Feeling much like the Vietnamese street vendor above, basic laziness kicked in when it came time to plan our recent trip to Vietnam. Bucking Experimental Expat tradition, we clamored over the big decision on how to plan the adventure and although Vietnam is both inexpensive and relatively easy to self-plan, we gave in and went with a customized private tour option. As one of the last places on our to-do list in Southeast Asia and knowing our time in the Eastern hemisphere is limited, we couldn’t decide between Hanoi and the north, Danang’s central beach region or the big city insanity of Saigon (nobody here calls it Ho Chi Minh City except the airlines so don’t correct me). So we gave in and let the experts at a German-based company come up with a regional vendor specializing in the area. While certainly not inexpensive, it’s easier than planning individual trips on planes, trains, and automobiles.
Clearly not the best or worst travel decision we’ve made since starting our experimental overseas early retirement, I’m 50/50 on booking a private tour for Southeast Asian destinations. While not quite good enough to endorse, it was very well organized. On paper, anyway. No strangers to private tours, we’ve had a host of professional guides enhance our best vacations with their expertise, great personality, and local knowledge. From rainforest expeditions in Borneo to wildlife viewing in Ecuador’s jungles, we’ve made lasting friendships with our guides and remain Facebook friends with all of them to this day. Usually taking Experimental Expat Destination Vacations where we’d combine bucket list hot spots with a potential future early retirement home, we often paid a premium when the income was still rolling in. And if you have the means, I’d highly recommend not skimping when it comes to specialized trips like our Galapagos Island trip on a luxury catamaran. But alas, things change drastically once you’re living on a fixed income and especially so when you’re potentially looking at a 40-year retirement. So I’ll focus a bit on the pros and cons of our Vietnamese guided tour.
Let’s start with one of the cons. As anyone living on planet earth knows, the USA’s gone downhill beyond everyone’s wildest dreams since The Orange Toddler Manchild became almighty emperor. While 90 million moron voters don’t care because they’ll never leave MAGA land, overseas expats in Asia understand how many decades behind the rest of the world Trumpland is when it comes to infrastructure. Blessed with modern airports, brand new 5G networks and new roads that aren’t crumbling, the European and Asian continents leave America in the Alabama dust. So when we tried to use our U.S.-based credit card to make a final payment on our guided tour, we learned that MasterCard uses an authentication technology that’s not even available at any U.S. bank. Wasting endless hours with customer service agents unable to explain why their institution’s security is light years behind Europe, we thought the trip was toast only 30 days before departure.
In addition to prices already at a premium to what you’d get if you booked all the accommodations, travel and attractions yourself, many private tour companies tack on an unreasonable fee for using a credit card. As a third-party provider, the company we chose matches your vacation request with a local proprietor and assigns a “Destination Expert” to act as your main contact. Allowing a less secure payment directly to the vendor, fees in most countries are even more insane (3.5% in Vietnam and 4% in China). So we went with their “payment plus” option which they justify as follows: (I’ve changed or excluded company names because I’m too lazy to ask permission for negative criticisms and litigation is best avoided when you live on a fixed income).
The platform is run by Widget Travel Expert Technologies GmbH, based in Berlin. Our finance department works closely with prestigious German banks and, since we’re based here in Germany, we’re subject to vigorous German financial laws.
Should you choose for xxx.com to mediate the booking process we will provide you with a secure payment process. Your payment will remain in our German account until shortly before your departure, allowing extra security and flexibility.
When you book your tour 20% of the payment will be used as a deposit. The remaining 80% can be paid up to 30 days prior to departure. When choosing xxx.com’s Payment Plus, we will cover any applicable credit card fees (excepting foreign transaction fees) as well as providing a number of other benefits for an additional 2.5% cost.
