Stepping into the past with an old copy of the first edition of Lonely Planet Vietnam to construct imagery and memories of a time long gone. Words and photos by Chris Humphrey. 

Lonely Planet guides are arguably the most recognisable and functional travel books in the world, yet few would think of their use as anything other than practical. In the backroom of an old library in Singapore,  I recently unearthed the first ever full-edition guide to Vietnam – from 1993. It felt like rediscovering an old diary, not for an individual but rather for an entire nation. Something that was once pragmatic had become completely useless and yet unexpectedly poignant.

Having lived in Hanoi for just three years, working for a children’s rights organisation, I’ve seen people’s attitudes shift and whole streets morph in a matter of months. When I discovered this book from over 20 years ago, it dawned on me that the words within had developed far deeper nuances and meaning with age. What remained was a timepiece, a guide to the past. After all, is there a more comprehensive evocation of a nation, in a specific time period, than a guide book?

Even the author’s biographies are striking. There seems to be no trace of the hyper-competitiveness that afflicts modern-day travel writers. One, Robert Storey, had tried his hand at various careers, including ‘monkey keeper at a zoo, Texas urban cowboy and slot machine repairman in Las Vegas’ before settling on writing for Lonely Planet.

You probably don’t need to have even visited Vietnam to know it’s a country which has experienced rapid economic growth. What was once a nation of sleepy, backwater towns, of cyclos and bicycles, has seen drastic change.  A process of traffic inflation – from bicycles to motorbikes to cars – has clogged the city streets.  Endless concrete growth has altered the skyline; neon blossoms blink in the night. Cheap manufacturing and foreign investment are the new norm, whilst the old ways fade.

Not so in 1993. Hanoi then was a city of ‘shaded boulevards’ with the ‘air of a French provincial town of the 1930s’. ‘Slow paced … and charming’ with ‘less traffic, less pollution and less noise’ than Saigon, but where ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Spend a minute in the cacophony of Hanoi’s Old Quarter now and it’s hard to think that such a placid time ever existed. 

Descriptions of arbitrary detentions at Hanoi airport are fantastic; Storey notes that it’s ‘finally dawned on government officials that throwing foreigners into prison to extort money out of their families is not good for the tourist business.’ Other areas of society had seen less progress; a significant number of children were still ‘barred from enrolling in school because of their parents political background.’

The photos are equally as revealing. An old photo of Nha Trang shows a small collection of bungalows against a ragged coastline. The thousands of Russian tourists and gun-metal grey skyscrapers of today are nowhere to be seen. Likewise, clubs pumping out Viet House are nowhere to be heard. Even more surprising is a declaration that Vietnam remained ‘one of the few places left where a major component of the nightlife is still ballroom dancing.’

Behemoths of the modern tourist trail like Sapa and Hoi An are merely footnotes. Ha Giang, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life, isn’t even mentioned. Son Doong, the world’s largest cave, was yet to be discovered, and a popular story about Tarasque, Ha Long Bay’s version of the Loch Ness monster, was commonplace. When did that story die? The name came with the French, so may have left with their language, but nobody I ask about it now has ever heard of it, nor of the idea of a monster in the bay.

Tourism itself must have been an altogether different animal. Dorm room accommodation was ‘officially off limits’ to foreigners due to the high risk of ‘being robbed while you sleep.’ And if you kept a diary, the local children were so curious they would ‘take it out of your hands to get a better look.’

Other descriptions induce immediate sadness – the flora and fauna section features a long list of native mammals including elephants, flying squirrels, tigers, rhinos, leopards, koupreys and Siamese crocodiles. Most of these animals are now critically endangered; the latter four are extinct. That said, there were only two national parks then: Cuc Phuong and Cat Ba. Now there are thirty, and the country’s diverse, stunning landscapes demand many more.

But what’s most pleasing is that many things remain unchanged. Vietnam still has ‘the best police force money can buy’ but, despite the petty theft and unhinged traffic, the country feels as safe now as it was described then. Recreational homicide is ‘not a popular sport in Vietnam.’ More importantly, at a time when many residential areas in other parts of the world feel increasingly like ghost towns, Vietnam remains an exhilarating place to live. There is something reassuring about being surrounded by life lived in the streets, of the noise and intensity of everything, of babbling markets and motorbike horns, of the earnestness and tenacity of people’s will to survive. 

It’s worth noting the book was written by Americans, and although I live here, I remain an outsider to Vietnamese culture. So ‘diary’ is, perhaps, the wrong word. Yet old guide books retain an undeniable air of wonder about times past. Consider that the Wheeler’s first Lonely Planet guide in 1975, Across Asia on the Cheap, was about the old hippie trail through The Middle East; what a simpler world we lived in. What would be revealed by the first guides to places like Singapore, Dubai or Korea that have all seen such swift development? Or to choose another angle, what features of life in Vietnam today, or what practical possessions we hold now will seem so stirring in years to come?