In 1994, I made my first solo trip overseas. Six months in South East Asia. Vietnam had just opened up to western tourism, due to normalisation of relations between the USA and Vietnam (formalised the following year in 1995).
Visiting Vietnam following this unique event in its history was one of the most incredible experiences I have had travelling the world for 30 years. I did almost no sightseeing. I just road my bicycle around all day stoned and interacted with the local people, many of whom had never seen foreigners before.
When I tell people about my experience, they say, well that happened to me in such and such a place. No, it didn’t. They are talking about going somewhere a bit off the beaten track where the locals are not used to so many tourists and getting stared at because they are tall and have blonde hair. I have experienced that many times in many places.
This was something completely unique and different. This is my story.
Arriving in Saigon
I bought a ticket in and out of Saigon (Ho Chi Min City) from Hong Kong via the Philippines. Most tickets were into Saigon and out of Hanoi or vice versa. This was the only ticket I could get. Plus, due to the fact that flying domestically was expensive and Vietnamese airlines had a shocking safety record, the only real way to get from Saigon to Hanoi was with a 24 hour bus and I could not face that prospect (more on the buses in Vietnam later).
In the 1990s, there was no internet and you had to rely on word of mouth on the road, or guidebooks, like the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide. The very first Lonely Planet had just come out for Vietnam. It proved, however, to be full of inaccuracies and bad advice.
Still, I managed to find a small backpacker hangout in Saigon, where some enterprising locals had opened a couple of cheap guesthouses and restaurants. As was typical behaviour of travellers at the time, everyone sat in the restaurant recommended by the Lonely Planet, while the restaurant next door was empty, even though they served exactly the same food. This was not a case of eating where the locals were, as there were no locals in this backpacker ghetto (like a mini Kao San Rd in Bangkok).
In tourist restaurants in Vietnam, the menu always had 2 sides: one side in English and the other in Vietnamese. Tourists had to pay 3 to 4 times the local price. This seemed to piss off many tourists, as if they were being ripped off. I see this as a fair system. The tourist prices are still super cheap by international standards. I have seen in other developing countries that locals get priced out for basic services. This is because tourists don’t bargain. It is basic economics that the
The first issue was navigating the streets. the principal mode of transport was bicycle and honda scooter. A scooter cost at the time about US$2000, but was a status symbol. I soon realized the only way to cross the road was to just step out into the face of the traffic and walk slowly in a straight line without making any sudden movements and the traffic would flow by you on either side. A bit harrowing, but you soon got the hang of it.
Love of American culture
The first thing that struck me was the popularity of western and especially USA culture. Pirate movies were available everywhere. The most popular being actions movies set in the Vietnam war, e.g. Rambo. This surprised me considering how the people had been treated during the Vietnam war by the Americans and the legacy of agent orange, etc. I visited the “Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes”, which was so harrowing, it was hard to stomach. Photos of American soldiers callously executing captured soldiers and having their photos taken grinning by the decapitated heads of their victims. Note, the name of the museume was changed in 1990 to Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression. The museum also featured aborted agent orange foetuses
Movie Star status
I would be walking around the streets of Saigon and invariably a student would stop me to ask to practise English. Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian was the foreign language taught in schools. Now, young educated people were seeing an opportunity to improve their job prospects or even get the chance to travel in the future by learning English with gusto.
Being a friendly and helpful kind of guy, I always stopped to help out. After a few minutes, I would turn around to find a huge crowd had gathered and were staring at me wided-eyed, as if Brad Pitt had turned up in Saigon. None of them could understand a word we were saying, but that was not important.
One thing that did irritate me was the attitude of some tourists I met. They told me, whenever someone approached them in the street to practice English, they told them to fuck off. Firstly, they were missing out on the opportunity to have this unique cultural interaction with the locals. Plus, they were creating a very bad first impression of foreigners. Perhaps there were too used to the rip-offs and scams in countries like Thailand and the Philippines. Maybe they were just arseholes.
“Take my daughter!”
Apart from the university students, most people’s English was quite basic and they only knew a few stock phrases/questions like: “Where are you from? Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend? etc.” Note, that in Asia, it not considered rude to beging a conversation asking about your marital status. If you are single, or a couple without children, you often get a the response: “oh you poor things! Hopefully, your luck with change the you will be blessed with children”, even though the western couple might have taken the deliberate choice not to have children.
Often, I would be in a market somewhere or wandering around downtown Saigon and would get the typical questions about marital status and girlfriend. When I replied I had neither, women would scream at me, here, take my daughter and practically thrown here at me.
There was also a lot of prostitution. It was not the in-your-face style of go-go bars like in Thailand and the Philippines. Nice hotel and upmarket bars often had working girls and the “madam” would approach you as a single man and ask if you wanted “company”, to which I politely declined. Not to say that I was not tempted, as Vietnamese women are exceedingly beautiful and wear a traditional dress known as the Ao Dai, which is often transparent with only underwear underneath and not leaving much to the imagination!
