For the first-time visitor to Vietnam, Lonely Planet's Vietnam 9 overall is a fine production -- and is easily Lonely Planet's best swing at Vietnam -- even if the style police are trying to ruin the show.
Vietnam 9 covers all the big-ticket destinations comprehensively, with detailed sleeping, eating, drinking and sights information. There's a detailed orientation section, loads of maps, crystal clear photos and lots of general information. Good coverage on most of the border crossings is included and the transportation information is pretty easy to digest -- if a little confusing at times. A series of suggested itineraries, while not overly imaginative, remain useful for first time travellers.
Authors Nick Ray, Peter Dragicevich and Regis St Louis have done the hard yards and crammed much of what Vietnam has to offer into Lonely Planet's famously tight word-limits. They've done a great job putting together what is a probably the most comprehensive text available and something much improved on Vietnam 8.
Guesthouse and hotel listings are concise and all budgets are well covered. There were some omissions which struck me as odd -- Mai House on Phu Quoc, Tay Ho Hotel in Can Tho, Jungle Beach north of Nha Trang, Hoa Hong in Da Nang and the Tung Trang in Hanoi -- all outstanding places, yet none made the cut. That said, there are stacks of excellent places they do mention -- more than enough for most readers. For the rest you'll just need to read [...]
Sights-wise, the information is excellent. Lots of historical background and interesting snippets are woven into the text, acting as leads for the reader to learn more. For example Ong Pagoda in Tra Vinh includes a reference to the Chinese classic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms for more information on the pagoda's god Quan Cong.
Transportation comes in two parts -- a summary and the destination specific sections throughout.
The summary section is good though a little unbalanced. There are almost three pages about getting a flight to Vietnam (surely something fairly simple), yet almost no information about the niche topic of buying a motorbike -- certainly an area where advice and suggestions would be useful. The train section has the briefest of fare charts, but thankfully steers people to the Man in Seat Sixty-One website ([...]) which is a far better resource.
The destination specific sections vary. In particular better information regarding frequency of bus services would have been good. There are also some discrepancies -- the Qui Nhon to Pakse bus service is listed as taking 12 hours and costing 250,000 VND, yet in Pleiku it reads "There is also an international service linking Pleiku and Attapeu (US$10, 12 hours)". This error (Qui Nhon to Pakse is at least twice the distance of Pleiku to Attapeu) is repeated in the transport introduction. Perhaps if one of the writers had actually done the trip they'd know that Attapeu to Kon Tum takes about five hours and another two hours to Pleiku, while the Qui Nhon to Pakse trip can take up to 20 hours. Of course these errors can happen to anyone -- I'm sure there are some in Travelfish -- but hey, LP has a bigger editing team than us.
Text and design
Talking about editing, the text is dense and the writing dry, verging on encyclopaedic. I've met a number of the LP writers over the years and without fail they've been a much more interesting, amusing and verbose lot than this text would have you believe. Perhaps the editors could spin the dial back a little on their "textual-de-emotionaliser device" to let the occasional witty or cheeky line slip through.
And while I'm on the topic of the back-end -- there's a new layout, and this one isn't great. A step forward is the removal of "Author's choice" aka the Lonely Planet Touch of Death -- replaced by a small "our pick" icon. A step backwards is the ordering of accommodation by price rather than quality. In this nod to the serial penny-pinchers, the rest of us are left scratching our head thinking "So which one do they recommend?".
Fact boxes though are the real blight. Vietnam 9 saw its length increased from 524 to 540 pages, yet rather than bulking out destinations, there are now more than 100 shaded fact boxes. Of course, some are useful; "Tracking the American War", tying together various sections covering war interests, is great. But half a page dedicated to Regis St Louis's motorbike breaking down is excessive -- especially when there's but a lone paragraph dedicated to trekking out of Kon Tum. Minor point perhaps, but the designers should have their cookie-jar benefits suspended for the incorrectly typeset, mistakenly padded fact box on page 163 -- sloppy.
Call me old school, but a move back to the basics -- accurate and easy to use information -- would be welcome. As an example, if you're looking for a list of internet resources for Vietnam, you'll be needing to refer to pages 21, 42, 58, 63, 69, 74, 79, 84, 89-90, 171, 465, 476, 494 and 495-6 -- whose bright idea was that?!
Now I'm getting petty and trivial -- lets move on.
The 105 maps cover all the major destinations and look terrific, but in anything short of ideal conditions, are difficult to read. Vietnam 8's maps, while uglier, were far easier to use. The new maps replace clunky shades and chunky outlines with gentle hues and delicate lines. This may look great in Lonely Planet's mapping HQ, but when you're crammed in a minibus trying to decipher the Hanoi map by torch, you'll be thinking different.
The photos are terrific. From the wraparound train cover-photo to the bored tourists gawking at the carpet in Reunification Palace, they do a great job of catching -- and explaining -- Vietnam. In another layout change, the photos are clustered in the first few pages, closely followed by a food overview and then eight more pages of colour in the centre.
It's worth noting that some of my criticisms are general and not specific to Vietnam 9 -- overall it's an excellent guide and I've rated the book at 8.5 stars (out of 10). If you're going to Vietnam and planning on hitting all the key destinations -- you'll be set with this title -- no questions asked.
*A pet peeve -- I purchased Vietnam 9 at a bookstore in Jakarta on July 20, and had seen it at the airport weeks earlier. Yet on the half-cover it reads "9th edition published August 2007". Unless Lonely Planet have a special in-house definition for the work "published" this is misleading to potential buyers who are looking for what they consider to be the most "up-to-date" text available -- it should read July 2007.