Final Thoughts on Vietnam - This Time Tomorrow - CycleBlaze

January 1, 2017

Final Thoughts on Vietnam

Final Thoughts on Vietnam

With the exception of the far north we have now bicycled Vietnam nearly top to bottom - more than two months in the country - 1293 miles or 2080 km. Neither of us had ever been to Vietnam. We didn’t know what to expect because we had never before visited Vietnam. All we had to go by was what we have experienced in the surrounding S.E. Asian countries but as we all know each culture is unique. It doesn’t matter how small the country or how packed together a lot of small countries are, they are going to be quite different from each other. Simply put, the diverse landscapes of Vietnam and the consistently hospitable Vietnamese people have delighted us beyond any expectations we might have had.

Andrea and I travel differently than most tourists. We go to some of the big tourist sites but usually not many. I think we both learned long ago that our most memorable moments of a trip are the ones that happen spontaneously anywhere.

Think about your family vacations when you were kids. What is the memory that comes up first? It’s probably not how majestic some mountain was or even how great the skiing was. It’s when your little sister dropped her sandwich at the zoo and a long long neck came down over the fence and a giraffe snarfed it in an instant. Or, in my case, when my brother fed the llama some popcorn on the way into the theme park and two hours later when we were walking out that same llama spit the inedible part of a kernel of popcorn at my brother and it stuck on his forehead. Two hours that llama had been waiting for revenge! And, oh yes, the water in the ocean was nice too, but that llama!

A trip by bicycle automatically means there will be even more personal experiences because we are out there exposed to whatever the culture throws our way every minute of the day. We will simply stop to look at Google Maps to figure out where we are and in that short time someone will stop to talk with us even if we don’t speak the same language and we have a wonderful interaction, a memorable interaction. That’s what Vietnam was full of.

We didn’t go to Sapa in the far north to see hill tribes or to the World Heritage Site of Ha Long Bay or even the former French hill station, Dalat. But we stumbled on a really nice hotel at a deserted beach which we never thought we could afford but when inquiring found out that we could. We luxuriated in our room with a view trying to figure out why no one was there on the weekend. And to top it off we had two meals in the hotel restaurant that were world class tasty. Never mind the scheme the waiter and chef cooked up to bilk us out of some extra cash, it will not mar our memory of the meals. That was just icing on the amazing squid we ate - an added twist to the whole wonderful story. These are the reasons it’s so fun and rewarding to travel by bicycle.

Vietnam was a great place to spend two months. We had so much fun and we never got sick. Andrea had some slight stomach thing the last day of cycling but nothing really. It rained too much but that was quite unusual and nothing could be done to have prevented it. I have kept a list of things that could be better in Vietnam but now I don’t even want to look at it because overall it was a fantastic country to ride a bike through. The kind, honest, gentle and hospitable people are the biggest secret in S.E. Asia.

In the past when we would be traveling in Laos, we would meet other travelers coming from Vietnam and they all told us what a relief it was to leave Vietnam and be in mellow Laos. They would tell us stories of how they got ripped off and how dishonest the Vietnamese were or how aggressive they all were about everything. Normally we don’t listen to such talk but it seemed that every single traveler had the same story so we were shy about visiting Vietnam for years. Maybe things have changed a little bit. Maybe the Vietnamese have found some footing in the world and feel more secure about themselves. Maybe it’s the way we travel as opposed to the backpackers we had talked to. There are too many factors to figure out what the problem was for them but for us we had no problems at all. Even when Andrea needed medical attention for her hand the doctor and nurses were great and we feel she got the right treatment.

As a whole the Vietnamese are some of the kindest people we have ever come across. They were right there willing to help us if ever we needed help. I fell once. It wasn’t a bad fall at all. It was only the second day of riding and we were on a dirt road that was undergoing something or other with a big grader and a back hoe. The back hoe had made a scraping into the hard packed clay road with its claws. The grooves in the clay were a few inches deep. I thought I could breeze right over them with my bike but my front tire caught the groove and jerked my handlebars to a right angle in a second. I went down into the dirt and immediately a young person no older than 15, who had been standing nearby, jumped over to help me get up. There was no laughter from him or anyone else who witnessed it. I was impressed how immediate the young man’s reaction was to help me. For someone of his age to act so quickly, and only out of concern for the foreigner, told me that this was not the culture the backpackers had told us about.

