The Travel Episodes

One / Saigon

Lost in Vietnam

It’s diffi­cult for back­pa­ckers to escape the package-deal tourism indus­try. Phil­ipp Laage takes a trip to Viet­nam – and comes face to face with his own short­co­m­ings.

We arrive in Saigon in the late after­noon. Steam rises from the eating houses; we’re submer­ged in the sound of voices and engi­nes as the taxi crawls its way through the traf­fic. The houses on Bui Vien Street aren’t much to look at. Small and narrow, they’re pres­sed close toge­ther. Concrete on brick, a smat­te­ring of plas­ter, hints of green on the balcony. There are shops on the ground floor, and restau­rants and bars offe­ring middle-of-the-road fusion cuisine – ‘Viet­na­mese & Euro­pean Food & BBQ’, ‘North & South Indian Food Halal & Vege­ta­rian’ – mainly for the Western and Austra­lian back­pa­ckers, who saun­ter around in their tank tops and flip flops, letting their shoul­ders swing loosely, as if they were by the sea rather than in the city. Asia – one enor­mous beach.
My travel­ling compa­n­ion and I are stay­ing in a simple hostel around the corner on Pham Ngu Lao Street, like most of the young tourists who turn up in the city. Nobody calls it Ho Chi Minh City, always Saigon. You can feel the name on your tongue like a taste of old Asia, like the gentle memory of an era you’ve never expe­ri­en­ced. The absurd fantasy of a senti­men­tal spirit. Even so, I just want to sit here and watch the tang­led traf­fic as it flows past, eating pho, drin­king beer and doing nothing. But of course it’s not that simple.

It’s the rainy season, and an evening thun­der­storm breaks above the narrow stre­ets; everything’s drip­ping. An opaque network of elec­tri­city cables criss-crosses the stre­ets and pave­ments.

Scoo­ters glide like shoals of fish over the wet asphalt, follo­wing not traf­fic laws but their own inter­nal guides. 

All at once, the view of the neon faca­des with their cheap adverts, pixela­ted by the rain, makes me feel incredi­bly melan­choly. It’s our first evening in Viet­nam, and it doesn’t stop raining.
It’s always the same when you travel – first you have to orien­tate yours­elf, to make the city your own, so you don’t capi­tu­late to its size and bustle the moment you’ve finis­hed break­fast. Our plan was to travel on foot as much as possi­ble, which is always sensi­ble, and only take taxis for long distan­ces (or when the tropi­cal climate made our temp­les throb, which gene­rally happens sooner or later, espe­ci­ally if you’ve not had enough to drink).

We walk from the bus station to Ben Thanh market, the largest in the city. An indigo lizard darts through the grass in front of it. School­child­ren come towards us across the field, and the girls imme­dia­tely want to take photos. 

‘You are hand­some, but snow white,’ one of them says to my friend.

The teacher invi­tes us to visit the school, to talk about Germany. No problem, although – well, actually, no. We don’t have time. That’s nonsense, of course, when you really think about it, but you say it anyway.

We head onwards through the traf­fic along Le Loi Street, then across the road. You just have to go – no-one’s going to stop for you, you learn that quickly, so you move through the people, cars and count­less mopeds like a diver through a shoal of fish. Somehow, mira­cu­lously, you never actually touch anybody.

Time to jot down a few impres­si­ons. The resi­den­tial archi­tec­ture, plain and func­tio­nal, is an extra­or­di­nary jumble: colum­ned, three-storey kitsch in pastel green next to depres­sing shacks with metal gates next to clumsy moder­nist apart­ment blocks with concrete roof patios, hammocks suspen­ded above them.

Our T-shirts are quickly soaked and there are beads of sweat on our foreheads, so we look for water (you always drink too little). Viet­nam is appro­xi­mately the same size as Germany, and cros­ses nume­rous climate zones as it stret­ches from north to south. Here in Saigon, in the south of the coun­try, it’s always hot and humid, with the sticki­ness typi­cal of the subtro­pics. In the north, near the Chinese border, snow falls in the winter. It’s hard to imagine.

