Vietnam is a polarising destination. Without exception, I’ve found friends, couchsurfers, and bloggers either adore the country (rare), or found it a disappointment (the majority).
I get it. It’s understandable why some find Vietnam underwhelming.
Getting sick at some point seems par for the course. That can easily sour your experience, logical or not.
Getting ripped off is also part of the deal. Be it paying twice the highest amount listed on the side of the food cart (while the tourist couple ahead of you were only charged a 50% premium) … or getting charged a different price for the exact same item at the exact same shop by the exact same person on different days … or that pause when a random stallholder throws out a price no doubt conjured out of thin air – probably the highest number they think they can extract from you. But hey, are you really going to quibble over a few cents here, a dollar there?
For all that, though, I’m in the first camp.
Scenes from the Reunification Palace
I’d decided I liked Vietnam already by the time we got off the bus.
The drivers seemed to stick to their side of the road most of the time. The heat in Ho Chi Minh seemed downright mild after Cambodia. And our bus stopped exactly where it was supposed to stop, just a few doors down from our hostel.
I don’t know if that’s because we travelled with a good bus company or if it’s simply a function of arriving during the day. We’d previously always arrived at dawn, when it was still dark or close to it. Result: a busload of disoriented passengers, ripe for scammage from local drivers. Here, just a few drivers clustered around the doorway, and half-hearted would be too kind a word to describe their sales efforts.
Admittedly, Vietnam isn’t the most welcoming country for tourists. Visas are required for most nationalities, and they’re expensive. English signs/menus are few and far between, though I actually really like and respect that.
What really elevated the experience for me was the people – the friendly hotel staff in Hoi An, Hue, and Hanoi (not Saigon, though) and the equally friendly couchsurfers we met all through the country. While not many are in a position to host visitors, most are eager to meet up for a coffee or to show you around. Heck, most seem to use Couchsurfing to meet travellers at the local meetups and practise their English – in Hue, I found a local student through her post offering herself up as a free tour guide to tourists. If it weren’t for them, I don’t think I would have rated Vietnam quite so highly. It made all the difference. Little things, like learning what the giant red building you pass every morning is (their high school), or their instinctively taking your arm to guide you across the road, because even after two weeks of acclimatising, getting from one side to the other is still a scary proposition.
As for the eating, I found Vietnamese food surprisingly enjoyable, and downright sublime in some of the central regions. I didn’t really know what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised by the subtle yet full-bodied soups.
That said, two weeks was enough. Enough of the noodles, the traffic, the sickness, the heat, all of it. I must admit we did very few of the typical touristy things in Vietnam, but I still feel I got as much out of it as I could. (I don’t say ‘we’, because the whole country was a bit of a bust for T, who was under the weather for most of the time.)
No, Vietnam wasn’t the easiest, but it was a one-of-a-kind experience, and I’m thrilled to have the memories.
The Amazing Cave, which well and truly lives up to its name.