Many visitors in Vietnam find themselves scratching their heads at some stage, wondering "What on earth am I doing here?" Vietnam tends to elicit the most varied reactions among travellers to the region. While Cambodia (too poor), Laos (too boring) and Thailand (too touristy) each get their share of mediocre reports, Vietnam often gets a far more hostile report card. It's the only country in Southeast Asia of which we've heard people say they would never, ever return, alleging it’s a veritable snakepit of scams and hassle. Yikes!
If you're a first time visitor heading to Vietnam, read on for some suggestions on how to avoid finding yourself in a negative frame of mind -- hell, you might even enjoy your trip!
Vietnam is big -- bigger than you think -- and this size is amplified by what is a relatively slow-moving public transport system. Our mantra of less is more holds particularly true for Vietnam.
First off, be sure to allow enough time so that you can travel at a relaxed pace. Many first-time visitors to Vietnam try to see too much in too little time. With anything less than two weeks, we'd argue you're best off to either restrict yourself to just one section of the country, or be prepared to make good use of Vietnam's domestic flight network.
Still, a "mini-tour" industry has sprung up to cater for those in a hurry, which people who would otherwise be classified as independent travellers find themselves using time and time again. The tours are everywhere: the DMZ, Sapa, Ha Long Bay and the Mekong Delta to name just the most popular ones. Prices are often incredibly cheap -- and there is often no way to do the trip for less independently, particularly the Mekong Delta trips.
However, it's not all about the money.
Generally speaking, the mini-tour experience tends to lean towards the contrived. You're shuttled around in a minibus full of other tourists, eat at tour-sanctioned restaurants and sleep at tour-sanctioned lodgings. You'll often have zero interaction with any Vietnamese nationals who are not employees/contractors/sub-contractors/sub-sub-contractors of the tour company. The low rates are often loss leaders and the organisers make their profit via flogging you overpriced wares or inferior goods along the way.
While fine for some, these mini-tours can leave a bad taste in the mouth of others. Complaints, especially revolving around promised goods not being delivered, are all too common.
The simple solution is to allow yourself enough time to explore the country independently. With the exception perhaps of Ha Long Bay, there is absolutely no need to do a mini-tour anywhere in Vietnam.
The most prevalent of the mini-tours is the "Open Tour" bus network that encompasses nearly all of Vietnam's highlights. In theory, a jump on and jump off prepaid bus service, often ridiculously cheap, sounds great. But in practice, passengers are dropped off at -- or herded to -- "associated" (read commission-paying or company-owned) guesthouses, hotels and restaurants along the way. The hotels are often out of the way and considerable pressure is put on passengers to stay at the "recommended" guesthouse. This can and does lead to uncomfortable stand-offs in the middle of the night. While a minor point, the system only serves specific destinations, so if you get off somewhere else, you can't get back on later without paying for that leg again.
The easiest way to avoid these problems is to not use the Open Tour system. For long legs, when possible use the train or fly. For shorter legs, anything under say 6 to 8 hours, the local bus system is adequate.
If you're not doing mini-tours and not using the Open Tour system, you'll find it is very easy to get off the beaten track in Vietnam. The country has a massive coastline, yet the vast majority of visitors only touch the ocean in four towns -- Hoi An, Nha Trang, Mui Ne and perhaps Vung Tau. Get out there and explore a bit!
Exploring can be more challenging: You will have language issues and the standard of accommodation may not be quite what you're looking for. But these issues will be more than compensated for by the benefits received. Vietnamese people are a really friendly, hospitable bunch. No doubt you'll get invited to weddings and eat and drink things you'd probably prefer you hadn't, but that's what the travel experience is all about.
Get over it. At some stage, during your time in Vietnam, you will be expected to pay a higher price for something than a local would pay. It may be for something as small as a pack of cigarettes or as big as a five-night Ha Long Bay luxury cruise, but it will happen. In the public bus system you may be charged a higher tariff than a local. Sometimes the difference will be nominal, other times it won't -- pick your battles! Getting red-faced over a 2,000 VND stitch-up is a waste of everyone's time.
If you take our advice and use the public bus network, you may well find yourself wedged into smaller spaces than you thought possible. The Western idea of personal space doesn't really float in Vietnam. Space is there to be used and it will be, regardless of how much you choose to bleat. If you make a big enough stink, you may get away with a few extra inches of breathing space, but all you've really achieved is taking a few inches off someone else. If you decide to use the public system, you need to accept that you're travelling on the terms of the Vietnamese.
If you don't fit the "normal" caricature of a foreign traveller, expect to be stared at -- especially if you've ventured off the beaten trail. Be it hair style, size, height or even fashion sense (or lack thereof) you may be stared at. Ignore it. Getting off your motorbike and stomping across the street to scream at some poor guy will only make more people stare -- including us.
A long-time Vietnam hand involved in the tour industry puts it this way: "Some backpackers can be quite blunt and un-polite in their dealings with the locals. At the same time, many Vietnamese hate the way they dress and the fact that they often drive a very hard bargain over amounts of money that are, in the scheme of things, not important to them, but mean a lot to the locals. Attitude -- how you dress, how you behave -- counts for a lot."
If you've travelled somewhere like Morocco the "hassle factor" in Vietnam will barely register, but if you've never been further than the corner store, the hassle factor in Vietnam can be pretty over-the-top. Again this can be mitigated by avoiding spending all your time in the tourist centres, but only to a certain degree. The hassle, be it beggars, motorbike drivers, tailor touts, touts in general, postcard-selling kids, pot-selling kids, book-selling kids, cigarette-selling kids -- you get the idea -- can be close to non-stop. Though difficult, just try to ignore them. Don't even make eye contact.
Hanoi, and to a lesser extent Saigon and Hue, are home to snakepits of travel agencies. The business is absolutely cut-throat, margins are miniscule and many will promise the earth and deliver less than nothing. Deception is all too common, especially online. Around 90% of accounts we have banned on Travelfish.org have been Vietnam-based travel agents masquerading as travellers. Treat anything you read online recommending the service of any agent with a quadruple dose of scepticism. The best way to get a straight answer is to talk to other travellers.
One of the most problematic areas in Vietnam is doing a tour of Ha Long Bay, where, while you can do it independently (sort of) by getting the ferry to Cat Ba and staying on Cat Ba Island, the vast majority of people do tours. Tour rates run from next to nothing to hundreds and hundreds of dollars, so you do need to consider precisely what it is you want out of a trip -- and perhaps try to rustle up a group of like-minded souls. Our researcher said after doing three different Ha Long Bay tours that much of his enjoyment simply depended on the group of people he winded up with on the boat.
Vietnam can be more challenging than its neighbours, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. One needs to "earn" Vietnam. You need to make the effort to get to enjoy Vietnam. Spend some time planning, eschew unnecessary tours, get off the beaten track, learn a smidgen of the lingo and hang out with regular Vietnamese -- even if it is for nothing more than a "Yo" or ten over a couple of Saigon Beers. You can do it!
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 30th March, 2009.