VIETNAM #2: This time sans Black Bike

Click on images to enlarge them.

Four women of Vietnam:
Resting from bus station kiosk duties, after a card game.
By the highway, selling some veggie by weight.
Note how covered up she is in 35˚C heat.
Traveling street resto: A hard working lady
carries heavy kitchen on a long bamboo on her shoulder, conical hat,
wonderful friendly smile, even though we weren't customers.
Black H'mong woman in Sapa.


Relief map

Google earth shot of the region. Route will be added later.


SLIDE SHOW of our Vietnam pix, with music,
by fine artist Bill Anderson [slide show link].


Our Vietnam itinerary, September 8-30, 2009. Google Maps does not calculate routes for Vietnam so here are city links:
. . . .Ho Chi Minh City ('HCMC') = Saigon [map link], 5 nights
. . . .Nha Trang [map link]
. . . .Quy Nhon [map link]
. . . .Kon Tum [map link] via the Ho Chi Ming Trail (Hwy 14).
. . . .Hoi An [map link], 3 nights
. . . .Hue [map link], 2 nights
. . . .Vinh [map link]
. . . .Ninh Binh [map link]
. . . .Haiphong [map link] to Ha Long City [map link] & Halong Bay 2 nights
. . . .Hanoi [map link] to Sapa [map link] 3 nights
. . . .Sapa –> Hanoi –> Bangkok


Big Picture: (Economics, etc. section at bottom). To these casual observers, although Communist/Socialist in name, free enterprise is obviously in Vietnam's DNA; it's certainly not sleepy like neighbors Laos and Cambodia, is growing fast – significantly having the 13th largest population on earth [source link], plus GDP growth has been 15% compounded for 18 years!

The whole region is hell-bent on world trade and wealth creation, Vietnam strikes one as a long-term leader of the pack. In a decade or two, my hunch is these Third World countries will beat the economic pants off most Middle East, Latin and African ones.

Meanwhile they shake off the legacy of a horrific few decades we all know about.

Communist or Capitalist, democratic or not – ultimately, whatever works;
as in China, so long as they attract sufficient capital and jobs and are moving in the right direction ...

Fingers crossed that nothing interrupts the clear movement in that direction.

Travels: Ho Chi Minh City ('HCMC') = Saigon [map link.] Major bustling city; countless super-fine chain hotels; every big French or Italian fashion brand you can image; scooter traffic is perhaps 100:1 versus four-wheel vehicles; very rich, very poor; 6.3 million people or likely a whole lot more uncounted immigrants.

Lots of Chinese, some Hindus, Laotians, whites ... everything and everyone is here. It's happening for sure, although we'd had enough of big cities so did our thing and moved on.

Random HCMC street shot, a nation of scooters.

Hotel in HCMC/Saigon: Spent five nights at Lac Vien Hotel [link] $34; excellent value and comfort, wi-fi, good breakfast, bright room, friendly staff, central, on a street of hotels and restaurants. Quiet room which matters a lot – in street-facing rooms you often cannot sleep!

The War Remnants Museum [photos link] [Wikipedia link]. The War is fading in memory and we did not feel an anti-American vibe in normal encounters. We're Canadians but many consider us same-same; one senses most here now just look to the future.

But to paraphrase Winston Churchill: The museums are built by the victors.

This museum is one-sided finger-pointing propaganda, not even slightly soul-searching or objective. Dedicated to keeping a distorted memory alive, it's an upsetting collection of photos, weapons and evident methods used – which speaks loudly to the Government's official views. (One of us is a post-Vietnam War refugee; the other a post-WWII Czech refugee, yet we completely agree about this.)

An indisputable aspect of their message is that war is hell; some methods used in this one were outstandingly ugly.

South Vietnamese and the front-page American atrocities [My Lai Massacre link] are upsettingly and graphically shown. However, there is zero about North Vietnamese, or post-conquest vile inhumanity – like the 400,000+ killed, often brutally, even after they won. Or about their own Communist prisons, torture, massacres of civilians. Nor about the high-death French era, or Chinese or Cambodian wars, or ...

It was just the South Vietnamese and Yanks who were bad, while the North's soldiers and leaders are all 'patriots' and victims.

The 'good guys' won by sprinking rose petals then? Utter balderdash.

Not a good balanced word about any of the USA's troops/citizens; or Canadians or Europeans; the millions of instances where Asian/white individuals helped others – such as Thao and her family who were generously helped by Canadians, to name one first-hand case.

