Surprising Vietnam

Mekong Delt Vietnam

It’s day 45 in Vietnam. We are in an apartment in Hanoi.  It’s winter here so a light jacket is needed some evenings. The days are warm and hazy.

We eat noodle soup each morning at the same place, sometimes returning for lunch. The owner giggles each time we ask for Ban Cuon (spring rolls) and says “Very sor-wee. Not today.” She never makes them and we know she never will, but it’s become our routine. That’s kind of how Vietnam is.

It’s a place of tradition, of ritual expressed through the devotion to simple daily tasks and interactions.

Vietnam is a very social country. Tiny hole in the wall noodle shops abound. Friends huddle outside on bright pastel stools drinking green tea from ornate china tea pots. The air is crisp and clean like the first hour after a storm.

There’s an optimism here that’s missing elsewhere in South East Asia. A national pride and reverence for the old ways. Somehow the Vietnamese have survived the cultural invasion of the past 50 years. It’s a privilege to walk among the people here and be welcome.

Of all the countries we’ve visited to date, Vietnam has been the most surprising. The contrast between reputation and reality is stark here. Put simply, Vietnam is way better than we thought it would be.

Budget Vietnam

Vietnam is pricey. That’s the general consensus in the backpacker community. Nav and I came here fully expecting to blow our £50 daily budget but just a few days in we were left scratching our heads.

Day to day expenses, away from tourist hotspots are crazy low.

Eating, sleeping and transport are way cheaper than in neighbouring Cambodia which has a reputation for being one of the cheapest countries in Asia. Standards are higher too.

There have been a couple of days in Vietnam when our combined spend has been under £10. Not since India has our budget been so low.

I’ve been trying to figure out why everyone thinks Vietnam is so expensive and the only answer I have is this…

There is so much to see and do, plus the free visa is just 15 days.

I think that backpackers travel faster here. When you take trips every day and hop from place to place quickly your daily spend naturally goes up.

So here’s a travel hack. Get a 60 day visa and take it slow. Nav and I have been here 45 days so far and even with a $700 Easy Riders bike trip, Vietnam is on track to be as cheap as Cambodia.

Standards in Vietnam

Vietnam is clean. Not Singapore clean but certainly Thailand clean. There is practically no litter in major towns and very little in the countryside.

City centres have carefully manicured recreational areas, just like western cities.

There are flowers everywhere and government employees in cardboard brown jumpsuits are weeding, planting, sweeping and polishing on every street.

Budget hotels are simple but very comfortable. There are no Tuc-Tucs in Vietnam but taxis are everywhere. Vietnam also has an Uber equivalent called Grab in big cities. Prices are similar to metered taxis.

Our apartment in Hanoi
Our apartment in Hanoi

Vietscam

Vietnam is affectionately called Vietscam by many backpackers. It has a decade’s long reputation for ripping off tourists which is sad.

In our time here we have not encountered anything resembling a serious scam.

Outside of the very touristy areas you can walk up to a street vendor holding a guidebook and camera and pay exactly the same money for an item as the locals pay. This seemed incredible to us.

There is a generally accepted albeit racist concept called “Tourist Price” in every other country we’ve visited so far. Prices for goods and attractions are usually about 10 times more expensive if you are a foriegner. Whilst this may have been rational in the 90’s when most people in the world were living on a dollar a day, in modern South East Asia with its skyscrapers and billionaires the concept seems a little outdated. The Vietnamese, to their credit, don’t do it.

I know it’s a small thing but I don’t want to understate the importance of feeling like we are paying the correct prices for things. It just makes such a difference to any experience. This made us feel like welcomed guests rather than just walking dollar signs.

By Asian standards Vietnam is a cornucopia of transparent pricing unbiased commerce.

You get what you pay for and you pay what locals pay in all but the most touristy situations.

The Vietnamese Language

The language here is a little frustrating. When I travel to a new country I like to be able to surprise the locals with a few choice phrases. Usually, I can hear a phrase, copy the sound and regurgitate it pretty easily. Back in Cambodia and Thailand, I had a nice little repertoire of about 10 phrases I could blurt out. No doubt I wasn’t getting the sound spot on but, when I’m sat in a restaurant with a finished plate of food in front of me and I’m asking for the bill, the context is a pretty helpful clue.

Vietnam is different.

Apart from “hello” and “thank you” the Vietnamese did not understand anything I tried to say.

Take asking for the bill as an example. The Vietnamese word for bill is”tin-den”. Whenever I tried it, the locals just looked at me like I was mad. Didn’t matter how much context I had or if I did the hand signals.  No dice.

Each time I learned a new phrase I diligently wrote it down phonetically and sometimes even recorded a Vietnamese person saying it into my my phone. As soon as I said it however, I always got the same blank expression. What’s more, rather than applauding my efforts the Vietnamese became visibly uncomfortable when they didn’t understand what I was saying.

I suspect I’ve fundamentally misunderstood something about the culture here. Maybe they are expecting foreigners to be ignorant or perhaps local dialects are subtlety different from town to town. Either way I had to give up and resign myself to doing that tourist thing of TALKING… ENGLISH… SLOWLY… AND… LOUDLY…

…At least I tried.

Sapa sunset
Crazy Sapa sunset

Nature in Vietnam

Illegal logging is a massive issue in Asia. Illegal is a loose term however. Governments seem happy to look the other way while corporate interests destroy forests. Every once in a while a corporation will sell out a few low level employees and they’ll go to jail in a fanfare of news articles while the suits that paid their wages get straight back to business.

Vietnam, at least on the face of it seems a little different. I spoke to many Vietnamese regarding environmental issues because to be honest, I was in awe of how much of nature survives here.

Vietnam still has virgin forest. There is a government initiative that pays farmers to plant trees, not cut them down. There are national parks with strict rules regarding protection of the eco-systems.  What’s more the rules seem to be enforced.

Rivers in the countryside look clean enough to drink from and large wild mammals still roam the hills.

What the government has achieved in Vietnam is exceptional and all the more impressive given the pressure they must be under from neighbouring China to exploit these resources.

It’s not a paradise but, pockets of this country are untamed, unexplored and untouched by humans. That’s a rare thing in my experience.

The Future of Vietnam

The winds of change are blowing throughout the Asian continent. Like the last days of some great civilisation there is an ominous sense that culture and tradition are disappearing as rapidly as the grand forests that once spanned these horizons.

Vietnam may be an exception. Of course its modernising too, but something about Vietnam also feels timeless. I can’t explain how or why, it just seems like Vietnam is winning. Long may it continue.