Vietnam Trip Report

November 2010
Copyright Henry Richardson

I just returned from a month traveling in Vietnam. It was my second trip because I was also there for a month in February 2000. On both trips I traveled in Vietnam going from the south up to the north and I revisited some of the same places, but I also went to some different places on the two trips. For example, in 2000 I also did several days of trekking in the northern hilltribe area staying in small villages. On this trip I was in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City), the Mekong Delta, Dalat, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Halong Bay, and Hanoi. This second trip was almost 11 years after the first one and I noticed how much more developed Vietnam had become in some areas such as Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Hanoi, Nha Trang, Halong Bay, Hue, and Hoi An. In 2000 there were many motorbikes in Saigon and some cars, but in 2010 there were also many cars. In 2000 there were many bicycles and a few motorbikes in Hanoi, but in 2010 there were many motorbikes and cars and much fewer bicycles. It was a very interesting trip! I have some photos from this 2010 trip and also the 2000 trip in my Vietnam album:

I took a few photos while walking around in the afternoon of my second day, but it was the hottest time of the day so after an hour and a half (including a stop for a beer) I returned to my hotel for a cold shower and to relax in my aircon room. Then the next morning, early, about 6:00 AM I started wondering the streets. Of course, that early it is a bit cooler and most importantly there is a lot of morning activity to photograph. Then a stop for breakfast. After eating I was walking again and over a period of 30 minutes while walking in a park I was approached over and over by cyclo drivers hoping I would hire them to show me around. Finally, a guy that seemed particularly easy going and whose English was a bit better approached me and I agreed to a particular route and price. We even wrote the price of 150,000 dong on a piece of paper to ensure there were no misunderstandings. From my experience you can do all of this and still at the end you discover you are dealing with a real jerk. Well, he didn't disappoint me. :-)

We rode around and stopped often so he could take a break under a tree, get something to drink, and talk with friends while I walked around to take photos. After 3 hours we were done and he suggested we stop at a little sidewalk place to have a "happy hour". I bought us each a beer and we talked some more. I noticed that planned or unplanned he had taken me to an almost deserted road with almost no traffic and no one walking on the sidewalk. Normally there are people everywhere in Saigon with many people walking along, bicycles, motorbikes, cars and a cacophony of sound. On this road on the edge of District 1 though it was quiet and almost deserted. I figured it probably meant nothing but I have traveled enough to know that this may not be a coincidence. Still, he was friendly and all seemed fine. Also, it was the middle of the afternoon. While we were sitting on the sidewalk drinking our beer he asked if I would write a note in a small notebook to recommend him. He had showed it to me earlier in the park and it had many comments from satisfied customers. I readily agreed and wrote a note. Then he asked me to go ahead and pay him and then he would take me back to the park where we had met.

When it comes time to pay you find out if you have an asshole on your hands. The moment of truth had arrived. I had a good time so decided to give him a 20,000 dong tip -- I figured he would appreciate that. I gave him the 150,000 dong plus the 20,000 dong tip and rather than be happy he became very agitated. He told me that I owed him 450,000 dong because the charge was 150,000 dong per hour. Of course, that was bullshit. We had very carefully gone over everything several times in the park. He had clearly pulled this scam many times because he seemed so practiced at the way he sprung it and the words he chose. With no hesitation I refused to pay him more. Guidebooks will tell you that in Southeast Asia people do not show anger and yell so you should also remain calm. Well, I can tell you that many times I have seen people in Southeast Asia angry and yelling at each other. Therefore, when this guy, his name was Tian, suddenly exploded and started yelling at me demanding I pay him the additional amount it made me angry too, but didn't seem particularly out of character for the culture. Be warned, guidebooks often have incorrect information. :-) I told him firmly and clearly that I would absolutely not give him any more money. He had the 170,000 dong in his hand so I started to walk away. He grabbed my arm and pulled me back and in a very threatening way told me I could not leave. At this point I was beginning to think we may end up in a fight, but I stayed very firm and kept my eyes locked right on his. I told him to never touch me again and that he had two choices: 1) take the 170,000 dong or 2) we go find the police. He refused to get the police and told me they wouldn't and couldn't help me, but I insisted that I was going to find them and he could accompany me. He planted himself right in front of me and was chest to chest blocking my way.

I hoped this wouldn't turn violent, but I decided that if this was going to then I guess it will happen and I started wondering how I would fare. He was about 20 years younger, maybe 2 inches shorter, but stockier. He was probably a kung-fu wizard too. :-) I hope he didn't have a knife. I also had my camera around my neck and started thinking that it would almost certainly get smashed and broken.