The victorious government's museum used to be called, in sequence:
. . .– The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism
.. ... . .and the Puppet Government.
. . .– Later it became Museum of American War Crimes.
. . .– Then until 1993, the War Crimes Museum.
. . .– The current name results from local liberalization, plus
.. ... . .more normalized relations with USA.

A lot of people visit it, mostly whites that we saw, and perhaps many/most swallow the propaganda message whole. On the other hand it's so unsubtle, hopefully it backfires.

Political leanings aside, it was a long ugly era that affected us all, even half the world away. Benefitting from 20/20 retrospect – especially as a guy who believed at the time in the 'anti-Commie line in the sand' that ultimately worked against USSR & Eastern Block. The Line In Sand war was won, but the SE Asia battle was lost – at least for a time; they sure ain't Soviet clients nowadays, which was the real point behind foreign involvement in the proxy war.

I was among the many who were wrong in the long term about Asia: Shoulda'-coulda' just let them be, sort it out on their own. Vietnam was never a physical threat to the west, as for example, Afghanistan is today. It could have cost many fewer lives and dollars, was ultimately futile; indeed it backfired and delayed the inevitable – speaking with 20/20 wisdom.

See the museum or skip it if you're in town. As we know the whole neighborhood went diabolically nuts; many westerners got caught up in it and paid dearly. If you need to see ugly photos, torture chambers and land mines, go see them.

Regional death count from the era: No hard numbers exist, there are huge variances in estimates, but [source link]:
. . .Some 2-3 million military & civilian Vietnamese died in the war;
. . .+ 60,000 Americans;
. . .+ 1 million Cambodians in their own genocide;
. . .+ estimated 20,000-200,000 Laotians;
. . .+ 'boat people' & post-war retribution by victors add 430,000.
. . .= TOTAL: 3.5–4.7 million regional war deaths during the era.

. .. ....This does not take into account the high-mortality French era or the wars with China.
. .. ....Comparison: 60 million mostly-whites killed in WWII [source link] 20 yrs prior.

A US tank in front of The War Remnants Museum

Thao visited uncles, aunts and cousins in HCMC; most of them live well here today, nice homes, some own a few hotels and such.

Thao's parents and she as a baby, were 'boat people' to Singapore, right out of the dramatic unexaggerated photos of the time.

Somehow they made it to Canada and started a relatively good life. Others didn't make it out, some didn't make it at all. This is a first-hand, and first-time visit for Thao.

Once that was done, we boarded a train and started our trip northwards.


Travels cont'd: Arrived as our first stop in Nha Trang [map link], by First Class sleeper train from HCMC – shared a room with two other guys, a good way to meet locals in not-unpleasant forced confinement. Not fancy or ultra-clean, but passable for about $7 each; a quite decent rice dish and drinks from the dining car came to about $1.

The six-hour train ride was exactly on time, along the coast – abundant serious agriculture appeared well done, at least through the train window; only one other white guy on the train that we saw.

Nha Trang hotel: Nha Trang Beach Hotel [link], $20-$25 for a big room, wi-fi, close to beach, all amenities, modern, it's excellent.


From Nha Trang to Quy Nhon [map link]; took a newish Mercedes big van from the Mailinh Taxi Company, one of the biggest operators in the country – about a six-hour hang-on ride to do 450 km. The Benz van had been converted to a 10-person bus, about $6 a person; quite comfortable, clean, good handling for a bus in a slalom course, likely the best bus we took in all of Vietnam, do seek out this bus company!

Driving in Vietnam: This bus driver and most others have major cojones and skills, wow ... a whole other set of road rules for us foreigners to learn pronto. The overriding rule seems to be: Small gives way to big, or you die. And plenty do die, WHO (the UN agency involved), calls roads deaths here an 'epidemic.'

Passing constantly, verily non-stop, on two-lane roads, meaning someone has to go onto the usually-paved shoulder to make way for that big oncoming. Brush past barely, shake your head at the close call.

These guys have skills! Gazzillions of scooters, some with 3-4 people aboard, no big bikes whatsoever, very few cars. If you suffer from either road rage or scaredy-pants syndrome – drive elsewhere!

Fine country in which to have your own two wheels, lovely coastal scenery and twisties. Miles upon miles of empty lovely beaches where one could stop if free to do so.

Hotel in Quy Nhon [map link]: Hai Yen Hotel [link] is very highly recommended, it's in a 'neighborhood' – situated well away from the many 'upscale white' hotels (of which there are plenty); ours was about $10 for a palatial suite with balcony, all amenities including decent TV channels and wi-fi. Owner is very friendly as is all staff. Stay there!

