Lonely Planet guidebooks have been a staple for world travellers since the 1970s.

For curious travellers plotting their first trip to Vietnam, buying a copy of Lonely Planet Vietnam from their local bookshop or picking one up on their travels, meant for the first time they could differentiate between places like Phong Nha and Hai Phong.

It has for much of its life been quite literally the backpacker’s most-guarded travel companion and was rarely out of arm’s reach during any trip.

As Vietnam became a pit-stop on the Southeast Asia backpacker itinerary in the late 1990s, a 1999 edition was published, which included several fascinating titbits of an outsider’s view of the country at the time, and some scarily accurate premonitions of what was to come. 

The Bureau took a look at how descriptions in the book compare with the Vietnam of 2020 and we also managed to grab a few words with one of the book’s two authors, Mason Florence.

A journey back through time

Nha Trang beach. Photo: Trung Pham Quoc on Unsplash

The Vietnam of 1999 is depicted as being awash with potential for tourists, but it’s still a long way off from being the regional tourism powerhouse that it is today.

A trip through the country is described as being ‘almost like a journey back through time.’ 

Take Nha Trang, for example.

Anyone who has spent time in the beachside city recently will recognise this delicious foreshadowing of things to come.

It says, ‘Club Med hasn’t arrived yet, there are still no Monte Carlo-style casinos and only a couple of neon signs are visible’. 

‘Nevertheless, this area has the potential to become another flashy resort like Thailand’s Pattaya Beach, dread the thought, but that will probably take a few more years,’ it warns.

Nha Trang has since taken its cues from Thailand, and perhaps, if you are being unkind, a low-budget Mediterranean resort town.

In 2020, it’s a full-fat and, at times, garish paean to mass tourism. The sleepy beach town of before is a distant memory.

Similarly, clues are there for what Halong Bay would become.

It says the beach in Halong City is ‘basically just mud and rock’, a problem the authorities are trying to ‘correct’. 

‘A Taiwanese company has a contract to build a beach in Bai Chay with imported sand. It should be interesting to see what that amounts to,’ it says.

Whilst not a patch on the more ‘real’ beaches scattered around Halong Bay, today, thousands of international and domestic tourists flock to the artificial beach every summer time.

Ha Long Bay. Photo: Taylor Simpson on Unsplash

Tourism in Saigon was also struggling in 1999 according to the guidebook, where it says a decline in tourism has produced a ‘glut’ of unwanted hotel space. 

‘At the time of writing there were about a dozen half-finished luxury hotels in Saigon stalled mid-construction and locals say they may never be opened,’ it reads, before opining the recent loss of a Saigon legend.

‘Even the famed Saigon Floating Hotel recently shut its doors and was towed from the Saigon River to Palau in the western Pacific.’

The guidebook places some of the blame on the ‘social evils’ campaign of the mid 90s, when the government declared that evil ideas from the West were polluting Vietnamese society.

Police were ordered to destroy English signs, and companies like Coca-Cola and Sony watched ‘helplessly in disbelief’ as their multi-million dollar advertising campaigns were ‘annihilated by enthusiastic vigilantes.’

“The Floater”. Photo: thanhniennews.com

End of an era

Many people would buy Lonely Planet for food and drink recommendations, and only those who were around at the time can vouch for whether Annie’s Pizza was the best pepperoni in Saigon. 

But long before the green Grab jacket and helmet became ubiquitous in the city, the guidebook recommends the cyclo as the best way to get around and visit bars or eateries.

However, the 90s signalled the end of an era for the humble three-wheeler.

A few years after publication, cyclos would be banned and deemed by authorities as cumbersome annoyances, blocking perfectly good street space for cars.

In the current air pollution and congestion crisis of 2020, this decision might have been hasty, as Lonely Planet ’99 predicts. 

‘There are presently 51 streets on which cyclos are prohibited to ride. Perhaps the authorities would have served the city better by allowing the quiet and atmospheric cyclos carte blanche and forcing the smoke-spewing cars to take an alternative route.’

‘Cyclos also give you the moral superiority that comes with knowing you’re being kinder to the environment – much kinder than all those drivers on whinking, smoke-spewing motorbikes,’ it adds.

Lonely Planet ’99 also comments on other, more living and breathing, endangered species. 

Tragically,’ it reads, ‘Vietnam’s wildlife is in a precipitous decline,’ adding that in 1999 there are thought to be fewer than 20 kouprey and between 20 and 30 Javan rhinoceros left in the country.

The last Javan rhinoceros in Vietnam was shot and killed by a poacher in 2010, and the species is now officially extinct as deforestation, hunting and the black market have seen once abundant species wiped out entirely.

There has been a fightback, however, and species once thought extinct, such as the mouse deer, was rediscovered in 2019.

But this area is still a work-in-progress, with 12 endangered species currently under threat, including the Vietnamese Pheasant and the Indochinese Tiger.

Cyclo and tourist. Photo: Minh Pham on Unsplash

It’s the economy, stupid

In the 21 years since the 1999 edition was published, Vietnam’s economy has been transformed.

It is then described as being ‘one of the poorest countries in Asia with an estimated per capita income of less than US$300 a year and £1.4 billion in hard currency debts.’

Unable to pay these loans, ‘Vietnam has been unofficially bankrupt since the 1980s,’ it adds.