I told him again I was leaving and looked him straight in the eyes and said, "So, what are you going to do about it?" I wondered if this would be the point where he would turn violent. For the first time he got quiet and then looked down at the sidewalk. He was clearly thinking things over, probably thinking the same thing I was: Do I want this to turn into a fight? After a rather long delay he looked up and said he would take 200,000 dong and he would take me back to the park. I told him no that all he was getting was the 170,000 dong and he didn't even deserve the 20,000 dong tip, but I had already said I would give it to him so I wouldn't go back on my word. I told him to stay away from me and I would find my own way back. Although I didn't know where we were I knew it couldn't be too far so I walked until I found a road and turned to the left. Soon I was back in the heart of District 1 and about an hour later I found my way back to my hotel. I am sure he had pulled the scam many times and probably had been successful most of the time. He was good at trying to intimidate people. He failed this time though so I hope he hesitates a lot the next time. Although from time to time, especially in Egypt, I have had similar experiences, this one was probably the most intense. The world seems to be getting meaner. One misadventure in the can, I hope no more! :-) I felt bad for the next person who reads his little notebook and my good comments about him. I am sure it was no accident that he asked me to write in his notebook *before* he pulled his dishonest stunt. No doubt all the previous comments were written also just before he pounced.

photo Old woman in Saigon

The following day I left Saigon to head south into the amazing Mekong Delta. For the last two days I have been traveling mostly by boats on the river and watching and photographing all the hustle and bustle of life on this big river. Yesterday morning I took a boat going from Saigon to My Tho and then later on to Ben Tre. Had lunch at Ben Tre and did some exploring with my camera. By evening I got to Cat Tho to spend the night and this morning got up early to take a boat to the big Cai Rang floating market. I think I have gotten some pretty good photos. I then got back to Saigon in the evening and was glad to be in an aircon room again! It is so hot and humid in Vietnam! I have been thinking about it and figure that maybe if I stayed there 30 years or so then I might get acclimatized. :-)

photo Pouring rain in Saigon

Oh, I almost had a small disaster in Can Tho. I spent the night in Can Tho while in the Mekong Delta and in the morning I was in a hurry to get my stuff together in my hotel room so I could checkout. I accidentally left my Sony 11-18mm camera lens behind. :-( I didn't discover it until the next morning in Saigon though. For next 2 days I had been trying to find out if the hotel staff found it and if so could I get it sent to me here in Saigon. The other complicating wrinkle is that I was leaving Saigon first thing the next morning. Well, the hotel in Can Tho said they had found my lens and that they would give it to someone who is taking a bus to Saigon (for other reasons) and that I could pick the lens up at 7:00 PM not far from where I was staying. I got my lens back! I figured the chances were only about 5%, but they found the lens and brought it back to Saigon for me. I was sure it was gone forever and I would not be able to use it on this trip.

I again went down into the Mekong Delta for a couple more days, but to different places. Visited the famous and extensive Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war. Also, did a homestay with a family on a canal in the Delta. Cool. I visited the tunnels and did a homestay when I was in Vietnam in 2000 too. Then back to Saigon and the next day to the old French colonial mountain resort town called Dalat. There are many hills in the town with a lake and looks a lot like a European village in Austria or France. Temperatures were nice and cool and a wonderful change from the heat and humidity in Saigon and the Delta. Stayed 2 nights there. Then in the morning made the drive to Nha Trang. It is on the ocean with a nice beach.

I remember Hoi An as one of my favorite places when I was in Vietnam in 2000. Much is still the same, but the old, historic part has become a UNESCO World Heritage site and the old houses have become clothing shops, art galleries, and restaurants. :-( It is also much cleaner now. That is all great for the Vietnamese because obviously they are prospering, but it gives that part of town the feel of many of the old parts of Europe. Before, that part of town had just a few shops, mostly for local people, and the occupants and friends were sitting out in front cooking, eating, selling vegetables, etc. Fortunately, there is still plenty of that too, just not in that section of town.

photo Canoe man in the Mekong Delta

Spent a couple of nights on a boat in Halong Bay and then went to Hanoi. I had a comfortable hotel in the Old Quarter very close to Hoan Kiem Lake and was happy to just chillax (chill + relax) for awhile. A New Zealand woman I met used that word all the time. :-) I visited the Hoa Lo Prison aka Hanoi Hilton in Hanoi a couple of days ago. I stopped by there when I was in Vietnam about 11 years ago too. Much of the prison is gone now, but they have preserved one large section and made it into a museum. By the way, mostly the prison documents the terrible treatment of Vietnamese political prisoners by the French imperialists. It isn't until the very end that they show a bit about its use to hold American POW terrorists and "imperialists" (such as John McCain). The POWs had such a wonderful life there I am amazed that any of them chose to go home. :-) Lots of communist propaganda everywhere you go.

The 4 weeks there was excellent with many interesting experiences, amazing places I saw, and some good people I met.

photo Canoe man in the Mekong Delta

Copyright Henry Richardson