We just walk and look, because you never know what might be inte­res­ting – that’s a charm people are slowly forget­ting, I think, as a cultu­ral skill. But if you say that you quickly get a repu­ta­tion as a pessi­mist about progress, and bore ever­y­body to tears.

‘Trung Nguyen Coffee’ is the Viet­na­mese inter­pre­ta­tion of a Star­bucks. Their ‘Mother Land Coffee’ is enhan­ced with ginger, honey and milk. On the pres­ti­gious Dong Khoi Boule­vard, which leads down from the colo­nial Notre Dame cathe­dral to the river, are a number of old and new luxury hotels, as well as luxury bouti­ques – Hermès, Versace etc. Every takea­way place offers oolong tea over ice, so you can cope with going back into the sticky heat of the day.

We visit the Reuni­fi­ca­tion Palace. There’s a commu­nist tank in the square outside, and the natio­nal flag flut­te­ring above the grass. On 30 April 1975, North Viet­na­mese troops forced their way into the palace and the Ameri­cans had to leave the coun­try once and for all. It was at this moment that the ‘domino theory’ set out in US presi­dent Harry S. Truman’s famous doctrine – the prac­tical reali­ties of which were then unques­tio­n­in­gly imple­men­ted by Henry Kissin­ger, unne­cessa­rily drag­ging out Ameri­can society’s psycho­sis about Viet­nam – finally collap­sed. Viet­nam, ruled for deca­des by foreign powers, became a socia­list coun­try.


The true goal of the war was peace, accord­ing to Richard Nixon; Viet­nam still bears its traces. There’s a war museum, for instance, on the corner of Le Quy Don Street and Vo Van Tan Street, where you can see pictures of child­ren severely defor­med due to the effects of Agent Orange, and in the tunnels of Cu Chin the guer­rilla tactics of the Viet­cong are re-enacted like a kind of propa­gan­distic folk­lore (a day trip cost us 190,000 dong – it was worth it).


Today, Saigon seems like a strange mixture of Viet­nam, France and the USA, from the dishes on offer in its eate­ries – unbe­liev­a­bly tasty and good value – to the old Renaults and the main post office desi­gned by Gustav Eiffel to the brightly lit, not-such-good-value cafes for the urban middle class. The Ameri­cans poured money into the city in order to wage their war. Saigon, of course – along with milli­ons of indi­vi­dual people, each of them follo­wing their own logic – is laun­ching itself into the future at breakneck speed. 

Unlike in the West, where this certainty is increa­singly being eroded, Saigon still belie­ves that the future will bring grea­ter prospe­rity for all.

You can see it in the wide-eyed child­ren on mopeds, clinging to the backs of their parents, sisters and aunts and weaving swiftly through the alley­ways, as if there’s not much time for child­hood anymore.

Ever­y­where there’s a sense of energy, effi­ci­ency and opti­mism – people are friendly and goal-orientated. ‘May I help you, mister?’ ‘No problem, mister.’ In principle, the hostels can get you anything: bus tickets, day trips, foreign curr­ency, tickets for domestic flights. It’s very conve­ni­ent when, like us, you don’t have much time. Saigon charts the course for the rest of the coun­try, raising an obvious ques­tion: is that a good or a bad thing?

In the late after­noon we find oursel­ves back in our neigh­bour­hood, before it begins to rain. I’m amazed how little it disturbs me – in fact, how calming it is. The seventeen-year-old waitress in Bui Vien, where we go again this evening because the food is so deli­cious, is deci­dedly plea­sant, without putting on a hypo­cri­ti­cal show of obse­quious­ness. She has two jobs, she says, working in a cafe in the morning and in the restau­rant from the after­noon well into the night. She never looks tired, is always cheer­ful, and is amused by how much we eat.

