Posted by: Tom Lancaster | September 15, 2010

Vietnam/Vietscam: will the real Vietnam please stand up?

Episode 26: Hanoi/Ninh Binh/Hue/Hoi An/Nha Trang, Vietnam

Skin colour (Tom): Jodie Marsh
Skin colour (Jane): Rodney Marsh
Location: Nha Trang, Vietnam

Date: 14th September 2010.

If you’re looking for teenage breasts, you’re in the wrong place. The reason I say this is that I have access to all sorts of (highly addictive) stats about my blog, and I’m disappointed to find that the search which most often returns my blog on Google – by some distance – is “teenage breast”.

This, presumably, is a result of my foolishly mentioning them in my blog post about the Banos to Cuenca bus in Ecuador. I suspect that my commenting on it again here will only exacerbate the problem, but if you’re here for that reason, you’re out of luck. We did see a man’s testicles today though, I’m sorry to say.

Thousand Year Old Tree in Cu Phuong National Park

My last post was from Hanoi, where we were preparing for a no-frills journey south, to the wonderfully named Ninh Binh. The hard benches and no air-con of the train were fine for three hours, but some of the poor sods onboard were going as far as Saigon (as the Vietnamese still call it) or Ho Chi Minh City (as we are told to call it), some 24+ hours further south.

There was a good deal of good-natured staring as, once again, we were the only gringo/falang on the train, and the train conductress made sure we got off at our stop. The friendliness of the Vietnamese was on show as we were offered food and drink en route by other passengers.

More beer hoi

They are an incredibly friendly people, not just with us, but with each other. They greet each other with toothy grins and complete strangers strike up conversations immediately on public transport. It’s refreshingly un-London.

We had decided to stop at Ninh Binh, principally to break up the journey to Hue. It’s not the most beautiful of towns, but we spent a couple of nights there, ate some grilled goat and excellent duck pho, and visited a local national park with an obligatory 1000 year old tree, where the guide took an enormous stick insect home as a pet/snack.

Giant stick insect

We also spent a serene afternoon being rowed through the caves and rock formations of Tam Coc (after scooting there, how I miss my little Vespa!) which was as peaceful a place as we’ve found in Vietnam.

Tam Coc

My only experience of rowing was a breathtakingly hung-over/still drunk appearance for the hockey club’s coxed four during a boat club open day at Uni, where I didn’t exactly cover myself in glory. It was with a great deal of appreciation, then, that I viewed the faultless stroke of the men and women powering the boats at Tam Coc WITH THEIR FEET!

Good skills

As well as giving us an impressive display of dexterity, Tam Coc was the setting for yet another minor tourist scam, of which to date there have been unfortunately several.

The up-shot of which, is that it’s very difficult not to feel as though everybody you meet is trying to get money out of you. And that those you’re willingly paying for services rendered, are always trying to screw you for more.

Easy Rider

The Tam Coc scam, which is so commonplace that it’s actually mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide-book, is that half way through the boat trip, you will be surrounded by other boats trying to sell you drinks. This is fine and hey, maybe you’d like a drink after an hour of vigorous lounging in a small rowing boat.

The scam comes when you have refused to buy a drink, and then the vendor suggests, maybe you’d like to buy your rower a drink? Now bear in mind that almost all the rowers are miniature (and pretty elderly) ladies and you can imagine that most guilt-ridden, western tourists will go for this.

What happens next though, is not that your elderly lady rower quaffs her drink with a thank you, but instead she promptly sells it back to the vendor for half the price!! Thankfully we’d been force-feeding our Yoda look-alike water for the whole journey, so we escaped.

