The other side of Vietnam

I stepped out of my hotel room into a building site.  As I paused to lock my door I wondered if I shouldn't be wearing a hard hat.  If you were to tell me that I only had myself to blame for choosing this hotel I would point out that in Nha Trang, a seaside resort town in south-central Vietnam, there are few hotels where construction work is not in progress.  This is the reality in these days of booming tourism in Vietnam.

It's a different world, of course, from the traditional Vietnamese scene, typically portrayed as the sun setting over gloriously verdant rice fields, a woman in the foreground and a conical hat completing the picture.  While such scenes do exist, it is rare for the other side of the story to be told.  Away from the fields, the tourist boom continues apace and the property developers are hard at work as new hotels go up in the major towns faster than the guide books can list them.

Within fifty yards of my hotel on the way to a banana pancake breakfast, I am offered a trishaw ride, motorbike or bicycle hire, a boat trip, marijuana and a "nice girl".  This is really a beach resort for Vietnamese, but it is also a stop on the north-south or south-north tourist trail through this long, thin country.  In other words, all western visitors travelling between Hanoi and Saigon stop here, and locals in the tourist industry recognise the white faces as richer pickings than the domestic tourist trade.

The Vietnamese can certainly not be accused of lacking in entrepreneurial spirit.  In downtown Saigon, an area has sprung up along the lines of Bangkok's infamous Khao San Road, providing backpackers with budget accommodation, western food, handicrafts, clothing and, unusually, package tours.  Vietnamese tour groups can sometimes be seen passing through this backpackers' ghetto in their tour buses to see how the other half lives.

Travellers elsewhere pride themselves on their independence and can frequently be heard pouring scorn on packaged tourists with their air-conditioned buses and permanent escort.  In Vietnam, however, the attitude changes somewhat.  Budget tours, extremely good value it has to be said, are available to various places of interest in the vicinity of Saigon, Hanoi and other major tourist centres.  From Saigon, tours of anything between one and five days are on offer to the Mekong delta region for a cost including accommodation of less than ten US dollars a day, and are well subscribed.  Offer a backpacker a good deal, it seems, and the contempt for comfortable tours is forgotten.

It would be unfair to claim that as the only factor, however.  Journeys by public bus can be enjoyable, but more often than not they are excruciatingly uncomfortable.  Even the locals do not have enough leg-room so what chance does an oversized foreigner have?  The buses are cheap, but then so, by western standards, are the minibuses that daily ply the roads on the standard tourist trail.

During the Vietnam war (if you use this expression in conversation with Vietnamese they might ask you which one you mean), the Viet Cong established the "Ho Chi Minh trail" to supply forces pushing south.  Twenty years on, western travellers are blazing their own trail: Saigon to Dalat to Nha Trang to Hoi An to Hué to Hanoi.  A café in Saigon offers an "open ticket" for a bargain price with daily buses following this route in both directions as far as Hué.  Also thrown in is a free T-shirt that almost serves as a backpacker's uniform, so large is the number of customers.  The bus stops at places of interest en route and at overpriced wayside restaurants apparently catering solely to the minibus trade.

An almost obligatory day-trip from Saigon brings tourists by the bus-load to the Cao Dai Great Temple in Tay Ninh.  This ought to be a fascinating place: Cao Daism is a bizarre religion unique to southern Vietnam.  Its creed combines aspects of  Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and other religions and its saints include Joan of Arc, William Shakespeare, Victor Hugo and Lenin.

All this, however, appears of little concern to the tourists who flock to the noon prayer sessions in their hundreds.  They can be seen up on the viewing balconies falling over each other in their beachwear and practically treading on worshipping priests to get that perfect photograph of the ceremony below.  The prayer session lasts for more than two hours but, photographs and video footage taken, the hordes soon leave for the Cu Chi tunnels, next stop on the tour, leaving a more respectful few behind them.  I could only admire the tolerance of the priests who charge no admission fee for this daily invasion and even take the time to explain their beliefs and the peculiar temple design to the small number of visitors interested in learning more than the few words their tour guide will have told them.

At a nearby street café I met Phung, a twelve year old boy with superb English.  I had a few days earlier met an eight year old girl in Can Tho, serving foreigners in a popular café.  She was attending an English school two days a week and it showed.  Phung explained that the tuition was mainly down to his father.  When he grew up he didn't want to be a train driver or an astronaut but a tourist guide.  I detected his father's influence here too and began to wonder what in truth was the "real" Vietnam - the rustic rice fields and traditional lifestyles or the new hotels, cafés, and tour companies.  It's both of course, but the former is much more appealing and increasingly harder to find.  So why is there still a preponderance to follow the beaten track?

Those people I met who made an effort to strike out on their own even for a short time enjoyed their best days when they did so.  The Mekong delta area, for example, is tremendously scenic and one can appreciate some of what it has to offer on a tour from Saigon.  My best memories are, however, of the hospitality and kindness shown to me there in less visited towns such as Vinh Long, Ðai Ngai, Vi Thanh, and Soc Trang, and on ferry and bus rides between them.  Even in Can Tho, if one stays longer than the tour's overnight stop, the noisy and bustling city becomes welcoming and enjoyable.  All it took was a little time to soak in the atmosphere and to experience the attractions otherwise than through a bus window.  It was all a far cry from the hassles of the ubiquitous street-vendors in the tourist towns, with their photocopied guide-books and phrase books, fake war mementoes, shoe shines, cigarettes and countless other things I didn't want to buy from them.

Many foreigners I met remarked that they expected Vietnam to be "more communist", and it's true that apart from some of the stereotypical architecture associated with such regimes, there is little to persuade a visitor that this is not a capitalist country.  This is just one of the changes sweeping Vietnam but could be said to be the root cause of all the others.

As little as five years ago, as I understand it, it was a different story.  There are, however, still opportunities to visit areas little-affected by mass tourism: it just takes a little effort and discomfort.  There are still places where you don't have to bargain over the price of a bottle of water and where the people are genuinely interested in the stranger for reasons other than the contents of his wallet.  You will also find that the locals will have no comprehension of why you would want to visit such places rather than the more comfortable tourist enclaves.

A leaflet thrust into my hand in Saigon offered me a tour to nearby Vung Tau - "the petrol city" that was once a beautiful beach resort but where now I could "eye witness the changes of a seaside city on the way to modernization, industrialization and tourism diversification of Vietnam, a rapidly evolving country".  I couldn't fault them for honesty but I didn't take them up on the offer.

Copyright Nicholas White 1997