To begin with Vietnam didn't make it on the list of our favourite places on this planet. Indeed it actually competes with Djibouti for the bottom rank.
We have travelled in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand and tremendously liked these countries, but for some reason never felt compelled to visit Vietnam. Only this year, motivated by several very positive reports of friends, we wanted to check it out.
Vietnam has a very developed tourist infrastructure: Tour agencies abound and organize everything from bus and train rides to Homestays, theatre tickets, sightseeing, and scooter rental. Our first organized day trip was to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Cao Dai Holy Sea near Saigon and we didn`t like it very much (read here why). As always, we wanted to travel more independently, but found most people quite unfriendly. Bus conductors generally demanded at least twice the normal fare from foreigners and got physically aggressive and abusive when we rejected their demands. Unlike in most other countries, the tension could never be reduced with a joke and a smile, but in Vietnam even the other passengers sided with the conductor.
In four out of five restaurant bills there was an error – curiously never in our favour. “Oh, I am sorry!,” was the usual answer if we pointed out the mistake. We know that these things happen to tourists all over the world, but we never have experienced it in such quantities as in Vietnam.
By comparison, the dreaded standstill of the country over the Tet holiday season was quite endurable. Yes, buses and trains were packed and more expensive, but finding a room or an open restaurant was no problem at all. And we got the chance to experience one of the most important Vietnamese festivals. It is a very private festival and most of the festivities take place within the families, such as visiting each other or going for a picnic with the family, but we went to the big fireworks display and quite enjoyed the lively atmosphere and colaourful decoration in the days before Tet.
Going north, the cold and rainy weather did nothing to lift our spirits. As vegetarians we also ended up with more egg sandwiches and morning glory than we cared to eat, although most of the time we did have quite good food.
We did enjoy our last days in the South of Vietnam when we visited the Mekong delta with its meandering water ways and Hinayana temples. "Go and see the upstairs balcony! We have a festival today," a monk in a Buddhist temple told us, and upstairs another visitor added: "Did you notice how it is different from most Vietnamese temples? This one is a Khmer temple, in the Cambodian style." Conveniently for us, there are far more pious (Hinayana) Buddhists in the delta than elsewhere in Vietnam, and as they observe strict dietary rules, there's a vegan restaurant on every street corner.
Vietnam does offer good value for money rooms, quite cheap restaurants, nice enough beaches and sun in the South. Overall it is very easy to travel, as long as you do not mind travelling on the tourist trail. We found the sightseeing not that interesting and the Vietnamese people quite unfriendly and xenophobic. Admittedly there is a possibility that all these incidents were just bad luck, but we are unlikely to go back to give it another try.