It was a last minute decision for me to go to Vietnam. My friend Amy had been badgering me to go on a holiday with her somewhere warm, wanting to escape the gray, depressing sky and cold, bitter wind of winter in Melbourne. A combination of tax return money and a cheap air ticket made the decision easy.
A mere four weeks later we were on two planes, and then in a taxi, and then in Ho Chi Minh City.
Nine years earlier I had done all the travel I thought I’d ever do in Vietnam. I was 20, on a very tight budget and traveling with two friends I’d had since childhood. We were together for nine weeks (four in Vietnam) and managed not to kill each other, just. We were well and truly students at that point and did the trip cheap, really cheap. Buses, buses and more buses. Spectacular food.
We tried to see as much as we could: Sapa, Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Hue, Hoi An, Da Lat, Mui Ne, Ho Chi Minh City. I loved it and have overwhelmingly fond memories, but I never thought I’d come back because I’d ticked it off my list.
Yet in August, at 29, I found myself back again in a more adult capacity. Two weeks, more money, carrying more stress and much less preparation.
On the streets of Saigon, tree-trunk sized power chords hang down perilously as barefooted, bare-chested locals fiddle with them. Swarms of motorbikes glide around changing direction unpredictably. Crossing the road can be a frightening experience, but as my Vietnamese friend assured me "they don’t want to kill you."
Compared to Australian cities, Saigon is vastly populated with people who seem to be on the street all the time. However they are mostly, well, quite nice, and don’t hassle you as much as you think they might. The abundance of trees and designated green spaces make the city, as crowded as it is, surprisingly peaceful and pretty. And there are plenty of things to look at, places to go, and delicious food to eat.
Saigon was pretty much how I remembered it, with the added process that has become a thing around the world: hipsterization.
Coffee Republic in Saigon, a city that has become more hipsterized. Photo: Claire Sessions
Take Pasteur Street Brewing Company as an example, where the beers have floral ingredients and the wooden wall along the bar has "wood that was sourced all over Saigon." Or Coffee Republic with its amazing mural, where you can get a killer affogato, and watch the freelance graphic designers working on their Macbook Pros. Eye roll. And I’ll have another cold drip coffee/jasmine beer please. From the places I’ve been, Saigon is my favorite super-hectic-mega city.
After Saigon, Amy and I wanted to do some serious holidaying, in other words, some serious not-doing-that-much. So we headed to the holiday capital, Hoi An.
With little forethought we booked ourselves into a "homestay" rather than a hotel, but it turned out to be a happy accident. Ly Phuc homestay was probably the best thing that happened to us on our trip. Ly who owns the homestay, a relatively new business, has an intense desire to please and her tailor husband Phuc was an excellent, albeit pricy, addition to the experience (and our suitcase). Ly’s mother made us breakfast in the mornings, diligently mixing up our banana pancake or omelette. One morning we walked down to the breakfast area and she was nowhere to be seen. Someone obviously called her she returned a few minutes later, zipping around the corner on her electric bike, giving us a big smile.
Hoi An is a beautiful place of magical lanterns and provincial French architecture with a certain Disneyland vibe to it. The first time we walked into town after our arrival darkness had already descended. Our homestay was a 20-minute walk out of town and we had been meandering along for about 10 minutes before we glimpsed our first lanterns. They were strung up in a tree, and Amy (who had not been to Hoi An nine years ago like I had) pulled out her camera and took photos of the building and the lanterns in its garden.
“What do you think it is?” she asked.
“A town hall or museum or something?” I shrugged, knowing that soon the measly collection of lanterns would be put into perspective when we hit the town center.
We got closer to the building she was admiring. It was an Irish pub.
You don’t have to scratch deep beyond the surface of Hoi An to see some of the falsity behind the loveliness. We read signs in a few of the nicer restaurants asking us to please not buy things from children who come in to sell nick-nacks, they’re working for gangs. We reflected with a little sadness at where the lanterns end up that are let into the river and guiltily said "no thanks" to the plethora of old ladies who wanted to take us on a boat to let some go.
Hoi An is a town entirely taken over by tourism and therefore not a great snapshot of any sort of typical life in Vietnam. But there is no argument that it is a beautiful place to spend a week. It was also hot, really hot. The consequence of which was that our ice cream consumption went up significantly. There are plenty of things to do: shopping, eating, walking around followed by heat escaping ice cream eating, scuba diving, lying on the beach, and visiting museums.
After our relaxing week in Hoi An we rode on the back of motorbikes stopping at the Marble Mountains, and zipping over the breathtaking Hai Van Pass to Hue, the ancient capital.
Hue, to me, seemed like more of a real place than Hoi An. We had only left ourselves one day to spend there so we ventured out in the morning to look at the citadel. We paid for a guide, which was a worthwhile investment, as she told us stories of the Nguyen dynasty that echoed episodes of "Game of Thrones." Later in the afternoon when it had cooled to a balmy 30 degrees or so, we visited the tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh. We marveled at the imposing dark stone structure surrounded by the deep green forest. We stood face to face with the statue guards.
The stone guards at the tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh. Photo: Claire Sessions
We were told that Emperor Khai Dinh increased tax by 30 percent for his mausoleum to be built. Coming from Australia where one of the most prominent politicians recently spent $5,000 of tax-payer money to hire a helicopter for an 80 kilometer trip we laughed a little at the entitlement shown by the ruling class. However reading about the emperors, it did not sound like a particularly nice life. Priviliged and wealthy, yes. Fun, no. It seemed for Khai Dinh at least that most of his life was spent looking forward to the mark he would leave in his death.
While the distinction may not be so stark these days, sadly the wealth that is moving the nation forwards in general is leaving many behind.
As I sat in Coffee Republic in downtown Saigon drinking my flat white, which cost almost as much as it would in Melbourne, I thought about the staff selling fancy coffee, which financially, is beyond their reach.
And that is the case for many of the experiences I had with my strong Western currency. They are not within grasp of many of the population who have worked and grown the country into what it is.
I tell my friends and family that Vietnam is a wonderful place to have a holiday. It is beautiful, interesting, safe, friendly and chock full of delicious food. Even more than most places (recently anyway) it has a checkered past and some people in it do better than others.
I hope that as Vietnam continues to develop and move forward more and more of its people can be included in what it has to offer. Because it has so much.
* Claire Sessions is an English teacher and freelance writer based in Melbourne.