Thursday, October 18, 2012

Why I Keep Returning to Vietnam (Despite Tourism Statistics)

Consider these facts for a minute. Vietnam received 6 million tourists in 2011. Not bad for a country its size. In Southeast Asia, it comes right after the vast archipelago of Indonesia in terms of number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Vietnam has seven, Indonesia eight. Yet, despite these numbers, Vietnam still sees itself monumentally beat in terms of return rate. Only 5 percent of its tourists return. Dismal, especially when compared to Thailand's 50 percent. That's fifty! What that means, at least according to The Economist where the figures came from, is that barring the fact that Vietnam's tourism industry is very young (only opening for business in 1986), visitors' experiences traveling through the country is just not that exceptional, or downright bad or scammy even, for them to consider returning.

Halong Bay, Vietnam
It's not you, Vietnam. It's, well, it's you. This is all on you.

Which begs the question: What the eff am I doing back here? After having traveled through the country for three weeks south to north, why did I choose to be part of that anomalous 5 percent in Vietnam's tourist arrivals? I have been to Vietnam's economic capital Saigon not once, not twice, but thrice! Four, if you count my transiting there from Angkor in Cambodia. Fall weather is beginning to take over the north as I write this from a hotel room in Hanoi, Vietnam's administrative capital, which I first visited in the middle of winter early this year. So why am I back here? Here's why.

It's the legends.

Hanoi, Vietnam
Bet you a thousand dong J. K. Rowling got the idea for the Sword of Gryffindor in Hanoi.

The old quarter of Hanoi, Hoan Kiem, gets its name from its primary landmark, Hoan Kiem Lake. This small lake right in the heart of this thousand-year old city is said to be the home of the Golden Turtle God and his master, the Dragon King. In order to defend Vietnam against the Chinese invaders from the north, the Dragon King bestowed upon Vietnam's great emperor, King Le Loi, a magical sword that gave him superhuman powers. Through the sword, King Le Loi drove away the Chinese. Sometime later, as the king was cruising around a lake, the Golden Turtle surfaced and took back his master's sword. From then on, the lake came to be known as Ho Hoan Kiem, the Lake of the Returned Sword. Great story, right? Read up on the legend for Halong Bay. It's as magical as this one.

It's the imperial structures.

Hue, Vietnam
Hue is imperial, is it not?

The imperial capital of Hue (pronounced hway) is best known for the vestiges of the Nguyen dynasty that had ruled the country from this city in Central Vietnam. These vestiges can be found in the number of fortifications, citadels and burial grounds scattered within and around the city. The structures are impressive as impressive goes in this part of the world. Another area in Vietnam known for its imperial structures, much older than Hue's in fact, is Hoa Lu in Ninh Binh, located a couple of hours south of Hanoi. While some parts of these imperial structures are a bit cracked, dilapidated and needing restoration work, grandeur is definitely not diminished.

It's the old towns.

Hoi An, Vietnam
Achingly beautiful is how I describe Hoi An.

In contrast to Vietnam's imperial structures, the country is also quite the setting for a number of old towns. It's a very Asian tradition and I notice these old towns cropping up in places where the Chinese, specifically those from Hainan and Fujian, sailed to and settled in. The Straits Settlements of Malaysia in Malacca and Penang are particularly known for their Chinese communities and their respective old towns. Vietnam has its own old towns, of course. Perhaps the most well-known of them is the achingly beautiful Old Town of Hoi An. It has that winning combination of quaint, colorful little stone houses, narrow streets and waterways.

It's the French.

Saigon Central Post Office
Saigon Central Post Office looks like confectionery. Gustav Eiffel's work, ladies and gentlemen.

The French had established themselves not only in Vietnam but in entire Indochina in the late 1800s and did not leave until World War II broke out. Alright, so not all of it is pretty and dandy, as most stories of colonial occupation tend to be. But I think we can all agree that they did leave an architectural legacy and culinary traditions worth treasuring and experiencing time and time again. Lucky for us, the Saigon Central Post Office, designed by none other than Gustav Eiffel, remains as a French architectural gem with culinary, specifically confectionery undertones. Am I right?

It's the weather (again).

Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi's winter. Damp and chilly, but it grew on me eventually.

Of all the cities in blaringly hot Southeast Asia, only Hanoi is the capital city that has all four seasons. I like that seeing as that's a big oddity around these parts. Winter is milder than most other cities in temperate countries, sure, but I'll take it. Just like Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, I liked Hanoi because of its temperate temperament, something of a novelty to me who grew up in a very tropical city. In Hanoi, for a few months at least, you don't need to sweat your ass off every single time you head out of the house. Now that I appreciate.

It's the energy.

Saigon Chaos
Rush hour Saigon. Crazy as crazy gets.

Again, having grown up in the large, chaotic city that is Manila in the Philippines, I have grown out of love with that kind of environment. When I started traveling, I always, always fell for cities where my craving for quiet, calm and laidback was satisfied. Somehow, Vietnam's chaotic capital cities of Saigon and Hanoi never did bother me. I liked them, not despite of, but rather because of their chaos. It's energizing, really. It gets you going in the morning. Like I said, if you are going for chaotic, best go full throttle. And Saigon and Hanoi always go full throttle.

It's the food.

Bale Well, Hoi An, Vietnam
Eat well in Bale Well. Meats and vegetables in rice paper dipped in peanut sauce.

While it is as rich, if not even more, than that of its neighbors, Vietnamese cuisine, I found, is harder to get into. Whereas Thailand's most beloved dishes is readily displayed on the streets ready to be devoured by anyone, local or farang, Vietnamese foods takes a little more preparation on the part of the cooks as well as the diners. You sort of have to know what to order and how to eat them. Take the meal at Bale Well in Hoi An, for example. A lot of ingredients go into one bite. Fortunately, the staff there is friendly enough to show you all the intricacies. All the effort is a worth it though. A little adventure and with the help of friends, I was able to figure out my top seven Vietnamse food favorites. So go ahead. Plop on over one of them tiny stools at the side of Vietnam's streets and have yourself Hanoi's Bun Cha or Saigon's Pho Bo.

It's the coffee.

Vietnamese Coffee Vietnamese Coffee
Strong, elaborate, and unapologetic. I like it!

The last but certainly not the least is the coffee. Of all the countries in Southeast Asia, Vietnam is the only country that has a very distinct way of preparing and having their coffee, the only country with a very distinct coffee tradition. They even have that very Vietnamese, improvised drip coffee maker of theirs. And they like their coffee strong, thick, and bitter with a lot of condensed milk as creaming and sweetening agent. They like it cold, too. All fine by me really. All fine by me.

So have you been to Vietnam? Would you return like me? What made you go in the first place?

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