Marcus and I took ourselves on a little mid-Winter adventure in June, timed to coincide with the football season break (of course). To Vietnam - a destination we arrived at by a process of elimination. Not too far to fly, not too expensive, not to far from beaches. It wasn't particularly high on either of our travel hit lists, but it checked the boxes.
It was a quick visit - a whistle stop tour from the top to the bottom of the country, hitting up the major destinations of Hanoi (with a quick interlude out to Halong Bay), Hoi An (with plenty of beach time), and Saigon (with a day trip out to the Mekong Delta) - all in just 10 days (which is just long enough to defrost from the Central Victorian winter, incidentally). Classic tourist stuff.
Distracted by the daily rhythm, I kind of forgot we were going on holiday until just a couple of days prior to departure. It was a bit of a strange experience - completely different to how I would normally approach a trip - with planning and research and language study. (NERD.) We had nothing more to go on than what we knew by travel folklore, a lonely planet we swiped (temporarily) from the local pub, and a post it note of recommendations from some friends who had recently returned.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I don't feel like we really got under the skin of the place. Our lacklustre pre-trip planning meant getting comfortable with feeling like tourists. (Travelling with giant bearded white man also amplified that sense...) The tropical weather also meant getting comfortable with the eternal need to wipe sweat from your face. It was like two white people in a 10 day Bikram class.
It felt like the Vietnamese don't particularly love Westerners (which, by the way, is entirely understandable - especially given the history), but it felt very evident that parts of the country are very much engineered for the benefit of white tourist dollars.
One thing is for sure - the food didn't disappoint. We were already well aware how lucky we are to have the Melbourne Vietnamese community at our door step. But we now know that even Melbourne's Vietnamese food is no match for the real stuff. So. Good.
So all in all, a bit of a funny trip. It was a nice holiday, but it felt like just that - a holiday, rather than anything close to an immersive adventure. Perhaps we had glimpses of local life, but even then, it felt like an approximation constructed for the benefit of tourists. I left feeling a little bit disappointed (in myself) that a visit to a country with such a colourful, contentious history felt like not much more than a tropical beach holiday. Complete with sunburn and serious bout of food poisoning. The thing is, I don't know that more proactive planning would have changed that?
I will say this though - it's not too bad for photos. There sure is a lot of colour to play with! (I am clearly a little out of practice though...)
Airbnb was a big winner in Vietnam. We loved all of our three mini-hotels. I'd highly recommend it if you're planning a Vietnam trip.
We did a few food-related activities with the good people from Urban Adventures Vietnam. Even for experience travellers, I'd recommend it early on in your time in a new city as a way to drill a local for good recommendations, context, history - and excellent food! Highly recommended, particularly if you're keen to go beyond vietnamese coffee, pho and spring rolls. These guys do a great street food tour.
The cities are very much engineered for motorbikes and scooters. We found it difficult to walk around in Hanoi and Saigon, and we were very grateful for our villa-supplied bikes in Hoi An - so if you're game you might like to hire some wheels.
While Vietnam is still nominally a Communist country, as a traveller you wouldn't necessarily know it - with quite a bit of development, international investment and elements of a thriving market system on display. The set up does seem to still impinge on the freedoms of local people and based on our conversations the appeal of a centralised economy has all but worn off for most Vietnamese, though they may not speak of it openly.
There's so much more to Vietnamese history and culture than the War. Hundreds of years of feudalism and dynastic rule. Colonial disputes between the Chinese, French and Japanese. Ideologically fuelled wars and political coups. Many culturally diverse tribal groups. Not to mention the consequent religious diversity. Even still, we found it quite difficult to get to the bottom of it all beyond the touristy stuff. Ideally, do a bit of reading before you go, and make the most of the people you meet along the way to dig a little deeper.
If you do fancy finding out a bit about it the last days of the Vietnam War, read Viet Tranh Nguyen's Pulitzer Prize winning The Sympathiser. (Read this glowing NY Times review.) And listen to his chat with NPR Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
So what do you think? Do we put our trip experience down to being lazy and inexperienced Asian travellers? Or did you have a similar experience in Vietnam? Or should I just be satisfied with a bit of beach time and be done with it? Thoughts? Feels? Opinions? (As always, play nice.)