Recently I returned to Thailand on a brief business trip. It was a very interesting experience being back in the country where I lived for four years before coming to Vietnam. Sometimes it requires a bit of distance to put things into perspective. I must make things clear; I really love both countries and would never even consider living outside of Southeast Asia at this point in my life. However there are frustrations, as anyone who has ever lived here will tell you. This is not a very scientific study, merely a few observations. Which is best, Vietnam or Thailand?
1. Taxi Drivers, Motorbikes, Cyclos and Songthaews.
The first most noticeable difference is the taxis. I find in Vietnam, as long as you stick with Vinasun and Mai Linh, the drivers are cool. They never refuse to take you, automatically put the clock on, are clean and smartly dressed and whilst struggling to understand us sometimes are incredibly honest and polite. Thai taxi drivers are, for the most part, arseholes, there really is no other word for it. In Bangkok, they will refuse to even carry you anywhere if they are not in the mood for work, and Thai taxi drivers are not often in the mood for work. Pattaya is worse, it is almost impossible to get one to go anywhere without paying 200THB, and you can forget the meter. Why spend hours driving when you can put your seat back and sleep all day, then take money off your sister who’s working her arse off in a beer bar?
Motorbike taxis are more readily available and certainly more recognisable in Thailand. In Bangkok these guys used to be ok, I used the same team near my apartment everyday and once they get to know you they are pretty cool. In Pattaya, it can again be rip off city. When you get off the bus you are likely to be quoted 100THB for a trip that should be 40. Again, they would prefer to sit all day doing nothing rather than charge a reasonable amount and actually earn some money. Some of the guys who work in Pattaya town centre, can be ok. As a general rule they should be about 50% of a taxi meter.
Cyclos don’t exist in Thailand and so there is no comparison. As a rule in Vietnam it is always best to negotiate a price with them first, as they will be more than ready to quote a ridiculous fee at the end of the journey. The famous Pattaya Songthaews, or baht buses are terrific, and as long as they operate I would never ever use a taxi, there. There are two types, the ones that simply drive round in circles and you pay 10THB. Then there are the others who drive looking for customers and quote a fare. Whilst it is not always easy to tell them apart, you get used to it like anything else. As a rule, just make sure you get in one that already has customers in. For some reason in Bangkok, the Sonthaews only operate in certain areas.
Tuk tucks are a mode of transport that I would never use in Bangkok. They are uncomfortable, difficult to see out of because the roof is too low and they are normally a rip off. They don’t exist in Vietnam, to any degree.
Vietnam or Thailand? It’s sort of Vietnam for Taxis, Thailand for the Baht Buses and a draw on the motorbikes.
2. Bar and service staff
Now here there is an enormous difference. Service staff members are better trained in Vietnam and, whilst some of the old dogs who have been around a long time might disagree, are more helpful, more polite and more honest. Of course bar girls in Bangkok and Pattaya are there for a lot more reasons than pouring drinks. Their main, if not sole purpose is to get you to buy them drinks then take them home. Many a foreigner will get close to having his face slapped when moving from Thailand to Vietnam.
Vietnam girls are also more helpful. Asking for anything in Vietnam will be met with a smile and a genuine attempt to help. On this trip I asked to plug my laptop in and was told abruptly “No!” That would never happen in a Saigon bar. Again on this trip, when I bought a Thai SIM card I asked a girl if she had a pin or needle to remove my iPhone card holder. Again I got a disinterested “No.” However upon asking another girl she couldn’t have been more helpful, got a needle, put the card in, activated it and added the credit, and to the amazement of her unhelpful colleague, got a drink.
Both countries seem to have an uncanny inability to serve food to customers. It is unbelievable how many times you will go in a restaurant with a friend and eat separately. Normally the rice comes first and as you sit watching it go cold, eventually one main course will arrive. Just as one of you finishes eating the other main course arrives. This is definitely worse in Thailand. Though in both countries higher end establishments have decent staff.
In shops the Vietnamese are more polite and helpful, the Thais are not bad but can get it horribly wrong. It’s more a case of not knowing rather than not caring. Both have some very strange ideas regarding bagging your purchases. In a 7 eleven once in Bangkok I bought 6 litre cartons of orange juice and a copy of the Bangkok Post, the girl on the till put the orange juice in one bag and the newspaper in another! In the Circle K shops in Saigon they have a habit of putting drinking water bottles horizontal, making it impossible to get the handles to meet in order to carry them. I went in one shop on Thao Dien wearing my crash helmet and bought 10 cans of beer. The girl asked if I wanted a bag, very strange.
Vietnam or Thailand? Vietnam wins for me.
