Last month I travelled around southern Vietnam and Cambodia, mainly for three reasons: relax and recharge my batteries, broaden my horizons and get to know these countries a little better in order to make an informed decision as to whether I could ever live and work there. In my quest for a new job, Vietnam featured on the 'possibles' list.
I had already visited both countries some six years ago, so I knew more or less what to expect. My expectations were broadly confirmed: both countries have been going through boom times, proof of which can be seen in the multitude of new hotels and construction sites that dot all major cities and the improved road networks that make travelling and transport much easier.
Neither country is as evolved as Thailand, which boasts a superb road network and well-organised public transport system. In Vietnam, the major transport arteries running from North to South consist of just a two-lane motorway and a single-track railroad. Although the main road has been improved considerably, it still sports a zillion bumps and potholes, making travel all but a relaxing experience. Most of Cambodia's roads have been paved and are great, especially when compared to the dirt tracks of a decade ago. The only section on the tourist trail which hasn't been finished yet lies between Siem Reap and Sisophon. When travelling by bus or car, be prepared to undergo a three-hour long vibro-massage.
This column will mainly focus on Vietnam. Would I ever want to work in Vietnam? Absolutely not. There is no way whatsoever anyone could convince me to work in Vietnam. Although the country has a lot of beautiful sights, many interesting tourist destinations and is relatively cheap to live and travel in, not once did I feel the urge to inquire about job opportunities or settle down there. On the contrary, at times I pondered cutting our stay in Vietnam short and move on to its neighbour. The main reasons for my discontent were the constant hassle from hawkers and taxi drivers (esp. cyclos and motorcycle taxi drivers) compounded by the horrendous traffic situation.
Traffic is probably bad wherever you go in Vietnam, but in major cities it is an absolute nightmare. Ho Chi Min City (aka Saigon), Vietnam's economic hub, has a population of more than eight million people and a mind-blowing five million motorbikes circle its streets. Motorbikes have become affordable to almost everyone, not just because of the higher purchasing power of Vietnamese workers, but because cheap Chinese motorbikes have started flooding the market and started selling like hot cakes the last few years. Five years ago, only good-quality Japanese motorbikes were available costing a few thousand dollars; now, cheap but unreliable Chinese bikes go for as little as 400 dollars, thereby putting a purchase within just about anyone's reach and literally clogging most streets of HCMC.
Crossing the streets as a pedestrian is often tantamount to attempting suicide in Vietnam, and driving a bike yourself is only recommended if you are a retired stunt driver. Although there must be some official traffic regulations, nobody seems to follow them. The unwritten rule seems to be that everyone is allowed or even supposed to drive recklessly and aggressively but should try to avoid crashing into all the other madmen out there. The result of all this for the sightseeing tourist is that although there are quite a few interesting sights, often the only way to reach them is by taxi or tourist bus; consequently, many sightseers don't even bother at all and stay in their hotel rooms or the nearest bar.
In smaller cities such as mountain town Dalat or seaside town Nha Trang, renting a motorbike is daunting but still doable if you avoid rush hour. It is also a good way to explore the more rural Vietnam at your own pace and get away from the organised tours that sometimes make you feel as if you're on a cattle truck. Make sure to wear a helmet and drive aggressively though or you'll get nowhere. I tried to brave the local Mad Maxes and even rented a bicycle and motorbike a few times; in HCMC though, I wouldn't have used one if they were free.
Although public transport in Vietnam has evolved for the better, tourists are still guided towards the convenient tourist buses going from South to North (or vice versa) and stopping in the most important tourist destinations (aka Open Tour). Overnight trains are also popular as well as domestic flights for the travellers wanting the see the whole country's highlights in a week or less (madness if you ask me). Public buses and passenger vans are abundant but unpopular with tourists. We only used a van once, to get from the border at Lao Bao to Hue.
A big Ford van picked us up near our hotel, we got in and got two nice seats in the back. The van was only half full and we thought it would be heavenly to travel in such comfort. Our opinion of public vans changed slightly when twenty minutes and a dozen stops later, no fewer than 24 people had been crammed into the 16-seater van. As you can imagine, there wasn't an inch of room to spare and we got to know some fellow passengers more intimately than we ever wanted to. We decided to stick to big buses from then on.
