Tourism - good or bad? Stopover in Vietnam

Trip Start Jan 08, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Sunday, November 13, 2005

News from Thailand:

In Borneo I used to work for a company called Intrepid Travel. Intrepid pay was pretty low and the hours were very long, although often it was a good fun job. Intrepid hires tour leaders that live in each of their destinations, typically expatriates, as I suppose they can communicate and understand the passengers better, but also sometimes locals. Thailand is Intrepid's most popular destination. When I was working for Intrepid, there was already one Thai staff member who had been working with Intrepid for a long time and another had just started. The Thai staff does exactly the same job as the expatriate staff and sometimes even more as they help organise extra contacts or negotiate better deals for Intrepid. Intrepid is quite a big company and it makes quite a good profit.

Last year Intrepid in Thailand ceased using foreign staff members and started employing an all Thai staff to be their tour leaders. On the surface this seems pretty good - locals getting jobs and the passengers getting information from local people instead of from foreigners that live in Thailand. I think many of the expatriate Thailand Intrepid staff were probably sad to lose their jobs, but they perhaps were happy about the benefits that would come to the Thais.

However, I recently discovered that when the changeover of staff occurred, Intrepid also cut the pay of tour leaders in Thailand. The Thai tour leaders, including those that used to get paid the same as white, round eyed tour leaders, now get much less, even though they are doing the same job as before. Even though Thailand has been Intrepid's most popular destination for a long time. Thailand has made Intrepid so much money. Even though Intrepid claims to support the locals in each of its destinations. How can they justify this policy? I do not know, but I am sure it would have fitted well into South Africa about 15 years ago. What arseholes.

Leaving Australia.

I have finally finished my time in Australia. The Army work has been very lucrative and I also managed to fit in another week in Kangaroo Valley which I loved. Thanks Derek and Irene and everyone else at Operation Challenge.

The other main news from Australia has been that my family was looking into selling their house and moving to Portland on Victoria's coast. That seemed like a pretty good idea, but since writing these notes I have discovered that someone else has bought the property they were looking at.

Anyway, my mother drove me to the airport and waited for me to book into the Vietnam airlines flight to Ho Chi Minh City. I tried however they wouldn't let me book onto the series of flights (which ended in Thailand) unless I had outgoing ticket from Thailand also, which I didn't. There is some rule that non-residents arriving in Thailand should have a ticket out before they arrive, however no-one has ever really worried about it before and certainly the immigration officials in Bangkok are not concerned by it. However this time they were not going to let me on the plane without a ticket out. Hmmm, from within Thailand I can buy a $12 bus ticket to Cambodia, but the QANTAS officials wanted me to buy a ticket to Australia for over $1000. Eventually I convinced them to let me buy a ticket to Hong Kong for $400, which they said I could cancel as soon as I arrived and get $300 back. (long story but they lied and wouldn't let me cancel the ticket and get a refund from Thailand).

With a little time left I re-joined the long line to check onto my Vietnam Airlines flight. I was angry and annoyed at the brain-dead bureaucratic attitude of the Australian officials and I said goodbye to my mum, who had to go to work, in a bad mood. I was trying to stay angry and annoyed at the world but a Vietnamese/Australian guy standing behind me wouldn't let me. Although he couldn't speak much English he wanted to chat and make friends and as he had some spare room on his trolley he wouldn't let me refuse his offer to put my bags on his trolley.

Eventually I boarded the plane and everything was good. I sat next to an elderly Turkish/Australian lady whose son has been living in Vietnam for 5 years teaching English (although her English wasn't that good). The flight was good and on arrival I went through immigration and had my passport stamped by a very attractive Vietnamese Army officer who seemed more interested in flirting with me than looking at my passport. Hmmm, this is better than Australian attitude.

Tips for Travelling in Vietnam.