Quy Nhon is a cute seaside town of about 260,000 that would be a fine laid back beach holiday. Beach and more beach looks superb. Ruins nearby that we missed.

Had a superb bowl of 'bun' (vermicelli) a block away at Bo Hue, a plastic-chairs sit-down place a nice neighborhood walk from the hotel. Filling soups with excellent tender beef, a giant cold beer, tea – all for $2. It's for Vietnamese, not fancy-tourist, but great food a short walk away; everyone local is very friendly.


Taxi ride up Ho Chi Minh Trail: In Quy Nhon we chartered a Toyota Corolla taxicab for the two days, with a pre-agreed price of $180 for the 450 kilometer twisty mountain ride. Recommended as worth it? Depends on your travel agenda, read on.

First stop was Kon Tum [map link] inland – in the midst of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which is now a 2-lane good paved road, nothing like a trail. The region has lots of hill tribes and war zones we could not explore with a taxi. The central highlands have a high rate of birth defects that some attribute to the famed Agent Orange dioxin [Wikipedia link.]

Bad hotel en route: We stayed at Huu Nghi Hotel, cannot find a link, but find another place if passing through. Staff has a bad attitude towards foreigners, indeed we get charged 50% extra, it's hotel policy. Breakfast was absolutely horrid and ridiculously over-priced – even the taxi driver couldn't eat his rubbish soup. The hotel room is only $15, the rooms are decent, but we really disliked the staff, food and attitude; friendly reciprocal smiling seems to be verboten.

Small medical experience: Wheezy had an ear infection that hadn't gone away in a week, decided I needed antibiotics in the morning. Mr. Taxi took us to a local hospital, which was a pretty good experience; it cost $0.25 (yup, a quarter!) to see a doctor, have an ear exam, get a prescription – all within 15 minutes. Not a fancy hospital, glad I didn't need an angioplasty, but as remote small town Third-World places go, it looked pretty fine. Luckily I had two Vietnamese with me; no one spoke English.

To fill the script, we had to find a pharmacy. That took some driving around but finally the eponymously-named 'Thao Nguyen' pharmacy filled it – an additional $10 for a British-made GlaxoSmithKline penicillin plus a steroid. A lot for Vietnamese perhaps, but by world standards, more like the price of some Aspirin.

Thao's namesake pharmacy and Mr. two-day Taxi.


Travels cont'd: Continued along Hwy 14 from Kon Tum [map link] to Hoi An [map link to neighboring town, due Google Maps error.]

It's a nice scenic mountain drive, steep twisty-road mountains indeed, where it's hard to imagine what the Ho Chi Minh Trail was like before; tunnels, jungle cover, bombed to hell – but now its two-lane paved with virtually no (truly none) car traffic. Amazingly empty; I'd guess we encountered ten cars on the road, outside of towns.

If you are also driving Laos right next door, our suggestion would be to forget this entire road unless you can drive/ride it on your own. It's the same mountain range and natural scenery as Laos, that was equally pretty. Plus there we could drive ourselves, stop and take pics – versus an A–>B taxi or bus where options are limited.

But if you seek to explore like-they-were-forever Vietnamese villages that seldom see whites, the best idea we know of, is to rent a bike and guide from Explore Indochina [link] – see our Vietnam #1 Blog. It is fine riding in almost no traffic and great roads, lovely mountains and charming, if somewhat shy, traditional towns.

Traditional gathering house, one of many in small villages.
Beautiful workmanship, no nails, just natural materials.
A fine hand-coved beam, had never seen this done before.
Native art on the beam.
To an inexpert eye, it could be Native American, African, others.
Kids play 'marbles' in front of the gathering house, like kids anywhere.
Except they use bottle caps and flick them.
Is this a cow, or a big pig with horns? A pink, fat, short-legged 'pow'?


Ah, yes, the cultural differences: Once we got to Hoi An [map link] the no-English taxi driver turned out to be an irritant of the derrière, although he seemed nice enough en route; his greed overcame him and soured the experience.

We'd made a flat-rate deal with his large taxi company, but as we were about to part ways, he gave us a big BS palaver on price, quite disgusting actually, a string of blatant lies with his straight most-sincere face – even pretending to call his head office. I didn't budge with Thao as translator, but unfortunately gave him the tip I'd planned to give anyway ($15).

Thao said 'a deal is a deal.' He replied 'yes I know that's how white people think.'

