Today I did something that I have been putting off since I came back from backpacking around South East Asia last month. I loaded up my camera and plugged the USB cable into my laptop, to find that I had 230 pictures to upload. Normally I am quite prompt with uploading photos from trips, but this time it didn’t come so easy; by resisting going through my photos, I managed for some time to shake off the feeling of nostalgia that always comes when I am in the UK for any lengthy period of time, away from the thrill of travelling.
Although I enjoyed my time immensely in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, each one of the three countries was so unique and diverse, with its own cultural norms and views towards backpackers. Truthfully, I was not expecting my experience to be so different each time I stepped across a border, but it made the trip all the more eye-opening. Without further ado, let me explain why Vietnam was my favourite part of the trip, and why you have to go!
1. The chaos. If you can cross a road in Hanoi or Saigon, you can cross a road anywhere in the world – fact. Every time you step off the pavement, there is always that worry of whether you will get to the other side. When you do make it though, it is a triumphant feeling, as you have lived to see another day, well, until the next road crossing that is… There is definitely a knack to crossing the road in Vietnam, and you can read countless articles and watch videos online to prepare before your trip – yes, this is a thing and I would recommend it! Not only is crossing the road exhilerating, but seeing a family of 5 or 6 sitting on a scooter made for two, with perhaps a large bag on there too. Seeing the ladies ride side-saddle when wearing dresses or skirts, one on each side of the scooter maybe. Seeing the kids hold onto the handle bars while standing, while their parents sit behind. It is a whole other world on the streets of Vietnam. Why pay thousands (or in Vietnamese Dong, millions) for a car to carry four when you can have a scooter that can do the same job, right?!
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
2. The pavements. These are reserved for: parking millions of scooters, driving scooters, pop-up shops and street-food vendors, sitting to eat your pho noodles, anything and everything, all except walking. More often than not, you have to walk in the street – no escape from the chaos that is the scooters.
3. The food. How could I talk about Vietnam without mentioning the food? Personally, the food here was the best of the trip, albeit quite (read: very) limiting for me as they eat so much pork, which I avoid. Yet it is so cheap, so you will never go hungry, whereas in Cambodia the local food lacks flavour and Western food hurts your wallet. In Thailand, be ready for spice as even when you ask for it to ‘not be too spicy,’ you will still have a generous helping of chillis on your plate, and if you’re anything like me, you may suffer a bit! On the first night in Hanoi, we were recommended to eat at a small restaurant. When we arrived, it was packed with locals but no travellers. We ordered our pho bo (beef noodle soup) for the equivelant f £1 and Coca Cola bottles for 20p and slurped up the best pho I have ever eaten, while sitting on the tiniest, most uncomfortable plastic stools you can possibly imagine.
4. The scenery. Get out of the bustling cities and see some of Vietnam’s spectacular natural beauty. With only two weeks in the country, it was not possible to go everywhere. We will defintely have to go back to see more. The major highlight for us was surprisingly not Ha Long Bay which is raved about online, but a day-trip to nearby Ninh Binh (a 2-hour drive south of Hanoi). Ninh Binh receives fewer tourists and therefore it gives you the sensation that you are going slightly off the beaten track. We caught a little slice of paradise while taking a leisurely boat-ride down the river to marvel at the rock formations, and cycling past the lush paddy fields.
Ha Long Bay
5. The locals. The Vietnamese are friendly and a smile and a few words in Vietnamese can go a long way. When we took the overnight trains between Hanoi-Da Nang and Da Nang-Ho Chi Minh City, the locals we met in our berth and along the train loved nothing more than to let us join in their coversations (albeit with difficulty), celebrations or meals, as it was quite rare for Westerners to walk up to the restaurant-car for dinner and pass the second and third-class carriages.
Yet like with any trip, there were issues. We had so many people trying to scam us, to donate money to false causes, to harrassment with people trying to selling us things. Although we didn’t fall into any of their traps, and most of the time we laughed it off, the encounters remained unpleasant. The amount of locals and Chinese tourists who invited James to have group photos with their children, to the people doing selfies trying to get a glimpse of him in the background, just because he has red hair, was uncomfortable. Still, it is a reflection of the many tourists that take photos of local people without permission. The important thing is to remain aware, don’t make any rushed decisions and don’t take any photos of locals or they may just follow you down the road demanding money. It was painful watching tourists getting scammed that way.
Vietnam does not use tuk tuks like Cambodia or Thailand, but the question ‘tuk-tuk? tuk-tuk? tuk-tuk? tuk-tuk?’ when we walked along the road every 5 or so meters, in places like Phom Penh, Siem Reap and Bangkok, does begin to have an annoying effect. Nevertheless, you have to bear in mind that this may be this person’s main source of income, which puts the situation into perspective.
Our overall experience of Vietnam was that it was very affordable for backpackers on a budget, the food was delicious, the country is welcoming to respectful travellers and that it is such a diverse country. With so many opportunities for things to do from North to South; golden beaches, to lush mountanous regions and huge bustling cities.
Hoi An (Japanese Bridge)