Harvesting water spinach

Other minor tourist scams we’ve experienced are:

  • Being charged twice as much for water as we had been three days earlier at the same stall (after we walked off she moodily called us back with the right price).
  • Being told when hiring the scooter that the Vietnamese don’t use mirrors, which is why ours didn’t have any (as we were being told this, Jane was watching the road and saying “He’s got mirrors……she’s got mirrors…… they’ve got mirrors……. everyone’s got mirrors!”).
  • A curious one we’ve still not got to the bottom of – when we parked the scooter at a pagoda a security guy approached and told us not to put the lock on it. We weren’t that fussed about looking round the pagoda, so we left, but are still wondering what benefit NOT LOCKING the scooter would have had?
  • Being told by ticket agents that the cheap trains are “full”, so that you’re forced to buy a seat in the more expensive, privately run carriages (unless you find the one official ticket agency, hidden behind a nondescript hotel in the seedy part of town and book a seat without a problem on one of the “full” trains half an hour later!).
  • Being offered train/bus tickets at vastly inflated prices (we bought a train ticket from Hoi An to Nha Trang for 17 USD, which our hotel had been trying to flog us for 30 USD).
  • (and the one which did catch us), taking a taxi with a hyperactive meter which whirred round at 4 times the normal speed. Unfortunately, this was our first Vietnamese taxi, so we weren’t sure we were being fleeced and the fare in the end was about 4 quid – still, this was 4 times what we should have paid).

The list really is endless, and it leaves an unfortunate sour taste in the mouth. The worst thing is the constant suspicion that you’re being fleeced, meaning that you trust nobody (like the lady we gave dirty looks to on a local bus yesterday after she charged us twice what we’d been told it should cost, until we saw her charge a local the same and the guilt set in).

Transit van Ninh Binh style

The big problem is that (like the taxi scam) we are talking pence and pounds, not huge amounts of money. At the risk of sounding trite, it’s the principal rather than the money – we’re more than happy to pay a fair price and tip generously here (probably because it’s so cheap!).

Anyway, we braved our first sleeper backpacker bus as we left Ninh Binh, and we certainly got more sleep on the bus than on the sleeper trains, although the seats – which recline almost fully – are made for someone approximately 10 inches shorter and 10 stone lighter than me.

A bus we paid the actual price for

Jane also wants me to write that it was exactly as she imagined riding the Knight Bus would be, but without the comfy beds, but I have no idea what she’s on about. In any event, the constant horn-honking didn’t make for the best night’s sleep either.

We arrived in Hue bleary-eyed and dazzled by sun, to a barrage of questions from touts (this would be something of a theme in Hue): “Need motorbike? Where you go? You have hotel? Where you from? Visit caves/mountains/city tour tomorrow? Only way to see Vietnam. Take card. I take you to hotel. I know better hotel.”.

Hue Citadel: Ngo Mon gate

We’ve been pestered almost continually since – in a non-threatening, but mildly annoying, way – and we’ve very much got used to putting on our “we’re not interested” faces.

We saw a new tactic a couple of nights ago, when a lady approached Jane on the street with the following: “Oh, you beautiful, you such beautiful lady……………….. come in my shop and buy something!”. It was like watching Kaa try to entrance Mowgli in the Jungle Book. Jane didn’t fall for it.

Hue’s a very different city from Hanoi. Still busy, hot and loud, but with an elegant side to it – manicured parks, quiet side streets with small restaurants and more space. This might sound odd, but it felt as though you could breathe more easily.

Hue Citadel: Emperor's Reading Room

We spent a baking hot day (we’ve been extremely lucky with the weather of late, our only rain being two huge thunderstorms on our last two nights in Hoi An) exploring Hue’s citadel  and Imperial enclosure, which was interesting, although it could do with someone more house-proud in charge. Copious litter + sleeping workmen + dogs + overgrown gardens and lawns = not quite what it could be.

I should also mention the food in Hue, which was consistently good and on one occasion was a work of art. Apparently an emperor of Hue once demanded 50 different dishes be cooked by 50 different chefs each day – the legacy is some impressive, intricate cuisine and multi-course dining opportunities at bargain prices.

Hue 8-course extravaganza: peacock bearing spring rolls

We opted one night for an eight-course dinner ($11 each), which was beautifully presented and for the most part very tasty (dessert was pretty grim!). We also tried frog spring rolls in Hue, which didn’t taste of much, not even chicken.