Sigh – yes, it's how we think. It reminds me of the prophetic advice I was given by a Swedish commercial boat builder, prior to building yachts in China. He said: 'In China, a signed contract merely signals the beginning of negotiations.' Ditto in Vietnam, it's a country where ripping off is commonplace and they are far from passive people. But if you stand your ground, do not let them bully or charm your wallet open, you'll do fine. Give no quarter, it just encourages them to get the next foreign guy: The price agreed upon is the closing price (unless they have your yacht in their yard!)

Back to Mr. Taxi, he ultimately accepted, even hugged me good-bye, but as small as the amount actually is, we still regret tipping him after the attempted 25% rip-off. He likely made more during those two days than he did in the previous month; it was a case of the famed WGOS (White Guy Opportunity Syndrome) which happens of course, but is still unpleasant and tarnishes one's warm 'n fuzzy feeling about the locals.

Typical Ho Chi Minh Trail village house;
tiled roof, concrete structure, small but well made.
Mid-nowhere, owner is probably farmer with abundant fields out back.


Hoi An [map link] [Wikipedia link] is the #1 tourist town on the coast, a charming, historical albeit tourist-oriented town. Lots of whites; tailor, souvenir and crafts shops; restaurants; French, Japanese and Chinese history; the old walled city is a UNESCO World Heritage site; a lovely beach.

Hoi An was spared bombing during both the French and American wars, so is largely intact, a rare find in Vietnam – hence charming historical architecture not found elsewhere.

Plenty of tourists come for the undeniable charm; our impression was the locals have been spoiled by the flow, are not so friendly to strangers and for-foreigner prices flourish accordingly.

Hoi An hotel: Thien Nga Hotel [link] $20-25 for lovely rooms facing onto a quiet rice field; wi-fi, swimming pool, located on a tourist-oriented street with abundant tailor shops. A very good hotel, just insist on an off-street room, otherwise you'll be awoken early by traffic as we learned our first night – prior to changing rooms.

Frankly, many Lonely Planet recommended places are making us wary by now, they suffer TMT Syndrome from the free much-heeded publicity and get lazy. For example an LP recommended restaurant we visited that night, Café 43: My meal was passable but definitely too white-oriented. Thao's Banh Xeo – a famed Vietnamese crepe meal – verged on inedible, she was 'horrified'; our cold drinks weren't, warm beer not being for Canadian-Czechs. Avoid this restaurant altogether, indeed be wary of most that suffer from TMT.

Going to local places devoid of whites is a far better bet. If you see tablecloths, candles and white man's atmosphere – beware, that's where the owner is placing emphasis, likely versus the kitchen.

River boat 'house'(?) on Thu Bon River. It's cute anyhow.
Japanese 1590's covered bridge is very solid due to earthquake fears.
Japan stopped coming here in 1637, their Gov't forbade foreign contact.


Travels cont'd: From Hoi An [map link] to Hue [map link]; the latter is a must-see town on the coast, Thao's fav city in the southern half of Vietnam. People are most friendly and laid back. Is Hue the friendliest tourist town in the region? Quite possibly so.

To get there we took a $5 old bus along Hwy A1, that took five (5) hours to do 140 km (yes, 28 kph = 17 mph average!) just painfully slow, no air conditioning. But luckily we had window seats and breeze, except when stopped in 35˚ heat.

But we fleetingly saw some nice scenery, China Beach, Danang, mountain passes, some peaks up to 1100 metres high, lots of water and serious agriculture is happening everywhere – glimpsed through the open windows. Again, sure wish we could have stopped and savored!

Thao looks happy, but it's hot in this bus!
Hue [map link] has a population of some 300,000 plus an online travelers' reputation for having aggressive touts; we were dropped off in front of a hotel where a swarm of them were waiting – but apart from that we received quite minimal pestering. Our low-tout experience likely had to do with staying in a more 'local' part of town; if one stays in the midst of the big tourist palaces, the aggressive hustlers will more likely be awaiting outside to swoop.

Hue hotel: We opted for the quieter north bank of the Perfume River in the heart of the citadel residential neighborhood, a more authentic slice of local life. Stayed at the Thanh Noi Hotel [link] at $27 – a quiet converted compound with swimming pool, popular outdoor restaurant, wi-fi, elegant room with all amenities. Excellent value.

Hue's cuisine is famous; the emperors were said to be fussy eaters, leaving behind varied local specialties, among them 'bun bo Hue' – a spicy vermicelli soup with beef.

