connecting the dots.....
10/19/2009 - 10/27/2009 73 °F
I will not beat around the bush; central Vietnam is a difficult and arguably disappointing place to independently travel. Perhaps my expectations were to high, or perhaps the central area simply paled in comparison to previous destinations in Laos, Thailand and New Zealand. Ultimately, I look at what I did, think about what I did not do due to time constraints, and conclude that the vast amount of opportunities available to you as a backpacker are things you could do when you are traveling later in life. To travel in your 20s and 30s is to challenge yourself and to explore, there is little to do in central Vietnam that rivals the challenges I found elsewhere.
Certain facts are indisputable -
- the geography puts all travels in a north-south or vice versa trajectory. While not a negative alone, the fact is that the feeling of being forced into a stream or pattern of traveling is ominipresent. From Hanoi you go to Hue, from Hue to Hoi An, from Hoi An, Nha Trang -- maybe a stop in De Lat or Mui Ne. I met travelers in Hanoi and would randomly see them in Hue and then 5 days later in Nha Trang. Everyone is doing the same thing, and the question that I kept asking is, why?
- Vietnam is not nearly as developed or 'open' to travelers as one may expect. Call me naive, but I was led through initial online researching and second hand stories from other travelers to believe that Vietnam was open and ready to be explored. It is true that the coastline offers many interesting places, but off the coast and into the hills you see a country that is generally not prepared or perhaps not willing to invite travelers into its less populated areas.
- The tour agencies, bus routes, and general guide book induced travelers are all telling you to do the same thing. I have personally stayed as far away from tour groups as possible during my five months on the road. I generally find that they over promise and the feeling of being held captive in a tour bus all day is not my way of spending time abroad. That being said, you are left with very few alternatives in Vietnam's central area. The DMZ tour was high on my list of to-dos and, although I do not regret going, I am thankful I went on a rainy day, for the tour was essentially a waste. In other areas like Hoi An and Nha Trang the predominance of multiple tour companies offering the same exact itinerary was further proof that Vietnam has things to do, but it does not have variety. You either go on the same tour as everyone else or you sit around in a restaurant all day reading a book.
I will say that options such as guided motorbike tours for a few days into the hills were the exact thing I should have done if I had more time. It seems like there are a few ways to get off the beaten path, and this was certainly one of them.
I enjoyed Hoi An and Nha Trang where I was able to get a week in between floods and typhoons. Hoi An certainly has that comfort level thing down, with abundant cafes, art galleries, and markets, I thought it was the easiest place to enjoy yourself for an extended period of time, although it felt very western. But even in Hoi An, if you do not want to shop, there is little else to do.
In Nha Trang I was most surprised by the wonderful professionalism I encountered with Rainbow Divers, on a morning two dive session. Their boat and dive team far out-performed anything I saw in Thailand, if only the actual diving was a bit better. Nha Trang is a nice place, but as with other areas in Vietnam, the westerners are herded to one area of the city where you can find your english breakfasts and western bars. I rented a motorbike for two days and motorbiked over 100 kilometers in the surrounding areas as I was getting annoyed by the feeling that I was not seeing the 'real' Vietnam. My advice - do it. Get on a bike, take a map, and get away from all of these quasi-western areas within the tourist towns. I met locals, was invited into a private lunch in a farm town, and felt more satisfied with my experience by getting away from tourist land.
I saw the communities that are located in between the tourist destinations. They are poor, english is non-existent, and generally there seems like little going on in these places apart from a rural agrarian life style that offers little in the way of tourism opportunities. From a backpacker standpoint, its a shame you cant explore these areas with a bit more confidence, but I really did not see or hear anyone say they did extensive traveling in these areas and that includes the bearded backpackers right on through the lonely planet packs of 4 girls.
I am happy I saw what I saw, but I wont be coming back anytime soon.