After returning from a 10-day visit to Vietnam, friends and TravelCommons podcast listeners asked me a lot of questions about our trip. In this video, I answer the most common question — “How did they treat you when they found out you were American?” — and give my impressions of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), HoiAn, Hanoi, and Halong Bay.
Here is the transcript from TravelCommons video #1:
Spent 10 days at the end of June on a family vacation in Vietnam
Ran the entire length of the country – Ho Chi Minh City (otherwise known as Saigon), to Hue, to HoiAn, to Hanoi, to Halong Bay, and then back down to Ho Chi Minh City for our flight home.
It’s a long country – about the length of California. So this itinerary didn’t allow time to get deep; go in-depth in any one place, but we did get a good “overview” of Vietnam
Returning to the US, I’ve had a lot of questions about the trip, but the one everyone asks is – how did they treat you when they found out you were from America?
The short answer is “Fine”. We didn’t feel the need to hide our nationality – add an “ehh” on the back of every sentence to pass as Canadian. When we handed over our passports to hotel clerks, or told car drivers that we were from the US, we never felt any animosity or change in demeanor. Everyone was friendly.
The only anti-Americanism we saw was where you’d most expect it – on displays at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and in the introductory video for the Cu Chi Tunnels, a park that commemorates the Viet Cong guerilla efforts.
But never from the people we ran into, or our tour guides or drivers. At My Son, a sort of mini Angkor Wat in Central Vietnam, south of Da Nang, our guide mentioned the temples destroyed by B-52 bombs — never in an accusing way, just a statement of fact about something that happened some 40 years ago.
Indeed, the bigger disconnect seemed to be between the South Vietnamese who had served in the war and the rest of today’s Vietnam. There seemed both a political and generational divide. I had to wonder how our Saigon guide – a former South Vietnamese army officer – felt taking us through exhibits that insulted him and lionized his enemies.
A couple of years ago, when we vacationed in Singapore and Phuket, Thailand, I joked with my family that we were only doing “Asia Lite”. Starting in Ho Chi Minh City – still called Saigon by many – is full-contact Asia — 9 million people, 10 million motorbikes, and where crossing the street has been elevated to an extreme sport.
Starting here was jumping into the deep end. It wasn’t until we came back the second time — a couple of days before leaving — that we began to feel comfortable with Saigon.
Unlike Dehli or Joburg or Rio, I didn’t see the abject poverty and shanty towns in HCMC that I’ve seen in those other cities, nor did I feel as unsafe. While we mostly stayed in District 1 — the main tourism area — walking back to our hotel at night after dinner and some evening shopping wasn’t a problem.
HoiAn is kinda like a Vietnamese Williamsburg — a preserved historic port town and a UNESCO World Heritage site with no war damage. The old town is really for tourists. The historic building now house tailor shops, art galleries, trinket shops, bars, and restaurants. Can’t be too interesting for locals, but it’s a sort of “Vietnam-lite” for tourists weary of the press of Ho Chi Minh City.
I was pleasantly surprised with Hanoi. I had heard that it was “cold” to Americans — which would’ve been understandable — but didn’t see anything like that. At only 4 million people, Hanoi seemed less “crazy”, easier to manage than Saigon. Motorbikes stop at traffic lights — crossing the street didn’t generate the same fight-or-flight response as it did in Saigon.
After a half-day drive east of Hanoi, we cruised Ha Long Bay for two days on a 10 passenger replica of a Chinese junk. Weaving among the limestone islands or “karsks”, visiting a floating fishing and oyster-farming village, the scenery and pace was stark difference from what been, to this point, a very urban vacation.
We love Vietnamese food, so eating was a real highlight of the trip. The variety was great — we really didn’t eat the same thing twice — except for pho, the classic noodle soup, but that was by choice. I ate pho for breakfast almost every day, and for dinner our last night in Saigon — pho for 4, 2 Tiger Beers, 2 Cokes — $10. It was the perfect last meal
I’m glad we went to Vietnam when we did, because it’s starting to get crowded with tourists — Australians, French, and a growing number of Chinese. The drive south from Da Nang to Hoi An along China Beach — hotel after resort after time shares under construction — will flood the place in 18-36 months. It seems to be in a sweet spot — enough business to support a good tourism industry, but not yet completely overrun, and so still happy to welcome new visitors — even Americans.