Tag Archives for " Vietnam "

Mar 11

Vietnam and the catch-22 of tourism promotion in a time of coronavirus pandemic

By Mitchell Blatt | Travel

For weeks, as China was struggling to contain coronavirus in January and early February, Viet Nam took pride in the fact that the number of cases in country could be counted on fingers and toes.

Viet Nam took action to shut down travel from China even earlier than the United States. It stopped all flights from China on February 1.

Things were going good for them with weeks of no new cases. On February 28, the government announced all 16 cases had been treated and discharged from the hospital.

On February 12, its tourism chairman put out a letter stating, “Since the first day when the disease was recognized until the epidemic was officially announced by the Government of Viet Nam on February 1st, 2020 and now, Viet Nam has controlled the situation very well by promoting infection prevention, while isolating and quarantining Vietnamese citizens, who have travel history to China…”

“At present, attractions, heritage sites and restaurants are still open for tourists as usual,” the letter continued.

Now that is not so true.

Things changed on March 6. A 27-year old Hà Nội woman returned from Europe last week, after traipsing around France, Italy, and England, before returning to Việt Nam and walking the streets of Hà Nội. She was confirmed to be infected with coronavirus on Friday.

By then, at least three other people had been infected by transmission from the woman, Patient #17, who was referred to as “N.H.N.” in newspapers, and 27 others had to be isolated, although they tested negative. She met one person who was later infected at Milan Fashion week.

Vietnamese people began attacking N.H.N. They called her a spoiled rich girl. They accused her of being irresponsible, of moving around on the airplane and switching seats four times (I have found no confirmation of that rumor). They discovered and published her full name, and supposedly she doesn’t like to look at her phone now, while she’s in the hospital.

More here: says the patient met Case #17 at Milan Fashion Week and they also interacted in London. If nothing else, this is shining a spotlight on Vietnam’s jet-setter class. https://t.co/Leow7BH7VT— Michael Tatarski (@miketatarski) March 10, 2020

I thought of similar cases in other countries. In South Korea, Patient #31, went from Seoul to Daegu, attended the Shincheonji church cult, refused to heed a doctor’s request that she get tested, and then hit up a hotel buffet, before finally testing positive a few days later. In New Hampshire, USA, a medical worker ignored doctors’ warnings and attended a networking event.

N.H.N. may have been irresponsible, but the virus is so widespread now, and there are so many unknown cases transmitting undetected, that there’s little that can be done to stop it, short of maybe shutting down whole countries.

There’s been more and more people coming into Viet Nam, both for travel and returning from travel abroad. The Vietnamese government tried to keep matters calm at the beginning. Tour agents announced that there was no reason to avoid Viet Nam. Now those who arrive are finding hotels closed, streets empty, even being stuck on islands with their flights canceled!

Over 240 Norwegian travelers were stuck on Phú Quốc Island after Viet Nam suspended visa-free travel for Norway, resulting in flights being stopped.

Cát Bà, the most popular island in Hạ Long Bay is shut down. Tourists who visited the coastal area of Hạ Long Bay said it was a ghost town.

In Hội An, the coastal “ancient-style” “Lijiang-of-Vietnam” town with lantern-strung streets, half of the hotels are closed.

Sa Pa, a trekking base, has also been affected.

There are still tourists walking the streets of Hà Nội Old Quarter, but nowhere near as many as usual, and a report out of Hue yesterday said the tourism areas were still active. But things can change at any instant.

Ha Noi Old Quarter (photo by Alice Ho)

One tourism professional says that hotels and cruises and such are closing because of lack of demand, “not because of fear of the virus.” “Majority of travelers coming here are from China, Korea and domestic Vietnamese. The virus really affects their business.” (Now all entries from China are blocked, as are entries from Korea who transited through Daegu or South Gyeongsang province.)