Bun bo Hue, fine soup with beef and vermicelli.

A few blocks away from our hotel we found a large local street dining area, a couple solid blocks of rice/noodle stands on the sidewalk. Sitting on plastic stools we had 'bun rieu', a spicy vermicelli soup with tofu and minced crabmeat, plus fresh sugarcane juice and cold beer, all delicious and about $2!

Sidewalk restos: How does that work, throughout SE Asia? I mean sidewalk stands, food and goods for sale, by the tens of thousands, so many of them you have to walk on the street and dodge traffic. Do they pay rent to the merchant with a store front they semi-block, or to the city? We never found out, but it's very much a part of the regional culture, plus it's convenient, cheap, delicious and fun.

On the sidewalk is where you often/usually get the best food at the best price. Propane stoves, BBQ's, stands of food, buckets of water (in which they wash your dishes, not the most germicidal method one can think of) – all have to be removed at night and brought back – complex logistics. Indeed at a sidewalk resto you can actually see what you are about to eat, versus a kitchen out back. We often ate at these stands and never got ill, seldom were ripped off, encountered many more locals than in the fancier eateries. However it works, here and elsewhere in SE Asia, we love and prefer it.

Walking around the Hue 'hood one sees large elegant homes on quiet streets; people doing their thing in the cool evening, oblivious to our presence. Kids say hello curiously and giggle; people all looked happy. What a difference from Hoi An for example, it's what makes traveling so rewarding even for the by-now travel-jaded – just being left alone to observe and absorb a different way of life, meeting friendly locals, just as people.

Hue was the capital of Vietnam's last (Nguyen) imperial dynasty 1802-1945. It was a lavish imperial court, political, intellectual and spiritual centre. Today it's a UNESCO World Heritage site, with temples, royal tombs, palaces and pagodas on the banks of the Perfume River.

During the famed 1968 Communist Tet Offensive [university history link] some 10,000 people died in Hue, most of them civilians.

Spent a few hours walking within the citadel; former emperors' palaces, the grounds almost devoid of tourists; unique architecture with a notable Chinese influence.

Just a nice shot: These are 'windows' used in many houses.
Not bug-proof but attractive.

An old roof: Stacked ceramic tiles, heavy & costly, but attractive.
Click to see many artistic and craftsmanship details.


Traveling North: From Hue [map link] to Ha Long Bay [map link] took two long tiring days of trains and buses – not at all pleasant. We recommend flying, if you do not have unlimited time or your own wheels.

Awaiting another bus, hung out for half hour with friendly stand owner.
A scooter nation:
FIVE people + cargo on and behind this 125cc one.
3 on scooter (kid between the adults) + 2 on trailer.
At a train station waiting; laughing woman and friend
clowned for the white guy's camera.
A Ho Chi Minh propaganda billboard:
Wise man writing in front of rows of lotus flowers & flags.
One of many dog meat restaurants. Cats too.
Click to see picture of friendly fido on the sign.


Ha Long Bay [map link] [more photos link] is another UNESCO World Heritage site, lovely, scenic, a perfect overnight cruise. We weren't the first to discover it evidently: A well organized tourist magnet, even during the low season of September, it was packed with white faces from as far away as Argentina, Spain, some Brits and abundant Aussies (that we met).

It's in the Gulf of Tonkin, the beauty coming from some 1,600 islands that form a spectacular seascape of limestone pillars. Because they are tall and very steep, some flat-faced cliffs, most of the islands are uninhabited. The scenic beauty is complemented by considerable biological diversity.

A long deep cavern, a side trip from the boat.
Very much enjoyed an overnight cruise on a quasi-junk, fine meals, good rooms, guides in English and Spanish, swimming and kayaking optional.

Highly recommend among the many boat tour choices Huong Hai Junks [link with good photos] or phone their 24/7 rep Mr. Dao Tuan Hung who arranged it for us and speaks perfect English [cell (+84) 913 395 342.] They're not the cheapest in town but it's not worth risking an unpleasant experience. This company is well run, has numerous boats with excellent crew – with drinks and tips about $200 for 24 hours and four meals.

Shared the boat with ten other passengers, among them a big coincidence worth telling: Two delightful honeymooning couples from Barcelona were aboard; they'd been married in their home town on the same day; chose the same unlikely honeymoon destination – but get this – they had never met each other until accidentally crossing paths in Vietnam! Cool honeymoon long-shot coincidence. We really meeting enjoyed them and their Spanish-speaking Vietnamese guides.

