I spent a total of two weeks in Vietnam. I realize that for an entire country, this is a rather short time—and I might’ve (must’ve) missed some of the best things along the way. When I write about my general impression of a country, I don’t mean to say that I know absolutely everything about it—it’s simply my opinion, after a short stay guided largely by my own personal biases, likes & luck.
There’s something so intense about Vietnam that I miss, and crave, even as I boarded my flight back to Taipei badly in need of some rest, recovery & peace from the chaos.
Everything is amplified. It’s a whirl of colors—the brightly patterned, (always matching!) tops & bottoms of the food vendors at every street corner, the bursts of green the bunches of fresh basil and greens that seem to accompany every dish—
A kaleidoscope of bold flavors— the shocking bitterness of the dark Vietnamese coffee (alleviated only by an unbearable sweetness from condensed milk); the strong flavors of fish sauce; the tear-inducing chili sauces used to garnish cao lau and com ga—
And an assault of noise—all the elements above mixing with the ever-present whirr of motorbikes zipping by (most of the time, a bit too close for comfort), and the nasally, staccato of the Vietnamese language—
Welcome to Vietnam.
And all my blathering about Vietnam above has already been set down in a more eloquent (and famous) manner; by Graham Greene in The Quiet American:
“I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam – that a woman’s voice can drug you; that everything is so intense. The colors, the taste, even the rain. Nothing like the filthy rain in London. They say whatever you’re looking for, you will find here. They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived. The smell: that’s the first thing that hits you, promising everything in exchange for your soul. And the heat. Your shirt is straightaway a rag. You can hardly remember your name, or what you came to escape from. But at night, there’s a breeze. The river is beautiful. You could be forgiven for thinking there was no war; that the gunshots were fireworks; that only pleasure matters. A pipe of opium, or the touch of a girl who might tell you she loves you. And then, something happens, as you knew it would. And nothing can ever be the same again.”
I wouldn’t really know about the whole opium thang, and my approach to my Vietnam was, in general, is more a la Anthony Bourdain (rampaging, obnoxious foodie tourist bent on devouring everything in sight) than Graham Greene’s broody, fatalistic expats, but it seems that the sheer energy and intensity of Vietnam is something that makes it quite a polarising travel destination: you either love it, or hate it; or you passionately love only select things about it, and you absolutely loathe the rest (as I do).
And thus, I’ve decided to structure my overview on Vietnam in a series of pros (awesome things, beautiful things, things that you should definitely experience for yourself) and woes (terrible, awful, no-good experiences and factors that make me hesitant to return).
Let’s start with those pros & woes, shall we? (Some of the “items” listed link to their own posts with more detailed stories & explanations, so make sure to check those out as they are updated!)
1. The food. Oh, the food. The food, everywhere. It was all good. Heaps of greens, refreshing lime, delicious broth, fresh noodles. Banh mi. Pho ga. Com ga. Cao Lau. So delicious, and so, so cheap. I would return just to eat my way through the entire country again.
1a. Um, the coffee. The perfect caffeine fix & cool-down, strained through ice, available everywhere for less than a dollar. And always with a naughty spoonful of condensed milk.
2. Strolling through the idyllic streets of Hoi An and getting custom leather shoes made (for only $15 a pair!)
3. Lounging about at a peaceful little homestay along the banks of the Mekong River (reachable only by boat!), leaving only to watch the sun rise over the hustle + bustle of the morning floating markets.
4. Riding a motorbike past swathes of rice paddies to ancient temple ruins (with copious amounts of food stops, of course).
5. Cafe-lounging in Ho Chi Minh City (particularly at L’Usine), and visiting the War Remnants Museum (eye-opening).
6. Aggressively bargaining with pushy saleswomen in Ben Thanh Market for loads of gorgeous knick-knacks.
7. Consistently cheap & clean accommodation: a beautiful Airbnb apartment in Ho Chi Minh City, a clean & convenient hostel in Nha Trang (for $7 a night, no less), a gorgeous hotel room in Hoi An (for $10 per person, absolutely blew me away) and a creative little hostel in Pham Ngu Lao, Vietnam’s backpacker district (it had little capsule beds! So cute!).
8. Oh, um, the food.
1. Taking an 11-hour “sleeper” bus from Nha Trang to Hoi An (but I discovered my special superpower, so it was all good for me in the end).
2. A super awkward jeep tour to a set of unimpressive sand dunes in Mui Ne.
3. A mystifying overabundance of obnoxious Russian tourists in Nha Trang.
4. Disappointing beaches (and weather!) in the beach towns overall. (We went to Mui Ne and Nha Trang, the two most famous Vietnamese beach towns).
5. Rude (and disorganized!) service. Yeah, so, the Vietnamese upholding the backpacker/tourist infrastructure aren’t the nicest in the world. Plenty of eye rolls, sighs, purposeful miscommunication, manipulation, etc. Oh, and we never really knew what was going on. Hey, is that our bus leaving?!?
6. Petty Crime. In all my time travelling, I’ve never been stolen from, until my Vietnam trip. 1,000,000 Vietnam dong took a hike out of my purse. (The amount sounds staggering, but it’s only about $50 USD).
7. THE. MOTORBIKES. I had been plenty warned about this, and we definitely have an abundance of motorbikes in Taipei; but nothing prepared me for the sheer hell called “walking down an urban road in Vietnam”. The dirt, the dust, the smoke, the noise, the stress of crossing the street amidst a sea of death machines. So unpleasant.
Ultimately, I would elect to wait a bit before putting Vietnam on my travel radar again. It’s definitely not a “vacation” in the sense that you’re relaxed, comfortable and catered to (don’t go there looking for a beach holiday, either!), but it’s guaranteed to leave you with loads of ah, interesting travel stories (hey, travel is always glamorous in retrospect, said Paul Theroux).
I would definitely recommend it for foodies and artsy types (all the colors!), but the bus-travelling, aggressive vendors, and bevy of motorbikes may be a bit too much for novice travellers (although I travelled with one, and you made a valiant effort, Jenny!).
I missed the north + some central parts of Vietnam (Hue, Hanoi, Halong Bay) this time around, and I’d really like to give it another go when it’s not so cold.
I’ll end this overview with the one thing that will have me crawling back to the country before too long. Feast your eyes (raw beef pho). Thanks, Vietnam.