Back in early 2016, I took a trip to Vietnam. I was super excited for the delicious food, spectacular scenery, historic culture, tapestry and man-made art. Oh my god I couldn’t wait! Well let me tell you how I left feeling: angry, offended and most of all disappointed. I left with the phrase “ahhh Vietnam…” imprinted on my brain, as I had heard so many people say it every single day!
I left wondering if this was just us, and if you make your own luck and experiences, although we had never experienced anything like this before. But I have met many people along my travels since my trip to Vietnam who most definitely agree that it is one of the worst countries they have been to. However I have also met some (not a lot!), but some people who say they had an amazing time there. Why is there such a contrast? One of my close friends actually intends to go back after already spending quite a lot of time there. I began to think that this depends on where you go in Vietnam, as on our trip we missed a lot of the middle-country out. Likewise with fellow travellers who didn’t enjoy their time there. And I began to see a pattern that if you travelled through Nha Trang, Hoi-An and up the coast you would have had a much better experience. But after reading a few blogs on this I soon realised this was not true!
As I mentioned, I did leave with a bad feeling and I’ll be honest slight bitterness. And for a while I vowed I would never return to Vietnam. However! 1 year later, my grudge has gone! I hate this bad feeling I have towards it and feel like I should return and try and make my experience as valuable as all my other trips taken. This time I will do it differently, I think I will spend a bit more time there and definitely spend time seeing all the things I missed out last time. I am going to tell you about my experience there. Please don’t take this as how it is going to be for you, as I do agree to a certain extent that you make your own experiences, so I would 100% urge you to go and find out for yourself. These are just a few things that happened to us and to be aware of…
*When writing this blog, I soon realised it was turning into quite a long one! So I would advise getting comfortable with a good cappuccino !
My first experience was our first day in Ho Chi Minh City. We had arrived from Phnom Penh via overnight bus. There was no particular incident that happened to us, but just the constant overcharging and ripping off they try and do to you is unreal. The fact that they have to put signs up on every street saying to hold on to your bags “local thieves in the area” – says a lot about the city. I have never seen this anywhere else in Asia and it did make me slightly paranoid. Whilst in our Hostel one night, a woman in our dorm was telling us her story of how she was robbed just the day before. Apparently just a classic mistake of not holding onto her bag tight enough in the street. A guy on a scooter grabbed in and drove off. Luckily she had a back up phone in her pocket, so she was able to locate the phone and more importantly contact it. The guy who stole her bag in the first place then had the audacity to blackmail her into getting her things back. Charging her as much as $200 to get it back!! She agreed and then went to meet him the next day. Whilst waiting for him she had a call from the thief, claiming he knew she was setting him up and that the police were waiting for him, which then prompted him to increase the price to $600. In the end he got so paranoid apparently he just left and she never got her things back. After this story I was left stunned, sat in our bed I turned to Ben and said “shall we leave tomorrow?” ! We had spent far too much time there anyway, 2 days is more than in enough in HCMC!
So the next day we took the early bus to Mui Ne, a little fishing resort about 200km East of HCMC. It was Valentines day so we had decided to treat ourselves to a nice overnight stay in a boutique hotel. The bus we took claimed it would take us to Mui Ne town, and then from there a minivan would take us to our hotel. We arrived just outside Mui Ne town for a “lunch break”. As we knew that we were not far from our place we asked if we could just get our van and not sit through the lunch, as then the bus would continue up the coast. We were told we had to wait until lunch was over. So, 30 minutes later we were hushed back onto the big bus…no minivan insight. When we asked what was going on they just shush you and more or less push you back onto the bus (a trait we would later find out is in true Vietnamese style). We take out our receipt with our Hotel Name on, confirmation of the transport and a map. Still nothing. Then literally they drive about 600m !!! They stop the bus and tell us to get off, that this is our stop. We know it isn’t, but they usher us off, take our bags off and off they go! We just look at each other, utterly speechless. Ok, take out the map and we begin to walk! Along the way a tuk-tuk stops us and asks us where we want to go, its about a further 3km from where we are at the moment, which he tries to charge us more than both of our bus tickets! No thanks! A long walk later and all is forgotten when we arrive at our Hotel. It is stunning! Honestly I cannot recommend this place enough, it’s called Mui Ne Bay Resort. It is one of the most beautiful places I have stayed in, and for $60 per night for both of us including breakfast you cannot go wrong !! You don’t even get 2 beds in a dorm for that in New Zealand ! It was a treat indeed! They even upgraded us! Thank you Mui Ne Bay Resort !!
