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A Tale of Two Countries

2010 July 5

They say Vietnam is one of those countries where you either love it or hate it. By the end of my two-week stay, I was definitely leaning towards the latter.

Vietnam was right in the middle of my Southeast Asia trip. I arrived in Chau Doc via boat from Phnom Penh and in a spur-of-the-moment decision, decided to head to Phu Quoc island. From there, I would make my way north, stopping in Saigon, Nha Trang, Hoi An and finally Hanoi. Although I have a lot of fond memories, the overriding theme of Vietnam was one of growing frustration.

A carefree moment in Nha Trang, Vietnam.

It certainly didn’t help that I was there during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, when prices went through the roof and everywhere became 5,000% more crowded. But it extended beyond that. Vietnam, as a country, was the only place where I felt the people were rude. Perhaps it was due to the fact that I didn’t venture out of the cities or maybe it was lingering resentment towards Americans (maybe they’re nicer to Canadians?). Whatever the case, I constantly felt like the natives were trying to trick and cheat me out of every dollar I had.

Vietnam in a nutshell.

I ran into cab drivers who jumped their meters, bus drivers who claimed our tickets were fake, restaurant owners who gave us a foreign menu with higher prices, and hotel managers who gave us shoddy rooms. Likewise, haggling was often a very unpleasant experience with vendors becoming angry or hostile. To top it off, the cities (especially Saigon and Hanoi) had a very stifling atmosphere. It was hot and muggy with a fair amount of pollution. The roads were constantly packed with thousands of motobikes, each jostling for a spot on the road. You think Vuvuzelas are annoying? Try listening to the constant “BEEP BEEP BEEP” of a thousand motobikes. Successfully crossing a street became a small miracle, akin to Moses parting the red sea. Even the nightlife was lacking. With the exception of Nha Trang (Sailing Club anyone?), bars and clubs just weren’t that happening. I can’t comment on Saigon because I only stayed one night but Hoi An had a couple of quiet bars and Hanoi had an early curfew influenced by the still-present communist party.

Vietnam just didn’t resonate with me. By the time I bought my plane tickets to leave Hanoi, I was like a 10-month old baby ready to pop.

– – –

From Hanoi, we flew to Luang Prabang. Laos is one of the last bastions of “undiscovered” places in Southeast Asia and Luang Prabang is certainly the jewel of the country. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and once served as the royal capital of Laos. “LPB”, as I like to affectionately call it, also holds a special place in my heart. After my experience in Vietnam, the town was like a breath of cool, fresh air. Everything I loathed in Vietnam disappeared: the streets were wide open, the air was clean and people were smiling. It felt like I had landed in paradise; funny what a couple of hours on a plane can do for you.

Touchdown in Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang is nestled in the Laos countryside and flanked by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. There’s a very strong French influence which is reflected in its architecture and delicious French bread. Time also seems to stand still in sleepy LPB. You’ll see people leisurely strolling in the streets, shopkeepers and hotel owners fast asleep at the front desk, and kids spending their afternoons by the riverbanks. Even the normally hyper-aggressive tuktuk drivers are not immune: more often than not, you’ll find them dozing off behind the wheel of their empty carts. And as if this wasn’t good enough, forever gone were the sounds of honking, replaced by the chirping of birds and the gentle soothing sounds of the river.

Sunset from Phu Si hill.

Not only was it incredibly relaxing, there was a lot to see and do in and around the area. One of the best evenings of my trip was spent watching the sunset from Phu Si hill which provided an awe-inspiring 360-degree view of the surrounding landscape. Located nearby were the Kuang Si waterfalls and Pak Ou caves, both of which are popular attractions. At night, LPB offered the night market as a relaxing way to end a day. On the other hand, if a wild night was in order, who can forget the infamous “Lao lao” rice whiskey and the weird Laos tradition of raging in a bowling alley?

A couple of good friends.

I ended up staying for a week, spending a couple of days doing nothing and taking it easy. The town represented a return to simpler times and it was exactly what I needed after my experience in Vietnam. It was a break from all the noise and hubbub of a capital city and gave me a much needed break from being constantly on the move.

Along the riverbanks of LPB.

When I left LPB, I felt refreshed, de-stressed and like a million bucks.

My next destination? Vang Vieng. Oh. What. A. Place.

11 Responses leave one →
  1. sarita331 permalink
    July 6, 2010

    Yeah, Vietnam can be overwhelming for travelers (and expats quite frequently!). A lot of the stuff you write about has annoyed me in the past, but I think it’s concentrated in the travel industry/areas. Living here allows me to skirt around it some, although I’m not immune when I travel in Vietnam. My friends and I ran into some dazed and overwhelmed backpackers who clearly weren’t having a good time in Hanoi. My friends were kind of being snarky with them, but I remember just how frustrating traveling in Vietnam can be. I think it’s infinitely easier if you have a local or expat to steer you in the right direction, but that’s true anywhere I spose.

  2. Samantha permalink
    July 8, 2010

    Paul, I remember running into you in Berkeley and hearing that you had been traveling, but I had no idea you were writing this blog! I just read some of your entries and really really related to and enjoyed them :) I wasn’t going to go to Laos because of time limitations, but you paint a pretty convincing picture! Maybe I will head that way once I spend a little time in China. Have you been to Kunming or anywhere in Yunnan province? Let me know!

