I had this preconceived notion, having just spent a week in Bangkok, of what awaited as I made my final descent into Vietnam, Thailand’s more regimented and orderly neighbour.
My presumptions, I thought as we queued for hours to get our pre-approved visas checked and re-checked, were right on the money.
Initially it felt like my every move was being monitored by numerous guards, whose stoic, uncompromising demeanours matched their stiff, over-starched uniforms.
After escaping the restrictive confines of Tan Son Nhat Airport and subsequently haggled with numerous taxi drivers, most of whom resembled ravenous lions in search of their next unwitting prey, Vietnam served up an enriching cultural and unrivalled spiritual journey, dispelling all preconceptions.
From Ho Chi Minh – formerly Saigon – to Hanoi, Vietnam is home to cities abuzz with life, metropolitans that never sleep and, at times, are unnervingly chaotic. But that’s precisely what makes them so enigmatically charming. Locals, even with a lack of material goods westerners hold to such high acclaim, are genuinely happy and welcoming.
And unlike Thailand, its loud, obnoxious neighbour whose incessant house parties cater to every tourist whim, Vietnam extracts you from your comfort zone, challenging you to adapt and break completely free of routine. While at times frustrating – especially when attempting to communicate with locals who don’t know a word of English or very nearly being run over by countless scooters moving at breakneck speeds – you’ll be hard pressed to rival the enhanced sense of reward and accomplishment you feel at the end of every day.
And if you’re not a fan of the hustle and bustle, have no fear because Vietnam has some of the most majestic and picturesque rural and island retreats across the globe. Whether it’s Con Dao, a pristine, tranquil island 45 miles off the coast of Ho Chi Minh barely touched by the tourist foot, or the central highlands – the capital of which is Buon Ma Thuot – you’ll be able see a side of life intrinsically connected with nature’s raw beauty, enabling precious time to reflect, decompress and unwind.
I’d be remiss not to mention Vietnamese cuisine. I’d suggest, if you’re an adventurous sort, to try anything locals eat as if you venture off the beaten track – which I highly recommend – menus will be as foreign a concept as you are.
Pho – pronounced fuh – is far and away the most popular dish. Eaten at all conceivable times, this filling, aromatic and nutritious soup-like concoction consists of herbs, chilli paste and fish sauce. It brims with lean meats and fresh ingredients, the infused spice perfect for sweating out a hangover and, like pretty much everything else on offer, costs less than a smile on a rainy day.
So if you fancy an incessant house party similar to the one’s Zac Efron hosts in the film Bad Neighbours, dance to Thailand and join the throngs of other party-goers, but if your keen on an unworldly and culturally superior sojourn venture to Vietnam.
They’re, however, neighbours – and not of the bad variety – so if both destinations tickle your fancy then jump to and fro and experience the best of both worlds.
Now excuse me while I devour a spicy bowl of pho.