.

I must admit we did have one reasonably good experience: a Mekong Delta boat tour from Can Tho organized through Ms Ha in Can Tho city for about US$50 (7 hours). The tour was pretty much as promised and though we did feel a bit tourist trapped (maybe a bit of lagging paranoia from previous misfortunes) we weren’t dragged through souvenir shops and it made for a nice day out on the river. (One thing that did occur to us though was that nobody seems to be trading any produce on the famous floating markets and the only thing that does change hands are pineapples for tourists… which every boat driver knows to prepare). Actually she even arranged our onward bus ride back to Saigon for us which was reliable. Thanks Ms Ha and co. (she’ll probably show up in your hotel lobby)

Do not expect a smile or kindness anywhere, exont), though even here friendly service is not guaranteed. Also be prepared that if you have already parted with your hard-earned cash in exchange for some service or item, fulfilment of the agreement is by no means certain and in more furtunate cases where it is, do not expect it to be to the standard or in the same form as promised. The reality is you’re out in the cold and your cries will fall on deaf ears and blank faces.

Nonetheless: I would encourage anyone currently in the trap to be firm and relentless in making your complaints heard and trying to fight for your right. These folks clearly take pleasure in making you suffer so it’s only right that they should experience some discomfort themselves! You may feel a bit embarrassed as all the other falangs (foreigners) in that tour bus or office stare silently into space as you rant at the employee, but remember: their uneasy faces only portray the result of their recent injuries in the tourist mincer.

To be fair I have to note an exception: the lovely family running a late night street food stall in Ben Tre looked after us very well. You folks are wonderful!

On the food front: I find it extremely puzzling why people come to Vietnam to partake in Vietnamese cooking lessons! Our culinary experiences from North to South, whether street food or -restaurant, were all very disappointing. Everything is slightly sweet and bland, meat tends to be rubbery and stone-hard kernels in your rice are always a cracking experience! To be honest you’d not be far off an improvement if you only knew how to make french fries from a freezer bag.

Well I think that sums it up really. Our experiences started with entry into Saigon, from there via bus South to Ben Tre and Can Tho and back to Saigon. Then by bus again to Hoi An for a short stay and onward to HaNoi. As we travelled northwards we found people becoming increasingly friendly and English-literate. In Hoi An the Sunflower Hotel was really nice (with pool) and the old town is a chilled out experience, however it does appear that there is nothing going on there except tourism: bars, souvenir shops, restaurants…

HaNoi feels far less threatening than SaiGon. We got a very nice room in the May De Ville Ho/s/tel and staff were helpful. The obvious excursion to do from here is a boat trip to Ha Long Bay. Prices are pretty steep, starting from about US$80 with variing durations and activities. We passed on this however. Some thorough digging through Internet customer reviews (looking at direct trips from HaNoi as well as an alternative travelling to Cat Ba island first) revealed 9 out of 10 customer’s experiences were either partial or complete nightmares. I may be ripped off again in the future but I’ll try my darnedest to ensure it’s not by a Vietnamese!
(As it happens though, Ben and Denise, a Dutch couple we befriended along the way, were pleased with their experience.)

So in conclusion, if you do decide to travel in Viertnam (to me this fits into the Stupid rather than the Crazy category), here’s my advice:

– Don’t trust anyone, get preferrably written itineraries and question into the finest detail! (Where does it stop, who is going to meet me,will I have to take a tuk-tuk, does it go directly to the center, how long will each item last, any additional fees, etc etc…)
– Hold on to your bus tickets, especially on connecting trips! They will try to take them from you but you’ll end up having to buy a new ticket for the next leg if you cannot show your receipt!
– Get a street map and compass pref. before you go somewhere or you’ll have no way of telling where you’re being taken.
– Check customer reviews for tours before you buy (tripadvisor etc are great sources)
– Don’t wear jewelleryand keep your things safe at all times
– SaiGon beer is good, Hanoi beer is ok, chew your rice carefully
– Have a drink in the dive bar in Hoi An