My wife and I just finished a three week vacation where we blitzed our way from North Vietnam to South before popping into Bangkok and Chiang Mai for a week. We had an absolutely stellar time through Vietnam even though I enountered a nasty bout of food poisoning. However, I think we were both relieved when our vacation was over and we could get the hell out of Thailand. Our time in Thailand was nowhere near as enjoyable and often actually dismal. Thus I write this post to point out that you should definitely visit Vietnam over Thailand if you are hitting Southeast Asia.
Of course, the world does not appear to agree with me. Apparently Bangkok is maybe the most visited city in the world and its airport is the most photographed location on the internet (one wonders why people are takign photographs of airports, but I digress). Meanwhile the entire country of Vietnam gets only 7 million visitors which is like a 1/3 of the people that JUST visit Bangkok. Yes, there are cities that get more tourists than the entirety of Vietnam. However, I can’t fathom why.
Let’s start with what is wrong with Thailand. First off, Bangkok is awful. It’s like a vision of a dystopian future. The central city is very posh with high tech advertisements barraging you constantly from the sides of tall buildings. It strongly caters to expats as many advertisements are solely in English, sex is a constant in their advertisements and I noticed an astonishing number of cosmetic surgery clinics and advertisements. If shopping and leisure are your thing, then Bangkok might appeal. That isn’t really us.
The attractions in Bangkok are fairly limited. You have the Grand Palace which is absolutely infested with tourists and yet the authorities do an absolutely terrible job turning this into a directed experience. We arrived took a look around and saw a huge mob crushing into a ticket window. We decided to take our leave, but the Grand Palace is a black hole and nearly impossible to escape from. Instead we got ripped off by the absolutely delightful taxi drivers in Bangkok. You see they always want to turn off their meter and “bargain” with you. DO NOT DO THIS. You don’t know enough to even try and if you use the meter taxis are very reasonable in Bangkok. Pretty much every experience in a taxi in Bangkok was uncomfortable and awkward. Another attraction in Bangkok is the Jim Thompson house, the house of a white guy “interpreting” Thai architecture. Really, that is a major attraction in a huge city like Bangkok. It’s pretty sad.
Thankfully Chiang Mai is better. It’s a lot easier to get around and the Old City is pretty charming. The sense I got from the Thailand is that it is turning into a city-state with all resources funneled into Bangkok as even Chiang Mai, the second largest city in the country, is pretty underdeveloped. Ayyutayah, the former capital, felt like it was only around to cater to tourists trawling the unimpressive ruins of the temples and palaces. I can see the origins of the many coups in Thailand forming from the tensions between the blessed Bangkok and the rest of the much poorer country.
In contrast, Vietnam seems far friendlier to tourists despite or maybe because it is not as well traveled. We had no issues with taxis there, but to be honest we rarely needed them as their city centers are dense and packed with good eats. Bangkok citizens seem out to fleece tourists for every penny they can but the reaction of most Vietnamese people was far more indifferent, in a good way. We didn’t feel awkward or misplaced even at the most offbeaten restaurants that probably rarely get nonlocals.
I was only there a week and a half, but the Vietnamese seem more my style. They love food, coffee and shooting the shit on the street. I think every other establishment was a restaurant and in between there was almost always a food cart. The density of food offerings in Vietnam is nuts. It’s also not a materialistic culture. Their temples are austere full of copper and wood statues for the most part. Meanwhile, the Thai seem very proud of their jewel encrusted golden pagodas. I much preferred the peace and serenity of Bai Dinh temple in Vietnam over anything we saw in Thailand. Similarly, I enjoyed the imperial palace in Hue over the Grand Palace in Bangkok. The latter is an over-the-top tribute to royalty whereas the former is less a residence and more a restrained but beautiful government compound.
Which is not to say the Vietnamese can’t do ostentatious. We saw the mausoleum of a Vietnamese emperor that had the most enchanting mosaics inside, easily the most beautiful art we experienced on our trip. Furthermore, the silk embroidery “paintings” in Vietnam was our most wanted souvenir, though the price eventually dissuaded us (we are so cheap). Don’t be like us, these things are too beautiful to pass up.
Advertisement is also another good indication of the differences in the two countries. There isn’t much in Vietnam, except for the many signs displaying the offerings at the myriad restaurants. Certainly, sex is rarely used especially in comparison to Bangkok.
I guess my point is that I have a lot of respect for the Vietnamese people. They survived two terrible wars with the West (as an aside, you absolutely must visit the War Museum in Saigon; harrowing and illuminating, we broke down into tears) and they don’t appear to hold any grudges. Instead they seem laidback and interested in just enjoying life but not in an overly hedonistic way. Just friends sitting around eating delicious food and drinking good coffee. If anything they seem a bit too laidback as they all seem to agree their government is corrupt and inefficient, but they seem to just accept it.
One last VERY IMPORTANT note. Vietnamese food is so much better than Thai food and in all the major cities good spots are much more accessible than in the sprawling Bangkok. Frankly, the Thai food in America is just as good and often better than what we ate in Thailand. You see, Thai people like things sweet, cloyingly sweet. Their version of Cha Yen, Thai Iced Tea, is nearly inedible to our tastes because it is barely tea. Vietnamese cuisine is fairly light with a delicate balance of fish sauce, limes, chilies and sugar that is absolutely delectable, though Saigon erred a bit sweeter than I would have liked. Thai food is often a coconut milk and palm sugar bomb that often required a lot of seasoning at the table to get into proper shape. I know at one point I would have rated Thai as my favorite cuisine, but in the last year, Nha Hang in Chicago and now our trip has convinced me that Vietnamese food is really far more exceptional.