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Saigon (Vietnam), September 4th 2009

Fully prepared, we travelled to Vietnam. There was a moment some weeks ago that we even considered skipping Vietnam as a travel destination, after hearing so many negative stories about the country from other travellers. People did absolutely not say that the country isn’t beautiful. Most complaints that we’ve heard were related to the experience that travellers found the Vietnamese people very obtrusive. Some people even said: “The Vietnamese people see travellers as walking ATM’s that must be emptied as much as possible; in an honest or even dishonest way”.

Like mentioned above, most complaints that we heard from other travellers were related to the obtrusiveness of many Vietnamese people that work in the tourist industry. It is true that there are many vendors in the more touristy places. They all want to sell something and have most of the time one thing in common; they sell cheap Chinese-made products that you don’t need. Products that are for sale are amongst many other things: sunglasses, watches, hammocks, illegal copies of travel guides and souvenirs that are only loved by travellers above an age of seventy years. The most sensational horror story that we heard from a traveller happened in the town of Ninh Binh. Ninh Binh is a small town in the northern part of Vietnam were you can hire a paddle boat for a two hour ride to explore the river that takes you through fantastic limestone formations. The crew of the boat is a local woman who paddles you up and down the river. These boatwomen all look very charming, but some of them are wolves in sheep cloths. Somewhere during the boat journey, the boat is surrounded by other boats and boatwomen that are hand in glove with the boatwoman of the tourists. The group demands that you spend a significant amount of money at souvenirs, and if you refuse, they threaten to drop you somewhere on the shore and won’t take you back to the starting point of the tour. If they finally brought you back to the place where you started, you mustn’t be surprised if the boatwoman also demands a significant tip.

Fortunately, we didn’t have these kinds of negative experiences in Vietnam. Of course, people also asked us hundreds, or even thousands of times if we want to buy something from them (“Hello mister, you buy something”). But fortunately, a firm ‘no’ was always enough to convince them that we really didn’t want something. We also brought a visit to Ninh Binh, and also here we had no negative experiences. We decided to start our tour very early, which meant that we were the first boat on the river. We had most of the time the place for ourselves and by the time that the vendor boats arrived, we were almost back at the starting point. We were also lucky with our boatwoman. She tried once to sell us an ugly crocheted table cloth, but also here a firm ‘no’ was enough.

Also the people who work in the transport business are notorious for their bad behaviour. Taxi drivers, bus drivers, rickshaw drivers and other scum that earn their money in a vehicle are most of the time difficult to trust. Because we mainly travel by public transport, which also means a lot of travelling to and from bus stations, we make a lot of use of these rascals. Their goal is always the same: try to charge the foreigners at least two times the normal price, even if the price is printed on the bus or on the ticket. Most of the times their strategy is very transparent. They just come to you and say that you have to pay two or three times the going price because you are foreigner. We were denied access to busses en boats several times because we refused to pay the exorbitant amounts. Sometimes the rascals are less transparent. We got out of a taxi in Hanoi, because the taxi driver manipulated the taximeter with the result that it ran up too fast. For that reason, many travellers use nowadays the so-called “open tour” bus services that are offered by smart Vietnamese business people. This means that you buy one ticket from for example Hanoi in the north of the country to Saigon in the south, and that you can hop on and hop of the bus as much as you want in intermediate tourist places. These tickets are not only cheap, but the buses also arrive and depart in the tourist ghetto’s, which means that you never have to go to the bus stations. It is a relaxed way of travelling, but the fact that they are mainly used by tourists mean that you are travelling in a tourist herd. Some people like that; we do not.

A third complaint that we heard a lot is the complaint about the reliability of travel agencies. Many tourists use these agencies for cheap tours to the Mekong delta, Halong Bay, Mountain tribes or other destinations. And as often, the backpacker generally wants to pay as less a possible. Afterwards, they are not happy with the service they got and blame it all on the travel agent. Of course, there are unreliable travel agencies, but in most cases you get where you paid for. You can not expect a five star or even a one star treatment, if you paid for none. Three days / two nights tours to the Mekong delta for twenty US-dollars per person are no upmarket tours. The solution is simple: pay a little bit more or travel to the destinations individually. Most places that are offered in the tours are also reachable independently.

We loved our time in Vietnam. Of course, we were also fed up with some of the Vietnamese people once in a while, especially when they tried to mug Ivonne in the centre of Hanoi. However, we experienced Vietnam as a beautiful country with in general very friendly and hospitable people. So eventually, the image that we have of Vietnam is very different from the image that we got from talking with other travellers before we left to Vietnam. We are happy we went.

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