Vietnam Before Tourism Arrived and Bucket List Travel

It's hard to believe that I am getting a second chance to travel with a mad gentleman who excites me with his unpredictable jaunts.  It's even harder to believe that we travelled together over 20years ago.  Young and mad we were on different trajectories that are finally aligning again.

In early 1997 I went on my first excursion to Asia.  R was working in Hong Kong on the now ageing NEW airport on Lantau Island and I decided that a final adventure before marriage (to someone else) was in order.  The conversation went along the lines of "I'm taking a bit of time off over Easter, do you fancy going somewhere other than Hong Kong while you are over here?", my response was a reserved "Yes!, Where do you have in mind?".  When the reply of "Vietnam" was uttered it was like all my dreams had come true.

I was already addicted to the history of Vietnam, reading as many books as I could on this fascinating and traumatised country, trying to assimilate timelines of events that happened while I was just a twinkle in my parents eyes.  Attempting to wrap my head around the conflict and turmoil that was still talked about, this little adventure would cement thoughts into reality.


Tourism in Vietnam

Vietnam has been a draw for Western tourists throughout the 20th Century with French families and military officials escaping their mundane lives to explore the exotic outpost that the French colony provided.  During the 130 years of French colonialism the hidden retreats of Dalat and Vũng Tàu were enjoyed, a welcome respite from the frenetic life in southern Vietnam.   In the 1960's and 1970's (the American War period), service men on rest and revitalisation flocked to Nha Trang.  However in 1986 Đổi Mới (political and economic reform) was introduced and with this came the start of real tourism for Vietnam.


Arriving in Saigon

As we arrived in Saigon it was like stepping back in time. It took time for bags to arrive as the power cuts were lasting a while and money changing was an essential time filler as currency was not available outside of the country.  On leaving the airport I can safely say I had never seen so many bikes and scooters in one place.  All facets of life were lived out on the back of a bike.  Babies, bookcases, grannies, chickens, even the pet dog was involved in this precarious game of jenga.  Cars were few and far between and our taxi from the airport felt luxurious amongst the sea of bikes.  The bikes and logistics of crossing the road was a skill I never really mastered and remember my fear to this day.  It seemed to be a head down and walk method that worked the best, allowing the rest of the world to go around the mad English girl.

 Streets in Saigon, Vietnam in 1997.  Very few cars


Hotels in Saigon

International hotel chains arrived in Saigon in the early 2000's and our hotel was one of a few small establishments at the time overlooking the main road just back from the waterfront.  Compared to the shabby exterior it had everything you could want, although I avoided the shower for most of our trip.  The street below was noisy and with the intermittent power and lack of air conditioning, the 4am call of the city waking through the open window became the norm.  Taking the Mekong River boat trip it was clear to see the development that was taking place and the skyline of Saigon is totally different today.  The low lying old buildings have been replaced with a modern skyline that is still evolving and changing.  Many of these new buildings are international hotels and stores and still the development continues.

 1997 development in Saigon, Vietnam


Tours in Saigon

As tourism was still in its infancy there were no organised tours.  We found a driver who would take us to the Cao Dai Holy See at Long Hoa and then on to the Cu Chi Tunnels.  These were a tight fit, most tunnels had not been widened to fit the larger Western build at this point and it was an experience squeezing through these boiling rabbit warrens.  There was a tiny visitors centre at Ben Duoc with an old propaganda film and then a short walk to the tunnels, but nothing more.  Today the tunnels are far more formal and provide a balanced history. They appear on the tick list of many tourists as essential visits on a whistle stop tour of the country.

 Cao Dai Holy See in Tay Ninh Province, Vietnam 1997

We also explored the museums, markets and temples around Saigon but again with no organised tours we had to find our own guide or head out alone with our hotel address written out.  This came in useful a number of times as there were no English signs and getting lost was the order of the day.

The museums were basic and signs were in Vietnamese with simple English translations making our understanding limited but interesting.  We learnt some basics of Vietnamese and dragged our school French out of somewhere as this was the common language when we got really stuck.

We found some amazing markets tucked down back alleyways, side streets selling the most bizarre combinations of goods, but despite extensive searching we never did find the American Memorabilia Market.  Again, we found so much more than we had anticipated that this miss was far outweighed by the experiences and small finds we did make.

Everyone we met was friendly and helped us as much as they could.  In 1997, the Vietnamese government introduced a campaign in which people in the tourism business were encouraged to smile more when they were around foreign tourists. This may explain the reception we received and the enthusiasm to help us.  At this time it was a huge step forward from the serious Communist-style welcome that awaited some tourists.

 Market seller in Vietnam in 1997


Reflections on the Developments of Tourism in Vietnam

(and a little rant about tick list travel)

This trip was memorable for a number of reasons.  I will never forget R sitting on the bed like a drug baron, with 77,00VND, the equivalent of 7UD$ at the time, that feeling of warmth as I stepped out of the plane into my true first adventure in Asia or the sights and smells that I was experiencing as we explored and wandered the back streets and markets.

We didn't have a long tick list of must-see locations, nowhere was really known about before we arrived.  It was a go and see what we found type of plan.  We had an extremely basic map from the hotel combined with a well loved Lonely Planet book and from there we meandered.  Do I feel that we missed out - absolutely not.  I think that we should all travel blind more often.  So many locations are regimented and the fear of 'missing out' on the essential locations or experiences means that some cities and countries are now nothing more that another large tick on a massive competitive bucket list.  I love that feeling of seeing things that tourist buses miss, the obscure little museum that is a little quirky or a simple restaurant with exceptional food that will remain in my memory as a trigger for good times in a small place.

I see myself as being lucky to have visited this amazing country briefly in its infancy as a tourist destination.  We were two of just 690,000 tourists who visited in 1997, a huge difference to the 4,205,401 who visited in the first quarter of 2018 or the 20million predicted to visit in 2020.  Whilst this country is developing rapidly there are still infrastructure and government issues that need addressing to support the development of the tourism industry further.  However the rapidly expanding  private tourism sector cannot address these alone.

I would love to go back and see more of the country and its people and to see how things have changed over the last quarter of a century.

One day.....