Vietnam - Part I

Vietnam puts a new spin on my trip. While previously law and order was evidently existent (except some reckless drivers in China), Vietnam is clearly more chaotic. It reminds me in some ways of Nigeria. The motorbike is the primary vehicle of transportation; omnipresent and in countless numbers. People have a crazy style of driving and there seem to be no rules. At the beginning it took me some time to even cross a main street in Hanoi. I couldn't find a way through this endless stream of motorcycles. However, I figured out that one just have to start walking, slowly and predictably, because drivers recognize pedestrians and drive around them. This approach works really well, and I finally began to see some order in the chaos. Furthermore, there is much more of a street life in Vietnam. Although, one also sees in, for example, Tokyo many people on the street, they are busy to get from point A to B. In contrast, Vietnamese hang out in front of their shops or sit together outside to eat, drink and talk.

The Vietnamese cuisine is excellent. It is influenced by the principle of five elements; therefore, many dishes include a combination of five spices: spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water) and sweet (earth). The food is usually made with fresh ingredients such as herbs and vegetables, and a choice of meat or seafood. It is definitely very different to the oily Chinese dishes, which are rather unhealthy compared with Vietnamese food. Additionally, all fruits (mango, pineapple, melon, etc.) are fantastic, and one can get easily addicted to the fruit smoothies in Vietnam. I couldn't believe that fruits can taste so much better.

The people are very friendly and welcome you in Vietnam. They are proud of their country, which had to overcome many wars and occupations in the past (Chinese, Japanese, French and Americans have been there). They are happy to tell you more about the history, present and future. However, they are also cautious about what to say, in particular in terms of the government. Vietnam has a single-party system and is along with China, Cuba and Laos one of the world's remaining socialist countries supporting communism. An open critic or debate about the country's condition and progress is apparently not allowed by its leaders.

Tourism is a blessing and a curse. Vietnam is still a very poor country, and tourism provides for many people an important source of income. This industry has become a significant component of Vietnam's economy and has been growing at a double-digit pace in recent years (in 2012 almost seven million people visited Vietnam). However, this influx of tourists has also its downsides. There is a building boom in top travel destinations that starts to dilute the original beauty and character of these places. Also, especially in poor areas, children are sometimes kept out of school, because they can make good money from tourists even without education.

Vietnamese are very persistent sales people. Once you get out of the door, street sellers approach you to sell something (food, drinks, hotels, tours, rides, etc.). This can get a little annoying. Therefore, it is important to say a firm "No, thank you." If you show interest, you are lost. Vietnam is also known for scams. Most of them are harmless ones such as overpaying. There is always a local and tourist rate, and this applies to almost everything. Hence, never forget to bargain! It is a bad behavior to charge differently, and it will hopefully change over time. There are also some more serious scams, but they shouldn't occur if one uses common sense.

There has been a tremendous growth of Vietnam's population in the last 40 years. It almost doubled to about 90 million. Vietnam is a country of cheap labour. This is why it is a top choice for many apparel companies to manufacture their clothes. I haven't been to any textile production site, but think one can also see the effect in the hospitality business. It seems that places such as restaurants, bars or hotels are totally overstaffed. For example, instead of having in a restaurant two waitresses (appropriate to its size), there are about six or seven. This is aggravated by the fact that supply and demand is completely out of balance. There are just too many places for the number of available customers, so most of them are either pretty much empty or only host a few guests. No idea how the economics work for these unfortunate locations. This is so different to San Francisco, where almost all places are crowded, and one has usually to wait before getting a seat somewhere.

One more thing regarding a longer backpacking trip. Don't underestimate the time you need to plan and organize the next destinations. I incorporate ideas and experiences from other travelers I meet along the way, and it takes some time to organize these travel updates. Also, traveling in South East Asia takes time. These countries don't have a Japanese Shinkansen and you rely on slow overnight buses and trains to bridge longer distances.

It is a small world. Manny, a friend of mine, told me before I left that one of his buddies (Devjeet) is currently traveling with a friend in South East Asia as well. In Hanoi, we stayed coincidentally at the same hostel. We didn't figure it out until a girl from Holland, who I was talking to when I checked in, told Dev about a German guy living in the SF Bay Area. So, we went out that night for dinner and a few drinks. Btw, Dev is the guy in the red shirt.

From Hanoi, I went on a three day Halong Bay cruise trip. The bay is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and famous for its scenic ocean karst topography. We were nine people on this tour including Dirk and Jonne from Holland. Meeting new people and hearing their stories is one of the best parts of this trip.

We did a cooking class on the boat learning how to make Vietnamese Spring Rolls. The food and atmosphere on the boat was great. And it was quite a large vessel for just nine people.

There are some amazing caves in Halong Bay, but it is unfortunately very touristic. This definitely spoils the experience. Furthermore, the hordes of tourists have a dramatic effect on the caves. The increased levels of carbon dioxide lead to an accelerated degradation of the limestone. And the widening of cave entrances and colored lights which flood the interiors causing a decrease in cave humidity.

After the trip to Halong Bay, I took a night train to Sapa, a mountainous town in northwest Vietnam along the border with China. The area around Sapa is known for ethnic minorities, rice terraces and lush vegetation. Also, Fansipan, the highest mountain of Vietnam lies in this region (3,143 m / 10,312 ft).

Our tour guide Lin was first a surprise. She looked more like a child than an adult despite her age of 19 years. Her English was impressive considering the fact that she had never learned it at school and just picked it up from tourists. The funny thing in Sapa is that local people are following tourist groups for hours. They walk with them the entire day and, of course, try to sell something at the end (mostly local handcrafts). 

Our group (a couple from New Zealand and the UK) stayed at a homestay for one night. This was a great experience. After hours of walking, we enjoyed cold beers and delicious food. Perhaps the bed doesn't look so comfortable, but it definitely was. Also, due to the higher altitude of the Sapa region, it was much cooler at night. This change to the climate after having mostly hot nights felt really good.