Digression – never heard of Hitler? One of the engineer-educated, charming and friendly, 45-50 yr old Spanish-English-speaking Vietnamese guides, had never heard of Adolf Hitler. This high-IQ man obtained an advanced degree in Cuba, was otherwise educated in Vietnam, guides several groups of Spanish-speaking whites a week – and he'd never been taught anything about Hitler? It serves to raise questions about what they did/do teach instead, in hard-line censorship states – it's not as if Hitler/Nazis were an insignificant detail in modern history!

The topic only arose in conversation with Thao about the 4 million SE Asian war dead versus 60 million whites in WWII. He did not know much about our big war, which was not willful ignorance, just propaganda-based education that sends chills ...

A bay viewed from a cliff climb, and exploring a lovely cavern.
From the foredeck.
Our boat viewed from a dinghy side trip.
It ain't camping; indeed very good food and service.
Nice group of passengers, a good boat, fine scenery – altogether a very civilized couple days. It's a must-do as part of any Vietnam tour.

There's more to do nearby; rugged jungle Cat Ba Island with a diverse ecosystem and several endangered primates, hidden beaches, islands, undeveloped bays ... but we had a business meeting in Bangkok in a few days, so had to move on.


Sapa [map link] at some 1600 metres = 5,200 feet is chilly-cool, in the low 20's when we were there, a beautifully scenic mountain area right near China.

Hotel in Sapa: Mountain View Hotel [email: or] ask for room #100 and get a $1,000 balcony view from your bed for $12 – that's with wi-fi, CNN, several free computers in lobby, a good resto, welcoming staff, the hotel organizes tours, it's right in the heart of the tourist-geared town.

No air conditioning was needed for our first time in months, a balmy 20˚-25˚C in September; a welcome break from months of serious heat and humidity.

It's another slice of Vietnamese life in this region. Some fifty-odd tribes up here are largely of Thai and Chinese origin settled some thousand years ago – and they look/dress quite differently.

Dzao women in red
Black H'mong women in town.

As ethnic minorities often (not always) do, they work hard but seem relatively poor, albeit happy. No ethic violence or movements that we heard of.

Sapa itself is definitely a tourist town wall-to-wall. Some restaurants are priced like at home for the whites, but without the quality. Others are priced reasonably but you have to find them by trial and error.

Too many whites in dreadlocks and other 'I'm a rebel' statement costumes, even some with turbans (indicating what exactly, in Vietnam?) – one supposes because this is considered off the beaten track in some circles, even if it no longer is. The tourist parade is amusing, however the region is worth visiting for the scenery and non-white cultural diversity.

We chartered a taxi one day at about $75, which took us northwest to Lai Chau 100 km each direction through the mountains. The mountain range is gorgeous, stunning agricultural terracing, roads are major twisties, often under construction, the highest peaks in Indochina – perfect biking!

Panoramic view from $12 hotel balcony; a nice room is thrown in.
Near Sapa. Click to enlarge the amazing flawless terracing.
Yes, it's really that green, no color adjustment.
Low-C02 harvest transport.
Lovely waterfall hike, that's Thao on the bridge.
The road we took, by taxi alas ... perfect biking missed.
Typical mountain view. Really – typical. Stunning.
Chinese-decendents in the far north.
Black H'mong tribe.

A bus from Sapa [terrain map link] takes a twisty hour and a half back to Lao Cai [map link] from which one catches an overnight train to Hanoi. Which we did, then caught a bargain $75 x 2 flight to Bangkok on Air Asia [link] the best deal in the region, fine comfy planes and you book online.

To read up on Hanoi, see our three weeks there in the Vietnam #1 blog [link.]


Train & bus travel in Vietnam: Trains are on-time and cheap. However you're in a fast-moving box watching everything fly by, seeing almost nothing. Bikes or cars are way better, so are buses, except for some long uneventful strips. If skipping large sections of the country – fly.

The First Class train cars are just fine, air conditioned sleepers with four bunks to a room – $15 buys you two beds on many overnight stretches.

You get tickets at the train station or some travel agents will do it for you. However, we advise you try to go up a notch; there are several providers of private upscale train cars that get added to normal trains – but book tickets in advance, the upscale cars get sold out.

There are several private train car services you can find on line or through travel agents. We had a good experience with the ET Pumpkin [link] chain which has four-bunk rooms to the national railway service; they are super-clean, better bedding, altogether more comfortable – and the washrooms in each car are far better and cleaner. The cost difference is not huge.

