Vietnam: the big ZERO

Jun 16th, 2008, 07:36 PM
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Vietnam: the big ZERO

I spent three weeks' vacation in SE Asia, and have just returned home to New York. During my time overseas I visited Vietnam, spending 3 nights in Ho Chi Minh City and 3 nights in Hanoi.

I had very nice hotels in both cities, and had an opportunity to visit each city's main sites and sights.

From HCM City I took a day tour via water launch into the Mekong Delta, and from Hanoi I took a day tour to Tam Doc, a rice paddy north of town.

My impressions of Vietnam are generally negative. The streets and avenues, while certainly well-paved and walkable, usually have few stores worth browsing through. I found most food stuffs being sold on the street in very unsanitary conditions.

Although I noticed several well preserved structures from the French era, and a few modern hotels, I noticed little new construction otherwise. I did see a few noteworthy temples, but none rose to the level of spectacular or visit worthy.

I went to one of the night markets, and felt the booths were offering lesser quality merchandise. Perhaps the charm of it was for the locals, who could have a chance to socialize with each other.

The service personnel whom I encountered seemed distant and distinctly un-SE Asian in their peculiar unfriendliness. Perhaps the constant barrage of government propaganda against foreigners fosters such an attitude. I was able to defrost some of those attitudes by speaking some phrases to the staff in their own language. That usually brought a look of surprise, as well as a faint smile.

I noted also with dismay that my guide in Hanoi, while discussing the HCM mausoleum with me, asked ME if I knew how his body might have been preserved. I tried to give a brief explanation of embalming, with its history dating back to ancient Egypt. Apparently, the government promotes the view that it is magic that preserves Ho Chi Minh's body, rather than science.

In the evenings after dinner I usually enjoy walking about for a stroll along the avenues, as one can easily do in Hong Kong or in Singapore for example. In both HCM City and Hanoi, however, there seemed to be no evening commercial activity that I could discern except for a night market. Perhaps a shortage of electricity and refrigeration cause the lack of activity.

I took one domestic flight while in Vietnam, on Pacific Airlines, from HCM City up to Hanoi. At the airport for that flight, I encountered extraordinary rudeness: I was never so pushed, elbowed, had toes stepped on, etc. as in that airport. This, in spite of the fact that I do indeed appear to be obviously an older man (the bald head, the gray beard, the gray moustache, etc.).

For me, Vietnam was a truly forgettable experience: I certainly won't return, nor will I recommend it to others as a destination.

In the hierarchy of SE Asian nations, I would place Vietnam down on the level of Laos and Myanmar with regard to tourist infrastructure.

I am curious, though: could those of you Fodorites who felt Vietnam was a worthy tourist destination share some of your positive experiences with me? Could I have completely missed what Vietnam had to offer?

johnwm is offline  
Jun 16th, 2008, 08:08 PM
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No question, VN does not yet have the traveler infrastructure of, say, Thailand. And yet it is a fascinating and worthy destination.

We spent a week in Hanoi and found lots of fascinating shops, restaurants, etc open at night. Indeed, old town section and the area around the lake is great walking territory any time of the day. It appears you had a mere two days in Hanoi (since you went to Tam Doc one day), so I wonder if you just didn't have the time to experience and explore. I also have to say that my bias is against using guides in most places. Without a guide you are forced to interact with the locals without a translator. It is these day to day interactions that are the "currency" of travel for me. I had a fascinating conversation with an old man in a temple courtyard in Hanoi in which he was able to tell me that he had visited both Moscow and Bejing years ago. We shared no common language, but much was communicated.

We didn't visit Uncle Ho in his Mausoleum, we visited places like the Temple of Literature, a good variety of fascinating museums, and a number of temples (pagodas) not on the tourist track. We walked around the lake, watched old men playing mahjong in the park, sat and observed the life of the city.

I agree that the service in VN is "rougher" than anyplace I've visited in Asia. It's the only place I've been where street vendors sometimes yell obscenities at people who don't buy from them - an odd idea of how to sell things!

I am of the firm belief that Asia lends itself best to slow travel. If you move too fast, you miss it all. And if you insulate yourself whether it's by being with a tour group or a guide or just "holing up" in your hotel, you'll miss the whole sense of the place.

I'm sorry you didn't enjoy your time in VN. Perhaps at another time you may choose to return.

By the way, while Laos has much less infrastructure than VN. I found the people very warm and welcoming. We loved our week in Luang Prabang.
Kathie is offline  
Jun 16th, 2008, 09:50 PM
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So you're writing off a whole country on the basis of a visit of less than a week to only two places? I see this is your first post here, I hope you're also going to post about the places you DO like.

Rather than rewriting a bunch of stuff, I'll refer you to my trip reports on Vietnam: - A Tale of Two Cities, Vietnam Down the Spine and Delta Days.