OK, first mistake I made was to bring the Lonely Planet Vietnam guide book. I quickly looked through it on the plane and discovered it contained nothing of use to me. What a waste of weight and space. Lonely Planet guide books are generally a good starting point for people that know absolutely nothing about a country, but beyond that, they are of limited value. I will continue to occasionally get some information from them, but they are full of mistakes, opinions and the information in them is generally out of date and limited in scope. If they are read with this in mind, then they may be of some value, but so many tourists treat them as a bible. Please do not. Particularly the Vietnam and Thailand books that are really over opinionated crap written largely by American authors. Some of the books are better than others.

Alternative, free and better sources of information: The World Wide Web contains lots of info and most countries seem to have their own tourist site. Airline magazines, which you find in the seat pocket on the plane, tend to have useful info. Hotel receptionists are one of the best sources of local information. Very few people talk to them, and yet these people live in the area you are visiting. Their income is generally low, so guess what? They know the good cheap restaurants and activities in that area. They know the local language, the local prices, etc. Much better than a guide book.

In fact the whole reason I was visiting Vietnam was go and see my "sisters", Dao and Phung. I met them in Hoi An when they were working as hotel receptionists. They became good friends and have now adopted me as their older brother.

Another possible source of information is the street kids and beggars. Many of them have very good English and they know their area intimately. For a small amount you can feed them and give them some pay and they can show you how to travel on local transport, what things you can get for free, etc. I used this source in Hanoi once and even up to a year later I was greeted on the streets of Hanoi by "Hello Mr. Paul, how are you? Where have you been?" Which is a much nicer experience than, "Hello Mister, give me money please".

When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City I was tired and a bit worried about whether I would get a flight to Hoi An, the next day. I made flight, hotel and a taxi booking from an airport desk. I know this is always an expensive way of doing things but I did it anyway. Later I wished I hadn't. It was easy but I spent so much more money than I should have for a hotel and taxi. I should have just gone outside and got a taxi outside. Oh well.

Oh, another tip for being in Vietnamese cities. Wear your sandals. It is cooler on your feet and that way you avoid being hassled by the shoe shine boys.

The other mistake is to hang around tourist areas. Tourist areas in any country are often not that nice. In the tourist areas in Ho Chi Minh City, at first everything seems very dirty and seedy and as if everyone is after your money and trying to rip you off. It is hard not to start thinking that Vietnam and Vietnamese people are not very nice. Luckily, I know that isn't true, but it is interesting that at first, hanging out in the seedy backpacker areas, that thought does start creeping into your head. It doesn't take too long to get a feel for the place and the currency and to start meeting some nice people though.

Once I got to Hoi An, I spent most of the time hanging out with Dao and Phung. That is a nicer way to travel and visit a country. To spend time with nice local people and with friends and to just do normal things that people in that area do.

Cultural Differences

When I first met Dao and Phung about 4 years ago, they were each making about US$20 a month working as receptionists in a hotel. They are from a poor and hard working, but close-knit Vietnamese family. Between the 2 sisters they owned 3 Ao Yais (Traditional Vietnamese silk dresses). Dao would be wearing one at work, one would be in the wash and Phung would wear the other when she came to work. They owned 1 bicycle. One of them would ride it to work and the other would ride it home (One worked one day, while the other had the day off and then they would swap). They had one bed between the two of them. On that first trip to Hoi An Dao explained to me that if she (or another Vietnamese girl from Hoi An) had a boyfriend, they would expect to go out for about 6 months before first holding hands. It would probably be over a year before their first kiss.

The first day I spent in Hoi An on this trip I largely spent sitting behind the reception desk chatting with Dao and to some extent seeing the world from her angle. The hotel was mainly full of young Western tourists, an even mix of sexes and a selection of nationalities. The first guest to show up that morning after me was still drunk from the night before and was looking for his friend. He had spent the night in another young girl's room and his friend had also done the same thing. He was quite a cheerful and friendly guy and after a chat he rented a motorbike, and rode off, still drunk. Next a group of Japanese businessmen came out and had a quick chat and went off to work. The next guy (who sounded like he was British, but supposedly he had a New Zealand passport) was also a friendly guy. He had been staying in the hotel for 6 nights, had gone out and got drunk each night and also had slept with a different tourist girl each night. And so the day went on.