Bus quality also varies widely, some are sardine cans that stop frustratingly, troll the city streets slowly for passengers, a salesman jumps off the bus to sell seats; others are luxury reclining seat expresses; some even have fine sleeper-bunks. Ask a travel agent or go to the station and see the actual bus you will take, before paying! Repeat, before.

Stay away completely from the guys trying to sell you tickets on the street, they will rip you off enormously (like 400%.) Bus ticket hustlers, even taxi hustlers are an absolute no-no.


Thumbnail Economy; History; Freedom/Corruption: Vietnam is a strictly one-party Communist state which ranks poorly on world freedom and corruption indices [chart link] – although it ranks slightly better than neighbors Laos and Cambodia.

Click for Freedom/Corruption rankings.
Population is 87 million, a big domestic market and labor force.

Birth rate is under control [source link] – it is against the law here to have more than two children per couple in one of Asia's most densely-populated nations. The Middle East urgently needs to emulate this and other smart moves they have made here, see regional facts in our Israel blog.

It feels strikingly similar to China as a nation of go-go business-minded people, relative to other SE Asia neighbors. Indeed Vietnam was a Chinese colony for 1,000 years ending in 938 AD, after which it was independent but remained a tributary state [source link]. It has fought (and won) many wars against China, as recently as 1979. But the long-border neighbors seems to have a close and logical business relationship of late.

As part of the Indochina trio, Vietnam was ruled by France during the century of 1854-1954. Ho Chi Minh's forces threw out the French in an unfortunately unheeded foreshadowing of the American-backed war [good summary link] that cost some 90,000 French lives – Vietnamese deaths aside, France lost 50% more soldiers than USA did! [National deaths summary link.] Who knew?

Under the Paris Peace Accord of 1973 [link] 'Nam was re-divided into North-South; the US withdrew. Two years later, the North overran the South; the USA Congress in the immediate post-Nixon era decided enough was enough, just letting it happen.

The North had been supported by the old Soviet Bloc, which of course collapsed.

Vietnam was on its own again, it stagnated and shrunk economically. The punitive death toll was a high and ugly 400,000+ after the 1975 North-South invasion.

But – since starting to merge into the world economy in 1986, Vietnam has pulled off a fast-growth fifteen years, with relative peace.

Having no real choice or foreign benefactor, its evolving-Communist government has moved towards economic liberalization, competitiveness and export-orientation – with a vengeance. They unleashed a business Asian Tiger.

The USA lifted its trade embargo in 1994; Vietnam joined the ASEAN Free Trade Area in 2001 and the World Trade Organization in 2007.

It even opened a stock market in 2000 [BBC link] which in 2008 suffered a 70% loss, one of the world's biggest-ever one-year losses [source link.]

It's still economic early days: GDP Per Capita (PPP) in 2008 was at a humble $2,600 – about tied with India. That's 37% more productive than neighboring Laos and Cambodia, but just a third of Thailand's $8,000, while other neighbor China is at $4,900 [source link.] To compare this with Europe, Romania is at the bottom of the heap at $10,700 which is 400% higher than Vietnam, while Norway tops Europe at $54,900 or 21x = 2100% higher than 'Nam! Still economic early days for SE Asia.

Here's a hugely impressive fact: Since 1990, Vietnam's (unadjusted dollar) GDP growth has been almost 15% compounded – from $6.5 billion to $81 billion in 18 years – that's in China's league of outstanding growth.

Exports were also an impressive 68% of GDP in 2008. That makes them very sensitive to the varying world economy, but still exports speak loudly. Vietnam exports in this order: Crude oil; marine products; rice; coffee; rubber; tea; garments and shoes. Global business apparently finds Vietnamese productivity attractive, Chinese and others are setting up factories here at a good pace.

Also hugely impressive: Percentage of people below the poverty line is already excellent at 15% [source link]. This chart is worth looking at: Vietnam beats 177 other countries out of 225 in poverty-reduction, including for example Belgium, Portugal, Egypt, Israel and oil-rich UAE.

It's an impressive decade and a half. Fingers crossed, but the economy has been looking very good ...

Click to enlarge 2008 regional comparison.

Ripping off the whites: It may look ludicrous to the Nordamericano or Euro reader: here we 'rich folks' are, complaining about $15 hotels, but this is all contextual.

As Einstein proved, everything is relative (although he didn't address hotels specifically, I'm sure he meant to.)

