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