Something I’ve come to realise while reading travel blogs is that things go wrong. Things happen that are out of our control. They could happen to anyone, at any time, in any place, but they can massively impact upon us and our trip if we let it.
Unfortunately for me, Vietnam was that place. The place where things just seemed to go wrong, one thing after another, like a series of unfortunate events (not quite as unfortunate as in Lemony Snicket). In hindsight now, I recognise that I really struggled to shake these things off which rightly or wrongly, for better or worse, shaped my perspective of the Country and my experiences while I was there.
I did however, have some of the funniest conversations of my entire trip, and learnt a lot about travel bonding. It might sound crude, and people at home really don’t get this, but poo talk instantly becomes a bonding point. (Perhaps not instantly, I assure you it never starts off like this ‘hi I’m Felicity, so poo…’)
So as the blog suggests, Vietnam really surprised me, here’s how (in no particular order)
1. Dog culture.
Okay so I knew dog would be on the menu in Vietnam, I’ve read the horrific articles and seen the photos of those heart wrenching puppies that are destined for the dinner plate but what really surprised me was the dog culture compared to Thailand. They’re so close geographically and kind of culturally but in Thailand dogs can be pets as well as guard dogs, and typically they aren’t eaten. In Vietnam however, there seemed to be street dogs (of one variety) which were guard dogs but also okay for eating. I know this because we went exploring in Ninh Binh and saw a butchered dog laid out on a table at the side of the road next to a small house. As long as I live, I will NEVER forget that sight and the overwhelming feeling of disbelief. Aside from these dogs, there were a few fluffy pets (well groomed, on leads and not the same generic variety that wander the streets) in bigger cities but that was it.
2. The unmissable European influence particularly in Hanoi.
As I have previously mentioned, this trip was my first attempt at solo ‘travelling’ so I booked tours, which my buddy later signed up to anyway, but the point is, I took pre-arranged tours to make things easier. With that in mind, I didn’t read up too much about the places I was going to visit because I knew I’d find out everything when I got there. Personally, I now realise that Vietnam is doable without a tour but I live and learn. When walking around the lake in Hanoi, admiring the architecture I felt as though I could’ve been in any European city. The influence is also clear by the street vendors on every corner who had bags and bags of perfectly formed, fresh baguettes!
3. Which neatly brings me on to my next surprise.. I found the food in Vietnam to be lacking. I can’t quite put my finger on what it was, aside from the fact I guess I was comparing it to all of the spicy and flavoursome food I had been lucky enough to sample in Thailand. The fresh spring rolls were particularly amazing, especially as this was the first time I’d ever tried one. It was a revelation! I did try the dubious looking ‘pork’ baguettes that are sold by street vendors and I did quite like them but I’m skeptical as to what the meat actually was. I was largely disappointed with the food offerings as I found that most places tended to have that classic mixture of imitation tourist ‘home’ food and local food that gets adapted for tourists, neither of which works particularly well.
4. Although I found the food lacking, the amazing art work and old war propaganda posters blew me away! Hanoi is a hot spot for this and there’s a post office near the lake so you can easily post large items home. The oil paintings really were something else, they were stunning.
5. During one of our history lessons which explained the occasional mesh between Vietnamese and Chinese cultures, I was surprised that the guide said the yellow of the Vietnamese flag represents the people of Vietnam because of their skin colour. Now, being Vietnamese, I’m sure it’s perfectly okay for him to say that, but from my politically correct frame of mind, I couldn’t help but think how racist that would be viewed back home.
Okay so there are rats everywhere. Like there are crazy stats that when you’re in a big city you’re never more than like a metre away from a rat but in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) I swear it was WAY closer than that because I saw them everywhere and they didn’t care one bit!
7. Public exercise is a thing – something that I would later learn is also a thing in China. Women and men alike will gather, in fairly sizeable groups, in the parks to practice yoga, stretching and dancing to music. The first time you witness this, it’s quite surreal. I mean at home in the UK it’s mainly joggers, dog walkers and cyclists in the parks.
8. I was astounded by how beautiful the countryside is. We hired bikes (perhaps the best way to travel around Vietnam when it allows) in Ninh Binh and cycled around the rice fields and old ruins for hours. It was spectacular! We kept saying that the music to this experience really needed to be the opening music from Jurassic Park.
9. Culture shock but of a different kind – this one is kind of random. We were staying in a place called Ninh Binh during rainy season. There isn’t a great deal to do there, it’s more of a passing through, stop over town – I know this because we were there a few days.