Hoàn Kiếm Lake in the heart of Old Quarter

But in the end, if businesses are closed, and if people cannot find accommodations, fewer people will want to travel. The effect becomes a vicious cycle.

already had one expat friend refused entry to a restaurant yesterday for being a foreigner…— Mallory Graves (@Mal_Graves) March 10, 2020

Travelers to many countries at this time have to put up with annoyances. In Viet Nam, they seem to be taking a much more aggressive response towards limiting the virus than many other countries. The government has ordered everyone living in the country to submit regular health declarations. You can even hear the old propaganda speakers announcing virus-prevention information.

There’s the catch-22 facing tourism boards in a time of pandemic. If a country does a good job protecting itself, keeping cases down, they can go out and market their tourism to try to keep their economy up. But if tourists come, coronavirus is going to come. The only way to keep the country perfectly safe is to limit travel.

Viet Nam still has low numbers–34 cases in a country of 95 million people–but disruptions to Viet Nam’s school systems and leisure activities have not been avoided.

It is a beautiful country with waterfalls, caves, rice paddies, forests, and rivers. There are places where a traveler could get away from other people, where the lack of commerce in downtown Saïgon doesn’t matter to them.

But for me, when I visited Viet Nam, what I loved most were the streets crowded with tables and plastic chairs, where you could drink beer and juice; the street stall bánh mìs; motorbikes crowding the streets, and students trying to practice English with you in the park.

Life goes on. Ha Noi still need to get places on their motorbikes (Alice Ho).

Not to say that such things are completely gone. People are still living their daily lives. Maybe if your goal is to hang around Hà Nội and Saïgon and take in daily life, you are less affected that if you planned to visit a tourism-oriented town on the coast. For now, anyway. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Aug 06

Tyranny is all the same: How South Korea and Vietnam whitewash their history – Day 8

By Mitchell Blatt | History , Korea Trip 2016

Water torture, beatings, pins placed under one’s fingernails… Those were some of the torture methods carried out at the Seodaemun Prison in Seoul. In the basement of the complex, which is now a museum, visitors can see a display of a mannequins hung upside down with water being poured over their faces, and of prisoners waiting in a walled room where they would hear screams from other prisoners being tortured next door.

Korea was annexed by Imperial Japan and occupied from 1910-45. After 1945, the exhibition at the Seodaemun Prison Museum mostly ends but for a few vague notes that the prison remained in use until 1987. Nonetheless, the exhibitions on display might give us an idea of what took place in the prison–and other Korean prisons–between 1945 and 1987.

“The mission received evidence that the following kinds of torture had been used against individuals in Korean prisons:
i. water torture–cold water forced up the nostrils through a tube.

iv. beatings–particularly to the soles of the feet.
v. being hung from the ceiling and spun around.
vi. having a ball-point pen placed between the fingers…

xiii. intimidation by the use of screams from adjoining rooms.”

That’s from a report produced by Amnesty International based on a 1975 trip to South Korea. Seodaemun isn’t mentioned by name, nor is any other prison, but human rights abuses and political repression were the norm in South Korea for most of the years up until its democratization in 1987.

Compare and contrast Seodaemun Prison’s text with that of 1975 U.S. Congressional testimony on South Korean human rights issues:

Press Freedom

“Shortwave Broadcasting Listening Incident

This was an incident where groups … working at the broadcasting station propaganda the ‘Chongqing Broadcasting’ and ‘Voice of America’, made by the Korean Provisional Government [in exile], to the public. However they were detected by the Japanese imperialists in December, 1942. As a result, a total of 150 people were arrested and imprisoned.” – Seodaemun Prison Museum

“A handful (four) of top liberal reporters were fired. … One hundred forty men and women, including all the 1 day announcers of the radio station, and most of the producers, took over the presses and the radio on the eighth of March and held them in an attempt to save the one free voice in South Korea. These brave men and women held out until predawn, March 17, when a goon squad broke into the building and drove all the strikers into the street. … Each morning they gather in silent protest… …They pass out a mimeographed ‘True Dong A Il Bo’ stating their case and a little of the truth about current affairs. On April 29, I was there to see the chief of police of Seoul arrive and deliver the third and final warning to the silent and unmoving line of men and women. They would be arrested if they came back.” – Reverend James P. Sinnott, Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, testimony before Congress, 1975


