This blog isn't so much about the city of Vinh, where we spent just 12 hours, but is more a general reflection on my 16 days in Vietnam. Yesterday we crossed the border over in Laos, where I'll be spending the next 10 days and the final part of my South East Asia group tour.
Last I updated I was about to go and watch Andy Murray lose the Australian Open final to Roger Federer. It wasn't a great contest but annoying I had to leave it at the best bit (the 3rd set tie break) as we had our Laos leg group meeting at 6pm that evening. It was here that we met our new tour guide Ae, who is a 35 year old Thai woman from the city of Chiang Mai, which is where our tour ends. She seems a bit stricter than our previous two guides and I'm not sure how keen she is to get to know us, but she is still good at her job. We also met the 5 new people at the group meeting and it turned out to be quite a shock. Previously the group had comprised people with an age range of 19-28, but joining us is a 40 something Australian woman who has left her family back in Victoria, and even more surprisingly, a Russian family of 4 now based Sydney. They are two daughters aged 22 and 24 accompanied by their 50 something parents. They speak English well having lived in Sydney for the last 17 years, but also occassionally talk to each other in Russian. The dynamics of the group have certainly changed markedly in the last couple of days!
The first two days of the Laos leg were basically spent getting to Laos! It was a 7 hour private bus journey to Vinh, where we spent the night, and from there 12 hours here to the Lao capital, Vientiane. I'll cover that in my next blog. For the Vietnam leg of that journey we were fortunate to have a driver who was not keen to use his horn. The journey was so much more peaceful as a result. He also kept us safe from some bad overtaking but the roads weren't quite as dangerous as others we've travelled on. We arrived into Vinh around sunset at 6.15pm and you couldn't really tell you had entered a city. As I've mentioned before, roadsides in Vietnam are always built up and it sometimes seems like the whole country is one long town. Vinh didn't really appear any different to other sections of the road aside from the fact there were a few large hotels in town to cater for the Laos bound tourists. We went for dinner at one of the few local restaurants and then went straight to bed ahead of our 5.40am wake up the next morning. I wasn't too saddened to have eaten my last Vietnamese dish. Thai food is definitely the best of any region here, and I found that Vietnamese dishes lacked spice. Pho is the national dish, which is a noodle based soup eaten at breakfast, and that was nice, but other than that nothing really stood out. One thing I won't miss is the chopsticks. No one will ever convince me that there is even one single advantage of eating with chopsticks as opposed to a knife and fork!
Travelling in Vietnam has certainly been an experience. I have loved looking out across the paddy fields to see hordes of conical hat wearing women picking the rice. You can't get a more Asian scene than that! School rush hour was also great to watch. Vietnamese children go to school 6 days a week and half a day each day. Schools will have a morning and an afternoon session so there are 2 periods in the day when the streets will be rammed with pushbike riding kids. Their uniforms were blue and white jackets, which to me kind of resembled the outfit British Olympiads wore on the medal podium at Beijing! Back in Bolivia the kids wore lab technician coats. I don't know what is worst! The other thing to look out for on a a bus ride through Vietnam is spotting funny objects on the back of motorbikes! Pigs, dogs (which the Vietnamese eat), fruit, woven baskets, plasma TV's, the Vietnamese will take anything on the back of a bike! New laws restrict riders to only one adult passenger but you'll still see bikes with numerous young kids riding on. Small toddlers look so comfortable and at ease stood on the motorbike foot rests, or sat up on the seat holding on to their parents, but I can only imagine the outcry in England if a mother took her child on a moped in a similar manner!
The cities of Vietnam have been different to any others I've visisted, though not necessarily in a good way. I found both Saigon and Hanoi to be overcrowded, too noisy and too full of motorbikes, but at the same time I love experiencing differences, and so I wouldn't say I had a bad experience in either. I'm saddened in a way that we never truely escaped the tourist trail in Vietnam and that I never got to witness any of the minority cultures going about their daily lives. The Mekong homestay and especially the motorbike ride in Hue offered us glimpes of rural life, but I would have loved to have learned even more about that side of Vietnam. The tourist centres and cities are rapidly becoming westernised.
Interacting with the Vietnamese people has also been a learning curve. Our guide Dat was superb and speaking to him gave me a real insight into Vietnamese life. I have also met a few humble locals along the way who've been interesting to talk to, but on the flip side many of the people working in the service sector in Vietnam managed to aggravate me! The Vietnamese seem very money orientated and sometimes I found them to be quite rude. Tourist harassment was rife in places like Hoi An and Saigon, and my patience started to wear thin with the many moto drivers and stall holders harrying you. Outside of a few places in South America, and also here in Laos, you simply don't get people rudely touting for business in the same manner.
I came to Vietnam with very high expectations and in spite of the negatives I haven't been let down. Its been fun and its been educational, although in many ways I preferred the unspoiled charms of Cambodia. Laos will be very different to both and I look forward to comparing the three countries. On reflection I had a great 16 days in Vietnam and I'm glad I saw the place before it got even more westernised and touristy. At the same time though I'm glad to have escaped the chaos of Hanoi and am very relieved to be here in peaceful Vientiane. Motorbike noise is a thing of the past now for me, but it was the chaos that made Vietnam what it is, and at the moment it remains a country like nowhere else on earth.