First published January 2023 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
Tom Divers is the founder and creator of Vietnam Coracle. He’s lived, travelled and worked in Vietnam since 2005. Born in London, he travelled from an early age, visiting over 40 countries (he first visited Vietnam in 1999). Now, whenever he has the opportunity to make a trip, he rarely looks beyond Vietnam’s borders and his trusty motorbike, Stavros. Read more about Tom on the About Page, Vietnam Times and ASE Podcast.
Last year in Vietnam was significant for many reasons, both general and personal. 2022 began with the pandemic still dominating our lives, but ended with life across the nation back to ‘normal’. 12 months ago, domestic travel was booming, but Vietnam’s borders were still closed to international visitors; by the end of the year, foreign travellers were pouring into the country again. For me, 2022 began and ended with memorable camping trips with friends: on Dragon Beach and in the pine forests near Dalat. It was a year in which I finally left my temporary home during the fourth wave on Phú Quốc Island after 10 months and returned to my familiar routine back in Saigon, struggling to readjust to city life and work. 2022 was the year Vietnam Coracle celebrated its 10th anniversary and adopted a new logo, as well as publishing articles by contributing writers for the first time. In 2022 my website recovered its traffic to pre-pandemic levels, but not its revenue. It was a big year.
2022 YEAR-END REVIEW
Reflecting on a Year of Change & Travel in Post-Pandemic Vietnam
This end of year review is a brief summary of some aspects of 2022 that have stood out for me – personally, professionally and generally, but with a focus on travel in post-pandemic Vietnam. I’ve written about some of my favourite travel experiences of the year, a short assessment of the state of travel in Vietnam after the pandemic, an overview of new developments and the general health of this website, and some personal thoughts.
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Travel Highlights of 2022:
Being back on the road regularly in 2022 was great. Even though I’d been very fortunate and spent all of the national lock-down during the fourth wave in relative freedom on Phú Quốc Island, I still missed the sensation of hitting the road on the mainland with the entire country before me, full of travel possibilities: west to the cool and fragrant mountains; east to the warm and benevolent beaches; south to the culture and commerce of the Delta; north to the history-soaked cities and big scenery of the central and northern provinces.
Solo On The Road: In January, I left Phú Quốc for the first time since May, 2021, and took my motorbike on the ferry to the charming mainland town of Hà Tiên. From here I went on a celebratory month-long road trip up through the Mekong Delta via the sacred mountains along the Cambodian border, bypassing Saigon by crossing the river on the Cần Giuộc ferry, continuing to Vũng Tàu and along the coast road to Phan Thiet before turning inland up to Dalat for a few days of coffee shop-hopping. When the Tết Lunar New Year vacation started, I took to the road again with my tent and camped for a week alone in the highlands along the Pine Tree Road and the valleys of Ninh Thuận Province, before hitting the coast at Nha Trang and retracing my route all the way back to Phú Quốc. The freedom to move around again after a year of travel restrictions, the vibrancy of the informal dining scenes in each in every town, the youthfulness, energy and palpable optimism of the local populations, and the physical space and variety of landscape were all exhilarating and intensely enjoyable.
Côn Đảo & Company: During this long solo road trip I missed the company that I had grown accustomed to during the pandemic and on my various explorations while on Phú Quốc Island. Consequently, I made an effort in 2022 to travel more with friends, especially short trips. I visited the Côn Đảo Islands five times with several of my closest friends. The archipelago was as enchanting as ever – more so because I hadn’t visited since 2018. But, besides the obvious beauty of the islands, my best memories are of shared activities: swimming together at dawn, breakfast and coffee on backstreet sidewalks in the morning sunshine, sweaty hikes through the rugged and jungled interior, beach football at dusk, and long local dinners, filled with conversation as much as food. On these trips to the islands, it became obvious to me that the Côn Đảo Archipelago is the most unspoiled natural environment accessible to travellers anywhere in Vietnam. Everyone should go, because it won’t last.