I was happy that the guests in this hotel were mainly polite and happy towards Dao, but thought the behaviour of the tourists must seem quite bizarre to some-one of Dao's background. The amount of money they so easily spend, the amount of alcohol they consumed and the speed at which they swapped sexual partners even to me seemed pretty confronting in what is a traditional, quiet, polite and family orientated society. Anyway, it just seemed interesting and worth mentioning - I am not trying to pass any judgements and say one culture is better than another - but the contrast was quite confronting to see from behind the receptionist desk.

During my time in Hoi An a large typhoon (hurricane / cyclone) was passing by 100 km away and so the weather was pretty bad. So I either stayed in the hotel, and talked with Dao when she was working or spent the days at home with Dao, Phung and their family. We played chess and made spring rolls and just generally enjoyed each others company. I drank lots of Vietnamese tea and twice when the storm was at its worst, Phung and Dao's brother went out to buy me coffee, which I thought was exceptionally generous. We later figured out that he was using that as an excuse to go and check on his girlfriend. At one stage one of the windows was sucked out of the house, but it otherwise held up pretty well. It was really very nice visiting Dao and Phung and their family. They are all so incredibly nice people.

On the night when the storm had been its worst, Dao and Phung's dad brought me back to the hotel late on the back of his bike. Dao's friend, the hotel accountant, hadn't been able to go home as the roads were flooded and she was being harassed by drunken tourists when I arrived. They then turned their questions to me. They wanted to know where they could get some marijuana, as all their usual sources couldn't be found this night.

When left Hoi An and I got back to the tourist area of Ho Chi Minh City, again the contrast between the tourist scene and normal Vietnamese life seemed a bit much to take. Hmmm, I know these young Western tourists don't mean any harm, but the way they travel is wrong. They hardly speak to local people and they learn very little about the places they visit. What do they know about Vietnamese life and culture? Very little. What was the point of them travelling to these places if they have no interest in the people, the culture or the local environment? If they did no harm, it wouldn't matter, but unfortunately their money and their uncontrolled desires causes discos to be built in small towns, they encourage young local men to have bad attitudes towards women, and they encourage the consumption of alcohol and the illegal drug industry. They do not leave a place as they have found it. Future travellers will not have the opportunity to see places and cultures as they were or as the locals want them to be. Money and the demand of silly young travellers have turned many areas into poor versions of drug f...ked Western life. These people will go home with no knowledge of the areas they visited. They will not enrich their own lives or their own cultures with new knowledge and concepts. Instead they will go home with addictions and fewer brain cells and an attitude that in poorer countries you can do anything you want. Perhaps later these people will become business executives and they will come back to use the poor countries again with the same attitude.

The alternative is to travel, make friends, and learn about new ideas and cultures. Build understanding between people; develop knowledge of what is happening in the world. Perhaps I am a bit strange but this alternative form of travel (a form that seems to be utilised little by Westerners) seems like a better idea.

Anyway, despite my rantings, I had a very good stop over in Vietnam.

I have just finished reading "The Killing Fields" by Christopher Hudson. It was very good and worth a read. The following quote comes from that book. It is an open letter written by Cambodian Prince Sirik Matak to the USA President Ford and the people of America. Prince Matak had helped the USA install its puppet government into Cambodia during the Vietnam War. When the Khmer Rouge defeated the American backed forces and took over Phnom Penh he refused to be evacuated. He stayed behind and was executed.

" Dear Excellency and friend. I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection and we can do nothing about it. You leave and it is my wish that you and your country will find happiness under the sky. But mark it well that, if I die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad because we are all born and must die one day. I have only committed this mistake of believing in you, the Americans. Please accept, Excellency, my dear friend, my faithful and friendly sentiments. Sirik Matak."
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paul on

Ao Dai!!!!
Oh sorry.
Thanks for your coments

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