Hoi An

After Hue we continued south to Hoi An, which is chock-full of temples, clan-houses, pagodas and other touristy stuff. It’s a delightful place (pesterers aside), good for walking and with more excellent food (the food has really picked up actually, for the first week or so in Vietnam it’s fair to say we were a bit disappointed with our meals – the downside of having access to most world cuisines in the Big Smoke).

After a walking tour on our first day in Hoi An, during which we produced approximately 342 litres of sweat between us, we tried a cookery course.

Vietnamese Masterchef 2010

It was actually more of a cooking demo – we did a bit of chopping and stirring (which I was fine with, but I don’t think it really stretched Jane) and then ate the end products. Very tasty they were too, so if you’re served beef with lemon grass and chilli, squid stuffed with pork or fresh spring rolls at our flat when we return, at least you’ll know they’re authentic.

Tasted as good as it looked

I followed our cooking course with a pretty terrifying haircut, since the barber didn’t speak any English and my sign language isn’t great. It turned out alright though (so Jane tells me, although I’ve not seen the back myself).

It did, however, provide me with the opportunity to make good on my promise of a competition in the comments of the last blog post, since the barber shop provided all manner of wacky additional services.

The question is though: Which of the following services did they NOT provide? Answers in the comments section below and the prize is a motorbike city tour of Hue (flights and accommodation not included):

  • A full face shave – and when I say full-face I mean ears, forehead, upper cheeks, probably eyelids. If you didn’t get it done every time you had a haircut you’d look like an Alsatian within 6 weeks.
  • Ear cleaning, using equipment out of a sci-fi film (speculum, probes and a miniature drumstick) and a miner’s lamp.
  • A hot and sour soup enema, administered in a back-room with aforementioned probes (I didn’t partake, but thinking about it I hope to God they’ve got a decent washer-upper for those probes).
  • A head massage which consisted of repeated karate chops to the top of the head, only ending when the victim appeared unconscious.

Another interesting question was thrown up in the barbers: many, many men in Vietnam (mainly young) have long fingernails, but the majority have an extra-long, talon-like little finger nail. What’s it for? My best guess is that it’s a tooth-pick. Please help.

Not the warmest of welcomes

In an attempt to do something cultural, we went to My Son on our final day in Hoi An. It’s an ancient religious centre which was occupied from the 4th century to the 13th, and which was bombed extensively during the American/Vietnam (depending on your outlook) war. The Yanks even sent in helicopter gun ships to get a better shot apparently. It was a diverting morning, but as always the people on the bus were possibly more entertaining than the ruins.

One the Americans missed

Australians are everywhere in Vietnam and although I’ve mentioned it before, I should remind you that Aussie women are the loudest creatures on Earth (if any of my female Aussie friends are about to bellow “NO THEY’RE NOT”, look around you and I guarantee at least 50% of people in your vicinity will be wearing ear defenders).

We had one such specimen on our bus, about 10 rows back, who droned on throughout the journey and, as an added extra, was very abrupt with the guide.

I reckon it’s because the country is so big and deserted that they can shout as much as they bloody well want and only the sheep and ‘roos will hear them. At least that was my initial theory, until I realised that Americans (I suppose the same could apply in some States) and Kiwis are equally “strident”.

We later read that this statue is a female figure

A more interesting phenomenon occurred to me when listening to the middle-aged Aussie bloke just behind us – that of the middle-aged male commentary.

Now, there’s a chap quite close to me at home who endearingly insists on reading every caption on the TV (because it’s not annoying at all to be read something that your brain processed half a second earlier), but the middle-aged male commentary goes a little further.

Essentially it’s absent-mindedly describing what you can see, to people who can see exactly the same thing. I’m sure some of you will recognise it, especially if you’re married to an exponent. I’m certain it’s something that lies in my future too.

Today’s monologue went something like this: “Market there……… people buying their food………. two geese………… the Vietnamese will dry rice anywhere………… drying it at an intersection there………… we’re getting on a freeway-type road now……….. another market…………. 35km to My Son………. dog there……… Pho Bo (there are signs for Pho Bo (beef noodles) everywhere)………… got chickens there………… lots of people on that motorbike……….. harvesting rice……… another dog there………small one……… corn there…….. more corn………. drying.”.

