Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Things I didn't like about Vietnam

So it turned out we should have gone with my instincts rather than optimistically giving this country a second chance, and probably shouldn't have gone back to Vietnam after all. There were some things I quite liked (mostly the coffee), but Vietnam really doesn't compare to most of its neighbours when you have to deal with the hassle, comparative cost and other annoyances. It didn't even annoy me in the amusing ways I know you enjoy, it just meant I didn't get up to as much because I was disillusioned with going outside.

I resisted writing this list the first time around, but this time I really need to remind my future self to stop being so bloody forgiving.

Welcome to Vietnam, mẹ đồ ngu! (Don't translate these words. They are bad)

This sign on Vietnam's door should have given me a clue

As an over-privileged descendant of despicable colonists, I get things unfairly easy in most South East Asian countries, with the occasional visa paid for when hopping a border. Vietnam favours a less welcoming approach that results in more hassle and money for most Western visitors, where you first have to obtain visa approval for about $20 and then pay a further $45 'stamping fee' (the cost of rubber and ink has skyrocketed in recent years) after arriving at the airport and waiting up to an hour for them to pick your passport from a jumbled pile and call your mispronounced name.

It's an easy enough process to follow, but there are still some people who don't read the instructions properly and arrive at the airport without the means or the intention of paying a stamping fee on top of the $20 they've already paid. I was amused by one angry, fat, moustachio'd Southern European gentleman (to be honest, watching this bumbling caricature do anything would have been amusing) who demanded to be allowed back on the plane to Thailand because he was so dismayed by this cold welcome (it's true, first impressions can make or break a country).

He was just doing it for show, obviously, and he eventually conceded to use the ATM (it's only a couple of million dong after all), but I did feel like some of my irritation had been vented through his actions without the need to be such an embarrassing dick myself. Thanks, Stavros, as you're probably called.

Learn to drive, lỗ đít!

This is an obvious one, but Jesus Christ on a Motorbike - Vietnamese traffic is the craziest I've seen east of Cairo (I haven't been to India yet, admittedly). Hanoi might have been worse than Ho Chi Minh City, but it was still terrifying to cross main roads for the first few days, before it became clear that Vietnamese drivers are at least aware of the stupid high risks involved in being a pedestrian (maybe they tried it one time in 2009 before getting back on the bike?) and will generally swerve to avoid you rather than sticking to a determined path.

What irks me the most is when they try to introduce measures to help the plucky, downtrodden pedestrians which are then immediately rendered obsolete as drivers ignore the flashing green man at crossings and pavements are filled with motorbikes or cars. One-way street signs mean nothing and walking around Ho Chi Minh we saw an average of one accident per day, which were fortunately non-lethal and only involved casualties of Coke bottles and other inventory piled recklessly high on the back of bikes that inevitably came crashing down. Will they learn? Will they đụ.

On the positive side, Vietnam always takes home gold in the international Buckaroo championships (this is indoors, by the way)

Fifty bucks? Do you think I'm a dee chaw?

Another unoriginal one, sorry, but bloody hell. I didn't experience cheating nearly as much as in Hanoi, mostly thanks to choosing a hotel in Ho Chi Minh that reviewers specifically complimented for offering fair prices for tours, followed by a hotel in Can Tho apparently run by teenagers who didn't care enough to bother hassling guests. But when we arrived at our hotel in My Tho and were bombarded with hard-pressure boat tour sales pitches before we'd even checked in, I realised there isn't such a cultural divide between north and south after all.

Someone who claimed to be the hotel manager's 'brother,' presumably hoping I was racist enough to believe they're all related, was 'offering' (that word seems too passive) a four-hour boat trip for about $50 for two people. It was expensive but borderline fair, albeit not by Asian standards, and it didn't really appeal after we'd already floated down dirty rivers in Can Tho a couple of days earlier. On our last day I finally felt energetic enough to bargain for a fair-ish price and asked to see the manager's 'brother' again, only for some completely different guy to appear and open the bidding at two hours for $55.

Irritated, bored and instantly exhausted by the weight of Hanoi sales pressure coming back to haunt me, I didn't even respond and went back up to the room to spend the day contentedly on the computer trying to forget I was in Vietnam, followed by this other brother's desperate discounts that were still exponentially multiplied above what the tour was worth.

What do you expect in a country where percentages just keep on going?

The first time around, the relentless scams were the most annoying thing about Vietnam. But this time they was usurped by a new challenger...

What the đụ are you staring at?

We found out in Thailand that Jackie apparently looks Thai, or at least looks enough like a Thai if that's what you're expecting to see. As suspected, in Vietnam she was mistaken for Vietnamese. All the time. And based on the constant stares, pointing and conversations that were unintelligible but still decipherable in intent, distrust of interracial relationships seems to be in no short supply. Other people just looked at her with confusion and irritation as I tried to ask for chicken rice in the local language, their eyes begging, 'why aren't you helping? I have to listen to this cặc?'

Like I said in Thailand, if my girlfriend was Vietnamese, that would be fine. But she isn't even, so stop it! And when each new consecutive shift of hotel staff shouts for us to stop in our tracks when heading up to the room we legitimately checked in to together because they assume she's a local prostitute, and by extent that I would be the sort of person to consort with a prostitute, it doesn't exactly put me in the mood to write a glowing TripAdvisor review.

Staring is also the stock response when sellers don't understand English or poorly pronounced Vietnamese. They don't shake their heads or laugh in shared embarrassment like people might do in other countries, just stare until you get bored and walk away. Friendly locals.

Obviously, when I point a camera in people's faces and put them on the internet,
that's totally fine

Where's my goddamn rice?

Seriously, if there's one racist assumption you'd make about Vietnam after them all wearing the cone hat, riding motorbikes recklessly and making a living by preying on gullible backpackers, it would be that they eat rice all the time. But unlike those other 100% true assumptions (alright, only 75% of them wear the hat), it can be bloody difficult to find rice when you get away from the tourist areas to see the 'real' Vietnam, which I wouldn't advise.

We sometimes had to walk several blocks just to find a place selling the ubiquitous phở (noodle broth), which is hardly nutritious at all. Plus there aren't even many convenience stores out here - what happened to colonialism and capitalism eroding native cultures? It hasn't gone far enough!

On the positive side, I did enjoy bò kho, particularly the aspect of adding your own mystery leaves from a pile. Some taste great, others taste like cho-or - that's part of the charm

Will you go back?

Will I địt!


A Hanoi
B Ha Long Bay
C Sapa / Cat Cat
D Ho Chi Minh City / Cu Chi
E Can Tho
F My Tho

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