There’s no doubt Saigon has a certain magic in the evening, when it gets dark and the lights go on. The elec­tro­nic bill­boards adver­ti­sing inter­na­tio­nal brands (Canon, Nikon, Sanyo) blaze above the city and its occup­ants, both a promise and an admo­ni­tion. They shine upon the elderly people swee­ping the paths in front of their shops with straw broom­sticks, upon the taxi drivers with their ill-fitting shirts and docto­red meters, which increase in hilariously irre­gu­lar incre­ments, and upon the prosti­tu­tes outside their bars in the Pham Ngu Lao quar­ter, who call after all the passers-by, ‘Where are you going?’, without reali­sing what an exis­ten­tial ques­tion that is. 

Where are you going?

Good ques­tion. What is there to be disco­ve­red here – not on the tourist track, but for us perso­nally?


* * *

Two / Nha Trang


We read that the coas­tal city of Nha Trang was once known as the ‚Nice of the East‘. Doesn’t sound too bad. We like the idea of rambling along the coas­tal stre­ets and hearing the sea breeze, so east­wards we go.

The night bus takes seven hours. The roads aren’t very good. Outside the window the sun is rising; there’s no chance of getting any more sleep, the mornings are much too bright. It’s bedlam on the street, with taxis drivers – in cars and on motor­bikes – announ­cing their prices. We know which street the hostel is on, and soon we’re on our way.

Nha Trang is on the South China sea, and appar­ently has the charm of a strai­ght­for­ward beach resort. After three days in Saigon with its popu­la­tion of seven million or so, we like the idea of just going to the seaside and rela­xing.

A kilometre-long sandy beach runs along the edge of the bay, with big hotels directly on the water for the mostly Russian guests, who use Nha Trang as a dirt cheap winter geta­way. The compa­ri­son to Nice is an exag­ge­ra­tion. Nothing has grown here, it’s simply been thrown up.

Our hotel is bland and charac­ter­less. ‘New Day Hotel’, ‘Blue Sky Hotel’, ‘King Hotel’ – you forget the names imme­dia­tely. We have a simple room, two beds and a bathroom with a shower, but it’s reason­ably clean and the price is an absurd 15 dollars per night. There’s Wi-Fi, of course, like ever­y­where in Viet­nam desi­gned for tourists.

After we’ve had some rest, we walk along the prome­nade in the midday heat, but it’s so warm that we decide to post­pone our swim until the morning. We just wander around for a while, as if it will lead to some­thing happe­ning quite natu­rally, as in fact it often does. Judging by the heavy clouds above the moun­ta­ins in the hinter­land, it’s going to rain.

We visit a temple sacred to the Cham people, an anci­ent culture who were largely driven out of Viet­nam, and the Long Son Pagoda with its fourteen-metre-high white Buddha, who gazes enig­ma­ti­cally out across the city’s harbour. In a tiny shop owned by an elderly man, elec­tric guitars hang on the walls, but it’s other­wise empty apart from a fridge and a few plastic chairs. We drink Coca-Cola and stare out into the thun­der­storm that’s now drawing across the bay.

‘I am Russian, but I don’t like Russian people,’ decla­res the beauty at the beach bar. We order gin and tonics, as if nothing else will hit the spot. ‘See this guy,’ she says, poin­ting to a man, ‘he talked to me like he was my friend.’ The next morning we try chat­ting to some Russian holi­day­makers on the beach – about foot­ball, of course – but they can’t speak a word of English, so we run out of things to say.

Maybe the Russi­ans have the right idea – just heading out into the sun, wanting nothing more than to get a tan and show it off when they get home. 

But you have to be very wise or very dull to just lie on a deck­chair all after­noon without talking or reading or doing anything else.

All at once I have no idea what I’m even doing in Nha Trang. There are certainly thousands of places in the world that are more beau­ti­ful. The dazz­lin­gly white beach, the high-rise blocks, the shops and restau­rants along the stre­ets – it’s an anony­mous coas­tal town with all the touris­tic appeal of a holi­day village on the Costa Brava, pock­mar­ked with ugly buil­dings.