Having made our deposit payment six months ahead to get a 20% early bird booking discount, we planned on making the final payment just before it was due. Unbeknownst to us, the company’s finance department set up their payment system so it automatically defaults to MasterCard’s authentication software that’s way too advanced for America. All payments over $1,000 need to use the software so our payment failed. After several attempts, we contacted our destination expert in Vietnam who of course had no suggestions other than us contacting the company directly. Grateful for inexpensive VOIP technology, we made about six calls in the middle of the night to a nice woman in Germany who worked in the marketing department. After setting up four payment links that all failed, she finally worked out a solution two days later for us to pay via Pay-Pal which bypasses the authentication system assuming you have an account. So the next time you hear ads from Bank of America or Chase bragging about their technology, keep this story in mind. Globalization in America refers to billionaires and corrupt presidents and not your U.S. bank’s credit card.
Notwithstanding the payment fiasco, we were impressed with the company’s logistics ahead of the trip. Corresponding many times over the course of a few months to fine tune all the details of our itinerary, the entire trip is customizable right up until and including the trip itself. Seemingly well versed in English, our contact addressed all of our rather strange requests that included a list of 17 different regional street foods we hoped to eat on the trip. Having seen them all on a YouTube video from a Canadain based millennial that hosts a show called The Food Ranger, our guide assured us she knew most of them and our “expert guides” would easily lead us to all of them. (Dinners are mostly not included on this company’s guided tours which can be a pro or con depending on where you are).
Sadly, the Vietnamese guides were a million miles behind the experts we talked about earlier in Ecuador, Borneo and Costa Rica. Accustomed to professionally schooled experts with real training, we’re told the company claims that their guides are all “licensed” but that meant about as much as chiropractor calling himself a medical doctor. Assigning us three different guides according to the region we traveled in, they ranged from horrible to good to better in that order. Exhibiting very unprofessional behavior, our first guide in Saigon talked so much we couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Extremely opinionated and somewhat unable to adapt to a modern world of tourists, she couldn’t set up our SIM card, had no idea how to use Google Maps or a GPS and made no attempts whatsoever at getting to know us at all.
Teamed with a driver that refused to stop for coffee despite numerous requests, he spoke no English and was constantly sparring with the guide in Vietnamese. Learning later that stopping even for two seconds anywhere in the insanity of Saigon’s traffic is subject to immediate fines, the Vietnamese are clearly fearful of authority. Technically still a Communist government, it’s a complete contradiction to Thailand and Malaysia where everyone literally does anything they want on the roads knowing there’s zero enforcement of any traffic laws. Worse than that, our guide was very inflexible and so overbearing, she wanted to follow us through our tour of the War Remnants Museum and even tried to tell us foreigners aren’t allowed in without a local guide which was a crock of shit. (I’ll write an entire post dedicated to the museum which is by far the best and most emotionally powerful museum anywhere in Southeast Asia).
Repeatedly telling us that she’s been doing this for years and never had any complaints, we resorted to tuning her out with headphones. Texting our concerns to our destination expert, she did ask us if we wanted a replacement which was great attention to detail but given the short stay in Saigon, we mostly ignored her and chalked it up to being in a nation with 90 million mostly poor citizens adapting to Vietnam’s recent surge of economic activity. Remembering that Vietnam isn’t an expensive specialty destination like The Galapagos Islands or the national parks of the Ecuadorian Amazon, we nevertheless didn’t have a favorable first impression of Vietnamese tourism. Much more gruff than the always smiley Thai people, the Vietnamese are mostly indifferent to tourists, don’t go out of their way to help and clearly have a more stern view of being left behind by all the five-star hotels for foreigners and investment dollars pouring into the country that squeezes them out more each day.
One of the pros of using a private tour company is they usually provide predetermined itineraries that you can accept or customize. Saving us a lot of reading, I’d honestly say they covered a lot of highlights of each region but the delivery by the guides fell short of expectations. Researching our entire trip to Cambodia for instance, I personally chose which temples to visit at Angor Wat and found boutique hotels that matched our expectations. Adding to the list of negatives at the beginning of our trip, the hotel staff at Saigon’s Sanouva Hotel paid no attention to our special requests.