And if you didn't find any visit-worthy temples I can only conclude that you didn't visit the Cao Dai temple at Tay Ninh, or the Cholon section of HCMC.
thursdaysd is offline  
Jun 17th, 2008, 06:08 AM
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I spent two weeks alone in Vietnam in 2006, and fell in love with the country. I limited myself to the north- Hanoi, Halong Bay, Sapa and Hoi An. Of those places, I would rank Hanoi at the bottom, but I generally don't enjoy cities. I also ran into many, many tourists who loved Vietnam, but weren't that impressed with Ho Chi Minh. I would say, don't judge the entire country based on those two cities. There is so much more to the country. The landscapes are some of the most beautiful I've ever seen. I had many wonderful experiences there... spending a night on Halong Bay, trekking through the hill tribe villages in Sapa, lounging on the beach and getting clothes tailored in Hoi an, to name a few.

No, it's not a "fluffy" tourist destination, and can be quite exhausting at times. It is a rapidly changing, overly populated, and very poor country. Sometimes it was difficult not to feel like a walking dollar sign. It seems to be an either "love it or hate it" destination.
RebeccaVT is offline  
Jun 17th, 2008, 07:04 AM
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I am sorry you didn't like Vietman. I guess thoufg I can understand why not everyone would like a vacation there.

We were there for only two long days-stops on a crusie - one day at Na Trang where we did some diving and one day at Saigon. We did not have a guide either day. I booked the dive on line and we explored both places on our own. I can not eat soy so eating was an adventure, but the people were great at helping me avoid it.

We loved what we saw of the country and the people we met, so much so, we have included some time in Hanoi on our land based trip next March. You do have to have an open mind, I think, and a sence of adventure to enjoy a visit there.

Kathie, I have copied many of your reports into my file for next year's trip. Would you list the temples you liked that are off the beaten tourist track. Those are the places we usually enjoy most. Thanks
cwn is offline  
Jun 17th, 2008, 09:07 AM
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I am a bit surprised by these comments, to be frank, although Saigon does not win any popularity contests here on Fodors!

Just curious: did you mean Tam Coc, which is south of Hanoi and famous for its karst scenery? Or is there, in fact, a Tam Doc?

What kind of evening commercial activity were you seeking?
ekscrunchy is offline  
Jun 17th, 2008, 02:48 PM
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Give it another 5 years..
Mango7 is offline  
Jun 17th, 2008, 05:45 PM
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I have been there 3 times and enjoyed each trip. No, it is not a Singapore,but it is a country being developed. The people there I met are wonderful, and I keep in touch with several of them Some of the best guides I have had in any country were in Vietnam. I went with 1 to his Mother's house back in the interior of the Mekong. What an experience! These people have been very resilent and hardworking. I found the young people so eager to learn even helping one young man in the postoffice in Saigon with his English homework. From my experience it is the people that make this country not the sights.
I felt so well taken care of by the people even traveling some by myself.

I traveled Vietnam Air and found them to be very good.

Maybe one of the reasons I was so interested in the country was the part America played in Vietnam history in the war. I even visited the Du Moc caves(in the northern most part of Vietnam) where the peole lived during the war and met a young man who was born in the cave.

I have to admit European countries are my favorite as far as the sights, architecture, and art.

We all have our preferences,but I found Vietnam such a unique place.
maryanne1 is offline  
Jun 17th, 2008, 06:30 PM
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It is amazing, isn't is, how different each person's perception is. I found Vietnam to be magical and met many kind and friendly people.

My trip report is here:
Amy is online now  
Jun 17th, 2008, 08:58 PM
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john---you did not give it enough of a chance....

your comparison to HK and Singapore is not even a fair one...both of those city states is a concentration of power and wealth and VN is a country still attempting to recover from a huge war in the last 1/4 century...

basically the country is an agricultural based economy and cannot be compared to those you list..

there are sites and there are interesting ones and also a wealth of shopping but it can generally not be uncovered in a few days time....imo
rhkkmk is online now  
Jun 18th, 2008, 07:20 PM
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This reads like a post that was only written for people to flame on. Doubtful the OP will be back again. To say that no new construction was noticed is not HCMC at all. The whole town is under construction right now. And certainly Dong Khoi, Le Loi and Ha Ba Trung streets are quite walkable and have many intersting stores, all with plenty of electricity and refridgeration. This reads like a report for 20 years ago.
Bisbee is offline  
Jun 18th, 2008, 09:58 PM
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I'm with Bisbee. Some of johnwm's comments seem to be written from a desire to be inflammatory and are plain mischievous.

"Perhaps the constant barrage of government propaganda against foreigners fosters such an attitude."

- Really? And on what do you base this assertion? Extensive study of the local media? A peculiar comment, to say the least.

"Apparently, the government promotes the view that it is magic that preserves Ho Chi Minh's body, rather than science."

- Too silly for words and not deserving of further comment.

"At the airport for that flight, I encountered extraordinary rudeness: I was never so pushed, elbowed, had toes stepped on, etc. as in that airport."

- Completly at odds with our experience. Perhaps we just got lucky, but I don't think so.

We found the Vietnamese people almost uniformly friendly and courteous. And that was certainly the experience of four friends of ours who've each spent several years living and working in Hanoi and HCMC and miss the people above all else. Perhaps we're all naive.