“Your beautiful hairy arms!”
Vietnamese men do not have much body hair compared to Westerners and were absolutely fascinated by my hairy arms. It was no uncommon to go into a restaurant in Saigon and the waiter would immediately want to complement on my gorilla like arms. They would even go so far as to want to stroke my arms! I was a little taken aback at first, but realised they meant nothing untoward and became used to offering my arms to be stroked.
Saigon to Dalat
Dalat was recommended in the Lonely Planet as the best place in the whole of Vietnam. It is a village set in the hills with a pleasant climate. Many travellers set out there only to find it was a major disappointment. The general consensus was the Lonely Planet was way off base. Even one guy speculated that the author must have gotten laid there and woken up the next day with the birds singing and the flowers bluming. Too bad for the rest of us.
I was walking around the village one day and passed a women sitting in her doorstep. She suddenly saw me and ran away. A few seconds later, she returned with the whole family and all the neighbours to see the new attraction in the village. I got the impression they had never set eyes on a foreigner before.
Finally, we had a nightmare bus ride to get to the beach town of Nga Trang. There was only one minibus which left in the dark at 5am. The bus was so full, I had to hang from the outside of the bus in the pitch black while the bus wound its way through a ravine. It was harrowing, but I was kind of glad it was dark, so I couldn’t see the sheer cliff below me.
Nha Trang – Vietnam’s beach resort
Nga Trang was my favourite place in Vietnam. Unlike beach resorts in Thailand, where the beaches are full of foreign tourists and the only locals you meet are the ones serving you in a bar, this was a beach primarily for locals.
People woud ride around at night on the honda scooters and hang out at the beach. There were no hotels or tourist development at all during this period.
Today, Nga Trang is fully developed with large resort hotels mainly catering to Russian tourists.
Hanging with the locals
One regret I had had about visiting countries like Thailand and the Philippines was the lack of opportunity to interact with local people. There is a real tourist trail and when you are a young traveller, it is easy to take the path of least resistance and stick to the beaten track. Because there are so many horror stories of scams in these places, you tend to be defensive and very wary when receiving an overly pushy offer of a cup of tea at a local’s place. So, I never went to a Thai family’s house for dinner or went out drinking with Thai guys.
In Nga Trang, however, I spent almost the entire time as a guest in local houses. The people were genuinely curious and so happy to have you visit their country. I also got the feeling they had not worked out how to rip tourists off yet.
I hardly ate in the restaurent the whole time. I would be out on my bike, stop to look my map and someone (usually a student, but not always) would invite me to their place for dinner. I had no hesitation accepting and they always insisted on paying (although I always brought a gift to show my appreciation). From rich to poor, they always treated me like the guest of honour and I could tell they put on the best spread they could possibly afford.
Go to the beach and bring back a foreigner!
One day, I accidently bumped into 2 other travellers staying at the same guest house. One of them was a guy I vaguely knew from my University in NZ and was travelling with an English guy. They told me, they had me this nice young woman (claiming to be 19 years old) who had invited them that night to her family’s place for dinner. They asked me if I wanted to tag along and I of course said yes. Later that evening, shortly before we were due to go to the house, I met them at our guesthouse. We changed our plans and have decided to ship out tonight, but you can still go by yourself, they told me.
So, I met the young woman and she took me to her house. She was absolutely gorgeous and looked more like 16 than 19, but it is hard to tell the age of Asians and we Europeans tend to age badly in comparison. Her family was dirt poor. They had only 2 rooms in their house with just a concrete floor. The first room had a lathe with wood chips everywhere and must have been their business. the rear room was their kitchen and living quarters. The “dining” room was just a small wooden table with a couple of wooden stools. Stairs lead up to a mezzaine level, which were the sleeping quarters.
She didn’t speak much English and could only ask the standard questions, like “are you married? girlfriend?”, to which I answered in the negative. To try to make conversation, I reciprocated and asked her if she had a boyfriend? No, no boyfriend.
As I was the star attraction, word got round and some of the neighbours dropped by, including (thank goodness) a guy who could speak good English and interpret for us. The family put on a spread for dinner. The meat was really disgusting, with large pieces of fat, which I tried to eat without gagging. I gave up and then tried to hide the meat under some vegetables, so as not to cause offence.
After dinner, the girl decided we would borrow one of the neighbour’s Honda scooter and go for a drive round. She disappeared upstairs to prepare herself and came down with makeup on and wearing her most beautiful dress (for a special occasion).
We drove round and round on the bike. This seemed to be the de regeur thing for young couples and families to do in the evening. As my extended families share the same crowded dwelling, it is difficult for young couples to find private time together. She took me to this really strange bar. It was outdoor, but full of trees with private nooks and crannies. I wondered why she had taken me to such a place. I decided to have a look round and found boothes hidden in the bushes where couples were making out!
