Avoiding & Embracing Vietnam’s Touristland

It’s not uncommon to hear scores of travellers preaching to their less fortunate friends about how they’re ‘trying to avoid all that tourist nonsense’ or ‘going to see how [insert appropriate homeland] really live’ before embarking on their voyage of discovery. Now that is a very noble outlook. After all, who wants to travel half way around the world to eat a traditional Sunday roast dinner in 30 degree heat on the beach? No, me neither.
Unfortunately in practice looking to find the authentic travel experience can be rather tricky and can ultimately lead to disappointment. Sure there are great examples of how it CAN work. Take our recent trip to Sapa where we participated in a home-stay with one of the local families. Great fun! We couldn’t wait for our next slice of authenticity. Unbeknownst to us at the time we didn’t even have to wait that long.
Our gradual trip from North Vietnam back down to Saigon took us through the midlands of ‘Nam and to the city of Da Nang. Da Nang isn’t just any city. It carries the rather impressive title of Vietnam’s third biggest city – it also has a beach, China Beach to be precise, just 15 minutes away. On paper this looked like it could potentially be one of the highlights of our two months stay, in reality it was about as interesting as watching paint dry.

When we arrived in Da Nang there were no enthusiastic moto drivers jostling for our attention, no shop keepers hanging out of the front door offering us authentic ‘Made in Vietnam’ clothing at outrageously marked up prices. We were even devoid of the usual curious stares that as westerners we had become accustomed to.

What was wrong with these people?! Can they not see we are tourists?! With money to spend! Why aren’t they paying us any attention?!

Whilst our reaction was by no means that dramatic there was a noticeable difference in how receptive the towns’ folk of Da Nang were to us, in that they weren’t receptive at all. They just didn’t care. We had stumbled upon “middle-Vietnam”. All the inhabitants of Da Nang cared about was going about their daily business, eating Pho and whatever else it is that someone does who lives in a town with a 10pm curfew.

We ate at the same place three times; we went to the cinema and on the third day spent the entire day in our hotel room leaving only for provisions in the form of the familiar face of Colonel Sanders. Cabin fever was setting in. It was time to leave.

Just south of Da Nang is the small beach town of Hoi An. Not to be confused with Hanoi. It didn’t take much for me to confuse the two. Around half a pint.

“I love it here in Hanoi.” I’d say.

“It’s Hoi An.” Sara would reply for what felt like the hundredth time.

If Da Nang and Hoi An, were identical twins, Hoi An would be the funny, charismatic one and Da Nang would be the uptight serious career type. You would always want to go out with Hoi An and be disappointed if it said it had other plans. There would be an awkward silence if Hoi An went to the toilet and it was just you and Da Nang left at the table. Suffice to say, we found Hoi An irrepressibly charming.

The Old Town – Hoi An
Made up of two parts beach/one part traditional untouched Old Town, Hoi An oozes character. It could easily pass as the Asian alternative to Williamsburg or Camden. The streets littered with skinny-jean wearing, fashion conscious, bespectacled, hipsters with DSLR cameras draped around their necks sipping coffee and generally looking rather cool.
The famous Vietnam tailors lined the streets each stocking the latest couture copies at a fraction of the catwalk price. The streets are cobbled, like Covent Garden and cars are forbidden from venturing down the quaint pedestrianised walkways – a rarity on a continent where at times it feels like there are at least five vehicles per person. Sure there was a lingering quaff of tourism about the place; it was too perfect not to have, besides who else was buying those $150 framed prints of the locals? However in terms of uniqueness Hano… I mean Hoi an, was like nothing else we had experienced in Vietnam.

A night-time trader adds a splash of colour to the evening streets of Hoi An.
Short of actually immigrating to another country searching for the authentic travel experience can become more of an elusive dream than a much sought after reality. Stumble into a town like Da Nang and prepare to be slapped in the face by normality. Head to Saigon and you will find yourself overwhelmed with unique opportunities – the same unique opportunities that have been afforded to the thousands of tourists before you and the millions that will inevitably proceed you.

Rick Politz and Sara Damergi
Rick Politz was born in the East End of London, England where he carved out a career in television and media. A former television cameraman, studio director and ultimately producer Rick worked across various television formats for companies such as ITV, Channel 4, 5IVE, Virgin Media and SKY. The highlight of his young career coming in 2008 when he assumed the role of Assistant Director for the cult UK feature film City Rats. In August 2010 Rick married his fiancée, television presenter Sara Damergi, and took a position in her ever-expanding online web empire. They now travel the world together completely location independent writing about their adventures overseas. Rick is a keen amateur photographer and an avid snowboarder.

Sara Damergi is a TV presenter, entrepreneur and globetrotter. TV clients include, MTV ,5IVE, Bravo, Sky and Channel 4. Sara also presented international extreme sports show, ''The Crunch'' filmed across China which was a prime-time success worldwide. Sara is of Lebanese and English descent and has always had a passion for new cultures and travel having lived in Beirut, Cyprus, London and in her clubbing heyday Ibiza, she is now indefinitely travelling the world funded from her internet businesses and blogging about it with her husband What Politz and Damage Did Next.
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