“There are some records regarding various torture methods. One such example can be described as ‘airplane torture’ in which a person’s hands and feet were tied back while being suspended in midair from an airplane. ‘Water torture’ was also used.” – Seodaemun Prison Museum

“Torture is frequently used by law-enforcement agencies both in an attempt to extract false confessions and as a tactic of intimidation. The methods of torture comprise, inter alla, (a) water torture-cold water forced up the nostrils through a tube, (b) electrical torture, often in conjunction with water torture, to sentivie parts of the body such as the toes and genitals, (c) the beating of persons tied hand and foot and suspended from the ceiling, (d) deprivation of sleep for prolonged periods–one case up to 15 days.” – Amnesty International report inserted into Congressional testimony, 1975

Brief Mention of Dissidents at Museum

“After the restoration of national independence Seodaemun Prison was a historical symbol of Korea’s democratization movement until it was moved to another area in 1987. The victims from the tumultuous political events manipulated by the dictatorship along with the students, laborer and democratization activists who fought against the despotic regime were imprisoned, tortured or died here.” – Seodaemun Prison Museum

(The display elaborates somewhat in Korean)

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Sep 09

Anti-Chinese Views Create Conspiracy Theories in Vietnam

By Mitchell Blatt | Travel

Leaches suck. And they are crowding the waterways in the countryside of northern Vietnam, after Chinese traders created an artificial demand for them, according to the Vietnamese rumor mill and tabloid journalism.

This is just one of the strange stories I have heard about China from Vietnamese people at guesthouses and restaurants in Hanoi and Saigon. Chinese merchants reportedly came to Vietnam and asked to buy leaches for exorbitant prices. For what, the local farmers didn’t know. They speculated it might be for medicine, eating or some other reason, but most of all, they harvested leaches in hopes of selling them to Chinese. Few Chinese returned to buy leaches, and the farmers were left with an excess of the worthless bloodsucking creatures and they threw them into the water, where now leaches threaten the locals.

So goes this 2013 report at VietnamNet.vn.

Mr. Ho Huu Dung in Que Phong town, Nghe An, is now in debt when hundreds of dried leeches are in stock because Chinese trader suddenly disappeared.

Dung said: “Initially, traders asked us to collect leeches for them at the price of VND200,000 per kilo. Then they doubled the price. I purchased hundreds of kilos of dried leeches but they have disappeared.”

It is said that this is a game of Chinese traders. Initially they spent money creating “fevers” for “leechese” by increasing the prices for leeches. After purchasing leeches at the old price, they sold leeches to Vietnamese traders at high prices. When the prices reached the peak, it was the time that Chinese traders sold out their leeches and disappeared, leaving the fields of leeches.

These rumors morph into conspiracy theories, to the effect that China is waging economic warfare to cause farmers to waste their resources, or even biological warfare to spread leaches around Vietnam. From the blog Say No to Communism, ”Leech attack in Vietnam because of biological warfare from China”:

She bought leeches collected from other provinces, especially from Tay Ninh. The creatures were bought for VND80,000 to VND150,000 per kilogram Thanh said the agency used to buy several bags of leeches per day from collectors who carried them on motorbikes, mainly at night, to the buyer. Finding a new opportunity to make money, several farmers built leech-breeding ponds in their houses. It is from the house at 42/4D in Chanh 1 Hamlet that leeches escaped from their bags and made their way to a nearby 3.000sq.m field where they grew very quickly. But the buyer disappeared very suddenly, leaving the 3,000sq.m field full of leeches. “No one dare to wade across the field now,” said Thanh.

Hao, the owner of a restaurant in Hanoi, said that these views are driven by rumors and yellow journalism. If a few people in a village start to make money selling something, news will spread like wildfire and others will chase what they think is easy money. It happened with lemongrass and snails, too.

When there are Chinese traders reportedly involved, it is all the more ripe for scandal-mongering, because there are existing anti-Chinese views due to 1,000 years of Chinese occupation, a battle (with South Vietnam) over some of the Parcel Islands in 1974 that China won and the ongoing dispute over those and other islands. Already predisposed to distrust China, Vietnamese also factor in concerns about China dominating Vietnamese trade and Chinese exports of “poisonous” food.