She took me home and invited me back the next day for dinner. I was a bit unsure if this was the right thing to do, but reluctantly accepted. The next day, I met the neighbour who could speak good English. He told me, you should leave! I was taken aback! He told me, the other neighbour who had lent us his scooter the evening before was her boyfriend of 5 years and he was pissed! Needless to say, I got the hell out fast. I suspected that the family had told their daughter to go to the beach and bring back a rich foreigner.
A few years later I heard a story from an Irish couple I met in Malawi. They told me their rich cousin had met a Vietnamese girl at university in Ireland. He was now paying for all kinds of new construction in her home village. It turned out, the whole village had pooled together all their funds to finance her study in Ireland. They had hit the jackpot and were now getting a handsome return on their investment.
No sucky sucky please!
One evening, I was sitting on Nga Trang beached quite stoned. It was getting dark and some beach boys started circling me. There were 3 of them and they sat down one on each side and one right in front of me. I thought, just play it cool and don’t show signs of panic. They started to compliment on my nice hairy arms and started stroking them. So far, nothing untoward.
Then one of them started to praise my hairy legs and started to stroke them. This has crossed a line for me, so I gently said that was enough and moved his hand away. He seemed to take this as some kind of rejection and walked off in a huff. The other 2 said, you hurt his feelings! My eyes started to become accustomed to the dark and I realized they had makeup on. They were pre-op transvestites (known as “Lady boys” in Thailand). Note, that in South East Asia, Trans people are much more accepted than Western culture and it is common for Trans women to complete (and win) beauty contests.
I continued just playing it cool, but when they asked me where my hotel was and if I wanted a massage, it was time to leave. When they realized this was their last chance, they asked me: You want sucky sucky? I politely declined and walked away from the beach.
I didn’t want them to follow me to my hotel, so I took a detour through a pine forest behind the beach. As I walked through the shadows, a young guy emerged from behind a tree and asked me, you want sucky sucky. I replied, no thank you. No sucky sucky for me tonight. Thank you anyway for the kind offer.
Finally, I came out of the forest to a secret cove surrounded by dense vegetation. There were couples making out on the beach. I even saw a couple having sex on a park bench just a few meters away!
Hoi An, Danang, Hue
From Nha Trang, I travelled approximately half way up the country to visit the historic towns of Hue and Hoi An. There was not a great deal to do there and I continued just riding my bike round stoned and meeting the locals.
Near Danang, a few of us rented bikes and went to the famous “China Beach” where the eponymous Vietnam War TV drama had been filmed. It was a beautiful long stretch of untouched beach with only one French owned hotel.
You could make a tour of the DMZ, but I heard it was a bit of a tourist trap. One moving experience I had near the DMZ was meeting a pair of US Vietnam veterans who were making a pilgrimage back to the country from the first time in 30 years. The stories they told.
Return to Saigon – the bus ride from hell
I’ve been on some pretty horrendous bus rides, e.g. in India, but never have I experience anything like this journey from Hoi Ann back to Saigon. There was no bus station of ticket system. You had to stand on the side of the road and flag a bus down. Some people helped negotiate the price (US $5, which was about 10 times the local price).
I instantly regretted getting on this bus. It was old, packed with people and big sacks of god-knows what filled the aisles, meaning there was absolutely no leg room. The seats were just a wooden board with a metal bar frame. There were 3 people per seat designed for 2. The journey should have taken 8 hours and took double that.
Firstly, the bus would stop from time to time to load more cargo onto the roof. At one point, they loaded pigs onto the roof. This took forever, but none of the passengers seems to mind as if this was normal practice.
Then, the bus was robbed! Not robbed at gunpoint by bandits but by swindlers. We had stopped to load cargo and some strange dudes got on the bus and seemed to be selling some kind of magic plastic trinkets – like crystals. From what I could gather by asking a passenger who could interpret, they were selling a magical cure for all ailments, like cancer and so on. Several passengers were taken and handed over their cold hard cash only for the swindlers to suddenly disappear from the bus with everyone’s money!
Then it had to happen. After about 12 hours of hell, the bus was nearing Saigon, but had to negotiate a hill. You guessed it! The bus broke down going up a hill and it took another 6 hours to repair it.
Many people ask me, which are my favourite countries. I prefer to answer with favourite experiences, because the Vietnam of 1994 probably bears little resemblance to the hustle and bustle of today’s country. I am also not the same person I was 30 years ago and would probably be disapointed if I went back today. This, I feel eternally grateful for having the opportunity to visit a special place during a unique time in its history, one that I have never repeated since. I will always cherish this experience for the rest of my life.
Disclaimer: The Earlybird does not condone the use of any mind-altering substances, legal or otherwise. This is for educational and harm reduction purposes only.