It's a de facto traveler's occupational hazard, in many countries, tourists' wallets are logical targets. But one gets sick of over-the-top fiscal racism after a while; i.e. one price for locals and a vastly different one for foreigners. Especially in some countries: India wins 1st prize on this trip, Tunisia is a contender – now add Vietnam.

It's not the worst thing; sure beats other forms of racism such as 'no-service-to-you' back-turning bigotry, that Thao has experienced in some regions (see Jordan, Turkey #2 and other blogs.)

But the Vietnamese – not all but many we encountered – proved themselves beyond the pale. For example being charged 400% of the correct price for a bus ticket; 50% extra on hotel rooms (it happens in the whole SE Asia region); 100% extra on meals; double-price to use a railway station toilet; even convenience stores hitting us an extra 50% on small items.

The white guy here (Wheezy) got hit with over-pricing more than half the time; Thao being Vietnamese did better. I've traveled some 80 countries, many of them Second and Third World for decades, so should be used to it by now. Nonetheless, it gets to you.

Human short-term greed and opportunism meets race; it's correctly-assumed ignorance on prices; taking advantage of the home-turf advantage. No deeper than that.

Do not let us deter a visit, but consider yourself pre-advised: Learn prices of things in advance, or you'll be had.

If you don't care, that's fine too. It's not the relatively small money, rather the people's attitude towards us; one feels unwelcome, ripped-off for race – and it's not altogether an incorrect feeling.

In the Sapa mountain ride for example: We had a horrid lunch at a place our all-day Sapa cab driver 'friend' took us to, in a tiny town of the north. They over-charged by >100%, lunch was half of the cost of a very good hotel room, for chicken bits so tough we literally could not eat them.

Much of the over-charge quite obviously went into the cab driver's pocket, he rather stupidly defended the price when we discussed it with him. I haggled in vain over the bill, just got a bunch of BS.

Lesson re-learned: Never eat where the cab/bus takes you, pick another place, go across the road, or bring your own food.

In other countries we've always had our own wheels, so chose our own restaurants, otherwise it might have happened more elsewhere.

Oh, and never book a taxi through the ET Pumpkin Hotel in Sapa, it was their car and driver. The car's battery was also nearly-dry from dumb maintenance (I refilled it but 'twas too late); it died constantly, had to be bump-started repeatedly.

The overcharging thing simply became very annoyingly old.

. . . .A Brit biker friend who lives in Thailand read this section, emailed me;
. . . .he and his Thai wife laughed, they call it 'Farang Tax' in Thailand
. . . .(that's the Thai word for 'White Man'.) The phenom exists everywhere
. . . .in SE Asia, but is more exaggerated in Vietnam.


In Summary: All that said, we liked Vietnam very much and were most heartened to see it prospering, 'moving in the right direction' rapidly, with already low unemployment by world standards and a clearly industrious people.

The Viet people are to be greatly admired; they may come across as coarse and unsentimental, but with a horrific war era behind them, they are now clearly devoting themselves to the next generation's future and making it happen, not passively waiting for someone else to do it. A loud bravo to that!

Although #126 of 225 world countries listed in terms of GDP Per Capita (PPP) [world ranking link] they have been gaining ground quickly in the past decade and a half.

Their Communist government is evidently quite corrupt [facts link]. However it is doing some things cleverly.

As an example, it is by policy a nation of motor scooters (23 million bikes for 87 million people, a quarter of the population, about half the adults, have one in a Third World country!); were even a fifth of the two-wheelers converted to four, most of the urban roads and many country ones would have to be re-done, plus fuel, pollution, traffic jams, parts, foreign currency ...

Scooters are clearly the best answer here, plus half the adults can afford motorized wheels without feeling jealously outclassed by their peers.

Many bikes are locally manufactured and the country aims at being the biggest regional bike exporter within five years – targeting the Africa, Latin America and Middle East markets. It is even building eco-friendly and economical electric bikes with a Texas manufacturer. All very smart. The entire Middle East needs to take a page out of this book; the demographic control one too.

Some stunning scenery and a broad diverse culture-scape, especially in the north. A very tall narrow country – 2,000-3,000 km by road depending on your route; fine mountains and coast; fascinating history; wonderful varied cuisine; low prices.

It needs at least a couple weeks of tourism, even if you fly over the middle section.

Vietnam ain't deluxe Europe, not even Thailand – although big high-end hotels exist in many cities, if unlike us, you prefer to stay in Western luxury.

It is a great SE Asia adventure for some travelers; moreover it puts the 1960's-70's in a hopeful forward-looking new context.

You will be notified of updates automatically.


No comments:

Post a Comment