Thailand is legendary, there are more bars there than in Vietnam. Whilst Bangkok appears to be buzzing, Pattaya is truly exploding. It is astonishing, each time I go the place seems to have doubled in size. There are literally thousands and thousands of beer bars, girlies bars, go-go bars, nightclubs, discos you name it. The Thai authorities keep making noises about curtailing their activities, but that’s not going to happen any day soon. The ladyboys have moved in big style and now at a rough guess must make up about 10% of the bar population. That might not sound high, but when you factor in that there are an estimated half a million working girls in Pattaya it puts a number on it. I never used to like Pattaya, but meeting up with old friends for a couple of days, meant that I had a blast. Mind you it would have been fun, anywhere.
No matter what you want you can get it in Thailand. Some bars are full on hostess bars where the girls make it very clear that their intention is to come home with you. There are go-go bars that are everything from demur girls in dresses to girls dancing totally naked. Some of the modern style clubs are incredibly well designed and decorated. They have hundreds of girls working in one club. It can be everything from classy to seedy but it is certainly entertaining.
But the fact is, Thailand has everything. If you want to go out after girls, there are thousands, if you want a sports bar to watch the big game, there are hundreds; restaurants, nightclubs, quiet cosy pubs and just about everything else, exists in very big numbers.
Saigon on the other hand has a relatively, few bars congregated in a small area of District 1, a load on Bui Vien then just a scattering throughout the city. In the whole of District 2 where I live, there are only half a dozen or so Western style bars. The bar girls are much more, simply service girls here and whilst, I know that some do involve themselves in extra curricula activities, the vast majority do not. There are some of the seedier types of bars but it really is nothing compared to Patpong, Nana, Cowboy or Pattaya, which prides itself on its Sodom and Gemorrah image.
Vietnam or Thailand? Thailand wins this one.
I have come to the conclusion after 18 months in Vietnam that the Vietnamese don’t even know what a massage is. Suffering as I do from a medical condition that causes me a great deal of leg pain, it is sometimes nice to have a foot massage or a full body oil massage. I have only found one place in Saigon that comes close to knowing how to massage, and predictably that is a Thai place, in District 2. The Thais are brilliant. I went in one as soon as I arrived and told the woman of my problems. I had a one hour foot massage followed by a one hour body massage and the difference afterwards was terrific. The whole 2 hours cost 290 THB (VND200). The Vietnamese idea of simply pressing until it hurts like hell is ridiculous. No matter how many times I tell them that they cannot press on my back, they do. I have never enjoyed a massage in a Vietnamese massage shop and every single time the pain has been too much.
Of course many of the massage shops in Thailand are offering a lot more than a massage, but it is easy to tell the difference between the real massage places and the knocking shops. Here in Vietnam, on a recent trip to Vung Tao, I stopped the girl after about 40 minutes as she was texting and massaging my back one handed. I refused to pay a single cent. That was easily the worst ever.
Vietnam or Thailand? The worst Thai massage I’ve ever had was better than the best Vietnamese one I’ve ever had.
This is a difficult one and definitely a contentious one, as it all comes down to personal preference. It is hard to be completely objective about ones palette. For me Thai along with Japanese food is the best in the world. I have many friends who tell me that Vietnamese food is fabulous, but on personal experience I have to say that I have had more bad meals in Vietnam that anywhere in Southeast Asia. When it’s good it’s great, but far too often for me, it falls short. Bangkok has everything; for me one of the greatest gourmet cities in the world. Pattaya being, as it is aimed, at Westerners has thousands of outlets selling Western food. It simply doesn’t appeal for me at all. The idea of coming to Southeast Asia to eat burger and chips or fish and chips or chips and chips, is ridiculous. When in Rome do as the Romans as they say, or, as they say in Manchester when in Hulme. . .
In Thailand though, there are though, plenty of restaurants and street vendors selling fantastic Thai food. One of my personal favourites, Larb Moo cost me 80THB (VND50) with rice, vegetables and a glass of water. The portion was huge and the dish was perfect. In Vietnam, the street food is pretty good. The staples of Banh Mi or Pho are both fabulous and I enjoy them frequently. The problem is, that there is not a lot else that I find consistently good. There are some tremendous Vietnamese restaurants in Saigon and the standard of Western food options is excellent. Japanese food is also well represented.
Compare Saigon to Bangkok purely on street food and it is really a no brainer. Bangkok blows Saigon out of the water both for variety and quality.
Vietnam or Thailand? Possibly controversial, but I think Thailand wins this easy. There are some amazingly good restaurants in Saigon, but it can be very inconsistent. Bangkok though, for example, has more great restaurants than any city I have ever been to, and I’ve been to a lot.
