1995 Our Month in Vietnam

We had been looking forward to staying Vietnam for a few months. It wasn't meant to be. We stayed a month and, frankly, were disappointed. In 2010 we received the following e-mail asking us about our stay in Vietnam:

"Thank you for sharing your adventures in a blog. It is a wonderful way to gain a little insight when thinking about traveling to another country. 

"My husband and I have been contemplating what country we want to retire in and Vietnam has been high on the list. Can you share with me why your visit there was so short and your view or the pluses an minuses of life there.

Thank you again for sharing and I hope you have an amazing time in Canada even though it is expensive here.
Sharon, 

Hi Sharon,

Finally I am sitting down at the computer to try to answer your e-mail. ...

In 1995, we had very high expectations for Vietnam. We were starting a 9-month trip (our first long trip together) after working and living in Jakarta for a year and a half. Vietnam was getting a lot of chatter in the media at that time. It was touted as a wonderful destination. Vietnam Vets were returning to a much more wonderful place than they remembered and were talking about it. Dimitri is a fluent French speaker and had expected to find lots of people who spoke French. We had loved the Vietnamese food we ate in Los Angeles and Washington, DC (the two cities we lived in before we went to Jakarta). So, we went to Vietnam with ideas of what it would be like and, to some extent, our expectations sabotaged us.

But in 1995 Vietnam was an economy and a society in transition. And that doesn't always put the society in its best light. But, to be fair to us, it wasn't our first economy in transition. In 1992 we spent 3 months in Budapest and experienced that society's transition. It was an exciting time to be there and people were optimistic, warm, friendly and hospitable. In contrast, our recollection of the people in Vietnam was that they were generally greedy and were trying to screw us. It didn't seem to us that there was any residual hostility to us as Americans because of the war. It just seemed to us that they were trying to make a buck without giving us value.

With that as background, I want to quickly add that we met some wonderful Vietnamese people and had some great and truly memorable experiences. To answer your question as to why we didn't stay longer, I will give a bit more of an introduction. We had a one-month visa and had planned to extend it once we were there (which our research indicated we would be able to do). Some date in August, 1995 was an important holiday in Vietnam (an anniversary of something) and that may have been the source of our problems. 

We had been traveling slowly from Saigon to Hanoi, stopping along the way for a three days here and three days there. We went to government offices in the cities along the way to get our visa extended and we were being stone-walled. It appeared to us that as independent travelers we weren't going to get an extension to our visas (maybe they were afraid independent travelers would incite something during the holiday period). If we had been willing to buy a group trip we could stay as long as the US$250 a day trip lasted (but not longer). So when we got to Hanoi near the end of our one-month visa and still found that it was not possible to extend, we flew out of Hanoi to Hong Kong (without taking one photo in Hanoi). And, to be frank, we had a sour taste in our mouths. There was an arbitrariness to the way the government workers dealt with us which we have actually encountered in other dictatorships that was unpleasant for us. (As an aside, in India we also couldn't extend our visas in 2003 without leaving the country and returning with a new visa. But the government workers were pleasant and forthright about it and about being unable (even with a bribe) to help us.)

So, back to the month we did spend in Vietnam. Here is what I wrote a while back--closer in time to our actual visit--about our stay:

"We spent a month traveling from Saigon to Hanoi in 1995. We think that Vietnam has been over-hyped. In Saigon we stayed in Cholon-where the movie The Lover was made (Dong Khanh Int'l Hotel, 2 Tran Hung Dao B Blvd. Dist. 5, HCM City Tel. (848)352-410, Fax:352-427). We ran with the Hash House Harriers. Saigon is not scenic or charming. City Hall and the PO, as well as a handful of villas, are architecturally interesting. Otherwise, not at all. It is noisy (with horns and old engines), very dirty and decrepit and poor. There were more churches than we expected, less cars and more bicycles and scooters. There is a miniature business every 10 feet (bike repair, etc.). The weather was hot and almost everyday it rained. The restaurants were good. Sitting out is common but the exhaust fumes were choking. There were many new hotels but the prices were high." Click here to see our Saigon photos.

