The country by motorbike, one province at a time.
Tom is the London-born motorbiker behind independent travel blog Vietnam Coracle. Having visited all of the country’s 58 provinces and five municipalities, he’s amassed a huge database of guides to travelling Vietnam, and he’s still not done. Word got his views on motorbike machismo, sustainable tourism and where to find the best food.
You first visited Vietnam as a teenager in 1999. What do you remember about that trip?
Bicycles! In 1999, this was my first impression of Vietnam, while riding in a taxi from Tan Son Nhat Airport to the city centre. There were thousands of them: not motorbikes, not cars; bicycles.
Where have you lived in Vietnam?
I’ve paid rent in Saigon ever since I arrived, 10 years ago. I’m certainly not nomadic — I’ve always had a solid base; family, friends and a place to call ‘home’ — but I am a restless traveller, always thinking about my next trip.
I was a bit shocked to discover that you drive a Yamaha Nuovo, which I always consider a bike for the city more than rural adventures.
Ah yes, Stavros, my trusty motorbike. 150,000km over eight years, and I’ve rarely had any serious problems. It’s done everything I’ve asked of it; it’s smooth to ride; it rarely breaks down; and it has character, more so the older it gets.
You focus a lot on food in your guides. What have been your favorite food finds on the road?
The best food in Vietnam is nearly always found in the unlikeliest of places. The first time I ate hen, those little tiny clams in lemongrass and chilli, was in a corrugated iron shack, 30km inland from Vinh, not far from Ho Chi Minh’s birth place in Kim Lien.
Often, food tastes better precisely because of the unusual nature of the surroundings. I’m always suspicious of places that have clearly spent a lot of time and money on their decor and interior design: have they paid the same amount of attention to their food?
Tourism in Vietnam is rapidly developing. Which destinations have you seen change the most?
Phu Quoc stands out the most. When I first visited, there was only one paved road on the island. Now there are wide blades of tarmac leading in all directions. The southern end of Long Beach and Dai Beach, in the northwest of the island, were sublime spots, where you really were the only person on a long, golden stretch of sand. They are both subject to huge development projects now.
What do you think Vietnam needs to do to sustainably develop this industry?
I like the initiatives that work with local people to promote tourism. Mai Chau did this well; encouraging the White Thai people, who live in that pretty valley, to open their traditional homes and way of life to foreign tourists in the form of homestays.
Foreign travellers love this, because it fits their romantic idea of what rural Vietnam should be. But, increasingly, young, urban Vietnamese, pining for the countryside and nostalgic for a way of life that belonged to former generations, also love it.
Of course there are problems with this kind of tourism, too. These projects subsidise a traditional way of life that many rural people want to leave behind. But at least it works with local people, plays to their strengths by focusing on skills they already have, and they are the ones who benefit from it.
What has been the most rewarding thing about keeping your blog?
Now my travels have a purpose. Because of this, I am more engaged with Vietnam: its food, people, culture, history, landscape and language. And, because many of my guides focus of less trodden parts of Vietnam, I like to think that Vietnam’s tourist buck is spread out a little more evenly.
Where are you headed on your next trip?
I just got back from a road trip to the western Mekong Delta, so now I’m in need of some mountains or coast. On some trips, I have a clear idea of where I’m going and what I’m going to write about; other times, I take it as it comes and see where it leads me. I have more ideas than I have time for, and I’m certainly not worried that I’ll run out of things to do and places to see in Vietnam, ever.
To see Tom’s blog, click on vietnamcoracle.com