Category Archives: Vietnam

The Worst of Vietnam

I’ve written about my favourite Vietnamese things – now here are some of the things I disliked most about Vietnam.

Hoi An

Hoi An Brown Water

Hoi An reminded me of Lijiang in that it’s essentially a low-key but attractive ancient town that has had all the charm beaten out of it by the tourist industry.

There were so many white people on the streets that you’d think it was still a colony. The town is stuffed with tailors, bars and restaurants – in fact, just about everything in the old part of town is aimed at tourists, with barely any signs of non-tourist life.

Hoi An Tourists

I think that, as a general rule, when there are more tourists than residents on the streets, it’s not a place worth going to. It’s Disneyland.

Motorbike Men

Motorbike Man

Vietnam’s cities (particularly Hanoi) are tough to walk around. At every turn there’s a man with a motorbike who shouts and sometimes follows you. I feel sorry for them – waiting all day on street corners for someone to hire them – but they quickly sap your energy.

You cross the road, picking your way through the streams of motorbikes flowing around you and then you hear ‘AY! AY!’ shouted at full volume ‘AY! MOTORBIKE! WHERE YOU GOING?’ It’s win-win for them. Maybe you hire them. Maybe they shock you enough that you make a wrong move and get mowed down by traffic. Win-win.

And it’s not just the motorbike men who bother you. You spend every day saying ‘no’. No, I don’t need a lift. No, i don’t need a taxi. No, I don’t want to eat in your restaurant. No, I don’t want to buy a painting. No, I don’t want to give you money. No, I don’t want any marijuana. No, I don’t want a prostitute.

Vietnam is a great place to come if you like to spend your time shouting ‘no’ at poor people.

The DMZ

Vietnam DMZ Airstrip

I’ve been slightly spoiled by seeing the still-active Korean DMZ from both the North and the South. Compared to that, the Vietnam DMZ is nothing. It’s aggressively promoted as a top tourist spot, but there’s nothing to see, nothing to do, and not even a good-quality museum. There are plenty of captured and abandoned US military vehicles (but they are a common sight across Vietnam anyway), a bit of Agent Orange damage, and a few memorials. The former US airstrip (above) was probably the most interesting thing there. The ‘War Remnants’ museum in Saigon is a much better place to learn about the Vietnam war (despite its overly wordy displays, incomprehensible documentary and one-sided recounting of history).

North and South Korea, I salute your commitment to maintaining the Korean DMZ as a world-class tourist attraction. Long may it continue!

Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

The most disappointing thing about Hanoi is that it’s beautiful – with well-kept colonial buildings, attractive lakes and parks and some interesting sights like Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum (above) –  but it’s so hard to enjoy. That’s mostly because of the relentless shouts from Motorbike Men, the narrow, claustrophobic streets,  and the awful, dreaded zombie hordes of…

Western Tourists

Cyclo Tourists in Hoi An

As a tourist, I can’t reasonably complain about there being too many other tourists. What did I expect – that Vietnam would close the borders to offer me exclusive access? I’m not David Beckham visiting a Gucci store. But the sheer volume of tourists, and the way that every major place-of-interest is adapted and mediated to suit their (our) needs, sucks away any sense of adventure.

I skipped a lot of the most famous places in Vietnam, like Halong Bay, Mekong Delta boat trips and Sapa, because, after Hanoi, I couldn’t face stepping onto the coach tour conveyor belt. And when I did step on, it was usually a disappointment. This is the ancient temple at My Son. It looks nice, doesn’t it?

My Son

That picture was taken during the split second between one person walking out of shot, and a tour group walking in. This is a more honest picture:

My Son Tourists

Bloody foreigners.

The Best of Vietnam

I haven’t written much about Vietnam. I was a bit of a zombie for a while, just going through the motions and following a very well trodden path down the coast. I’ll give some reasons for my apathy in the next post.

In the meantime, here are some of my favourite things about Vietnam. Actually, I’ve already written about my very favourite Vietnam experiences: the Cao Dai temples, Phat Diem Cathedral and the propaganda posters. But these are some other highlights:

Saigon

Saigon Notre Dame

As in every Asian country I’ve been to (including North Korea) there were plenty of soon-to-be-married couples throughout Vietnam having their wedding photos taken in front of attractive landmarks. And Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City) has plenty of attractive landmarks to choose from. Notre-Dame cathedral, in the picture above, is one of the most popular.

Whereas Hanoi’s colonial architecture is largely intact, Saigon has seen a lot of its past bulldozered. Yet, the city has a better atmosphere than the capital. As a tourist, you don’t feel quite as ghettoized as in Hanoi – you can just be a person in a city rather than a tourist on a sightseeing conveyor belt.

