We probably won’t go back to Vietnam (Stef says – definitely won’t!) – not because there isn’t anything interesting to see there, but because of the overall unpleasant travel experience caused by the way that tourists are treated. Before we went I had read that the Vietnamese generally regard tourists just as walking ATMs – but this didn’t really prepare me for how unpleasant it would be to travel in a country where the people really care absolutely nothing about you except to take your money – leading to constant and incessant attempts to rip you off or scam you for as much money as possible.
The streets of Hanoi
Because we had read about this attitude, we were well prepared – we knew that the first thing that would happen on arrival is an attempt to rip us off 2x or 3x the price for a taxi to the city from the airport. So we managed to deflect attempts from the first three scammers/rip-off merchants and get in a proper meter taxi that charged the correct going rate (315,000 Dong or 15 USD) to get us to our hotel (although I wasn’t prepared for seeing a woman dying on the side of the road and her friend picking herself up off the opposite carriageway, less than a minute after their motorbike had hit the central concrete barrier – with noone stopping to help or caring about it, just driving around them). And so we proceeded, working hard to avoid most of the rip-offs and scams from hotel owners, travel agents, street merchants and random people, and managed to limit our financial loss to just one scam by the travel agent who booked our train tickets from Hanoi to Sapa – he promised us a better sleeper cabin in a private carriage that we asked for specifically called “Sapaly Express” (which I had already researched prior to arriving) – but when the tickets arrived they were for the standard Vietnam Railways carriages, which we could have just bought at the station for less money (we had been there earlier in the day to check anyway) – our loss over this was only really $16 (and a lost night’s sleep on the return journey from Sapa due to very noisy Vietnamese people). This doesn’t sound like much, but that’s a night in a hotel in Vietnam – and the point is not just the financial damage – but it’s the feeling of having had someone dishonestly take your money – effectively it’s stealing from you – and how tiring it is to have to constantly work to avoid that from happening.
The view from the hill in Sapa after an overnight sleeper train from Hanoi
And yes, we see some of the same behaviour in Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia, we’re familiar with it now. But in those countries, it’s occasional and probably just around the main travel hubs or biggest tourist attractions. In Vietnam it’s CONSTANT, and at least in the places we went to around Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sapa, it’s everywhere. In Thailand, the government has put in place some protections for tourists in order to safeguard the country’s reputation and a tourism revenues for the future – e.g. train tickets are just bought direct from the train company (available online via their website in English so no agent is needed, and they make sure that their train conductors look after tourists well), English-speaking Tourist Police are available to give foreigners a fair chance in the event of a problem, meter taxi’s are available throughout Bangkok etc.. in Vietnam no protections exist at all as far as I could tell. If anything happens, I feel like you would be more at risk by calling the police than anything else. If you confront someone who has just ripped you off, there is no way you will get any money back – all they have to do is start getting aggressive and they know that 99% of tourists with good sense are going to just walk away – because it doesn’t matter who was in the wrong, all that matters at that point is that one guy is Vietnamese and that the police at best would simply side with their country-man, and at worst (most likely) are totally corrupt and will just do whatever the guy bribes him to do.
So, our conclusion is, it’s not worth the hassle. There are already many other places on our list to go back to, and I’m sure many more to come, that will be higher priority. Regardless, here are our impressions of the 3 main areas we visited:
1) Hanoi. A big ugly city. The “old quarter”, whilst it has narrow streets indicating some historic origin, does not appear particularly old and does not have any redeeming qualities for us. The only thing we enjoyed in the city was stopping for beer at “Bia Hoi Corner” – sitting on small plastic chairs on the street, drinking fresh Bia Hoi for 25 cents each – the cheapest beer of our trip so far.
Me and “Z” who wouldn’t take no for an answer! This is me promising that we would stay with her and her family next time we were in Vietnam. This will not be a hard promise to keep- truly, if we ever did go again, I would!
2) Sapa. Once the fog cleared on the third day, we could finally see how beautiful the setting of this mountain town really is, set in the far north of Vietnam close to the Chinese border. Late February is definitely not the best time to visit (cold and damp), but I could see that spending a week trekking in the mountains here and exploring the villages could be fantastic. In fact, we would probably even consider coming back here, if we didn’t have to deal with any other part of Vietnam first.
3) Halong Bay. Yes, it is an area of exceptional natural beauty. But, it’s ruined by the volume and method of tourism here. There are hundreds of boats beating the same track every day and night. Joining one of them, you get rushed round the standard loop, visiting standard attractions such as the caves which are developed like Disney World, you see garbage in the water and any feeling of this being a “natural” place slip away. On the bus to and from the boat you get hustled through pottery, artwork and pearl shops on your “rest break” in a further attempt to take more money off you.