What to do? We drink coffee and talk. The day passes slowly. Anot­her coffee, more talking. About ‘life’ and the states of mind it brings, about how this and that work out, where you think you’ve come from – meta­pho­ri­cally speaking – where you are now and where you want to go. All legi­ti­mate, all perfectly under­stan­d­a­ble. But that way you don’t let the outside world into your head – you’re cast back inside yours­elf, your thoughts grid­lo­cked.

You need to be inte­rested in the world, not in yours­elf – that’s how we should conti­nue our trip, I think, as I sit on the beach in Nha Trang and time drags itself onwards like a man dying of thirst in the desert.


* * *

Three / Hoi An

Trip Advisor 2014 Winner

On the north-south axis between Saigon and Hanoi, the small town of Hoi An is said to be defi­ni­tely worth a visit. We’re curious, so we travel on up the coast.

Hoi An is appro­xi­mately 500 kilo­metres furt­her north. Our jour­ney there on the night bus is not as rest­less as last time, but perhaps that’s because at some point a profound sense of exhaus­tion sets in, which even­tually over­co­mes us. We’d like to get out there and really do some­thing, but we’re just so incredi­bly tired that first we look for some­where to stay. At eight o’clock in the morning, the day is alre­ady boiling hot. 

We decide on a boutique hotel, which, accord­ing to various travel blogs, caters to the needs of so-called ‘flash­pa­ckers’ – people who travel with back­packs, but feel a certain sense of entit­le­ment as to comfort and ambi­ence. The room in ‘Phu Thinh 2’ costs 55 dollars per night. We have a balcony, with a view over the distant moun­ta­ins and a neatly laid-out pool. 

Hoi An is a small museum. Except there’s nothing to exhi­bit.

No-one would think that the city had once been a signi­fi­cant centre for trade in East Asia. Today in the tourist centre there are a few isola­ted old Chinese depart­ment stores with colour­fully ador­ned gables, statues of dragons, deco­ra­ti­ons, incense sticks, shri­nes and orna­men­tal ponds (you can buy a ticket that gets you into all of them), and many other places, above all restau­rants, cafes, bars, souve­nir shops and count­less tailors. All tourists get dirt cheap bespoke suits and dres­ses made here, but we’re not really in the mood to be measu­red.

We walk through the narrow stre­ets. Once again we’re wonde­ring what exactly there is to do. Sear­ching for some­thing when we don’t really know what it is we’re looking for doesn’t work, of course. In the after­noon we stop by the market square. There’s the same sense of unease at not being able to get a handle on things.

The rain beats down again on the asphalt. The women, their stalls on wheels, imme­dia­tely take out plastic capes.

We do nothing in Hoi An but walk and eat. While this is fine else­where, because there’s a parti­cu­lar atmo­s­phere in effect, a sense of the place as a whole, Hoi An is an empty husk. Of course, this feeling is partly down to having flown about 12 hours and spent half a day on the bus in order to get here.

When you talk to other travel­lers or read what they’ve writ­ten online, you often hear that Hoi An is the city they ‘liked the best’. Maybe that’s because there are Chinese lanterns lit along the banks of the Thu Bon at night, and they think this crea­tes a ‘magi­cal’ atmo­s­phere. We don’t know.

In the evening we sit by the river and watch people coming and going. On the small penin­sula on the other side there are lots of bars serving strong mixed drinks. They’re full of people in muscle shirts and hot pants, the dress code of the dedi­ca­ted hedo­nist. They’re not unwel­come here.

Hoi An’s sole purpose, it seems, is so that tourists with short atten­tion spans can saun­ter through and spend their money. It really doesn’t matter what’s on offer in the count­less restau­rants: spaghetti, pizza, baguettes, crois­sants, burgers and – natu­rally – real ‘Viet­na­mese cuisine’, which of course isn’t as good as actual Viet­na­mese cuisine, of the sort you can find in the side stre­ets of Saigon, for instance.