A year after the book was published, Vietnam signed a historic trade agreement with the United States and in 1999 began negotiations to join the World Trade Organisation, which they would finally join in 2008.

Today the country holds its own in the region and has seen GDP skyrocket from US$300 in 1999 to US$2,300, helped on, in part, by a buoyant tourism industry, pre-COVID 19.

As the economy has opened up, so have attitudes towards the internet.

The late 90s were a time where the government authorities, ‘perhaps feeling threatened by the prospect of too much information flowing freely from the outside world,’ closed down all internet cafes and confiscated computers.

Mercifully, according to the guidebook, they were cautiously beginning to re-emerge and ‘hopefully this time they’re here to stay.’

Vietnam today is now one of the biggest internet users in the world.

By the end of this year, it’s projected that there will be over 63 million internet users.

Nearly all of these people are on Facebook, with netizens now able to share their opinions on most things in the country, both good and not-so-good.

Just don’t mention the sharks.

Saigon’s Landmark 81. Photo: Tron Le on Unsplash

The forbidden dance

Tourists are told to be wary of the rule of law ‘which barely exists’.

In 1999, the book says scams are rife, muggings are coming back ‘with a vengeance’ and police corruption is everywhere.

However, there is a helpful tip in case you do get into a spot of bother. Still fair, I wonder?

‘Most legal disputes are settled out of court. In general, you can accomplish more with a carton of cigarettes and a bottle of good cognac than you can with a lawyer.’

Nightlife was also beginning to see a resurgence in the 90s, after a period where ‘dens of iniquity’ were shut down in the late 80s.

Karaoke bars are everywhere even if they are as ‘unappealing to Westerners as roasted gecko with shrimp paste’.

‘Young people unable to afford a night on the town often create impromptu discos with tape players and pirated rock music cassettes from the West,’ it adds.

However ‘certain forms of dancing, like Brazil’s erotic dance, the lambada, remain banned.’

OK, I had to Google the lambada. But as far as I know it is no longer outlawed, time for a comeback?

Interview with Mason Florence, the author of Lonely Planet Vietnam 1999

B: When did you first visit Vietnam and how did you get involved with Lonely Planet? 

MF: My first visit to Vietnam was in 1989, and I made regular trips there in the early 90s. I was originally hired by Lonely Planet to work on their books in Japan, where I was living at the time. And in 1996 they were suddenly looking for a new author to take over their Vietnam guide, and by virtue of the fact that there were still relatively few people out there with considerable travel experience there, I got the gig. Stroke of luck really.

B: Have you visited Vietnam recently? If so, where did you visit and what were your thoughts compared to your early memories of the country?  

MF: I was a regular visitor to Vietnam all the way through the 90s and early 2000s, and spent even more time there when I was working for the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MTCO) from 2004 to 2009.

The past few years I’ve been focussed elsewhere, but do miss it, and I’m astounded by all of the recent changes. Frankly, it’s almost unrecognisable from my early days of Vietnam travel; mostly for the better, but somehow I do miss the days of flying around on ancient Tupolevs, being pointed at and called a Russian by local kids, and needing to carry separate travel permits to move from one region of the country to another. Yeah, those were different days.

B: How has the travelling experience changed for someone visiting Vietnam compared to the 90s?

MF: Of course it’s far easier to travel in Vietnam now with all of the modernisation and tourism development, but at the same time it’s harder to avoid the crowds. 

One of the biggest differences nowadays is that there’s a massive domestic travel market, so it’s not just foreigners on the road there.

Millions of Vietnamese are exploring their country now, when back in the 90s, tourism was only a distant dream for most.

B: There are a lot of forewarnings in the book, particularly around the environment. Since the 90s, how have countries like Vietnam (and Thailand, where I see you are based) done when balancing economic growth with protecting the environment and natural habitats? 

MF: One of the great things about Vietnam is that once the government decides to do something for society or the environment, it tends to really do it, while in certain other countries in the region it’s hard to change the status quo. 

One example is the law requiring people to wear helmets when riding a motorbike, enacted after mortality statistics from road accidents inspired change; one day there were millions of people riding around with no head protection, and practically the next day it was sorted, saving lives. And it’s stuck to this day, which makes it the safety leader in the region. Same with taxi riff-raff – one day it was scam city, worst country around, and another day they introduced metre cabs that actually use the metre.

I’m not so well versed on recent environmental issues, but would imagine that there are positive signs.

B: Many long-term Saigon residents I met looked back at the city in the 90s fondly as a time before overdevelopment, Western-style shopping malls, congestion, air pollution and the demolition of many historic buildings. Is nostalgia helpful? Or can it mask ways that the city has improved?

MF: Well I’m for sure as nostalgic as anyone for the pre-overdevelopment days, but you need to look at both sides of the coin. There’s something to be said for refrigeration, days without regular black outs, and a much more free and open society.

B: Are Lonely Planet guidebooks still relevant to travellers in 2020? 

MF: I’m a firm believer in Lonely Planet guides, and still use them myself. Of course Facebook, Instagram the blog-o-sphere can tell you a lot of places to eat, drink and be merry. A well-written guidebook can provide context, and a more contemplative travel experience. Especially in print, words on paper not screens. But what do I know, I’m old fashioned!

Words by Thomas Barrett. Follow him on Instagram at @thomasbarrett35mm

Special thanks to Mason Florence

Feature photo by Steve Douglas on Unsplash