Yet Chinese culture has also penetrated Vietnam to a large degree (though the reason it has is the same as the reason Vietnamese don’t like Chinese incursions). Some Vietnamese businesses have statues of Guanyu, the ancient Chinese general-turned-deity, and Vietnamese temples have Chinese characters inscribed. The Temple of Literature in Hanoi, built in 1070 when Vietnam was under the control of a dynasty started by a Chinese family, was Vietnam’s “first university” and taught about Confucianism and Chinese culture.

Hao, whose ancestors were part Chinese, said that many Vietnamese are part Chinese.

Sep 04

Why Hoi An is not a “Touristy” City Like Lijiang

By Mitchell Blatt | Travel

If you ask any tourist in Vietnam about Hoi An, you are bound to hear one of two responses: either it’s a paradise with charming streets, lovely cafes on the water and beautiful beaches (more likely) or it’s an artificial touristy hell hole.

Of course in real life it’s neither extreme—or maybe it’s both. After all, a place can both be touristy and beautifully charming. Indeed, the beauty of such a place is often why so many tourists flock to a place in the first place. And one may want to go to Hoi An precisely for that reason—to see crowded streets, to waste away the night at loud party bars.

If you go to Hoi An expecting huge crowds and endless nights, you are bound to be disappointed. Take it from me, a one-time bar worker in Dali, along the tourism road to Lijiang, Hoi An is no Lijiang, and it’s not even Dali. For good or bad, it is less crowded and less artificial-feeling.

One Wednesday evening I was walking around the “night market” island. Strings of lanterns festooned the streets. A tour group from Korea watched a bingo and singing performance of some sort. A foreigner on the bridge gave me a free drink coupon for “Moe’s Tavern.” There were crowds on the main streets, but the side streets were all empty, mostly filled with residential housing.

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I went to a bar at 8 pm and left at 10:50 pm. In Lijiang, the night is just getting started at 11. Walking back at 11 in Hoi An, most of the streets were empty. Few of the other bars were full. It was so empty that if you waved a 5,000 VND bill in front of a motorcycle driver and he finally agreed to take you back to your hostel 30 minutes away walking—against the protests of his fellow motorcycle taxi touts—he could probably take you to an ATM and rob you with no one seeing. Would he really do that? I don’t know, because I jumped off the back of the motorcycle less than one minute later when it looked like he was going the wrong way.

Hoi An bar street at 11 pm.

Hoi An bar street at 11 pm.

Beyond the actual market area, there are a lot of quiet streets where you can sit in the courtyard of a nice quiet restaurant with few other people. Much of the Lijiang ancient town is loud and chaotic, with few open seats in lots of restaurants.

So is Hoi An better or worse than Lijiang? Depends on what you’re looking for look at these pictures and see for yourself.

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Sep 02

How not to get Scammed on the Yellow Bus from Da Nang to Hoi An

By Mitchell Blatt | Travel

The bus has a figure of Guanyin (a Buddhist deity) and incense burning in the front. It must be safe.

The bus has a figure of Guanyin (a Buddhist deity) and incense burning in the front. It must be safe.

If you search the internet looking for how to get from Da Nang to Hoi An, nearby coastal cities in central Vietnam, you will probably find articles stating that the yellow bus from Da Nang to Hoi An is a scam—that it charges foreigners 50,000 VND (US$2.22) or so and Vietnamese 20,000 VND (US$0.89).

Well, I just took the yellow bus today to get to Hoi An, and they only charged me 20,000 VND. In fact, I had already pulled out 20,000 and gave it to the money collector, having read up on the possible scam. The money collector said something to me after, as I was sitting in the seat—possibly to the effect of the price being cheap and possibly wanting me to give more, but I don’t know, because I can’t speak Vietnamese, and her English was poor—but whatever she said it didn’t matter because I ignored her and remained seated.

(Some sources say the ticket price is 18,000 VND, but it is normal for Vietnamese to not give change for something less than 5,000 VND (US$0.22).)