    Sammy

    p.s. are you in SF these days?

  3. July 15, 2010

    Paul,

    Luang Prabang was amazing. It was definitely one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia. Where did you stay? Our group stayed at Thongbay Guesthouse where we stayed in bungalows. A great venue and the price was very inexpensive. I loved the market area as well.

    Reading your article brings back memories!

    • July 20, 2010

      I moved around a bit when I was there. First couple of days were at two random guesthouses, forgot their names. Then my last couple of nights I spent at Spicy Laos. Really cool hostel and one of the only I encountered during the trip.

  4. February 8, 2011

    Hi Paul, I just followed your link from my comment on AdventurousKate.com.
    Vietnam can be frustrating but it can also be wonderful. The tourism industry is complete crap and because of language difficulties guiding yourself can be virtually impossible.
    I really hate Hanoi. I wrote about how sleazy and rip-offy it was. Well, that was for someone who’d already lived in Vietnam for nine months and spoke enough of the language to get around.
    After my lovely holiday in Laos I returned to Ho Chi Minh City, where I sided with the locals in thinking Hanoians are arrogant and corrupt. The north may have won the war but at what price?
    Anyway, I lived in Vietnam for three and a half years and as I write this my Vietnamese husband and half-Vietnamese daughter are reading a book next to me. We’re in Singapore but the costs here are too high and it’s too damn hot. We’ll probably return to Vietnam after a very slow round-the-world trip next year.
    I’m sorry you had a bad experience in Vietnam. I imagine many many tourists do. But when you somehow break through the overt money-hungry-ness of the backpacker trail, it’s a wonderful country with exotic customs and lovely people. Most Vietnamese avoid backpacker areas because those places are considered dangerous, sleazy and corrupt. And they’re right, aren’t they?
    The Dropout recently posted..Welcome Bacon Fans!

    • Paul permalink*
      February 8, 2011

      Really interesting view point from an expat. I spent literally a day in Saigon because I wanted to stay moving so I didn’t really get a good feel for the city. It was also during the first day of Tet which made things predictably a lot worse.

      But you’re totally right, Hanoi wasn’t the greatest. Between the curfews, ripping tourists off and terrible traffic, it was definitely not on the top of any of my lists.

      I’ve heard that once you get out a bit further out, the people are incredibly friendly. I experienced this in Nha Trang when we took our motobikes a good distance out of the city and met a really awesome family that we had a meal with. But Nha Trang was also the place where we ran into the overpriced tourist menu.

      I suppose you can’t let a few bad apples spoil everything but I think it’ll be hard for me to go back to Vietnam, especially when there are so many other places in the world.

  5. February 9, 2011

    Sorry to hear about your time in Vietnam! We spent two months in the country and absolutely loved it! We bought a motorbike in Hanoi and travelled all the way down to Saigon-best experience ever! I think like you said, you never ventured out of the big cities, so it is always harder in bigger cities-although we met no one who was trying to cheat us out of anything (except for one kid at a hotel in Sam Son tried to steal some of our computer cables)-everyone was so helpful(maybe they felt sorry for two lost tourists on a bike sometimes?!)
    I guess not every country is for everyone! Anyway, glad you enjoyed Luang Prabang (how relaxing is it?!?)

    • Paul permalink*
      February 9, 2011

      That sounds awesome! That ride is such a classic.

      I’m convinced that if I did that, I’d have a completely different view of the country.

      Maybe one day I’ll return and give it a go.

  6. jamie. permalink
    May 20, 2013

    i just got back from vietnam a few days ago..my 3rd trip there and my LAST! .. what a bunch of greedy ass fuckheads.. liars and cheats on every corner.. when people there are friendly, they are the best.. but that’s only like 5% of them.. these White backpackers who say the people and country are great are just fooling themselves..same types who vote obama.. a bunch of rednecks who have ”white guilt” and think their cultured just because they travelled to a dump and claimed they enjoyed it..same types who allow blacks to call them all kinds of racist names and just stand by and go ”hehehe”, yup I’m white who can’t dance” vietnam got so bad where I had to pay an extra 100 bucks just to change my airline ticket to get the hell out early.. I am young and now I have grey all over my hair due to the stress of the con games vietnamese people play.. they give dirty looks and stare you down without looking away, they laugh at you for the simplist things such as breathing, they talk LOUDER than ghetto blacks in the U.S. , they eat with their mouths open, they blow cigarette smoke in babies faces, they slap babies legs as if they are adults, their young women think their hot shit and sexy although their standing in urine soaked streets with rats big as cats, speaking of cats and dogs, they are scrawney and abused. (peta where are you?) the cops think their bad asses by hitting people with metal batons without warning.. If vietnam wasn’t so hot and humid and didn’t stink so bad, I believe America would of easily won that war..I will never return to that dump called vietnam..indochina is the nigger version of asia.. stick to Japan, Korea, or Taipei, where it’s cleaner and Asians actually speak English..Vietnams English sucks even though they claim they know it..they must have LOUSY english teachers.

  7. April 3, 2014

    Rice whiskey? Is that any good?

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