The tourist trap

Vietnam likes tourists. Tourism boosts the economy and creates jobs, after all. Apparently over 7 million people visited Vietnam in 2013 alone, a number that has been growing each year.

People have been trying to capitalize on that tourism. All sorts of hotels, entertainment centers, and luxury shops seem to be popping up around the country. As foreign travelers in Vietnam, my family and I got to experience the full force of the Vietnamese tourist traps.

You see, back in December, I met up with my family in Vietnam for the trip-of-a-lifetime: a three-week journey in Vietnam. My parents have been planning this trip for years, but expensive plane tickets– and a lack of school vacation time during the winter– hindered their efforts. Finally, since I was going to be on that side of the world anyway, my family decided that they might as well make our trip finally happen.

This wasn’t just going to be any family vacation, either. Oh no. My parents booked a massive tour through Saigon Tourist, starting from Ho Chi Minh City and going all the way up north to Hanoi. Hotels, meals, and destinations would all be arranged by our tour. It was a pretty unusual arrangement for my family, since we typically plan our vacations ourselves.

As a result, we got a different sort of trip from what we’re used to.

“Saigon Tourist,” as we should have expected, is, well, touristy. The company knows that the people using Saigon Tourist have money. They’d also like their tourists to spend that money. One of the first destinations on our tour, for instance, was this place.

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That place, we found out, was the “Rang Dong Wine Castle,” the first and only castle in Vietnam. Fashioned after the valleys of Napa, California, the castle was built and opened just a few years ago. Inside, we were treated to an informational video and a tour.

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We even took a tour of the wine cellar.

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fire

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It was clear that the place was only built for show. Even the small vineyard outside was struggling in the hot Vietnamese climate. In the castle, finely dressed employees carried signs advertising the various luxury Californian wines we could buy.

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That was the beginning of a series of luxury shopping sessions. During our tour, we visited a silk shop…

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…a sculpture store…

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…a sand art store…

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…an embroidery store…

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…and even this one that sold weaver bird’s nest. The store claimed that the birds’ nests (made from the bird’s own saliva) had medicinal properties, and sold them at an extremely high price.

That converts to about $300 per pound. No joke!

That converts to about $300 per pound. No joke!

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But I didn’t mind all the shopping. While the stores we visited were certainly touristy, each one carried something unique and new to me. I actually enjoyed visiting each one despite the premium tourist prices.

beards

Made from bamboo roots!

Shopping isn’t the only way that the Vietnamese locals have capitalized on tourism. Resorts have sprung up around coastal areas, serving tourists who need a trip to the beach. Some resorts have been successful, but many others have long since been abandoned.

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My favorite places, though, were the amusement parks. 

That’s the best term I have for them, anyway. I don’t mean the sort of amusement park you’d find in the States, like Six Flags, Disney World, or Cedar Point. No, these places were a an odd assortment of random entertainment. I’m not sure how to describe it. The best I can do is show what I mean. For instance…

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In Đà Lạt, Vietnam, one of the most popular tourist spots is a place called Thung Lũng Tình Yêu, or the Valley of Love. For a admission fee, you can come in and enjoy the attractions (all which cost extra, by the way.)

For instance, with your loved one, you could

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Another park in Đà Lạt is Thung Lũng Vàng, or the Golden Valley. Here, you could

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There was one park that was particularly memorable, though.

We drove into the amusement park intending to just have lunch there. We had some time, though, so our group insisted on seeing the rest of the sights at the park. Pushing past the people at the entrance…

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…we walked down the deserted path. Huts of tables and chairs lined the road, obviously unused.

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First, we encountered a ball pit that I probably wouldn’t let my kids play in.

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A lovely, but somewhat random, garden followed.

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All sorts of statues and swings added to the decor.

Like this super cool dragon!

Like this super cool dragon!

For a fee, you could try the shooting gallery to win a pack of gum.

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There was a crocodile pond where you could pay to feed the crocodiles. It made me rather uncomfortable– after what I had seen in Australia, it was obvious that these crocs were overcrowded and unhealthy.

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The weirdest part, though, was the foot spa.

For a dollar, visitors could opt to have their feet “massaged” for a half hour. Amazingly cheap, right?! Probably because these little guys were going to be our masseuses.

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You see that right.

Fish. 

I’ve heard of these “Doctor Fish” before. They exist in the States, although they’ve been banned in many states for health and humanitarian reasons. Vietnam, it seems, doesn’t care much for strict regulations. Here, we paid our dollars and stuck our feet straight in.

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Having fish nip at your feet tickles like no other, man. We soon started a contest of who could attract the most fish to their feet– the fish swam away if you moved, so to accumulate a lot, you have to stay completely still. That’s no small task if you’re tickle-sensitive.

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I eventually got the hang of it, though.

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We left the amusement park entertained, but a little confused.

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Indeed, a lot of the places we saw in Vietnam felt a little like that. Children’s rides rusted and broken down by the street. Entire shores full of crumbling, vacated resorts. Other spots of eccentric, disjointed entertainment clearly targeting your wallet.

No matter where we went, though, it was always intriguing. Behind every shooting gallery, every rusted children’s ride, was a person trying to make ends meet. And where else could you get a $10 horseback ride? The amusement parks really were, well, amusing. 

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Tourist traps usually have a negative connotation. They lack authenticity. They’re designed to take your money. All of this is true. Yet sometimes, they become an experience all their own. When I think about it, I sure wouldn’t be able to find any of that stuff in America.

Yes, I’ll admit it: I was ensnared in the Vietnamese tourist trap. And I’d gladly be caught in it again.

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