Vietnam – A Tough Nut To Crack

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Tourist boats taking off in Trang An in Ninh Binh, Vietnam.

During our two months of travel, I’ve written about many of the places we’ve visited, how I’ve felt and experienced the different cities, attractions and the traveling life in general. But writing about traveling in Vietnam has been tough and I’ve been avoiding writing this text for a couple of days now.

Why? Because I’m not having very warm feelings towards this country.

Two months ago, we started off in Thailand which, after leaving Bangkok, was a surprisingly friendly and gentle introduction to Southeast Asia. After Thailand, we travelled to Malaysia, where I experienced my first culture shock but as we got out from Kuala Lumpur, I had a great time exploring the country.

Vietnam, however, continues to be a struggle even after two and a half weeks. I’ll do my best to explain to you why.

Dread Behind Every Corner

We started in Hanoi which was a traffic hell and where we learned the hard way that in this city, the locals are after the tourist’s money.

(The money itself takes a while to get used to: the value of Vietnamese Dong has drastically reduced because of inflation and you end up with a lot of zeros. 25 000 dong equals one euro or one dollar. So, in Vietnam, you have the chance be a millionaire. Your million, however, isn’t very valuable.)

For instance, in a restaurant, there’s a separate menu for tourists with fixed prices and one for the Vietnamese locals without prices. And here, many of the taxis drive according to a taxi meter but some of the meters tick with hell of a speed – an 8-minute trip ends up costing 250 000 dong, more than 10 times we agreed upon with the taxi driver (yes, we got scammed).

We have learned that this hunger for money is the only reason many of the locals are friendly – they want you to buy something from them. Whether it’s tailored clothes, a trip to Halong Bay or just a photo with a Vietnamese fruit seller – they want your money. Or they try to sell you motorcycle parking, a fan or even a squirrel (or maybe it was a photo with the squirrel) – it’s about the money.

Behind every corner there is someone who wants something from you.

And the things is, when you politely say no thank you, their friendliness disappears. Suddenly, the smile fades away and the friendly words feel fake. We have met only a handful of genuinely nice locals – and that’s sad. This has led to the point where we, subconsciously, are taking distance from the Vietnamese people.

The Language Barrier

Another issue has definitely been the language. There are some in Vietnam that can speak good English but the majority in this country can only the basics of it: hello, thank you, one cold beer, bye bye. But that’s all – and that only gets you so far.

In Thailand and in Malaysia, things were very different. In both countries, it was easier to communicate with the locals and deal with unexpected situations such as problems with transportation or food orders. In Vietnam, however, it is almost impossible.

Because there’s a different price for tourists, and it is mostly higher, we would like to bargain or argument for our own benefit. In this country, it has proved to be difficult. For instance, with the taxi scam, the driver kept on yelling police! but didn’t understand (or listen to) a single word we were saying, therefore making it impossible to deal with the situation.

And, in a restaurant, when we tried to explain that we had the same day in that same place gotten a cold water for the price of 10 000 dong, and the lady was now asking for 12 000, and why aren’t we getting the same price again – she didn’t understand but thought we wanted a cold Coke instead (that would have been 15 000 dong).

This leads to the point where we try to avoid all sorts of communication with the Vietnamese people. We just end up loosing and it doesn’t get us anywhere – or we end up having to say no thank you to all their offers on “great” deals and prices and get the fading smiles and some Vietnamese words said in a sour tone.

How To Trust and Understand If…

The continuous trouble with money and the difficulties with communicating have led to the point where we have the feeling that we cannot trust these people.

This is a generalization, of course: some of the hostels and homestays we’ve stayed at have been wonderful and we’ve gotten very good and genuinely nice service.

But the common man we meet on the street, we cannot trust. For me, it’s very difficult to accept this because for the most part I like to give a chance to everyone. I like to give the benefit of the doubt – but here, I’ve been forced to change my attitude.

Trusting would be easier, if we could understand the locals (after all, feelings related to fear come from not understanding). If we could talk with the Vietnamese people, hear about their opinions and views on their country, about the heavy tourism, their view on their history and future, we would be able to understand these people better, meet them differently.