The Damp Mountain: I left my house in Saigon at 2am to ride through the rain to meet my friend on a boulder on the eastern slopes of Núi Dinh Mountain by 5am, where we could watch the sunrise and spend the rest of the day trekking in the forests and peaks. But the cloud, mist and rain never lifted: it was the single wettest day I can remember in Vietnam. From 2am when I left my house, until 8pm when we checked into a guesthouse in Bà Rịa for the night, the rain fell. And yet, it was a memorable trip. As we sheltered from the rain – under trees, beneath tarpaulins and sheets of corrugated iron, next to open fires in mountain shacks, in shopfronts and doorways – we talked, ate our snacks, drank our flasks of hot coffee, and watched the rain and cloud drift across ‘our’ mountain. The air was damp and mellow with an autumnal scent rising from the forest floor; it was fresh, clean, cleansing. Despite the weather, we persevered with our hike and reached the peak, so when we arrived back at the foot of the mountain after dark, we were hungry and our clothing was soaked. I knew a place from a few years back – not really a ‘restaurant’, but a front yard of a family home. The warm proprietress grilled us crispy pork belly, barbecued chicken, and a whole roasted fish served with fresh herbs, spicy dipping sauces and pickled cabbage. And so our day ended, as it often does in Vietnam, with an outstanding meal.
Vietnam officially reopened its borders to international visitors in mid-March, 2022. In reality, it was at least another month or two before travel to the nation became a genuine possibility for most people. This was a big step: Vietnam’s borders had been closed since March 2020 and, as a result, its tourism industry has suffered tremendously. However, thanks to a thriving domestic tourism market and long periods when the pandemic was under control, the travel industry kept ticking over, just about. But, the months-long national lock-down in the second half of 2021 put at end to this: domestic travel came to a grinding halt. The reopening of borders was highly publicized in Vietnam and there was much excitement, not just domestically, but internationally. When I published an article in March about the reopening it was the most-read post on my website on any single day since I started Vietnam Coracle 10 years ago. Clearly, people were excited about the prospect of travelling to Vietnam post-pandemic.
But the reopening was slow and disorganized. Covid protocols for international arrivals were unclear and the hospitality industry wasn’t ready – or comfortable – with an influx of foreign guests. Most travellers were unwilling to put their money and time into a trip to Vietnam that could potentially be a logistical disaster. On top of this, the tourist visa situation was a bit of a mess. As the year moved on, however, pandemic concerns faded from people’s thoughts, Covid conditions were relaxed, and international travellers began to flow back into Vietnam from all over the world. Everything was open, travellers could go anywhere, do anything.
Nonetheless, by the end of the year the domestic media reflected negatively on Vietnam’s tourism revival. The nation had failed to reach its fairly modest target of 5 million international visitors in 2022 and Vietnam lagged far behind its regional rivals, particularly Thailand. The main reason for this was generally agreed to be the visa situation, which will surely need to be addressed early in the new year if Vietnam is to reach its 2023 target of 8 million foreign visitors. But another major factor was the absence of Chinese tourists due to their government’s zero-Covid policy and a lingering hesitancy to travel among wealthy Northeast Asian nations, such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, who collectively account for the vast majority of Vietnam’s tourists. To get an idea of the scale of the recovery facing Vietnam’s tourism industry, the nation’s figures for 2019 – the last year before the pandemic – were 19 million international visitors; today that number is 3.5 million.
Statistics aside, Vietnam feels good, ready, alive, buoyant, thriving. I travelled regularly in 2022 and was not inhibited at all: transportation was running efficiently, hotels, restaurants and street food outlets were operating and busy, sights and attractions were open and well-maintained, and Vietnam’s landscapes looked fantastic. The country is ready and waiting for travellers to return. And, despite official tourism figures not meeting expectations, my own figures suggest otherwise: In the second half of 2022, my website’s traffic steadily returned to pre-pandemic levels. This must count for something. The increase in traffic means more people are typing Vietnam travel related questions into their search engines and planning their trips to the country. I am optimistic. Indeed, it’s hard not to be positive in 21st century Vietnam.
