Within 5 minutes of landing in the country I had been conned. On my first visit to Vietnam in 2008 I came overland from Phonm Penh via the Mekong Delta. A hypnotising journey, I enjoyed every second until we landed in Vietnam and attempted to make it to the bus station.
“No buses now”, lied the Cyclo driver after we were already on board and at his mercy. “All bus gone, I take you to my friend to help.”
We had just parted company with our tour guide on the boat who had reconfirmed there would be a bus from the station heading to Ho Chi Mihn City within the next hour. All we had to do was hop in a Cyclo to drop us and our heavy bags there. Sounded simple, but our driver had other ideas.
I tried putting my foot down. I tried using my forceful voice. It was to no avail. Eventually he took us so far out the way we missed the bus we were supposed to be on and were forced to take a ride in a minibus with his ‘friend’. We arrived in Ho Chi Mihn city frustrated and late.
Unfortunately this was just the start. We attempted another Cyclo ride the next day to get to the market. We played the game and bartered hard for a fixed price of 50,000 dong. Except when we got there the driver said, “No miss, you misheard me, I said 550,000 dong,” holding up his fingers and flashing them many more times than he did when we got in. We didn’t have that much cash on us and were forced to flee. The driver and many of his friends followed us until we hailed a taxi to take us back to the safety of our hotel. We had been at the market for 5 minutes.
For our last day in Vietnam we booked and paid in advance for a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels through a travel agency near the hotel. We sat on the steps of our hotel for over an hour waiting for a bus that never came. We flew out of Vietnam the next day with the same bitter taste in our mouths as we had experienced upon arrival.
But everybody loves Vietnam. I have read countless blogs and met numerous people who wax lyrical about the beauty of the country, its exquisite cuisine and impeccable service at bargain basement prices. They mentioned the odd bad bartering experience but by and large this is outweighed by all that they love about the place. So I decided to go back to see more of the country. To visit the places I’d stared at in brochures and to see if it really was as bad as I remembered.
And I fell in love.
I don’t know why it was different this time. Was it the fact that we were in the North of the country as opposed to the chaotic South? Could it be because we were travelling out of season and most touts were out of town? Was it because this time my travelling partner was not a woman but a man?
All I know is that the bugging from traders was bearable, the different types of accommodation we stayed at were all impeccable, not to mention incredibly well priced, and the scenery (mystical Halong Bay, charming Hoi An) was as spectacular as they say. It took a while for me to find my groove with the food (I like to know what I’m eating and consume it in a place with walls) but once familiar with the dishes I could see why so many love it so.
This time our first night in Vietnam was remarkably different. We arrived early on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to find a taxi arranged by our hotel holding a sign with our names. No need to exchange cash with the driver, the small fare was added to our hotel bill. At the hotel the staff ushered us to a seat.
“Can I get you tea? Some breakfast?” said Duc the hotel’s Customer Service Manager gesturing to tables filled with cheery chatting guests. It was only 10am and yet he hurried his staff to get our room ready early. We were on the 6th floor and there was no lift so 2 men carried our luggage between them. In the room Duc showed us around, a little unnecessarily but incredibly courteously, and then we were left to relax. Pink rose petals were strewn across the bed; they also floated in the sink and decorated the complimentary fruit platter on the desk. In the bathroom the amenity kit included toothbrush and toothpaste as well as a comb, just in case you had forgotten. The room even came with a laptop, air con and satellite TV. When we left to sail Halong Bay the hotel kept our luggage and delivered it to a new room on our return. They booked us train tickets and delivered them to the door without blinking. And how much did we pay for this room including Wi-Fi, breakfast, fruit and water? £60 a night. That’s what everyone else had been talking about. (The hotel is called the Hanoi Elite by the way – highly recommend it.)
There was one small hiccup. It involved a Cyclo driver again – perhaps I should have learnt my lesson the first time around! He tried to up the price at the end of our journey, and as his friends gathered around to support him and intimidate us, we paid him the extra few pounds he wanted and went on our way. In the end I couldn’t begrudge this man for trying to earn a few extra bucks from us tourists, it clearly meant more to him than us. I also realised I couldn’t judge a whole country based on his actions. There’s a lot more to Vietnam than that.
Coming up: how I adore Hoi An and staying in the best hotel I ever seen – The Nam Hai!