I was amazed when he and his wife got off the bus to find that she wasn’t sub-normal and he hadn’t had a lobotomy. Having written that, I suppose she could have been blind, in which case he was providing a valuable service and I should commend him. I swear he pointed out the sky as we approached the ruins.

I’m not suggesting this is an Australian thing, but there were a group of Aussie men flying from Laos to Vietnam on our flight who were doing exactly the same. I want to hear theories on what causes it.

Jane with linga (phallus statue)

After seeing everything we wanted to in Hoi An, we set off on an 11 hour train journey to Nha Trang in the hope of finding some cheap sailing lessons (we failed to find them, yet again, but our search will continue!).

On the bus to the train station a couple of elderly ladies were staring and giggling at my legs. I suppose the chaps here are not particularly hirsute and I have only recently discovered that I am, after my usually transparent hairs went very blonde in the sun, to the extent that my legs now look like those of a Bichon Frise (but longer).

So, fun on the beach today, and probably for a couple of days and, as always, beach-based people watching is some of the best in the world. The character you see below would have made a big enough laughing-stock of himself just with this outfit (it’s 30 degrees, you’re on a beach, are you seriously wearing a scarf?), but then he decided to get changed.

French, would you believe?

Why people do this on the beach I have no idea, but this freaking idiot didn’t even put a towel round himself, and didn’t do a great job of covering his family jewels. Since we’ve got that image in our heads for the next few days, I thought I’d put it in your heads too.

Until the next time…………

Any comments or questions are very welcome. However, bear in mind that we’re travelling around the world for 11 months, with varying standards of internet access, so won’t always be able to respond quickly!


  1. Tom, the phenomenon of reading out loud every sign,notice, poster etc & pointing out the obvious to anyone who is nearby, is one I have had to endure (and generally not without some irritation)) for several years!!
    Not only from someone we are both close to, but others, usually of the male sex, & similar years.
    It drives me nuts!
    Re the barbers, my guess is that they provide all those ‘services’!
    Could the extra-long nail be a nose-pick? xxx

    • I thought you might recognise the middle aged male commentary! The nail could easily be a nose-pick (and a fine one at that), although I wouldn’t say I’ve seen it in action.

      As for the barbers, you’ll have to wait at least until Katharine (who lives for my competitions) has had a guess before I give the answer.

  2. I’m hoping it’s the hot and sour soup enema, but suspect it’s the head massage – the only Vietnamese massage I had didn’t have karate chops…

    And the finger nail – my guess is so they don’t have to use those probes in their DIY versions of the various treatments at the barbers’. Saves on the washing up.


    • But what if the first karate chop had knocked you unconscious? Then you’d never know. 😉

  3. Your Mum beat me to it in suggesting that the long finger-nail is for the careful, studied probing of the nose, but hey! it could equally be for ear-searching, scratching of otherwise difficult-to-reach portions of the anatomy, or any other of the barbers’ offerings – save for the head massage. I suspect, though, that it is just a sign of macho virility for the delectation of the local ladies.
    The non-service, I guess, is ear-cleaning, because all the potential customers have the diy means readily to hand and because I have a vague recollection of having seen all the others on offer in foreign parts.

    • Macho virility you say? I thought the listening to incredibly soulful, usually-the-preserve-of-middle-aged-ladies music would do the trick for them in that department.

  4. The long fingernail is a symbol of wealth, you don’t work with your hands if you have long fingernaiks right? I think it goes back as far as the Mandarin days of China.

    • Thanks drifter – we’d come to that conclusion, but good to have independent confirmation!

  5. I imagine the reason they didn’t want you to lock your moto is because if you did they wouldn’t be able to move it to make room for others or let others out. Common anywhere their is a designated parking area with attendant/security. As far as the ticket scam is concerned, many tour agencies buy up tickets in bulk, which could make the ticket “sold out” That being said I grew to not trust anyone in the tourist industry in that part of the world. But if you walk around Viet Nam thinking everyone is out to rip you off, it will become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Most Vietnamese are honest, hard working, friendly and very generous; you don’t have to veer very far from the tourist trail to find that out. Cheers.

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