Specifically asking for a high floor away from any major late night noise, our contact assured us this she wrote this into the itinerary. Instead, they gave us a third-floor room (out of 10) that faced a local restaurant that turns into a karaoke nightmare at bedtime and continues until 2 AM or later. Complaining to the manager and our contact, they couldn’t change our room until the next night. Granted this might happen even if you book yourself, but part of the idea of paying extra for a guided tour is not dealing with shit like inebriated working-class locals partying right outside your hotel window. Having said that, you may be wondering exactly what’s on the itinerary of a private customized guided tour. Once again deleting names and copyrighted pictures, here’s a PDF showing what we (mostly) received.
As many travel reviews attest, sometimes the marketing material and pictures look great but fall short of expectations. In the expensive world-class rainforest lodges we’d visited, we got exactly what was on the stated itinerary even during inclement weather. Not really following the descriptions or times very carefully, the other two guides besides Saigon were laid mostly back and didn’t provide much history, insight or anecdotes as tourism professionals should. Mostly not knowing the answers to questions, the guy in Danang had a realistic cynicism about Vietnam’s future and would clearly leave if he could. Contrasting him, the guide in Hanoi was more optimistic about his future path but offered no opinions on the government, capitalism or “The American War of Aggression” (what the Vietnamese call the Vietnam War). Unlike Thailand, where citizens clearly want a representative government but are mostly prohibited by the military junta from protesting or criticizing, Vietnam came off more like an extension of China to us where the people live by the hammer and sickle propaganda billboards you see all over extolling their great nation.
And finally, maybe you’re wondering how many of the 17 street food items we got to eat. Surprisingly, most of the guides either didn’t know what some of them were, had no clue where to send us to get them or gave us either generalized or inaccurate directions. Sorely disappointed with their lack of food knowledge given the cornucopia of amazing street food in Vietnam, it’s nothing like the three standard items in the westernized version of Vietnamese food (Pho, vermicelli with pork and spring rolls). While we did get at least half of the list, it took a lot of independent roaming that a private guide should’ve been able to assist with. I’d also add that in the lodges and special trips like on catamarans, the guides obviously can’t leave. In developing countries, there’s always some reason why they need to shirk some of the assignment because they need to go somewhere or attend to some family issues. While I’m obviously fine with a family emergency that needs someone’s attention, their job is usually just something they need to do to make money and if they can cut it short, they usually will.
Here’s a PDF of all the food we requested and a gallery of some amazing stuff we ate. Now that I’ve detailed the skinny on using a guided tour company, I’ll focus my upcoming posts of what we did, saw and ate.
Unlike Thailand and Indonesia, there’s no “visa exempt” entry allowed for Americans. (Here’s a link with visa requirements for all other countries). Using the Vietnamese government’s EVisa service is by far the easiest way to obtain one. Be advised that there’s no rhyme or reason to response times. Applying simultaneously using the same credit card, Diane got hers in 12 hours while mine took a ridiculous six days so don’t wait until the last minute. There’s also an alternative method whereby someone “introduces you”. Requiring a letter that you obtain ahead of time, usually from an agent, you then have to stand on a separate line at customs and wait upwards of a half hour or more so I don’t know why anyone would use that option. Ironically, our tour company includes the introductory letter service as part of the package cost and convincing our contact that we’d use the Evisa wasn’t easy.
So now the ball is in your court. Guided tour or self-planned planned itinerary? We were thinking of going to China before we leave Asia next year but given the daily uncertainty of the Toddler Trade War, we’ve decided to consider Italy instead. Leaning towards using Lonely Planet, the internet, and some good old fashioned research, I think I’ll we’ll say Ciao Bella to personalized guided tours for a while. Cheers from still insanely hot Northen Thailand.