But we cannot. Issues with money and language aren’t solved overnight. Therefore, we are stuck in our situation, in feelings of discomfort and the need for distance from the locals and their culture. We have one week left before leaving this country and flying to the next and I’m happy for it.

Vietnam is a tough nut to crack – and I don’t know if I want to crack it at all.

What We Gain By Being ‘Lazy’

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In Georgetown, Malaysia we met a couple at our hostel. They had already been on the road for three months and still had months and months of travel ahead of them. As we were eager to hear their story we sat down at the same table to eat breakfast and drink coffee.

Up until May, the couple had been living their life in the UK, working and saving up money for their own house. But then they had realized that the kind of life they were building for, they weren’t ready for it. Not yet.

So, they quit their jobs, took the money they had saved and hit the road.

At some point, however, they intend to return to their home country and start working again. And this was clearly something they had been thinking about because the woman said:

“I hope that the employers don’t see our travels as being lazy.”

This got me thinking because what she said really is something worth hoping for.

Study-Work Continuum

In many western countries, both education and work are seen as something incredibly valuable, something worth focusing on. Many grow up learning that either you study or you work but there’s no option in-between which means that after you’ve finished your education you continue to the work life and stay there until you’re ready to retire. We are encouraged to fall into the school-work continuum.

The decision to sell your belongings (or store them somewhere), leave everything you have behind and hit the road is, however, the complete opposite of the school-work continuum of a western modern society. Because being on the road, traveling, is neither studying or working.

At least from the society’s point of view – because taking a year or more off to travel leaves a big gaping hole in your CV. I can only imagine the job interview where the leap year is noticed:

“What did you do during this year?”
“I was abroad.”
“Hmph, and where did you go on holiday?”
“Southeast Asia, mostly – I traveled around. It was really wonderful! Affordable, the people were so friendly and the nature amazing.”
“I see.”

The employer might very well think you spent the last year chillaxing on the beach or riding a motorcycle without a helmet on. And he probably thinks that you, during that time, didn’t so much as lift as a finger.

But the thing is, traveling and especially backpacking isn’t being lazy.

It’s a lot of work. Almost like a full-time job, really.

Gaining Knowledge

During these six weeks on the road, we’ve slowly but surely gotten into the groove of traveling. Currently, we are in our third country in Southeast Asia, Vietnam, and plan to be here three weeks before flying to our next destination.

During these six weeks, we’ve familiarized ourselves and adapted to three different cultures: Thai, Malaysian and Vietnamese. We’ve learnt the basics of their social norms and etiquette, we’ve learned some of the key phrases of their language and figured out how their monetary system work. We have gained understanding of their culture, their cuisine, religion, and infrastructure.

At the same time, we have gained perspective on our own country, our infrastructure, the western culture and social norms. We have seen how things can be done, how they shouldn’t be done and how different the people in Southeast Asia see their world, life and future compared to the western cultures.

This, for instance, is extremely valuable in the ever more globalized and multicultural world.

In addition to this, we’ve also become pro at planning and executing the plans. Every few days we sit down, take out the computer and connect it to the best wi-fi we can find. We research our travel options, figure out when and where the bus or the train will go, where we will end up in and where we are going to stay.

In a new place, we learn where the ATMs are, where the best local food is served, where we can find the nearest convenience store for water (and ice cream) and learn to know other backpackers and travelers staying in the same place.

We try to find out where we can do our laundry, where we can find proper, vitamin-rich food (believe me, it’s a struggle) and where’s the pharmacy when you get sick (just did this in Hanoi) or how to deal with bedbug bites (unfortunately, it did happen).

The ability to adapt is a good skill to have in the modern society – and something not all people have.

Learning New Skills

Being on the road, carrying all our belongings with us, is a rollercoaster ride of new skills, constant adapting and evolving, conflicts, success and learning to be social with so many people from so many different cultures.

In other words, being on the road is far from being lazy. The couple we spoke to during that breakfast knew it and we know it.

