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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Tourists complain of difficulties, negative experiences

VietNamNet Bridge – The number of foreign travelers to bordering nations, Laos and Cambodia, are half those coming to Vietnam. However, international visitors’ complaints reveal that Vietnam has much to learn from its neighbors.

Where has all the hospitality gone?

A traveler nicknamed Eileen 76 on the Lonely Planet tourism forum, wrote: “My friends and I just got back from a five day trip to Hanoi, Vietnam and frankly, it was a trip from hell.

Why? From the moment we stepped on the plane (AirAsia), you get ignorant and stubborn Vietnamese who turned on their mobiles mid-flight! Not one, but several, despite sterm reprimands from the stewardess.

The next day, I had my mobile stolen from my backpack. We were standing on a sidewalk near the lake, trying to figure out which road we were on and where to go when I felt a tug from behind. I turned around and saw a guy standing too close to me. I yelled at him and my first reaction was to quickly check my bag to see whether my digicam and money were missing.

The ‘expletive’ yelled back but I ignored him and walked away when I realized that, thank god, that I still had my money and camera. It was 2 to 3 minutes later that I suddenly remembered my phone, which was kept in another outer compartment and sure enough, it was gone!! And so was the sketchy man!!

To add insult to injury, a shopkeeper was sitting and saw the whole thing, and yet, he did nothing! We were less than one meter away from him. What’s wrong with these people anyway?


Oh, who can forget the horrendous traffic. Normal traffic rules don’t exist here. As far as I know, red means stop, while green means go. But to the Hanoians, both colors meant the same thing – go, go, go. I lost count of the number of times we were nearly mown down by motorbike when a pedestrian light was clearly green and intersecting traffic lights were red.

I know they like to honk at anything and everything that moves, but does that mean it absolves them of all responsibility? I mean, just coz you honked while riding your bike against traffic and nearly crashing into pedestrians, does not necessarily mean you can simply shrug it off with the excuse ‘I used my horn didn’t I’?

I’ve been to Cambodia where the traffic was equally chaotic (in Phnom Penh at least), but at least there was method to the madness. There, you just cross and drivers will automatically avoid you, provided you don’t make any sudden moves or freeze halfway. But try to apply that system in Hanoi, and you’re liable to lose a few limbs, if not your life.”

Regarding service quality, Eileen wrote: “And what’s up with Hanoian’s attitude anyway? They’re rude, crude and uncouth. OK, so they don’t really speak English. Fine. I can accept that. What I can’t stomach is the way they don’t even look you in the eyes when you speak to them.

There was this incident at the Water Puppet Theatre where we wanted 3 tickets for the 8.30pm show. The ticketing girl curtly said "no" but tore three tickets and gave them to us. We asked (politely) what does no mean – is it no, there are no more seats for the 8.30 show or no, you don’t have VND20,000 seats?? (There were two classes of seats - VND20,000 and VND40,000).

She just mumbled No again and eventually figured out the tickets she sold us were VND40,000 for the 9.15pm show. We told her we wanted the cheaper seats and again, got the mumbled no.

During the entire (one-sided) conversation, the girl was scribbling on some papers on her desk! And she didn’t even look up while we were trying to communicate!!! In the end we gave up and just gave her the money. But what happened if a person didn’t want tickets but just some information?

We encountered the same sour-faced and negative attitude among merchants around the Old Quarter market area when we asked them to take some pictures. For example, we went out to sampled biahoi (the austere local beer halls). The restaurant owner’s smile turned sour and her attitude immediately changed for the worst when we asked 2 simple questions: 1. How much (a reasonable enough request); and 2. Can I take a picture?

And let’s not forget the attitude of Hanoians in general. They either poke (if you’re lucky), shove or ram you aside if you happen to walk a little slower or disrupt their route. And what about their inability to queue? What’s worse is they think its their god-given right to cut queue? Is all this really necessary?