Most travellers will appreciate how tricky it can be to stay on top of your laundry. It’s not possible because frankly, you’re too busy seeing the world to be concerned with what does and doesn’t need washing, but as every traveller will recognise, there comes a time when you pretty much run out of clothes. Well we got to that stage and were left with very little choice but to get our clothes washed at the place we were staying. Unfortunately, we quickly realised that the funky smell that filled the place every evening was that of roasted goat. Secondly, we realised that during rainy season, the rooms often felt damp, therefore, our clothes would not dry easily. From previous experiences in Thailand, I realised it could typically take a few days to get laundry back, but after a while, we started to panick as our time in Ninh Binh was drawing to an end.
When I did get my laundry back, nothing could’ve prepared me for what I found – apart from the fact that pretty much everything I owned now smelt worse than before as the smell of cooked goat was deeply embedded in every fibre – I came to realise why it had taken so long to get my clothes back.
Someone had painstakingly taken the time to sew yellow thread to every single item of clothing that I had put into the wash. Sometimes, in really obvious not-out-of-the-way places like on the back of a top. And whats more, the thread was so neatly and tightly stitched, I couldn’t unpick it. Now, this may sound weird enough, but alas the plot thickens. Not only did I now have goat-smelling-‘clean’-clothes with bright yellow thread in them, but they had stitched all of my underwear together in pairs. This made no sense to me at the time and still remains a mystery today.
10. The random selection of non-local foods. For instance. Where we stayed in Sapa, I’ve never seen so many Italian restaurants in such close proximity (when compared relatively to the number of restaurants that actually exist in a place). Fact: I’ve never consumed so many Haribo coca cola bottles or Oreos in my life. At home I don’t even like Oreos because I find them so sickly! Not the case in Vietnam apparently…
11. How unhelpful the police were. I encounter them twice. Once when I reported my phone stolen, which then lead to me fearing for my life while weaving through people/cars/mopeds on the back of a police motorbike on a packed central street only to be told that the street I was mugged on was not under the duristiction of this less-than-five-minutes-away-police-station, but one way further away (more on this incident later). And secondly when my friend had her phone stolen.. The police would not sign the report unless she changed it to say that she lost her phone, not that it was stolen.
Which brings me on to…
12. This came as quite a revelation to me, but I was actually really surprised by how much I disliked my stay in Vietnam and how guilty I felt for feeling this way. I felt guilty because there are people all over the world who want to travel and never get the chance, yet there I was, in Vietnam, not loving it. I think the reasons I disliked my time there were many and varied.
For lack of research and to fit in with my existing plans for Thailand and China, I went during rainy season. It was grey both figuratively and literally. The happy memories of the sunny paradise of Thailand that I’d just left behind made it all the worse. I was yearning to go back to the sun and happy times.
There was the food poisoning – an expected part of any overseas adventure I guess – but pretty horrible none the less. I got ripped off a couple of times, once by a guy who did the ‘counting the money really quickly and swapping notes around’ trick which REALLY annoyed me because I felt like it was personal.
Then there was the rain. Oh the endless rain!
I guess the reason it was so rainy (aside from it being rainy season) was the fact that our tour was mainly based in Hanoi – a great place but not for the best part of 2 – 3 weeks. We quickly recognised this and booked a trip to Ho Chi Minh which was great! Hot, sunny, a big bustling city, until… My handbag was stolen with my phone inside by a guy on a moped. Okay so I was lucky that my passport/bank cards/money etc weren’t in my bag, but I have never felt rage like that before and I hope I never do again. I think it’s the feeling of being totally powerless. In hindsight, oh wonderful hindsight, I could have handled the situation better but this series of events made me way more weary of Vietnam. I felt like people were always wanting something from me. Then of course, there was my favourite cardigan being unclipped from my bag while it was stored in the underneath of a bus (the luggage compartment), and the fact that Vietnam Airlines sheered off the clip on my rucksack at some point during my outbound journey. Seemed like Vietnam was always trying to have the last laugh.
All things considered, when I look back and focus on the people I met and travelled with, the places and the positive experiences, I had a good time, however, I strongly and repeatedly vowed I’d never EVER go back to Vietnam. I’m still on the fence about this. Anyone can have a run of bad luck and it can shape your opinions of a country or place but I’m just not sure how I feel about it.
Even though I didn’t particularly gel with the country and it was my place where everything that could go wrong basically went wrong, I met some amazing people. For me, it was the guys on my tour and the other people that we met that made this a positive experience for me, especially when I think about the adventures that we had together.