Wisdom of the elders and education of the youth seem to combine beautifully in Vietnam.
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The kids of Vietnam reflect curiosity and excitement.
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The times we might have been ripped off slightly were so few and for such small amounts that I laugh when I now recall the instances because they were so odd; the waiter and chef for instance.

One time I was buying a bottle of water. It was our first day of riding and I wasn’t yet familiar with the currency. I asked the old woman how much the water was and I was a little confused. I held my money in my hand and hesitated. Then I let the woman take the right amount from my hand. She pulled out what I thought was the correct amount but then, sensing my possible confusion, she slowly pulled out another 1000 dong note while glancing up at me. Then, because she got away with that one she decided to try it again. Ever so slowly she pulled out another 1000 dong note from my clutches. The funny part was how she would look up at my eyes to see if I was noticing. It was all in slow motion. I figured she was ripping me off but it was so funny I let her do it! That ripoff amounted to a grand total of about 8 cents - well worth it. In that case it was poverty of spirit more than plain poverty that made the old ignorant woman try it and that’s a little sad to think about.

OK, I’ll list a few bad points.

There are way too many people in Vietnam which means there are way too many motorbikes. Everyone is working extremely hard - seriously, the most industrious people I’ve ever seen. But this means that once they have the means, they will buy cars. If there are as many cars someday as there are now motorbikes the roads will all be gridlocked. The worst part is that we saw so many babies and very young kids everywhere that their population must be out of control and will double in a very short time. There are 100 million right now but I don’t think I’d want to go there if it was double that. Food pressures already mean that the food is filled with chemicals. All the fruit at the markets throughout the country always looked too perfect. Chemicals are certainly the reason.

If you flag down a bus out in the countryside you are going to pay a lot. That’s just the way buses operate. If you get the bus at the station it will still be more than it should be because the Vietnamese operate on a two tiered system - Vietnamese and tourists. I hate the assumption that foreigners are richer and can pay more. It seems demeaning to themselves to think that they are all poorer than anyone else in the world or at least any visitor to Vietnam.

We never took a taxi but we heard lots of stories about taxi driver ripoffs. Taxi drivers who used broken meters or who drove all around before taking their passengers to where they wanted to go. This will change as visitors get more and more aware and refuse to pay taxi drivers.

Honking is so pervasive that it becomes irrelevant and no one pays any attention at all which means that the amount of honking increases. This was hard on our ears. Overall I thought drivers were very courteous and most motorbike drivers were excellent, except women. I’m not sexist, it’s just a fact that the women on motorbikes were the most unpredictable and often didn’t seem to have complete control of their motorbike. Andrea agrees with me. The near misses were all with women on motorbikes. Men drive their motorbikes way too fast and too close sometimes but in general they are good predictable drivers.

Probably the most irritating and dangerous thing when riding our bikes in Vietnam was all the motorbikes driving along the side of roads the wrong way. I don’t really care about their reason or how little distance they needed to go, it shouldn’t be allowed. It was something we had to watch out for constantly. We never saw police in Vietnam but many times I wondered if it would be a billion dollars per year the country could collect from people breaking traffic laws or if it might be considerably more than a billion. That might take a justice system and a system of courts and juries and maybe too mind boggling for a communist government to contemplate. Better to allow traffic chaos and danger.

Karaoke is everywhere; loud and bad. Talk about another thing that should be illegal! There are too many people, mostly men, wasting huge amounts of time singing karaoke. Some will do it all day long. Karaoke bars are everywhere. The singing was so consistently awful that I started to think it was me, that I just don’t get it. And I think there is truth to that. I’m not used to Vietnamese singing but now I’m realizing that the famous crooners are famous because they can skillfully bend notes so that they sound amazingly beautiful. So, I think every karaoke singer is trying to bend notes and failing miserably 99.9% of the time. It was awful to listen to and often we could not avoid it. Often our Nha Nghi was right next to a karaoke bar. It was seriously awful.

The good points about Vietnam far outweigh the bad. There is really great, fast, wifi everywhere. Every little shack that sold coffee or beer had screamingly fast wifi. In fact the quality of the internet was better in Vietnam than anywhere I’ve ever been and that includes the great United States. I’m putting all of my faith in Trump making wifi in the U.S. as great as it is in Vietnam. For us, uploading loads of photos to this journal all the time, fast wifi is a must. In this regard we are dreading going to Cambodia and Thailand.