And before all you guys take potshots at me, note that I’m an Asian and as polite as possible, with smiles and thank yous (in the local language) to the people I meet whenever I travel. I’ve been to a number of countries, from Asia to Europe and in all my travels, never have I experienced a colder, ruder or more selfish people than in Hanoi. What happened to the reputed Vietnamese hospitality touted by everyone?

Although Vietnam is more developed than its immediate neighbors Cambodia & Laos, it still has a lot to learn from them. They should learn from their regional peers how to be warm and friendly. It’s a smile here or a friendly greeting there that really makes a visitor feel welcome and makes all the difference in the world.”

She concluded: “Thank you very much, Hanoi, for your "wonderful" hospitality. Return to Vietnam??? Not in this lifetime. Give me Cambodia or Laos or even Thailand anyday.”

A tour guide that doesn’t like tourists

An Australian visitor, Harry Ledger, who lived in Vietnam for ten months, shared the same opinion. He wrote about his “hard” trip to Ha Long Bay on BBC. According to Ledger, a tour guide named Nguyen slept and snored the whole way from Hanoi to Ha Long, except for when he led visitors to a souvenir shop, which offered items for double Hanoi prices.

This tour guide sometimes mumbled negatively and Ledger remembers most him saying “I don’t like tourists. But foreign girls are really beautiful and you will see that when you go to Ha Long.”

At noon, Ledger’s group stopped to eat lunch at a restaurant located near a railway station. It was terrible with overdone and cold food like prisoner rations. But “superintendent” Nguyen told Ledger that he hadn’t acquired a taste for Asian food because he was a foreigner.

Ledger wrote that he had lived in Asia for years, at least ten months in Vietnam and that lunch was the worst meal he had eaten here.

“But I and other visitors knew that if we complained, nothing would change. Finally, we arrived at the wharf. I saw hundreds of cranky boats swarming, aimed at the tourists. And a rickety, double-deck, 45-seat boat was ours,” he wrote.

In another article on BBC, Ledger related the desperation of another western visitor, Anna Skodvedt-Sundling, who wished for a quick end to her trans-Vietnam tour.

This Swedish girl, 26, was among the increasing number of independent tourists traveling to Vietnam on a trans-Southeast Asia tour. The girl said she was disappointed. Everything becomes uninspiring and she only wanted to go to Laos quickly because each day she was forced to argue so often with merchants over being cheated out of money. She thinks Thailand is more hospitable and convenient.

Ben Harper, from the UK, said: “When I had my pocket picked in Saigon, police told me to report the theft to tourism police. But tourism policemen couldn’t speak English so I had to return to the local police station. When I got there, they told me it was too late and threw me out. They thought it was funny.”

The above complaints are specifically aimed at tourist managers and Vietnamese locals.


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She Was Supposed to Be Dead

When Kate Webb reported from the battlefields of Cambodia, she kept her chestnut hair cropped G.I.-short and wore jeans and loose shirts to obscure her breasts. This was 1971. Only a handful of women were full-time correspondents in Vietnam, and even fewer women roughed the front lines next door in Cambodia, where military officers believed foreign women were, at best, a distraction. At worst, they were bad luck.

Bad luck was a virus among foreign correspondents in Cambodia. Unlike in Vietnam — where Webb arrived four years earlier at age 23 with a philosophy degree, a one-way ticket from Australia, a Remington typewriter, $200 in cash and a whiskey-and-cigarette voice so soft people leaned in to hear her — there were no reliable phone lines in Cambodia to call your editor in an emergency. There were no American military hospitals to sew up your bullet wounds; no helicopters to evacuate you when things got bloody. By April 1971, several years before the Killing Fields, at least 16 foreign correspondents were missing and 9 were dead.

On April 7, it was Webb’s turn. A 28-year-old bureau chief for United Press International, Webb was covering a clash on Highway 4, south of Phnom Penh. As bullets flew from every direction between North Vietnamese and United States-backed Cambodian troops, Webb and her Cambodian interpreter plunged into a ditch. By the time they eventually belly-crawled their way out, four other refugees from the attack had joined them: a Japanese photojournalist and his Cambodian interpreter along with a Cambodian newspaper cartoonist and a Cambodian photographer.