Being on the road gives you competences that staying at home never can give: you gain unique perspective on your own culture, social norms and the structure of your society; you become a thinker and a doer, and you are more okay with adapting to new situations and new people. You are constantly kicked out from your comfort zone which forces you to self-development.

People who have been on the road are actually golden in modern societies that are constantly changing and becoming more multicultural than ever before.

And if the employer doesn’t understand this when you tell him/her about your year on the road – maybe you’re applying for the wrong job (or the right job but with the wrong boss).

This Is Not A Holiday

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It was the morning of another travel day. We were in the elevator on the way down, carrying our backpacks and ready to check out from the hotel we had stayed in. A woman rode with us down to the ground level and asked us:

“Are you on a holiday?”

I wanted to answer no, but instead, I said yes and smiled. It was easier that way because how could I have explained during those 40 seconds it took to get to the ground floor that this thing that we do is not a holiday, it’s something different?

In the world of travel, there are mainly two reasons to travel: to go on a holiday or to do business. It’s a question they ask when filling out visa forms or arrival cards on the airport, it’s what the locals ask us when we stop to chat with them: are you on holiday?

It’s like the stereotype for travel that makes it easier for people to place you, a foreigner, in their minds: either you’re on holiday just enjoying life or you are traveling to make money.

But as you might now, stereotypes are often very black and white and never quite tell the truth. The same goes for our ‘being on holiday’. For us, being on holiday would mean not having to care about your budget that much, it would  living the life of leisure and drinking mojitos instead of the cheapest beer.

That’s not what we do. The choice between holiday and business completely leaves us out.

So, what are we doing if we’re not on a holiday?

Backpackers?

Someone might say we are tourists. But isn’t tourist as a term a bit old-fashioned already? Back in the days, being a tourist actually meant touring around other countries – my grandfather, for instance, organized touring trips of that kind. All the travelers, the tourists, travelled in the same bus from one country to the other. Every now and then they stopped for lunch that they prepared in the small kitchen in the back of the bus.

That was being a tourist – but touring in a group is quite rare nowadays and we can’t say we would been touring the countries and cities we’ve visited (except for that hop-on hop-off bus in Kuala Lumpur), so… you can’t really call us tourists either.

One term that almost describes what we are doing is backpacking. We are on a low budget, comparing prices and staying in hostels instead of hotels, buying our food from food stalls instead of going to a proper air conditioned restaurant. But I wouldn’t say even backpacking is quite correct.

Yes, we carry all our belongings in our backpacks but, in the end, we carry our backpacks very little – from hostel to the taxi to the bus to the taxi to another hostel. We aren’t counting every penny, saving everywhere it’s possible and we don’t only stay in hostels with 6-bed dorm rooms and a shared bathroom.

So, no. We are not backpackers either, even though we are getting close.

So, for the rest of the world, we are on a holiday because we are tourists or backpackers but all of them are somehow wrong. What are we then, if we don’t fit in any of those descriptions?

Observers?

The best description I’ve come up with is that we are simply living our life while observing the world and society around us. (You might even call it exploring but that sounds too much like a cliché so let’s just stick to observing.) The core elements of being on holiday, being a tourist or a backpacker aren’t a part of our trip, of what we do.

Instead, both me and my partner are critically observing what we see and trying to figure out where the world is going. We wonder why people do things in a certain way when there are more practical and efficient ways of doing those things. We observe the infrastructure, the social norms, how they think and act. How tourism affects these countries we visit and observe.

Many of our observations are critical and yes, it does eliminate some enjoyment from those moments on the beach or chatting with locals or other backpackers. But for us, and for me… it’s hard to close one’s eyes from seeing all the things that are so crooked in the places we visit. It’s difficult not to see the amount of trash thrown away on the ground or in the sea. It’s hard to close my eyes from all the stray cats, the beggars and the efforts of trying to trick money from tourists.

(And still you see other tourists, backpackers and people on holiday go on about their lives in complete blindness. I wonder how they can ignore what they see.)

So, “are you on a holiday?” really should get a completely different answer than a simple yes with a smile.

But I don’t know if that woman in the elevator would have understood us.