6. The expat and holiday maker community
Again a contentious issue, I know from recent writings that many disagree with me but I think the general expat community in Saigon is exemplary. They add value to the city in which they have chosen to live and spend their hard earned money in local businesses. Holiday makers are in the main, passing through whether they be backpackers or people staying in the five star hotels. Business tourism is good and rising all the time.
Thailand can be is pretty grim at times. It is a common sight to see an expat staggering down the street in a drunken stupor at noon. The behaviour in the bars can be appalling and sadly is encouraged by girls sensing a few Baht coming their way. A huge number of tourists are Westerners looking for cheap thrills. They don’t come any cheaper nor any more thrilling, anywhere. Some of the old guys, who live there, are real train wrecks. Too many long nights and probably too many fights have left many in a bad way. My friends in the expat community in Thailand are amongst the most valued I have ever met, but there are many thousands of others who I wouldn’t want to get to know.
The whole feel in Saigon is different; it is gentler, better mannered and feels a lot safer. The influx of many Russians into Pattaya, for example, has unfortunately meant an increase in organised crime. It is hard not to sound racist, but their general lack of manners (admittedly by English Standards) is appalling. I lost count of the number of times I was pushed from behind by a Russian who obviously felt I was walking too slow; they push in front in shops and bars and make a lot of noise. On one occasion I was pushed to the ground by a Russian woman, her three colleagues, one woman and two men, just stepped over me. A group of Thai people picked me up. Expecting one to slide along in a baht bus is asking too much, expecting one to stand up for anyone, is really pushing it.
Backpackers used to really annoy me in Bangkok; I have covered this before. For some reason in Saigon they seem to behave a lot better. Sure it gets crazy on Bui Vien at the weekends, but they are generally a decent enough bunch. Thailand is one of the most popular backpacker destinations on the planet and seeing some rich little kid, pretending to be ‘on a budget’ can be irksome. It just seems to either attract or bring out the worst in people.
Vietnam or Thailand? Saigon wins this one with ease for me.
A year ago I would have had no doubt about my feelings on this, but the sad fact is, that Saigon has a problem at the moment. The recent spate of street crime and bag snatching is serious. When people are getting killed by these low-life people, it is time to act. However I see no sign of any action coming from anyone in authority.
I still feel though that Pattaya, for example, is worse. I simply would not walk down beach road late at night, and definitely would not on the beach side of the road. There is a lot of criminal activity here; it definitely has an uneasy air about it. That being said, Bangkok always feels completely safe.
A huge difference between the two countries is the attitude of the locals to trouble. Thais simply refuse to believe that their own people can be wrong. No matter what the cause if you get into a fight with a Thai, you are going to get severely hurt. It is not uncommon for 10 or 12 others, who had nothing to do with the incident to pile in and punch and kick the victim, long after he has gone down. This is not often the case in Vietnam. If a Vietnamese snatches your bag and you catch him, it is he that is more likely to be on the end of a group attack. As an elderly chap, I feel confident in Saigon that I won’t be attacked and if I were, help would come.
The Vietnamese are generally more honest. When I first moved to the city, I found the money very confusing. Handing over too much money seemed to be a regular occurrence. I obviously cannot tell if it was ever simply kept, but on so many occasions, the cashier immediately corrected me. Even the guys in the petrol stations, and they are not exactly the educated, well paid elite. Try this in Pattaya and you simply lose your money.
Ironically just as I was about to publish this, I witnessed an incident here in Saigon. I was riding past a motorbike repair shop in District 7 when an altercation happened right in front of me. I have no idea what the build up was, but an Australian guy simply lost it. He was squaring up to about four Vietnamese guys and grabbed one of them pushing him very aggressively. He was definitely ready to fight. The other guys, pulled their colleague away and got between the two, calming the situation down. The traffic stopped as Vietnamese do love to stare at things, but it just blew over. I honestly believe that in Thailand the Aussie fella would have taken a real beating.
Vietnam or Thailand? Vietnam wins in the honesty and civility stakes. Bangkok feels safer than Saigon at times, and Pattaya simply doesn’t. It’s a close call, but I think Vietnam probably just edges this.
And there you have it. As I say not very scientific and based purely upon my personal experiences. If yours are different please feel free to leave a comment below. I still love both countries and the positives are fantastic. The bottom line for me is that both countries win over my home country, England and truth be told, most of the places to which I have been. The worst city I have ever been in for street crime was surprisingly Barcelona. I guess it’s a world-wide problem. The service industry in the States is exceptional, though the expected tipping percentages are getting ridiculous. Australia and Canada were two of the most welcoming places I have spent time in. But having as I do, complete freedom to live where I wish, it is Southeast Asia for me, and at the moment Saigon.