"The ingredients used at the restaurants in Vietnam weren't not as good as the ingredients we had in our Vietnamese food in the US so while the food was good, it wasn't as tasty as our recollection of how good Vietnamese food should taste. We are kind of foodies (maybe we are food snobs) so you should take what I'm saying with a grain of salt. We found one old man in a laundry who spoke some French. Other than that man, we didn't hear any French. We did see lots of people with baguettes under their arms and that made us smile (along with La Vache qui Rit cheese sold at road side stands).

"We went north from Saigon, to Dalat. We took an uncomfortable bus. The rather nice and modern Golf Hotel in Dalat, where we stayed, had a bordello in the back--little cubby holes with windows into the rooms so you could see the girls sitting on beds. We had a nice time in Dalat, however. Click here to see our Dalat and Nha Trang photos.

"We took another uncomfortable mini bus to Nha Trang from Dalat. Our hotel in Nha Trang, Cau Da Villas, was a former palace that had just been renovated. Room 203 was great. We had two of the most wonderful and memorable experiences in Nha Trang. We were set up on the beach with a tent-like structure and beach chaise lounges (all for rent at a very reasonable price) like the ones below.
Generally the beaches in Vietnam had vendors to rent comfortable chairs and tents 


"At about 11 a.m. when a woman with a big (huge) cauldron on her head walked by,  stopped, took the cauldron off of her head and opened it. Inside were crabs being steamed. We told her to come back in an hour and she did. We ate crabs that she cracked open for us, presenting us with tasty, sweet morsels of crab meat (and no sand,  we might add). This was a once in a lifetime experience and we didn't take a picture!

"Another day, we went riding on our rented motorcycle (then at about US$5 a day) along the coast. At lunch time we started looking for some place to eat along the coast (wanting more shellfish). There was absolutely nothing. We started fantasizing amongst ourselves how we would come upon a restaurant on the sea with wonderful shellfish. But there was nothing. Just a beautiful coastline and a dirt road. We had decided to give up and turn back to town, when Dimitri said: 'lets go around that one more curve ahead and then turn back.' We went around that one more curve and found the most wonderful place. There were soldiers eating lunch there. The owners were a man, his wife and two children.The way he kept his seafood in the water in basket-cages insured that it was fresh.
Seafood in baskets in the water at the fantastic restaurant


"The restaurateur's two little girls were fascinated by us 
The restaurant owner's little girls


"and took us up the hill where they (and their parents) showed us the artistic and touching photographs framed on the wall that their father had taken. The father was a talented photographer and was able to pursue that to some extent. We memorialized this once in a lifetime experience, thankfully.

"From Nha Trang we visited Hoi An and Danang and on to Hue before Hanoi. Click here and click here to see more of our photos. We had been budgeting US$50 a day for hotels and it turned out for most of our trip we spent much less than that for very good and new accommodations (except in Hanoi which was exorbitantly expensive). Food and transport were also much less than we had budgeted at the time.


"We had originally planned to take a train from Hanoi to Yunnan Province in China (almost directly north) through some remote countryside that we understood would be beautiful. When we weren't able to extend our visas (oh yes, and we couldn't get a visa for China in Vietnam at that time either), we stopped thinking about that idea. Later other travelers told us that the train we were supposed to have taken was flooded out by torrential rains and was stopped for many days. The only way that those travelers got out was by walking with their backpacks or whatever for a very, very long way. (We were traveling with at least 6 suitcases and that would not have been a possibility for us. Once again in our travels we adopt Voltaire's quote as our philosophy:  'Whatever happens is the best in this best of all possible worlds.'

"When we left Hanoi we flew to Hong Kong, got a long term China visa in one afternoon (with no problem) and off we went to Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet." 

So there you have our experiences in Vietnam. As for us, we aren't ready to settle down (and we hope that we never have to) so we have not considered where we would 'retire from our global meandering lifestyle'.

We would be glad to answer any other questions that you might have (and we promise to do so promptly!) With all of our best wishes, Audre Engleman and Dimitri Moursellas"
E-mail:  aleanddm@gmail.com