Editor’s note: Steve Barsby shares his insights about Vietnam from the experience he has gained from some trips to the country over the last 24 years, and particularly from his recent cross-country bicycle trip.
The former North Carolina Department of Revenue economist says he has noticed during these visits some unpleasant things about Vietnam, which he said after all is still a beautiful country where he surely will be back.
Read his interesting story below, and do not hesitate to send us yours.
I've just returned from a bicycle trip that took my friends and me from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. This was not my first trip to Vietnam, given a month-long visit in 1991, and a similar length trip in 2010.
Some changes I've observed in Vietnam during this period are striking.
First and foremost are the near demise of the bicycle in all but the most remote of villages and the emergence of a free-for-all behavior by motorcycle drivers.
Their often high speed maneuvers left me feeling very vulnerable. I know that motorcycles represent economic development and make possible moving loads previously virtually impossible when only a bicycle was available, but for the visitor it is mayhem on the streets and roads.
Previously, bicycles which filled the roads all moved at about the same pace; that has changed, with high-speed motorcycles weaving through traffic.
All of this was accompanied by sometimes obvious and heavy air pollution caused in part - I'm sure - by the high volume of high-emission motorcycles. All in our group experienced bad symptoms from the pollution.
Second is the malaise of trash and garbage strewn on both sides of the road.
What tourist wants to pass by miles and miles of trash heap and casually discarded garbage? Something has happened to the psyche of so many locals that makes this acceptable behavior. I suspect, though, that it can only be addressed by a decade-long campaign by the national and local governments to address what I see as a national disgrace.
Will that happen? I wouldn't bet my pension on it.
A badly damaged part of National Highway 20 is seen in Lam Dong Province. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Thirdly, it is the seemingly non-ending reconstruction of the National Highway.
Traveling on a busy road with aggressive truck and bus drivers (not to mention the motorcyclists riding down the highway on the wrong side) was bad enough.
Most cyclists could handle traffic situations. But the construction zones, like many city streets, were zones of pure danger. Forget the gravel, dust, rough roads, and inadequately-managed barriers to guide traffic.
Two trucks coming at us using both lanes and another honking for us to exit the road from the rear, while a motorcycle came at us on our far right, were just too much to ask of the foreign traveler.
And yes; buses were the worst, most dangerous, and most aggressive of the traffic.
I'm told that the highways are so badly constructed that they begin to fall apart upon completion and the re-building must begin almost immediately.
We, of course, stayed off the National Highway as much as possible, usually travelling on more rural roads to the East. While the scenery was generally beautiful, it almost always was in the backdrop of trash-strewn roadsides.
Thank heavens we had the foresight to hire a cycling guide who rode with us and helped us navigate the back road system, as well as a support van carrying extra water, snacks and fruit. Unfortunately, signage often was so bad, and the roads so variable in "ride-ability", that even our guide had trouble keeping us heading in the right direction.
For this trip, we averaged about 120 km per day, so riding down these roads was extremely difficult and tiring.
We already were prepped regarding our expectations on obtaining visas, restaurant and hotel pricing, aggressive behavior by vendors, and the need for so many locals to "scam" us. Our low expectations were met. Dangers of traffic were beyond all expectations.
Terraced paddy fields in Mu Cang Chai in Yen Bai Province, located in northern Vietnam. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Having said all this, Vietnam is a beautiful country with unparalleled opportunities for scenic vistas without end.
Most of the locals we came in contact with were friendly and welcoming. And despite changes, travel in Vietnam is still relatively inexpensive compared to many other countries. The food also offered a zillion new taste opportunities with seemingly infinite varieties of fruit.
My experiences during this trip were much worse than I had hoped for – I got food poisoning early in the trip and eventually developed an aggressive pneumonia as we neared Da Lat [in the Central Highlands].
While I received good medical care at the Columbia Asia clinic in Ho Chi Minh City, I ultimately had to cut my trip short to continue my care in the U.S.
Will I be back? I hope so. Will I bicycle in Vietnam again? I hope so. Will I expect less from my next trip? Probably.
But I will be back.
* Tell us your stories via firstname.lastname@example.org.