They didn’t give me a ticket, by the way, nor did I see them give anyone else a ticket, so do not feel uneasy about them not giving you a ticket.

Here are some other travelers who have talked about getting scammed by the buses:
Jay and Jon, June 2013
TripAdvisor forum, August 2011

Cafes with flower-covered roofs in Hoi An.

Cafes with flower-covered roofs in Hoi An.

As noted, the scam—if it still occurs—appears to be easily avoidable. Just have the 20,000 VND bill(s) ready and give them the exact amount and ignore any hassling after you sit down. One of the other commenters also notes—and this is probably a good idea—to not give them more than 20,000, as they might not give you change.

This, too, is good advice for when you get off at the Hoi An bus station in Da Nang and must get to the ancient city. There is a big map at the bus station, so you can easily find the way to get there yourself by walking, however it could be 30 minutes or more, depending on where your hotel is located, so you may want to take one of the many motorbikes.

I took a motorbike after agreeing to 15,000 VND for the ride. The driver originally asked 20,000 VND, and I asked 10,000, and then I raised to 15,000 and started walking after he denied that. Later, he drove up beside me and agreed to 15,000, and I got on. When we arrived he started demanding 20,000.

“Long ride… Long ride…” he said. I told him we had already agreed, but unfortunately I didn’t have a 5,000 VND bill, and he said he didn’t either. So I gave him a 10,000 VND bill and then went to split a 10,000 VND bill at the hostel.

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One more thing I must say is that bargaining culture is ingrained in Asia. Don’t think at all that it is impolite to cut the price or to stand behind the price you agreed to. The touts know how to bargain even better than tourists. When the motorbike driver asked for 20,000 after agreeing to 15,000, he was using a trick of bargaining to try to earn more. At the very least, there need not be any value judgment about bargaining, but, if you must make a value judgment out of it—if you must consider whether or not you are being stingy—then consider the other side as well. Someone who asks for an inflated price—often on the basis of your perceived nationality—is being more impolite.

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Sep 01

Working with the Fishermen on Da Nang Beach

By Mitchell Blatt | Travel

Midday, the beach in Da Nang is empty. As I was walking around at 2 pm, the only people on the beach were fishermen tending to their nets. There were small fishing boats out just off the shore and ropes running up the beach.

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Version 2In front of me, a group of four people were pulling a rope. I walked up close enough, wondering what they were doing, for one of the workers to look at me and smile and point to the rope. I grabbed on and started pulling. I kept pulling, walking backwards, until I got to the end of the beach and had done a full cycle. My hands were kind of red, but the workers were using their bare hands, too. They did have harnesses to which they strapped the rope, giving them extra pulling power from their waists. It felt good to do some real flesh and bones labor that required muscle—in such a nice place, too.

I still wondered what they were pulling out, but I went back to the front and did another cycle. After about four cycles, they moved the rope further down the beach, nearby another group pulling another rope.
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It wasn’t long before they pulled out some netting woven together and I could see it was a net. But they had to pull that out for a bit before they got to the real green net where the fish ended up when they got caught. Most of the fish were small, as long as a finger, but some were bigger. The fishermen immediately began sorting the fish and separating the trash that had inevitably gotten caught in the net. A crowd had surrounded them on the beach by the time they were done, some of them tourists like myself, but at least one was a local who bought a fresh fish from them on the spot.
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After our work was done, I headed up the beach and eventually found a streetside fish restaurant at just after 4 pm. Seeing all those fresh fish I helped pull in made me hungry for fish, and so I asked the waiter for fish (cá) in Vietnamese. They fried some fish together with lemongrass that eventually cost 90,000 VND (US$4).
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At 5 pm – 6 pm, as I was walking back, the beach became crowded with locals relaxing, swimming and playing soccer. I took my shirt off and ran in to the ocean.
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Da Nang is located in the middle of Vietnam, north of Hoi An and south of Hue. Flights from Hanoi or Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) can cost as little as US$50-70.

Vietnam map, via Wikipedia.

Vietnam map, via Wikipedia.