It's a rainy day in Hue so I thought I'd get down a few notes while I've got nothing better to do ...
Travelling in Vietnam by myself has so far been a varied and interesting experience mixed with lows and extreme highs. To spoil the ending, the best part of it by far has been interacting (ie. talking, smoking, drinking, bartering, clinging on to while riding scooters, joking) with the Vietnamese people (they (I hate using that word) call themselves Vietnami). The warmth, friendliness and genuine smiles just cannot be matched by any other culture that I have encountered (not that many in reality ...). The smile itself is an act of greeting and once that has been established the usual starter questions are 'Where you come from?', 'How long you stay in Hue/Hoi An/Doc Let/Sai Gon?', 'You travel alone?', 'Michael Owen?'.
The Vietnami have good English vocabulary but some of the pronunciations can be hilarious - I met a ceevill(sic) engineer who was travelling back from Nha Trang (said Na Tran) after having been there for the Miss Earth beauty contest. I'm not sure if he was the official photographer or had just taken lots of photos, but Miss Sweden was his definite favourite! He had a wife and child in Hoi-An and the whole trip seemed innocent enough. A sudden connection was made in my head though. Two Russian Lesbians from Vladivostok who were staying in my previous residence (Ki-Em - very good for honeymoons) had mentioned that they were keen to visit Nha Trang that day and I suddenly realised why!
Another hilarious conversation arose in a Sai Gon park one boiling hot afternoon. I was speaking to Tuan (a he) and Tham (a she) and discussing life in Sai Gon/Ho Chi Min City and Tuan mentioned that, at university, he had entered and won a beauty contest. I said he was a very handsome man (in truth he looked like he had seen better days) and he returned the compliment and proceeded to give me his mobile number in a completely heterosexual way! I got Tham's number too! The pattern seems to be start talking , and people literally queue up to have a chat - wanting to practice their English. I spoke to an old lady who had perfect English and French - it seems that the older people possess good French as a vestige from the colonial days. Indeed a lot of French tourists are here and in some restaurants the lingua franca is French.
The downside of the interaction can be the hawking of goods and services in tourist trap areas. On every corner is a cyclo-rider intent on giving you an hour's tour on his vehicle or, if you sit down for a rest, a selection of postage stamps collections and old coins in ring binders will be offered for your perusal. I soon got the hang of fending off this menace though. A friendly smile, a shake of the head, and a raising of the palm seems to elicit an equally friendly relief of the sales pitch. Another technique that works well particularly well at train stations is just offer the chap who won't leave you alone a cigarette and have one with him. The conversation will soon drift to football! A funny faux-pas to make is to offer a cigarette to a lady. They almost crease themselves laughing at the impossibility of accepting one! Vietnami men do not like their women to smoke, apparently.
Everything is cheap here, very cheap. The difficulty is knowing the price of things, which only comes from being ripped off the first time. A packet of Vietnami-brand cigarettes (White Horse, Hero, Craven-A (as smoked in Liverpool)) is 10,000 Dong (about 30p) while the American Brands are 17,000 Dong (just over 50p). Beer is about 10,000 Dong for a bottle and fresh beer, which is actually very good, is 3,000 Dong (10p!!!!). The other thing which is very cheap, is 4 star accomodation! I can't stop myself from reserving myself into the poshest hotel in every city I visit. It's a bad habit, but this seems like one of the few countries in the world where it is an affordable option. You are looking at roughly 75 pounds/night for the highest end, although the Majestic did hit a 100. It was worth it though for the cocktails on the top floor balcony, overlooking the Sai Gon River. Very Graham Greene/The Quiet American.
As to the issue of travelling alone. I'm enjoying it a lot. The bad bits are occasional bouts of boredom with one's own thoughts and the Western perception that a man travelling alone is something slightly strange. The uncomfortable moment comes at breakfast time in these swanky hotels when all the Amercian and English middle-age types and honeymooners are gorging on their Continental servings of bacon, omelettes, croissants and coffee. They avoid my friendly waves and smiles and I imagine, in my deepest mode of paranoia, that they think I am a sex tourist, here to indulge dark cravings for the things of beauty that are Vietnami women. Or perhaps they think I just look a bit scruffy for this type of place!
Talking of sex tourists, I have seen a few Northern English men in their 50's/60's walking hand-in-hand with some stunning 20 year old beauties. Just another aspect of globalisation I suppose.
The benefits of single travel are fairly numerous. No need to make any decisions until you have to. The ability to stay in posh places without having to justify the cost to anyone else. The potential for serendipity to kick in is greater. More able to meet unlikely people (such as a bunch of sailors gambling on the slow train from Hoi-An to Hue). The inclination to meet Vietnami people is greater, if simply for the conversation. In fact, I suppose subconsciously, I have been veering away from trying to find other Western travellers to hang out with, preferring the more difficult task of speaking to Non-English speakers.
Now, the food ... The reason I came really, apart from the Socialism! It gets better the further North you go. Sai Gon was all Pho Ga and Pho Bo. Hue and Hoi-An both have their speciality dishes. Cao Lau (porky crouton soup) and Banh Bao (White Roses - soft dumplings) where omnipresent in every Hoi-An eatery and where very good. The Hoi-An fish was about as fresh as I've ever eaten. Hue offers the Banh Khoai (Song Que style pancake mixed with a very peanuty sauce and unripe banana!) and other dishes that I intend to devour tonight. I am resolving to eat more street food too, served on the pavement and seeming to be the most popular amongst the locals. Trouble is the rain keeps falling. Apparently it's drier in the North, where I'm heading next (Sa Pa). The more remote accomodation seem to offer breakfast, lunch and dinner as part of the deal. The Ki-Em place was of this ilk and the food there was, while simple, incredibly tasty and beautifully presented. It was a compromise between Western dishes and Vietnamese ingredients, but it worked very well and I spent four days happily stuffing my face there and then swimming in the beautiful ocean.
A few travel tips:
- Dollars are accepted everywhere except train stations and are easier to convert into mental pounds (divide by 2), but you tend to get change in Dong and some less scrupulous cigarette vendors/ taxi drivers will use a less favourable exchange rate. Also $1 is the smallest denominator available. Better to operate in Dong and give the exact amount where possible.
- Carry a wallet where you can conceal the vast majority of your dosh in a zipped section. Every time you pay for something, the seller will have a good peer in your wallet, and if it's visibly stuffed with $20 bills your bartering edge has definitely been lost.
- Don't buy cigarettes from train station platforms - they are all fake!
- Talk football. Most people, including the girls, seem to know the names of their favourite teams full squad, along with transfer histories. West Ham is surprisingly popular!
My advice, come to Vietnam, it's really good!