Tuesday, April 10, 2007

North Vietnam - Subjectively Speaking

What I have enjoyed, hated or found most interesting about every country in South East Asia to date has rarely corresponded with what I had previously been told. When on the move I have therefore tried at all times to maintain a very open mind and come to expect the unexpected. Likewise while most people I have spoken to as I have made my way south down the Mekong have done nothing but sing the praises of Vietnam, I tried to pay little heed so as to not set myself up for a big unexpected anti climax. However regardless of whether I had listened properly or not , North Vietnam could not possibly have turned out to be more of a disappointment than it truly was.

While my tour of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is slightly less comprehensive than in the neighbouring countries it is still thorough enough to make my own informed opinion. Indeed I have always known that no matter where you travel in the world you are bound to meet some undesireable characters and it is always difficult to not allow this odd minority influence your final views of the entire host population. However what should have been a minority in Northern Vietnam turned out to be the absolute majority, thus making for very different conclusions.

For some reason everything was a problem in this country. To ask for a bathroom in restuarants where I was eating would usually provoke a roll of eyes up to heaven along with a scowl and a sigh to boot. Of course normally such encounters are easily forgotten but when each day is a series of unpleasant deja vĂș they become more engrained and representative in your memory. Such was also the case whenever handing over money to the natives as it seemed a fantastic challenge to the Vietnamese psyche to return the correct change due to you. Strangely on being caught out by me each and everytime they usually shouted back in furious indignation. Who insulted who?

I will say that I enjoyed the flavours there but I stop short of referring to it as "food" as it was consistently served in incredibly small portions, more akin to primary school snacks than proper meals. On one particular occasion a side order of chips to accompany a cheese burger could not have even made up half a medium sized spud. In fact there were 9 french fries on the "saucer" in total. So what do do you when you have already promised half of your side order to the girl sitting opposite you?

North Vietnam holds no charm for me whatsoever. The warmth that they do show if ever quickly evaporates once they realise that there is no more money to be made from you. Such attitudes are common in over touristed zones and often justified by the deplorable treatment towards locals. However to be off handed is one thing but to be blazenly disrespectful is another. Of course in such situations the usual answer is to get off the beaten track and visit the less frequented hamlets of the country. Unfortunately however this is virtually impossible here as the government have carefully planned the services so that there is little or no chance of venturing toward the interior and one finds themselves with little option but to travel along the coast. What´s more, travelling over land also meant that you could not even skip towns and instead unexpectedly were forced to overnight in places with little to offer other than more bad manners and "flavours".

Nonetheless, despite my grievances I do not at all regret having visited Vietnam although it could never have captured my imagination as did the neighbouring states. Still and all I acknowledge that no matter how badly people could have talked to me about the country I would in any case have had to come and see it for myself. I also do believe that I reached Vietnam five years too late as those who were in Vietnam before this period have very different experiences to recount and look at me incredulously when I tell mine.

It is said that Vietnam became the obvious alternative in the years following the tragic Tsunami that hit the more famous and frequented of the South East Asian coast lines. Perhaps therefore Vietnam has been spoilt by the sudden surge of tourism that grew as a result of a natural disaster in the region as opposed to having had to win over the favour of world tourism. I am inclined to think therefore that it is a tourism industry that has evolved in a very different and unorthodox manner to the usual, in others words...without the need to smile.

Certainly not on the top of my list for return trips.

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