Neil_Oz is offline  
Jun 18th, 2008, 11:03 PM
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Quite odd- the HCMC airport is brand new (less than six months)and about 10 times the size of the old one. If you had people elbowing you and stepping on your toes, you must have been acting like a tourist in Times Square!

Granted the employees of the restaurants, shops and money changer in the new airport are about as rude as any I've ever experienced- and what's with everything being priced in US Dollars??- but outside the airport the people of Saigon and the Delta were pretty nice.

I will agree that it is a harder destination than Thailand, Siem Reap or Singapore, but that is part of the attraction for many visitors.

I have found street food there some of the safest and most appealing in southeast Asia. We certainly ate more vegetables than I would ever chance in Thailand or India.

I think you are correct when you say you missed it. Just because you didn't know where to find the good shopping, dining and entertainment doesn't mean it doesn't exist. john. It is kind of like walking outside a hotel in the financial district of NYC and saying there's no night life in New York City.
lcuy is offline  
Jun 19th, 2008, 12:19 AM
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You can't compare Vietnam with Singapore or Hong kong those are very westernised places with modern facilities & prices to match. I'm sorry you didn't enjoy Vietnam but I think if you'd done your homework before you left you would have realised that this wasn't the place for you.
Clark55 is offline  
Jun 19th, 2008, 04:47 AM
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I am the original poster, and wish to offer a word of thanks to Kathie, RebeccaVT, cwn, ekscrunchy, and to rhkkmk for your thoughtful comments and observations. Thank you for sharing your experiences with me. Apparently I must certainly have missed some of what Vietnam has to offer.

May I remind the other posters at this point that we are all here to share experiences: the positive AND the negative. There is no requirement that we post only positive experiences.

Nor is there a requirement that we post only one hundred positive experiences before we post a negative experience.

The shrill comments by thursdaysd, the snide comments by bisbee and by neil oz are simply out of place in this forum. It is inappropriate of you to challenge my experiences simply because you did not have similar experiences. I am disappointed that you three could not contribute in a meaningful manner to this discussion about tourism in Vietnam. Or, are you three implying that I somehow did not experience what I indicated ? Please, get real!
johnwm is offline  
Jun 19th, 2008, 05:34 AM
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"could not contribute in a meaningful manner" - you asked for positive experiences. I pointed you to three fairly lengthy trip reports. Did you read them?

"Nor is there a requirement that we post only one hundred positive experiences before we post a negative experience." True. But when the first and only post from someone is to put down a whole country on the basis of a very brief acquaintance, it raises suspicions.
thursdaysd is offline  
Jun 19th, 2008, 03:36 PM
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johnwm, if you want to be taken seriously I can only suggest that you don't post comments like the entirely unsupported accusation that the Vietnamese government blitzes its people with anti-foreigner propaganda. And the comment about Ho Chi Minh's body's preservation, if meant humorously, is every bit as snide as my post. Your report was so unsided that it inevitably cast doubt on your bona fides.

Neil_Oz is offline  
Jun 19th, 2008, 03:38 PM
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"Unsided" should have read "one-sided" of course. Haven't yet had my second cup of coffee this morning.
Neil_Oz is offline  
Jun 20th, 2008, 05:06 AM
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Your post is not consistant with the Vietnam I know. You're right, you did miss it.

For you to say you saw little new construction in HCMC is rediculous. The entire city is under construction. All the main districts (which I would guess you stayed in one) have significant construction going on. It's quite hard to miss all the cranes located throughout the city.
Bisbee is offline  
Jun 21st, 2008, 10:16 PM
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John, could your disappointment with Vietnam been a result of misaligned expectations? Like when you read nothing but fabulous reviews of a restaurant, only to find out it's so-so, you come away feeling even worse about it?

I'm a "fluffy" traveler, myself, and will be the first to admit it. I prefer cities like Singapore, Paris, etc. ya know? But when I went to Vietnam last month, I knew exactly (well, almost) how much I'd be "roughing it." I blogged about it....
and was called a "rubber-neck tourist who belittles cultures different from her own" by an ex-pat living there. Who, me?! Talk about flame throwing!

It was definitely one of the "harder" trips I've done, and probably not my favorite destination, but I did enjoy myself and got a lot out of it. One needs to travel not just to see the world, but understand your place in it.

It's possible that you simply stayed in a part of each city that did not have the mix of commerce and nightlife that you were looking for. We stayed about a block from Dong Khoi, which is a really quaint shopping area, and three blocks from Thuong Xa Tax (Saigon Tax Trade Center). I am a shopaholic and would definitely have bought more if I were not so paranoid about going over the weight limit for luggage! We shopped until they put the gates down and turned out the lights, quite literally.

I think Mango7 is right, you may want to give it about 5 years and then go back to see what you may have missed, in an infrastructure that will surely be more tourist friendly. Everyone--residents as well as regular visitors--says that Vietnam is changing rapidly. Designer stores now stand where there were none, just a year ago. As lcuy says, the airport is brand new.

I dunno, I didn't see your total post as all negative. You left it open to people by asking if you might have missed something, and now you know that it is possible!
MelissaHI is offline  

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