Food and accommodation are satisfactory and plentiful. In many places, air-conditioned rooms with (unnecessary) hot water shower, fridge and cable TV can be had for as little as 10 dollars; double or triple that in prime locations or two-star local hotels. Although Vietnamese food is varied and tasty, the tourist trail now seems to have more pizza joints than authentic and affordable local restaurants, which is really a shame. I'd rather forsake culinary globalization altogether.
I didn't get to know any Vietnamese personally, but if I was asked to describe them, I would say they are ambitious, industrious and creative; unfortunately, I suspect they are also rather insensitive and flexible with the truth. Queuing or awaiting their turn are alien concepts to them. Not unsurprisingly, they have a very different world view from westerners, whom they might see as overly sensitive, fussy and downright weird. Below are some lines you might be given in tourist places and how to interpret them, and a conversation outlining possible differences between westerners and Vietnamese.
How to interpret Vietnamese tourist speak
Vendor: I have cheap price for you.
What it really means: You should be happy that I only overcharge you by 200% instead of the usual 400%.
Bus driver: The bus will stop at the next corner because we are not allowed to drive in the old town.
What it really means: We are actually still far away from the entrance to the old town, but we are going to drop you here anyway because our hotel is just around the corner. We hope that you'll be too tired to go looking for other accommodation and spend the night with us.
Dried fruit vendor: Please buy some dried strawberries. Very good.
What it really means: Please buy some lookalike dried tomatoes which I have cleverly disguised as strawberries by deliberately mislabelling them. They are cheaper than strawberries so I'll make a bigger profit and you'll probably be too far away from here when you discover it so you won't come back to complain.
Travel agent: Free lunch is included in this day trip.
What it really means: Unless you order extra food at highly inflated prices, you'll have to share a tiny plate of fried tofu accompanied by plain rice among 10 sightseers.
Travel agent: Sightseeing in the morning, then transfer to the Vietnamese border followed by a one-hour boat trip from the Vietnamese border to Cambodia.
What it really means: Sightseeing until 9 A.M., a 1.5-hour boat trip to the Vietnamese border followed by lunch in an awful yet expensive food shack and another four-hour boat trip to Cambodia. If we are honest about travelling times, nobody would go on this trip.
Westerner (on a jungle trek): Be quiet everyone, there a rare sun bear ahead of us, I'm going to try to take some awesome photos.
Vietnamese guide: Bears are great. Let's try to capture it, put it in a tiny cage, stick a catheter in its gall bladder and sell the bear bile for a bomb.
Westerner: That's horrible.
Vietnamese guide: I admit bear bile is an acquired taste, but it's good for you.
Westerner: No, I meant it's cruel and painful for the bear.
Vietnamese guide: Don't worry, cruel is not a Vietnamese word and bears don't feel pain.
Westerner: I hope you're joking. What's that noise? Look there, it's an endangered horn-bill. What a majestic bird.
Vietnamese guide: Good, be quiet so we can kill it and have it for dinner.
Westerner: No! I won't let that happen.
Vietnamese guide: Swell, now you've scared the bird away. Oh well, we'll just have stir-fried porcupine and turtle hot pot then, washed down with some snake wine. Maybe there are even
some leftover dog kebabs from yesterday.
As the end of this column approaches, I would like to apologise to all Vietnamese citizens and residents if my judgment of their country was too harsh. After all, I only spent a few weeks in this beautiful place and didn't get to know all the ins and outs. But then again, first impressions matter. However, I do recommend a holiday in Vietnam, although I think it would be a good idea to combine it with a more relaxing destination such as Cambodia, or even better, Laos.
Let me quickly point out that Cambodia fulfilled my expectations. It hasn't changed dramatically and people are still friendly and make an effort to speak English to hawk their wares (their English sounds considerably better than their neighbours' and without much of an accent). Cambodia would be a wonderful country without some of the relentless hawkers, tuk-tuk and motorcycle drivers, but I suppose they're just trying to make a living. Someone ought to teach them the basics of good selling techniques for tourists though. I might address Cambodia in a future column.
More pictures can be seen on www.flickr.com/photos/philiproeland.