The Reunification Palace (formerly the South Vietnam Presidential Palace) was one of my favourite places.

Saigon Reunification Palace

Apparently, it’s been left more-or-less untouched since the South Vietnamese government vacated the premises. In the palace library, you can see an unusual mix of books on the shelves including ‘Planning and Operating Motels and Motor Hotels’, a book by Prince Charles’ friend Laurens van der Post and, most inexplicably of all, a Christian comic book called ‘Hansi: the Girl who Loved the Swastika’ by Maria Anne Hirschmann, which is included in this list of ‘The 10 Most Bizarre Comic Books’ after ‘Amputee Love’ but before ‘Tales of The Leather Nun’. The whole book is online here.

When South Vietnam’s leaders weren’t reading comics about Nazi schoolgirls finding Jesus, they went to the private cinema or had a cocktail in this very 60s lounge:

Saigon Reunification Palace Lounge

Saigon’s other big attraction is the War Remnants Museum. It houses a photo collection illustrating war atrocities committed by the Americans. It was interesting but there are only so many pictures of babies with deformed heads, babies with deformed genitals and babies with deformed limbs that I need to see before I concede that dropping tons of Agent Orange across the country was a terrible thing to do. Obviously, the museum had nothing to say about war crimes committed by the North Vietnamese.

Saigon was scorching hot for the first couple of days I was there but, despite the heat, the city was probably my favourite in Vietnam.

Low prices

I arrived in Danang just as rain started pouring down. I was tired and had a splitting headache after a noisy bus journey. So, instead of shopping around for a cheap hotel, I just stayed in the first place I saw.

Danang Louis Hotel

OK, it’s pretty tacky – but there can’t be many places in the world where you can stay in a room like that – with cable TV, wifi, power shower and aircon –  for $18 a night.

I’ve stayed in double or twin rooms, always en suite, never too shabby, and, apart from that one night, paid between $7 and $12. Food is cheap, draft beer is as low as 5 pence a glass, transport – even by taxi – is reasonable. I guess I’m spending half as much each day as I did in China.

One thing I’d do differently if I were rich is hire a car and driver, as it’s quite difficult to get to the countryside without your own transportation (actually, you wouldn’t need to be rich to that – it would be possible even on a modest budget).

Art Deco-ish Buildings

I’m not sure that they’re truly Art Deco – they certainly aren’t opulent or ornate – but these buildings have curves, colours and corners that are at least reminiscent of Deco. The train station in Thanh Hoa reminds me of a Bakelite radio:

Thanh Hoa Train Station Bakelite Radio 

This building (a cinema?) in Quy Nhon needs a lick of paint, but I love the globe on the roof and the elongated semi-circle design under the balcony:

Quy Nhon Cinema

Even in the most deprived areas, there is always some unusual architecture to be found in Vietnam.

Hue

Hue Citadel Entrance

I wasn’t excited about going to Hue – it had ‘tourist nightmare’ written all over it – but I was very pleasantly surprised. The main attraction is the Imperial Citadel (above) which was built in the early 19th century by emperor Gia Long.

Hue Citadel Moat

Many buildings within the citadel were destroyed by bombs and massive rebuilding work and renovation is currently underway. The rebuilt parts look very unattractive – too new and too perfect. I’m glad I saw it while it’s partially in ruins, as I don’t hold out much hope for the ‘new and improved’ version.

The decoration on the buildings is made from a mosaic of smashed ceramic.

Hue Citadel

I stayed in the copyright-infringing  ‘Google Hotel’ and, when not visiting the ancient citadel, spent my time in Hue eating fake meat from the supermarket and dodging the ‘motorbike men’ who prey on you every time you leave the hotel. I’ll write some more about them in my next post.

Chau Doc’s Riverfront

Chau Doc Riverfront 

As I said in the previous post, Chau Doc is not a town I want to spend any time in. I’m just waiting for the boat to Phnom Penh tomorrow.

The most interesting thing about the place is the riverfront. When I went to have a look, I was followed by two men who wanted me to go on a boat tour. They refused to leave me alone – one of them got his two young daughters to pull at my clothing and shout ‘boat, boat’ – so I left after a few minutes. The annoying thing is that I would have quite liked to go on a boat to get a closer look at the floating shanty town. But I can’t bear being pestered and I didn’t want to reward their efforts.

Along the side of the river, there are houses on stilts:

Chau Doc Riverfront Stilts 

If I lived in a decrepit corrugated metal hut perilously hanging over a riverbank, I wouldn’t feel too guilty about pestering pampered tourists for a few dollars – so I can’t really criticise the touts too strongly. There are also floating houses on the river itself (the green things in the water are huge clumps of weeds):

Chau Doc Riverfront Floating Houses

Saigon > Chau Doc > Saigon > Chau Doc

Chau Doc Flat Tire

I checked out of my hotel in Saigon, caught a bus to the bus station and got on a minibus to Chau Doc, a town close to the Cambodian border from where I intended to catch a boat to Phnom Penh the following day.