Unfortunately we had to return to return to HCMC to catch our flight to Hanoi. So, we just booked 1 night in a place near to where we stayed last time but this time our own room. I wish I could remember the name of this place to warn you all but I just can’t!! Anyway, we check in around 4pm and as we check in we drop our bags and the [check in guy / receptionist ??] goes back downstairs without giving us the key. Ben heads down to ask for it. After a shower we head out for some food, the guy from reception comes up to us to ask for the key. We say no. He says its faulty and not the right key and he takes it off us. Then on one of those big round key holder things that has about 50 keys on he proceeds to “look” for our right key! He puts one in the door and even though he turns it, still claims it is not the right one. We spend a good 20 minutes “looking” for the right key even though we know we had the right one in the first place. We do tell him this numerous times but he doesn’t want to listen. Now, we are starting to get annoyed and just tell him to stop playing and give us our key! He then tells us he needs to change the locks while we are out!!!! Excuse me?!?! No way! We are really pissed now and just ask for our money back, we want to leave. Miraculously, he finds the key. But no, we have had enough and we just say we want to leave. He refuses our money back at first by saying there is nothing wrong with the room. He can’t be serious?! After a bit of arguing and asking for the manager, we eventually get our money back. And we just go to a place 2 doors down where you would not believe the difference! It is owned by a lovely family, the woman gives us a beautiful room, water and for $2 less than the previous room. Insane. Completely stressed and overwhelmed we head out for a well deserved beer and food!
Our next series of incidents came when we were in Hanoi. First upon arriving at our hotel, they had double booked our room and there was no other room available. So instead they offered us an “upgrade” in their sister hotel, at the other side of the city and with free transport to get there. Ok, no problem. 45 minutes later a SCOOTER arrives to take us. A scooter….for 2 people and 2 large backpacks. Hmm..ok clearly we are going to make a couple of trips with this one. Ben is the first one to go, and when I arrive I can tell by the look on his face what is about to come. Our “upgrade” is a room opposite the reception with no window, dark grey walls and with a seriously unpleasant smell. if this is an upgrade I would hate to see what our original booking was! I tell the woman at the desk I am not happy with this at all, I can stay in budget places, I don’t need luxury at all, but the smell was unbearable. Not to mention the fact it took them over an hour to get us here. Even though I had not seen our original room, I know for sure it was Not an upgrade. I ask for another room. No room here but offer to take us somewhere else. I say fine but please ask for a tuk tuk or something so we can go together and not separate trips on bikes again. My pleas are ignored and we get 2 bikes! Oh well better than 1! They take us and say our bags will be brought to us afterwards. When we arrive at the 3rd place…we are satisfied. Finally. 3 hours after turning up at our booked hotel, we are checked in. Oh. My. Lord.
The next night while out for dinner, we are walking down a side street turning a corner when Ben is suddenly splashed with something! It slightly touched his leg but then he is flying along something on the floor! I turn to see that a local restaurant had just thrown OIL out! He sees Ben skidding on this and then looks at me. Obviously I am going to be questioning why the hell he didn’t look first – not to mention the fact that he should be disposing of this responsibly and safely, not along the streets and down the drains. Thankfully Ben is not hurt, just a slight twist of the ankle and it wasn’t that hot. He apologises but I am fuming, it could have been a lot worse.
Our next problem hit when we arrived in Ha Long Bay. Now, we are completely against tours and much prefer to do things our way. So prior to this we did our research and discovered it would be much better to just arrive in Ha Long town, and take a smaller boat out from the Bay the next day. So we went to a few agencies to book our bus and made it clear we want to go to the village. We showed them on the map and eventually one confirmed they could take us there. They drew on our map a the place we needed to get off the bus. Perfect! On arriving at our bus we showed this to the driver and his assistant. “yeah yeah yeah yeah” is the reply we got. Ok, not entirely confident but if we mention it nearer the time we should be fine. We are getting close, we call the driver, we press the bell, we get off and start to go the front, we miss it. He doesn’t stop! And we are taken all the way to the Bay where the Tours start. NOOOOOOOOOOO. Once we get off the bus we ask him why he didn’t stop, but he just ignores us. We notice that about a quarter of the bus are in the same position and also wanted to get off before the Bay. We stick together and try and figure out how to get there, as the people running the restaurant at the Bay tell us there is no bus to the village. We find this hard to believe and are proved right when a younger member of staff comes to us afterwards and quietly tells us there is a bus, every 30 mins, but not to let the other woman know he told us. Ok, great we will wait. Thank god for decent people. During this time numerous people offer us boat trips, taxis. Every time our answer is no. They then proceed to inform us there is no bus from here, only taxi. 3 buses go past before one actually stops. I think it was only around 30,000VND to the village. Yes, we are finally on our way.
