A 47 Minute Trip to Vietnam: Lonely Planet Video Review

by Steven K. Bailey, Oct 1, 1997 | Destinations: Vietnam / Ho Chi Minh City

My trip to Vietnam required some serious preparation. I hunted for a cheap ticket, found one on Cathay Pacific Airways and bought it. I got a hepatitis shot and swallowed yellow fever immunization pills. I procured travel health insurance, complete with emergency medical evacuation coverage. I stocked up on slide film and sharpened my Swiss army knife. I read up on the country, planned a rough itinerary, and loaded up my backpack. I paid $65 for a tourist visa. I stuffed traveler's checks and fifty-dollar bills into my moneybelt. And last but not least, I watched the Lonely Planet video; The Vietnam Experience.

I heartily recommend this last detail. After all, what could be a better way to get ready for departure than 47 minutes of color video of your destination? This one is guaranteed to put you in the mood to travel, though one might also argue that it so vividly portrays Vietnam that it's an armchair traveler's delight. I should add that I first saw this tape on a Thai Airways flight from Frankfurt to Bangkok. This struck me as the best possible time to view such a video, since it whetted my appetite for Southeast Asia at the precise moment I was flying there.

There are essentially two kinds of travel videos. The first kind focuses strictly on a foreign location, usually with an anonymous narrator who never appears on screen. The second kind focuses on a specific traveler's experience in a given country. Lonely Planet's is the latter sort of travelogue. It takes you on a journey from the standpoint of one Justine Shapiro. She wears the costume of a young western backpacker outfitted with the standard gear--a big rucksack, Timberland hiking boots, long shorts, a red headband, an armful of bangles, a camera vest over a white T-shirt and a sense of adventure. Shapiro takes on the persona of an intrepid solo traveler--although obviously she has a camera crew in tow--and shares with you her experience of journeying from Saigon north to the Chinese border.

For the most part, Shapiro sticks to the beaten track, which makes the video a great introduction for backpackers on their way to Vietnam. She starts in Ho Chi Minh City, makes day trips to Cu Chi and Tay Ninh, then continues north to Nha Trang, Lang Co Beach, Hue, Hanoi, Halong Bay, and the mountainous area around Lao Cai. The only obvious omissions on her itinerary are Dalat and Hoi An, two towns popular with the backpacking crowd. By watching her journey unfold, you get a sense of what your own adventure will encompass, for while you may not see all the sights she does, you will see at least some of them. On my last trip, for example, I explored the southern half of Vietnam and hit five of the six locations that were covered in that area of the country.

The camera crew films with an artsy old movie camera and high-tech video equipment and the result is a fine collage of Vietnamese life that emphasizes action. Although there are plenty of National Geographic-quality shots of the country's gorgeous landscape, the film focuses primarily on the Vietnamese people. This show features a hundred cameos and a thousand extras. There is an old French-speaking puppet-maker in an argyle sweater and dapper hat. "Je fais la marionette," he tells her. A soldier leads her through the Cu Chi tunnel complex, then shows her how to fire an AK-47 assault rifle. She meets Cao Daists and mountain-dwelling Muong who have not seen a foreigner in ten years. We meet two half-mad Frenchmen peddling the length of Vietnam on their very own cyclo, and a Brit traumatized by the sight of women skinning live frogs in Saigon's Ben Thanh Market. Shapiro talks to zippo lighter salesmen, baguette bakers, tinsmiths and fish farmers in Halong Bay. And last but not least, she meets the infamous Mama Hanh, a former peanut vendor who now runs boat trips out of Nha Trang.

The video offers an excellent introduction to the varieties of transport you can encounter in Vietnam. In true backpacker fashion, Shapiro travels between cities on 30-year-old public buses ("slow, uncomfortable, unreliable, but incredibly cheap"), the 1000-mile Reunification Express ("average speed is 30 mph"), and Russian-made turboprops ("sometimes it's standing room only"). Within cities she relies on her trusty hiking boots, plus assorted cyclos, bicycles, motorcycles and a dilapidated Lada taxi lacking both mirrors and seatbelts. She takes a sampan down the Perfume River and reaches the Cu Chi tunnels in a motorcycle sidecar that once belonged to a top communist general.

Aside from the landscape, people and transport, the video also pays attention to Vietnam's often unique food and drink. Like any hungry backpacker, Shapiro is willing to give even the most bizarre local delicacies a try. On a Hue sidewalk a woman deftly slits open a live snake with a razor, mixes the serpent's blood with booze and hands the glass to Shapiro. Supposedly, the beverage holds medicinal qualities. She gamely holds her nose and drinks the bloody concoction, pronouncing it good but strong. She slurps a twenty-cent breakfast bowl of pho in Cholon. In Hanoi Shapiro guzzles bia hoi, the flat draft beer that goes for fifteen cents a pint and is poured with a hose. Shapiro gorges on Mama Hanh's massive spread of prawn, crab, grilled fish, squid, rice noodle, cucumber, baguette, fried vegetable, tofu and a half-dozen forms of fruit.

Filmed in 1994, the video remains remarkably up to date. However, the aforementioned Lac Thien has changed a bit. Attracted by the favorable reviews in guidebooks, backpackers now flock to the Lac Thien. It has become the place for such travelers to eat in Hue, so much so that seats are hard to come by in the evenings. I'm happy to report that the food is still fantastic--don't miss the spicy peanut sauce. For the most part, the Vietnam of 1994 featured in the video matches the Vietnam I visited in 1997.

When I returned from Vietnam I rewatched The Vietnam Experience. Interestingly, I enjoyed the video as much the second time around as the first time, before I'd left for Vietnam. The tape so closely paralleled my own travels that rewatching it gave me a chance to retrace my journey in full color, just as viewing it before I'd gone had given me an opportunity to preview my trip. Whether you've been there or not, this video doesn't disappoint. And that, I suppose, is the mark of a quality travelogue. Pop it in your VCR and embark on a fascinating exploration of Vietnam.