Another year of positive changes, improvements and innovations, 2022 was significant for Vietnam Coracle for several reasons. As mentioned above, by the close of the year Vietnam Coracle had recovered to pre-pandemic levels of traffic. Unlike many other travel related sites, services and businesses in Vietnam, we continued to work all through the pandemic years, producing new content each week, updating old articles and guides, redesigning the entire website, coming up with new ideas and executing them. I’m proud of the effort we put in during that period: even as Vietnam’s borders remained closed to foreign travellers, traffic was low and revenue nonexistent, we remained focused on the site’s quality, function and output.
In 2022, we rolled out a new logo, celebrated the site’s 10-year anniversary and launched Contributing Writers. The latter was a big step and decision for me. Until mid-2022, all content on Vietnam Coracle was researched, written, illustrated and produced by me. Publishing articles by other writers – all of whom I know, like and respect – was an opportunity to diversify the content on the site, but more importantly for me, it was an opportunity to work with other like-minded people, in a team, sharing our ideas and passion for different aspects of Vietnam. It’s still in the early stages, but so far I’ve been very pleased with the content everyone has produced and with the growing sense of community and friendship that I feel with the writers and, hopefully, they feel with each other. Lastly, at the start of 2022, I gave a written interview to the Vietnam Times, which Glen MacDonald kindly wrote up and published.
On a personal level, 2022 involved a lot of change, adaptation and administrative difficulties. After moving back to Saigon in March and returning to my ‘normal’ rhythm of life, including teaching at a language centre, I struggled to readjust to urban life with all its noise, pollution, and pace. I missed my life on Phú Quốc Island, particularly the physical context – the ocean, horizon, sunsets, hills, jungles, fresh air, space and light. Arriving back in Saigon at 3am on a night bus from Hà Tiên, I killed time until dawn by sitting in a 24-hour coffee shop full of young, handsome, fashionably-dressed, self-confident Vietnamese with guitars, smartphones and trendy haircuts. The energy, youth and optimism of this city – even at 3am – is remarkable and intoxicating. But by 6am, when I was sitting down to a bowl of noodles on the sidewalk, the rush hour traffic began to clog the streets, the air thickened, the humidity rose along with the cacophony of engines. I wondered how anyone could think straight with all this action and distraction.
So, I did what you have to do in Saigon: I joined the action, kept myself busy – working, socializing, competing in tennis tournaments, going out for meals in restaurants and meetings in coffee shops. I made one small change: I began to walk whenever I could, instead of taking my motorbike. This slows the pace of the city; forces it to go by on your own terms, at your own speed, and facilitates the likelihood of meeting people and making human connections. Gradually, I found my place in the city again. But I still pined intensely for natural surroundings, especially the sea. Phú Quốc has ruined me in that regard. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I chose to visit the Côn Đảo Islands five times in 2022. I’m still a little uncomfortable in my urban context, but I don’t have the confidence to move somewhere closer to nature. Instead, I moved house within Saigon; to a relatively quiet and leafy inner suburb.
Over the year, I made some new friends, strengthened ties with long-standing ones, and was pleased to see that some of my friends who’d left Vietnam during the pandemic, returned when it was all ‘over’. But, I still haven’t seen my parents for 3 years, since the beginning of the pandemic. Over that period, they have experienced some major changes and it’s been difficult at times to ‘go through’ it together at long distance. Hopefully, they’ll be able to travel to Vietnam early in 2023, and we can attempt to bridge the gap of the past 36 months.
The biggest issue for me in 2022 was the renewal of my working visa and residence card. Although I met all the requirements and had all the necessary documentation, the process was an agonizing 6-month struggle which I hadn’t experienced before in 17 years of living and working in Vietnam. It was a shock to me, which brought home how tenuous my legal attachment is to Vietnam, even if my social, professional and emotional attachments to the country are strong. Without my visa, I can’t stay in Vietnam; and without Vietnam, I’d lose a significant part of my identity, my purpose, my life.
*Disclosure: All content on Vietnam Coracle is free to read and independently produced. I’ve written this article because I want to: I enjoyed my year in 2022 and I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see the Disclosure & Disclaimer statements and About Page