I’ve travelled a few times by minibus in Vietnam. They’re always crowded, with just enough legroom for someone a foot shorter than me, and no space to store luggage. The driver will play a DVD or music at such a loud volume that it’s impossible to listen to an MP3 player over the din. Vietnam has a kind of comedy similar to Chinese crosstalk that I’ve seen played on most minibuses I’ve been on. Perhaps it’s funny, but to someone who doesn’t speak Vietnamese, it’s just a couple of men (and sometimes women) shouting at each other in very shrill voices. For hours and hours on end.

Vietnam Horse Penis Extract

Sometimes the buses stop for 10 or 15 minutes for no reason that I can ascertain. I’m not talking about toilet stops – they have those too (and I took the picture above at one of them) – just stops for no apparent reason. Anyway, when the bus stops, hawkers will often open the door and try to sell drinks, snacks and French bread.

At one stop, a man with a plastic tray of pirate DVDs hanging from his neck opened the door. He tried to sell me a Christina Aguilera DVD but I wasn’t interested, so he turned his attentions to the Vietnamese man in front of me. This man, about my age, had a withered hand and looked like he might not be quite right in the brain. He spent a long time looking through the DVDs, selected one and paid for it.

I looked over his shoulder to see what he’d chosen. Child pornography. On the cover were three naked white girls with pigtails – I’d guess they were 13 or 14. The elderly woman sitting next to him asked to see what he’d bought. He handed her the DVD and she didn’t appear to be shocked. I wish I’d understood what she said. Another man saw me looking and rolled his eyes as if to say ‘boys will be boys’.

Chau Doc Temple

The six hour bus journey became a seven and a half hour bus journey after we got a flat tire. We arrived in Chau Doc at about 5pm and I walked a couple of kilometres (passing the temple above) to the town centre. I was just about to check into a hotel when I realised that I’d made a very stupid mistake. When you check in to a hotel in Vietnam, you give them your passport and they give you the key. When you check out, you give them the key and they give you your passport. But that morning, they hadn’t given it back to me. I’d left my passport in Saigon.

I thought I could return to Saigon the following day to collect it, but the hotels refused to allow me to stay without a passport. So I walked back to the bus station and, at 7pm, caught the bus back to Saigon. We arrived at about 2am, long after the city buses had stopped running, so I got a taxi to the hotel, woke up the hotel staff to get the passport, took a taxi straight back to the bus station, and then, at 4am took the first minibus of the day back to Chau Doc. Though it was early in the morning, and every passenger on the bus was trying to sleep, the driver played a DVD of a five-hour-long awards ceremony at ear-splitting volume.

I arrived in Chau Doc, found a hotel and fell asleep – glad to finally get some rest after 20+ hours on minibuses. By the time I woke up and went to book my boat ticket to Phnom Penh, the tickets had sold out. So, on top of wasting a lot of money and time, I had to spend an extra day here and delay my arrival in Cambodia.

Everything I’ve read on the internet about Chau Doc uses the same adjective – ‘friendly’. I can only assume that the people of Chau Doc have taken a personal disliking to me, because I’ve found them to be fucking horrible. I’ve been followed relentlessly by ‘motorbike men’ and ticket touts, and had some of the worst restaurant service I’ve ever experienced. Whereas in other parts of Vietnam people might shout ‘hello’ or wave at a foreigner, here they laugh, point and sneer.

I hope I won’t make the same mistake again – I already have ‘passport’ written on the back of my hand so I remember it when I check out in the morning.

Cao Dai

Cao Dai Grand Temple Tay Ninh

Cao Dai, founded in 1926, is a  syncretic religion combining elements of Buddhism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Taoism and Spiritualism. I went to Cao Dai temples in Danang and Saigon, before making the journey to Tay Ninh to visit the Vatican-influenced Cao Dai Holy See complex. From there, the Cao Dai leadership effectively ran the province as a semi-independent feudal state with a private army until the communists came to power.

At the centre of the complex is the Great Temple (above) which is surrounded by various other religious and office buildings. ‘The Office of His Holiness Ho Phap’ has a statue of Ho Phap, one of the religion’s earliest disciples, greeting the crowds from the balcony. Below him is a portrait of Jesus.