Hoi An’s Viet­na­mese inha­bi­tants have orga­nised the busi­ness very effec­tively. You commu­ni­cate what you want, someone makes a quick call, and imme­dia­tely ever­y­thing is arran­ged: the laundry, the trip to the Marble Moun­ta­ins, the bike rental, the plane ticket. Hoi An is a well-oiled tourism machine, a fine calcu­la­tion. The travel­ler takes on the role of consu­mer lock, stock and barrel. It’s an amuse­ment park desi­gned for back­packing tourists on all-inclusive holi­days, an increa­singly common pheno­me­non across the whole of South East Asia.


Hoi An also bears witness to the ‘tripad­vi­so­ra­tion’ of a place that is suppo­sedly a spon­ta­neous traveller’s para­dise. In every front window hangs a certi­fi­cate with a rating based on the opini­ons of modern globe­trot­ters, who are alre­ady booking their next hostel on their iPads. You ask yours­elf, when you see anot­her guest house that’s a ‘Trip Advi­sor 2014 Winner’, what that’s actually suppo­sed to mean. This proli­fe­ra­tion of recom­men­da­ti­ons, probably self-printed, makes them lose all effec­tiveness as adverts. The man at the recep­tion desk in our hotel none­theless asks us to mention him on Trip Advi­sor by name. 

It’s a pity that the authen­ti­city of the place is somehow missing, even though I can’t exactly put into words what I mean by that. Suddenly I feel ridi­cu­lous, seeking an unspoilt adven­ture in such an thoroughly kits­chy confec­tion of a city. I’m annoyed with my own expec­ta­ti­ons.

But we’ve disco­ve­red nothing new on this jour­ney. We’ve follo­wed the well-trodden tourist track northwards, too igno­rant or too passive to do anything else. And anyway, what’s wrong with that? When you follow the crowd you find company easily. Ulti­mately we, too, are just two pleasure-seeking Euro­peans with overly senti­men­tal tempe­ra­ments and 600 dollars’ worth of cold, hard cash in our pockets, taking advan­tage of the price diffe­ren­ces in an emer­ging, but still compa­ra­tively very cheap, coun­try in order to drink oursel­ves into a conten­ted haze in the evening sun.

And yet I’m feeling wist­ful, aware of a vague sense of dissa­tis­fac­tion.

Our focus turns to the next step of our jour­ney: Hanoi, the centre of the north. We hope to find some sort of authen­ti­city there, some part of old Viet­nam that has been preser­ved, that’s not yet on the way – like the boom­town Saigon – to beco­m­ing a new Bang­kok.


* * *

Four / Hanoi

Celebrating on the Red River

Every visi­tor to Viet­nam longs to see Hanoi – perhaps, at the back of their minds, as a subcon­scious refuge. We arrive by plane.

Finally, Hanoi – the charac­ter­ful, cultu­rally ambi­tious city. I was imagi­ning peace­ful little stre­ets, gables, orna­men­tal trees and cobblestones. I found some­thing else enti­rely: boxy buil­dings, like in Saigon (though somehow more beau­ti­ful in their disor­der), more elec­tri­city cables, more entropy, thousands of busi­nes­ses, thousands of scoo­ters.

We get room in a hostel in the old town, north of the Hoan Kiem Lake. The nonde­script house fronts narrowly onto the street, like all the other buil­dings. The reception’s at the front, with a few windows, while at the back are the bedrooms, kitchen, inner courtyard, stair­case and work areas.

The old town is more or less Hanoi’s main attrac­tion. There are 36 stre­ets, each named after the craft guild they belong to – in other words, what wares used to be sold here, and some­ti­mes still are. In one street they only sell baskets, in anot­her only spices, and so on. 

But Hanoi, too, is in the midst of an extra­or­di­nary trans­for­ma­tion. The faca­des of the houses are older at the top than at the bottom. In the upper storeys are tiny apart­ments with even tinier balus­tra­des, clothes hanging up to dry on the cables, the stone­work looking incredi­bly deca­yed. On the lower level are cafes like the ‘Holly­wood’, modern restau­rants, travel agents, souve­nir shops, snack bars and hostels.