Throughout that afternoon and night, the six of them crept through the wooded foothills of Cambodia’s Elephant Mountains, holding their breath as they stood within inches of chatting North Vietnamese soldiers. At 11:30 the next morning, tired, thirsty, their clothes and skin shredded by branches, they were crouching in the underbrush when they looked up to see two skinny North Vietnamese soldiers with AK-47’s. The soldiers bound Webb’s arms behind her back with wire, vine and tape and roped all of the captives together in a single line. They confiscated their notebooks, their ID cards, their cameras, their watches. Then they took one thing that Webb held dear: a gold Chinese charm that she wore around her neck. She had clung to that charm in foxholes and always came out alive. Now without it, she felt naked.

After a soldier tossed her and other prisoners’ shoes into the trees, laughing, Webb was forced to walk barefoot on the hot asphalt and through woods littered with bamboo splinters and stones, until another soldier brought Webb a pair of thongs. She winced, knowing they had been stripped from a dead paratrooper.

Following a week of night marches, they arrived at a military camp where Webb slept in a hammock and alternated between stretches of numbing boredom and piercing fear. Why, she wondered, hadn’t they shot her? Did they believe her during the interrogations when she said she wasn’t an American, wasn’t with the C.I.A., wasn’t a soldier? Maybe they would turn her over to the Khmer Rouge, where death — perhaps preceded by starvation — was almost certain. Maybe they planned to march her to the Hanoi Hilton, where United States pilots were being brutally tortured. There are worse things than a single bullet to the head.

As Webb would later write in her memoirs, “On the Other Side: 23 Days With the Viet Cong,” there wasn’t all that much that separated soldier from prisoner. Both subsisted on two meals a day of rice and pork fat in a salted broth and wrestled with hunger, malaria, homesickness. Webb and a soldier she nicknamed Li’l Abner compared their scarred feet (his were worse) and, in French, discussed the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Napoleonic Wars. Three weeks into captivity, Webb had lost 25 pounds — down to 105, on her 5-foot-7-inch frame — and shook with fever from two strains of malaria. She longed to take a bath, to shave her legs, to eat an orange.

She was not, however, dead. On April 21, 1971 — while Webb was sitting in the jungles of Cambodia — this newspaper ran her obituary. Near Highway 4, two Cambodian officers had found a woman they believed was Webb with a bullet in the chest. In accordance with Cambodian military procedures, they cremated the body.

Around that same time, the North Vietnamese were telling Webb about their plans to free her. They figured out a drop-off spot where Cambodian forces might rescue them. And on April 30 — following what Webb would call a “Mad Hatter’s” farewell party with tea, cigarettes, candy and bananas — Webb and the other captives made their final night march, this time with their possessions returned, save for their notebooks and cameras. In the predawn darkness, the soldiers and their former prisoners said fast farewells and Webb and the others walked onto Highway 4 waving a small piece of white cloth. “Miss Webb,” said a Cambodian officer who spotted her on the roadside, “you are supposed to be dead!”

That night Webb stayed at a friend’s empty apartment, where three hot baths washed the filth from her skin and 15 glasses of iced orange juice finally quenched her thirst. A bed with clean sheets awaited her, but Webb chose the balcony; she missed her hammock. She thought about the soldiers she had nicknamed Dad, Gold Tooth and Mr. Lib, who risked their lives to walk her to safety.

Another journalist might have parlayed three weeks of captivity into celebrity status. Webb got back to work instead. For the next three decades, she wrote for wire services from Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Korea, Hong Kong, the Philippines and India, living outside the usual expat neighborhoods, learning the languages, outreporting many of her younger colleagues and using her own modest income to supplement the salaries of in-country wire-service staff.

When she finally retired from front-line reporting at age 58, she returned to Australia, where her family had lived since leaving New Zealand when she was a child. There, she tended her garden and sketched nature scenes. And on some nights, with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, and a rapt audience of friends and family, she told stories about a few of the places she had seen.

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