Note to self: next time we’re travel planning, in addition to checking TripAdvisor forums and the Canadian government travel advice and advisory website, look up the Air Quality Index (AQI).
It was shocking to land in Hanoi and discover the smog level is so continuously thick that we would rarely see the buildings downtown, just across the river. On the Sunday we were there, the AQI peaked at 365, categorized as “hazardous to everyone” with a caution to avoid physical exertion outdoors. To put that in perspective, the AQI was 26 on that day in Vancouver. It turns out Hanoi is one of the most heavily air-polluted cities in the world, with only a handful of “good” recorded days in 2017. Cough cough!
We have mixed feelings about our experience in Vietnam and Laos. Both are Communist countries with no freedom of expression and many other oppressive laws and practices. A few days after we left Ho Chi Minh City (which locals we talked to still call Saigon), more than 100 people were arrested for protesting government plans to offer foreign investors 99-year leases in special economic zones. However, both economies are already heavily shaped by massive direct investment from Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, although the protesters were particularly concerned about growing Chinese involvement in their economy. The state-run media in Vietnam report that private enterprises now employ more people than the state, and both Vietnam and Laos are in the processing of privatizing public institutions and services.
The Vietnam War looms large over both countries. You can’t visit any museums or historic sites in Vietnam without facing intense propaganda about US aggression and destruction, American soldiers described as “devils who kill women and children”, and graphic descriptions of the ongoing impact of Agent Orange. In Laos, unexploded bombs, including small cluster bombs that look like toys, continue to main and kill civilians. We visited the Mines Advisory Group information centre in Vientiane to learn more about work to clear mines and bombs from fields and communities.
The taxi drivers of Vietnam are the worst we’ve met in the world in terms of rudeness, deceptive practices, even refusing to take us across the Red River in Hanoi. We were staying just across the river from the old quarter; for some reason taxi drivers were reluctant to cross the river and pedestrians are not allowed on the two nearby bridges. We found Vietnam to be the least safe place to walk anyway, drivers pay no attention to pedestrians or traffic signals, and motorcyclists use the sidewalks to pass or go against traffic. No one slows down or stops, they just blare their horns and roar by.
There is trash everywhere. Storekeepers and street venders simply dump their trash in the street, empty lots are used as garbage dumps, streams and rivers are basically open sewers. We saw more rats running around and more men urinating in the streets in Vietnam than anywhere else we’ve ever visited.
Okay, so that’s a lot of bad news for countries that claim to offer visitors “Endless Charm” (Vietnam), or a “Simply Beautiful” experience (Laos). It wasn’t all bad! The beaches in Vietnam are wide and sandy, the ancient history is fascinating, and there is an emerging craft beer industry that attracted our keen attention, especially in Saigon. The Heart of Darkness tap room was just 300m from our hotel in Saigon — superb craft beer so dangerously close we dropped by three times over four nights — the Aussie manager confirmed that made us regulars!