The old town doesn’t look like an old town, at least not to our eyes. We eat pho in small, tiled kitchens with plastic cartons full of chicken parts. There are sheer silk napkins on the tables, but it’s impos­si­ble to get your hands clean with them. Young people in fake Nike gear sit outside on stools and eat soup. They take out their smart­pho­nes and sit in silence.

We meet a German man in a tank top and base­ball cap in Ly Quoc Sur Street, who tells us that in the evenings all the foreig­ners gather in Ma May Street in front of the ‘Hanoi Back­pa­ckers’. We’re still rather disori­en­ta­ted, so we bear this tip in mind for later.

In the after­noons the stre­ets are still thron­ged with people. You amble along the pave­ment, get out of the way, cross the street – the traffic’s crazy. There’s nothing even approa­ching a pede­strian zone. The shops are cram­med with elec­tro­nic gadgets, baskets, carvings, chairs and tables, bowls with mother-of-pearl inlay, statu­et­tes of the Buddha, toys and knick-knacks. An artist in his work­shop is copy­ing pain­tings by Botero and van Gogh.

In the evening we head over to Ma May. It’s full of people – English, German, Austra­lian, a young man from Dubai and six Afri­cans from Benin, who are calmly lighting up a joint as if they were rela­xing outside their front door in some housing project, although they’ll certainly be well off. 

People are drin­king and chat­ting on the pave­ments. Effi­ci­ent Viet­na­mese women are serving the foreig­ners with beer and schnapps – a large vodka costs 80,000 dong, a small one 40,000.

This pub crawl happens every evening. In a first-floor disco, about a hund­red metres from ‘Hanoi Back­pa­ckers’, they’re play­ing music for people to sing along to. The genre doesn’t matter – it could be anything from 50 Cent’s ‘In Da Club’ to ‘Wonder­wall’ by Oasis. There are people making out in the corner booths. Then it’s over. A few Viet­na­mese people on motor­bikes lead the way to the Red River, where the party’s going to conti­nue.

On the river­bank there’s a club that’s appar­ently ille­gal (though it can’t really be). It’s a brick shell, a DJ, a bar and a small outdoor area. This is gene­rally where people go to pick someone up. 

Two Swiss women have their sights set on us, but we’re not avail­able, which, to be honest, makes stay­ing in a place like this a bit point­less.

Suddenly the German man from Ly Quoc Sur Street appears. When we met him earlier in the day we thought he seemed well-travelled, with a good instinct for how to bring each day to a satis­fac­tory conclu­sion. He comes towards us, alone, and says he isn’t good at ‘cold calling’. He babbles like an idiot trying to impress the Swiss women. The conver­sa­tion grinds to a halt, and at some point he leaves. It’s tragic – he’s thousands of kilo­metres away from Germany, and he’s after nothing more than a one night stand.

The air by the river is still clammy when we decide to go back to the hostel. What did we realise today? Viet­nam is a bit like Mallorca, only with mons­o­ons and mosqui­toes.


* * *

Five / Halong Bay

Stormy Seas

Halong Bay is on the coast, four hours from Hanoi. The bay, with its anci­ent cliffs, is cons­i­de­red the most beau­ti­ful desti­na­tion in Viet­nam. It’s impos­si­ble to leave out.

We take a trip to the famous Halong Bay, accord­ing to ever­y­thing we’ve read one of the country’s grea­test attrac­tions, the setting for a James Bond film, and the high­light of every visit to Viet­nam. Travel­ling by boat across the bay, past its limestone mono­liths, makes us think of the goatee-wearing seafa­rers who once smugg­led opium over the sea in their junks. It would make a decent setting for a pirate film.

Halong is only acces­si­ble as part of a package, inclu­ding a bus trip from Hanoi, a boat tour and a night on board the ship. We took a while to decide which option was worth the money, and – as we shall see – we made the wrong choice.