The food was great in Vietnam as well. It’s pretty rare in S.E. Asia to be able to eat anything you want to, street food or at a dirty looking restaurant, and not get sick. For two months that’s exactly what we did and never did we ever feel ill. That’s equal to Thailand or it might even take the top slot. surpassing Thailand. Very high marks at any rate.

On the other hand, garbage is strewn around everywhere. Waterways are clogged with plastic bags and such. The ocean beaches are littered with everything but mostly styrofoam. The waves wash the styrofoam up to the high tide mark and the wind takes it onshore and when really big winds come it blows inland further. It’s awful. We did see garbage trucks and regular garbage pickup but no dumps. Most of it seems to be brought out to the edge of town and dumped alongside the road. It’s a simple thing to dig a huge pit for garbage outside of every major town but it isn’t being done. It’s strange for me to think that a Communist country can’t figure out the most basic things like dealing with garbage. Why would they not be educating people to not litter? How does this fit with having the best internet in the entire region? And why would a Communist government want its people to have such access to knowledge on the internet? But since they do it’s one reason the Vietnamese are moving forward at such a pace.

Vietnam is in fact zooming ahead in the world. We saw thousands of buildings as modern as any in the world. Building is going on everywhere at an astonishing rate. The people are super industrious and have figured out a lot of things that other countries in the region haven’t. Take sewer gas for instance. In all the rooms we stayed in in Vietnam we never had any sewer gas issues. That might sound like something pretty basic, and it is! But sewer gas is horrible in a lot of the rooms we have stayed in in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. Vietnam, alone, has figured it out how to prevent it. Why figure out how to prevent sewer gas but not garbage? I used to think Cambodia had the prize for the most garbage strewn around but Vietnam has it.

All the bad points about Vietnam are not all that bad and I have complete confidence they will figure out how to fix everything. It’s just astonishing how far Vietnam has come since 1975, the end of the war. I can’t even imagine how destroyed the physical country was as well as the economy. They are still plagued with the health effects from Agent Orange. But, regardless, they have performed miracles in only 40 years. We rode over huge modern bridges over the various channels of the Mekong in The Delta and the whole time we were riding over them I marveled at the ingenuity and knowhow of the Vietnamese.

I marvel most at how the Vietnamese have done everything themselves. We saw nearly no foreign products. Even heavy equipment was mostly made by the Vietnamese. I’m sure this is a major reason they are doing so well. If a country’s citizens make everything themselves the money is retained inside the country, simple economics. I’ve never seen a country do this so completely as Vietnam. And this is quite a feat considering they are neighbors with China. I hope that the Vietnamese retain their independence in this regard. It was unexpected but oh so refreshing to never see foreign products other than Coke.

So, big success story for us traveling through Vietnam! I strongly encourage others to visit.


I think Truong Khanh sums up our feelings of how positive the Vietnamese people are. He was utterly hospitable and generous, friendly and funny and interested in learning about us and the world. He's a professor of medicine and learning English. He's building a new house as well as taking care of his daughter who was in a serious motorbike accident. But he had time and energy to spend the evening with us. And a wonderful evening it was indeed. We will never forget him.
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Jen GrumbyThe memory that popped into my head about family vacations was stopping at rest areas to eat bologna sandwiches that my mom wrapped in wax paper. Going on a picnic wherever I happen to be is still one of my favorite things. I will always remember a roadside snack attack with Ron & Gay .. and a man stepping out of an old RV parked next to an abandoned school house .. The owner of the RV came out and told us about his plans to fix up the school house (which he had purchased) and offered us some cold water.

What a great summary of your trip! So cool that you went to Vietnam with a open minds despite negative stories you heard from other travelers. And incredible that you were welcomed with such kindness and generosity, regardless of any verbal communication challenges.

Thanks also for sharing your thoughts about some of the experiences that you found difficult, too.

And for wrapping up with Truong Khanh's smile! One of my favorite photos from the trip!
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2 years ago
Bruce LellmanTo Jen GrumbyBecause you are reading our journal and making such wonderful and insightful comments Andrea and I find ourselves rereading sections to see exactly what you are commenting on. This leads us to reading more and a thorough reliving of our nearly perfect trip two years ago occurs. Thank you for taking the time to dive into our journal to such an extent. Your comments mean a lot to us.
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2 years ago