“Its all true, its all wrong ……….” Hanoi, March 28th, 2012

My second attempt to leave Manila again succeeded but only just. That is because I really like Manila, the people and the poker game but also I was not really eager on going to Vietnam. Throughout my trip I met many travelers and 7 out of 10 would straight forward say that Vietnam is the worst from all of Asia. However, the other 3 were really impressed and strongly favored this thin but long stretch of land, usually those where the ones who did not go to Laos or Cambodia. Packed with these prejudices I arrived late at night in Ho Chi Min City (HCMC and for the great leader we use HCM without the “City” from now on) and quickly got confirmed on the first point, the rip off attempts by taxi drivers. Sharing the ride with Nadja, a Swedish traveler, made it affordable again and going into down town a neutral aspect was proven too. HCMC is by far the craziest town when it comes to motorbikes and scooters, they even have their own parking lot systems.

Nadja met 2 more friends and the 4 of discovered the city by foot. Saigon is its other name, because of it you connect to all the movies about the Vietnam war and the American GI’s  having local girls, creating a picture in your mind. Well, its not that. HCMC is a vibrating, modern, fast, clean, crazy town, partly reminding me of Bangkok. However, its not blessed with sights and attractions clearly indicated by the fact that we went bowling after dinner, something you do not expect to do when travelling to Saigon I guess. Another attraction is 2,5 bus hours outside of town, the ‘CAO DAI” great temple belonging to a small religion founded in the 1930’s, having Victor Hugo as a famous supporter.

Another “must do” here are the Cu Chi tunnels as well as the war remnant museum. We all know about the Vietnam war, we know about the use of agent orange (chemicals) by the US army, we know about the incredible resistance of the Vietnamese but wasn’t there something about north and south, about the south collaborating with the US. Why tunnels here then, why a museum, I am in the south. Well, war never is easy to explain. There was an area around Cu Chi in which “Vietcong” (soldiers from the north) where fighting a strong guerrilla campaign inside the south of the country. That’s where chemicals where also used in the south and the hide out tunnel system (claustrophobic and the lived in  it up to 4 months) is well preserved. Also, the socialist government uses any chance it gets to imply its propaganda also in the southern part of the country. Despite all that, the museum is shocking slapping the results of chemical war straight in your face without warning, preparing or softening. Being east German I also recognised some of the supporting posters we had in school still in the 80’s.

Mekong Delta, it sounds nice, maybe it is but if at all, I got to see a tiny climb of it. One of the complaints about Vietnam is those organised group travel tours and I got the worst of it. Individual travel is certainly possible but then you get ripped off at every possible point, taxi to the bus, the bus, the hotel, the entry fees, the boats and so on. Not having the energy to deal with that I decided to get ripped off only once, when booking the tour and at least enjoy the hassle together with other travellers, sharing the madness. It worked, the one day Mekong Delta tour was a disaster but I had fun anyway. They click off the promised points from the brochure in a cheeky way and make you spend time at places you do not want to be, putting the purchase pressure on quiet intense. A couple of examples. “A boat ride through the back waters of the Mekong” yes, we did. I swear, it took not even 2 minutes and we where told to pay a dollar tip each before we even entered the boat. The “bike ride to a traditional village” would mean you cut your lunch break and squeeze it in somehow there without the guide (he has lunch). More time however we would have on a one hour bus stop in a souvenir factory, at a coconut candy place, at a honey farm and of course at a souvenir village, see the video.

At this point I was ready to join the 7 out of 10 and their opinions of Vietnam.

From HCMC I took the night bus to Nha Trang, a well know dive spot and that is exactly what I came for. In order to dive with David later in the Philippines I needed to get my open water licence. Here it was the cheapest to get it I heard. That was true and for 3 days I was back in school, having a teacher, doing homework, studying for tests and having that wearied stomach feeling again when the test is due. I actually enjoyed having a rhythm, having wake up calls and on time appointments to meet requirements. Last time I had such a thing was almost 2 years a ago I guess, my Wednesday 2pm marketing meeting, smile.

Because of all the prejudice I planed Vietnam only for a short time crossing into Laos at the furthest south point possible. To that I had to go off the main tourist route, into the country side, riding local busses, staying at private owned hotels and boom – a completely different Vietnam. All of a sudden people smiled, touched my nose (they call us “big nose”), took my hand and let me to the bus ticket office without charging for it, invited me for lunch, offered me the best seat in the bus (as my knees would not fit anywhere else) and showed interest in where I am from and what I do despite the language barrier………………………….

Wow, did I do Vietnam wrong? Should I not leave or come back again? Well, I went to Laos, I met the German Jean and his words (“If you have not seen the north of Vietnam you can not compare, you can not judge, it’s a complete different world.”) triggered me. I ordered a second visa online, got it, booked a flight and went from north Laos (next post) to Hanoi. True, it is a different place, almost like another country and this time other things reminded me of my youth in East Germany, the 70’s block buildings purely designed on efficiency, the presents of police, the high number of adults in uniform like work outfits, the children with their uniformed shirts and scarf and the vast presents of flags and posters everywhere. Not so much reminding however are the chaotic street scenes (simply ruled by the law of bigger has the right of way) and the food habits, pigeons for once and the spitting and throwing everything on the floor while eating. Other countries, other costumes I guess.

The whole city of Hanoi is somehow dominated by the whole cult around How Chi Minh. Like Lenin,  Mao or Kim Yong Il lately he is celebrated and worshiped like a god. Waiting to get into the mausoleum I thought about the ingredients of creating a cult around a person and here is my output, partly backed by the photos: Take a huge free space for just one building in the middle. Have short opening hours creating long queues, free entrance, lots of police and army to guard the hero, patrol ceremonies when the guards change shifts, enforcing strict rule as no foto, no noise, inline walking and appropriate clothing and use simplicity, just showing the coffin, nothing else. Beyond the mausoleum put everything on display, the fork he eat with, the car he drove, the chair he sat on, the bed he slept in, the pen he wrote with and the toilet paper he…………………………………………. It works, I think HCM must have been a special guy.

The following video is only for my German readers and only of you listen carefully to the sound. It shows me in my Hanoi hotel, listening on my I phone to live radio in Germany via wifi which covers the soccer game I was interested in. What a connected world.

Once in Hanoi you might as well do another organized tour and see Halong Bay………………………….

I tried my best but the great thing about Halong Bay is that its hard to capture in Photos. It really is a special place. And for some reason the great amount of other tourists here, the professionalism in which they are pushed through the sights and places to see (caves, pearl farms and so on) is not that much bordering. I actually liked the tour I booked, the fantastic cabin I had on my boat, the nice English people I met and the fun tour guide NOT asking for tips in a rude way.

So how to summarize Vietnam and how to judge on the prejudice I heard before? It’s all true, it’s all wrong. If you only have 2 weeks for one country in Asia and want to have a relaxed time, enjoyable vacation without stress, do not make it Vietnam. If you have more time, make sure to visit this country, try to get out of the big cities and give each part a chance. Its interesting, after a long boom, Vietnam has the lowest growth rates in tourism in Asia and I know why. The 7 out of 10 start having an effect. The department of tourism seems to realise it, sends around market researcher and the questions are right on the point. Visas are easier to get than ever. It remains to be seen if that can turn the tide or if it is too late already and the great potential of Vietnam is spoiled.

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