After two hours the bus stops at the half­way point, where there’s an enor­mous souve­nir market. Here they want travel­lers to buy factory-made handi­crafts, vases four metres high and life-size porce­lain tigers (how on earth are you suppo­sed to trans­port them?), laug­hing Buddhas made of indus­trial plastic, bowls, dishes and table mats. The trip to Halong is also a mini shop­ping expe­di­tion, then.

At the harbour we head past umpteen tourist groups towards our boat. 

We travel out to sea past the first rocky islands, which jut out from the water, part of an enor­mous limestone plateau that’s slowly sinking bene­ath us. 

They’ve gradually been washed away under­ne­ath, so they look as if they’re floa­ting on the surface – as if, comman­ded by some angry and capri­cious god, they might somehow move towards each other and simply crush ships between them.

Our tour is kept to a strict sche­dule. We begin the after­noon by going swim­ming for an hour in a bay. We all troop off the ship, then all troop back on again. Then we go cano­eing. After our evening meal there’s karaoke, which is inde­scri­bably irri­ta­ting. The programme for the next morning is as follows: a visit to a cave, then a pearl farm where you’re welcome – do come on in! – to buy some jewel­lery to take home with you. Mist hangs above the cliffs as rain­drops pummel the sea like gunfire.


As we’re retur­ning to the harbour, the storm clouds once again loom threa­ten­in­gly above us. I go on deck and look out to sea as we drift along, listen­ing to the rain.

The dimen­si­ons of the hori­zon are colos­sal, the rocky islands as big as houses, yet – when seen from here – tiny in compa­ri­son to the towering clouds above, huge honey­combs in shades of blue, grey, slate and white, piled on top of each other. The storm draws into view from the left, like a dark mass that swal­lows ever­y­thing up. The few boats on the water look as if their end is nigh.

Nature herself performs the most impres­sive piece of theatre, not our tour guide, who just repeats the same banal phra­ses over and over. The most beau­ti­ful moment occurs when the actual programme of events is alre­ady over.

Perhaps this is exactly the problem when you decide to travel through Viet­nam in two weeks. 

Hanoi is where we end our jour­ney. From here my compa­n­ion is heading home, while I’m travel­ling to Cambo­dia. We’ll spend one more evening sitting in Bui Vien Street, and on the way there the prosti­tu­tes will ask us, ‘Where are you going?’ 

Is that a ques­tion you can ever really answer?

For now the ques­tion remains – what did we, perso­nally, find in Viet­nam (other, of course, than time for the kind of good conver­sa­tion that can only be had with close friends, but for which we so rarely find time at home)? Or were we simply lost in Viet­nam, lost in oursel­ves and in our expec­ta­ti­ons of this coun­try, which wants so much to leave its past behind it and wake up tomor­row as a new Malay­sia, a new Sing­a­pore?

We didn’t know what we wanted, so we simply took things as they came – a package-deal tourism indus­try, a coun­try that provi­des an exotic setting for pleasure-seeking holi­day­makers’ clumsy antics, a place where each holi­day is suppo­sedly spon­ta­neous and unique, but which has become a thoroughly commer­cial product. 

Was it a wasted jour­ney? When you’re constantly part of some­thing that at best you can’t really access and at worst you actively disap­prove of, wouldn’t you be better off just going some­where else? But what is it like there?

Maybe. But there’s a certain charm to obser­ving reality as it truly is. It makes cate­go­ries like ‘beau­ti­ful’, ‘pictures­que’ and ‘authen­tic’ inade­quate. All these quali­ties apply to Viet­nam, but only to a certain extent. 

In itself that’s not a problem – it’s just incon­ve­ni­ent if you only come to fully realise it at the end of your jour­ney.


* * *

Trans­la­tion by Caro­line Waight

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Philipp Laage

Phil­ipp Laage is travel editor at the German Press Agency (DPA) and runs Phil­ipp Laage, his own blog. The last remai­ning blank spots on the world map are parti­cu­la­rily tempt­ing for him. The moun­ta­ins are where he feels most at home.