Ho Phap Tay Ninh

Ho Phap Tay Ninh 2

Behind the alter in Cao Dai temples there is an eye symbol which represents god. This is the interior of the Danang temple:

Cao Dai Da Nang Temple Alter

There are eye motifs in every window of the Tay Ninh Great Temple:

Cao Dai Eye Symbol

It’s been suggested that the reverse side of the US $1 bill provided inspiration for the eye:

One Dollar Eye

The Cao Dai temples I visited were all very similar in terms of design, right down to the front gates. These colourful gates with flower and bird designs are typical:

Cao Dai Tay Ninh Gates

There are three Cao Dai saints – founder of the Republic of China Sun Yat Sen (孫中山), Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm and ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ author Victor Hugo.

 Cao Dai Saint Victor Hugo

The temple is very tolerant of tourists. In the picture below, you can see the balconies full of tourists snapping pictures of the service. Most of them were there as part of tour groups and left after about 10 minutes. I stayed on until the end of the service, which mostly consisted of singing, gong and drum banging and choreographed bowing and praying.

Cao Dai Service 1

In the Saigon temple, I was given a book called ‘The Path of a Cao Dai Disciple’. I’ve had a flick through and I think I’m not quite ready to become a Cao Dai priest just yet (though I could easily follow the rules of vegetarianism and celibacy without making any adjustments to my current lifestyle).

According to the book, there’s a limit of 3000 acting priests at any one time. The priests wearing yellow belong to the branch of Buddha, those in blue belong to the branch of Lao Tzu, and the priests in red belong to the Confucius branch. Female priests don’t get colourful robes – they have to make do with white. Though they can be priests, women can never be Pope (a position that has remained unfilled since 1933).

Cao Dai Service 2

Vietnam’s Propaganda Posters

Vietnam Poster 1

Though it has gone down the path of Chinese-style market reform and is no longer communist in anything but name, Vietnam’s Communist Party hasn’t done much to update its image – as reflected in the cartoony, socialist-realist propaganda posters of soldiers, workers, and happy, smiling students seen across the country.

Vietnam Poster 2

Ho Chi Minh’s image is everywhere – far more so than Mao’s in China. His portrait hangs on the walls of police stations, he’s on every bank note, and on posters and billboards on almost every street. Ho Chi Minh portraits are even available to buy in supermarkets.

Ho Chi Minh Gateway

Interestingly, there are not many statues of him – certainly not as many as Mao in China, or Kim Il Sung in North Korea. I wonder if this is because of his body shape. Mao and Kim were both round-faced and rotund (even during famine). Ho Chi Minh was very lean with long, skinny arms and legs and had a wispy beard that must be hard to sculpt accurately.

There are also public information posters and billboards throughout the country promoting good health and discouraging various criminal activities.

This poster, seen in Tay Ninh, is my favourite. What does it mean? Communist ghosts will stop werewolves from groping your breasts?

Vietnam No Groping

Anti-drugs posters are common:

 Vietnam Health Poster

The man on the left has been indulging in heroin and ‘mai dam’ – prostitutes. This was the first word of Vietnamese I learnt thanks to an exhibition called ‘Pain and Hope: 20 Years of HIV/AIDS in Vietnam’ at the Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi. I’d already noticed HIV/AIDS prevention posters on the journey to Hanoi and in the city itself – and I’ve continued to see them throughout the country.

Kim Son HIV Poster

The exhibition was surprisingly critical of the government’s past response to sufferers of the disease. AIDS awareness posters of the early 90s (like the two below) demonised those infected and, the exhibition said, led to increased isolation, ostracism and panic.

Vietnam Prostitute AIDS 

These posters also illustrate the decline of French influence – the older ones use the French acronym SIDA, while more recent ones use the English AIDS.

Vietnam AIDS Poster

Though the exhibition focused on several high-risk groups – sex workers and their customers, intravenous drug users – there was not a single mention of gay men. Homosexuality, I guess, is so taboo that it can’t be mentioned even in the least flattering of circumstances. Hopefully this is not reflected in public health policies and HIV/AIDS education.

Phat Diem Cathedral

Phat Diem Cathedral

This is Phat Diem Cathedral. It was built in the 19th century and is still in use. I arrived not long after mass had ended.

Phat Diem Cathedral 2 

The cathedral is in the town of Kim Son, which runs alongside a canal.  I walked from one end of town to the other. It’s clearly very poor and very dirty, but the people were friendly – I’ve never had so many people (mostly children) shout ‘hello’ and wave at me before.

Kim Son Canal 

According to this bridge, Hoan really loves Dung.I saw several of his / her declarations of love throughout the town. The colourful stuff on the bridge is dyed straw used for weaving baskets.

Hoan Loves Dung Bridge

I think this is a school. I’ve seen quite a few art deco inspired buildings and gates – many, like this one, built long after the French were kicked out.

Kim Son Gate

Though it’s only small, there were many churches in town. Including the cathedral, I saw at least six.

Kim Son Church

Kim Son Church 2