Now, our day trip to the Bay was great. We had no problems what-so-ever; we clearly got lucky on this one!! But as you will notice around Vietnam, there is no one solid package. Everyone will be sold something different, different conditions, different price. Like I said, we were pretty lucky and got everything paid for and included in our ticket. Others, were unlucky. A couple of girls on our boat thought that they had paid for lunch, but their ticket did not state so (the day I heard most of the classic phrase “ahh Vietnam”). Therefore, they got their lunch taken away from them. They argued this the whole way but with no luck, they got nothing. This really pissed me off however, as on our table at lunch, a Parisian guy and girl (no idea where she was from!) KNEW they hadn’t paid for lunch but still…ate it! Whenever the crew came by, the stopped eating, then resumed again when their head’s were turned. Even being so cheeky as to put some in their bag for later ! We told them that that’s not right, and extremely unfair if the other girls did pay for it and were point blank refused any food! But they didn’t care, they just laughed about it….boy & girl at our table – I hope you believe in Karma – it’s coming for you!!
By the time we leave Ha Long to go to Sapa, we have learnt quite a few things! Although it seems not quite enough. But when booking our bus, they agent we book it from speaks quite good English, so we ask him to write on the back of our ticket in Vietnamese all the instructions he told us were included in the price, i.e ‘drop off at hotel’ ‘Ha Long to Sapa’ ‘2 people’. Yes it does sound silly, and he certainly looked at us like we were lunatics, but you need to be that clear when in this country, and even then, it seems it doesn’t matter. As on our way to Sapa, I would say we are about 2/3 of the way when we are woken up at 5am and thrown off our bus. The driver shouting “SAPA! SAPA!” Even though it is dark, I know we are NOT in Sapa. Regardless everybody’s bags are taken off and the bus drives off. For about 15 minutes we are left there at the side of the road. We are 20. All wondering what the hell we do now. A minivan arrives. A 10 seater minivan. Our bags are pushed on, as are we, doubled up on seats for our final approach to Sapa. In and out the mountains I could count the near-death experiences we have on 2 hands. We stop a few times for a couple of the passengers to throw up. And finally, around 9am we arrive at our Hotel. Once checked in we jump into our bed and turn on the electric blanket…bliss!!
Later that day we considered just buying a winter coat from the many shops selling factory knock-off North Face’s. But after leaving the first one telling us “Fuck You” just because we didn’t buy something, we decided against it!
Our time in Sapa was cut short, as we couldn’t even see 1 meter in front of us, the mist was insane, and even back then we said we have to return this area when in the right season.
Another reason is the season (and this is absolutely my fault for not doing my research – rookie traveller!) Whilst getting further North, it was FREEZING ! I genuinely thought I would never be warm again! The closest thing I had to Winter clothing was a hoodie, fisherman pants and flip-flops. Yep. Flip-flops! So I was pleasantly surprised to see all my toes still there at the end of the trip.
Other things to be aware of is, on more or less every bus journey you take, there will be stowaways. They will sleep on the floor for most of the journey. And not just people, merchandise will be stored under your beds, down the sides of the bed, under the floor of the bus. Yes, it’s how it is.
You will constantly be charged 2 or 3 times than a local, even when you see how much the real price is you won’t win. They will laugh and talk about you right in front of your face (really wish I could speak Vietnamese just for these moments!). When buying a banh mi on the street don’t be surprised if they don’t want to serve you at all if you don’t want all the ingredients – we once asked for it without pork and she just shooed us away!
I began to realise this can’t be just bad luck, or our outlook, the fact is: the locals do not give a shit about you. All they see is backpacker = $$$, it’s sad really, such a beautiful country, ruined by something so immaterial.
Wow. Remind me again why I want to go back…? Maybe I will leave it a few more months !
I would love to hear other people’s experience of Vietnam, so please leave me a message in the comments below.