Why your guidebook is ruining your holiday
This opinion piece was commissioned and published by Crikey.
Vietnam is an extremely popular holiday destination for Australian tourists. It’s cheap, it’s close and it has us living in it.
At least, I assume that’s why we’ve had around 40 visitors from Australia over the past two years or so.
This has afforded us a pretty close-up view of what tourists think of Hanoi, and, well, it ain’t pretty.
Their visit usually starts well, on the cab ride from the airport, when they get to see farmers in conical hats in rice paddies with water buffalo. This is literally the picture of Vietnam they’ve gleaned from the cover of their guidebooks.
But once they hit the city, it all goes downhill from there. Which is odd, because Hanoi is a very flat place.
From a comprehensive study of our friends, we’ve been able to identify the problem: those very same guidebooks with the rice paddies on the cover.
I know travel writers need to “sell” the cities they’re writing about, but in the case of Hanoi, they’ve crossed over into misleading advertising.
I have a number of guidebooks to Hanoi sitting next to me as I write, and I can tell you that these words feature repeatedly in the pages of almost all of them: “romantic”, “charming”, “welcoming”, “graceful”, “mystical”, “enchanting” and “old world”.
And yet, if I look out my window, this is what I can see: a 4WD blocking the road causing a backed-up buzzing swarm of motorbikes, a tangled mess of electrical wires sagging from my neighbours’ gutters, and my perennial neighbourhood rubbish pile.
What I can hear is the constant honk of horns, the noise of construction coming from two separate house renovations on our street, and thumping techno coming from the bia hoi across the lake. And it’s not an “enchanting” kind of thumping techno.
And I live in a really, really nice neighbourhood, renowned for its tranquillity.
This leads visitors to inevitably comment to us that Hanoi is “different to what they expected”. They try to say this with a neutral tone — not better, not worse, just different — because they don’t want to offend us, devoted residents of this city that we are, but we know what they’re saying. They’re saying “Why didn’t we go to Cambodia instead?”
Unless, like Hanoi’s teens, you find pashing in a rusted pedal-swan to be “romantic”, Hanoi can hardly claim that tag. It’s a city crowded with people and all their accompanying smells and sounds. Mmmm, romance.
Graceful? The universal first impression of Hanoi is that it’s teeming with honking, polluting, law-defying motorbikes. They block the footpaths and the intersections and leave tourists scurrying across roads and cowering in gutters.
And I don’t really know what “old world” means but did they have rip-off taxi drivers, and scammers who’ll demand to have their photo taken then extort you for payment in the “old world”?
Hanoi is a really full-on place. You can practically make a sport of sitting in an Old Quarter coffee shop and watching harried tourists pass by in various stages of frazzlement. It’s no surprise that Vietnam’s rate of return visitors is reported to be a staggeringly low five percent, and that travel bloggers write posts titled “Why I’ll Never Return To Vietnam“.
The infuriating thing is that tourists should absolutely come to Hanoi, repeatedly, and love it. But that won’t happen if they’re expecting ye olde mystical Orient.
They should come to Hanoi because it’s got to be one of the most invigorating cities in the world. It’s hyper-stimulating and awe-inspiring: you will have never seen so much colour, been entangled in so much movement, or heard so much noise as in Hanoi.
Come to have your mind boggled by how such apparent chaos can actually work; come to see how a city has taken every grasping opportunity to lift itself from conflict and poverty, and when you inevitably become one such opportunity, simply marvel at the tenacity that’s got the Vietnamese where they are. Isn’t that an admirable quality? Or would you rather walk around saying “These people are so poor, but they’re happy”? In that case, maybe Bhutan is the place for you.
Tourists shouldn’t complain that Hanoi’s too full-on, it should actually be their number one reason for coming. Then they can appreciate the city for what it is, not what they want it to be.
So if you’re considering a trip to Vietnam, go get your guidebook, cross out “enchanting”, and write “discombobulating”; replace “charming” with “heart-starting”; and change “old world” to “out of this world”. And get ready to have the time of your life.