Why Backpackers Have a Love / Hate Relationship with Vietnam
Some backpackers really don't like Vietnam. I met many people who told me that they felt frustrated by the country because they were scammed out of money or they felt the locals were unwelcoming.
And they're not alone in feeling this way: Nomadic Matt dedicates a whole blog post to explain his dislike of Vietnam. Alex in Wanderland writes that Vietnam is her least favorite country, with tourism stats to back it up. Even Adventurous Kate admits that she gets questions from readers all the time about whether or not Vietnam is as bad as backpackers claim.
But I also met many backpackers who absolutely loved Vietnam. They raved about the beautiful scenery, the curious locals, and the delicious food. Not the mention that the country is cheap as hell to travel through. (For the record, the number of backpackers I met who loved Vietnam far outweighed the ones who disliked the country.)
So by the time I arrived in Vietnam, I wondered which category I would fall into. Would I love or hate Vietnam?
After a month in the country, backpacking from south to north, I fell neatly into the "lover" box. Done and done.
But I get why there are haters (unfortunately).
Vietnam is not the easiest country to travel through, for many reasons.
Scams are prevalent, especially in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. You have to be on your guard and constantly clutch your purse and cell phone - speedy locals on motorbikes have been known to swiftly snatch both out of the clutches of distracted tourists.
And it's likely you will be ripped off. I was scammed out of $30USD when exchanging money at an airport counter. I should have known that the counter wasn't legit when I wasn't handed a receipt and the money wasn't counted in front of me (the fact that Vietnamese dongs are in the millions doesn't help either - talk about confusing!). Taxis regularly overcharge tourists from the airport and on street corners.
Many backpackers make the journey from across Vietnam by motorbike. Vietnamese policemen have been known to heavily fine Westerners for not having an international driver's license or for making innocent driving mistakes (I met one backpacker who was slapped with a $120USD fine for accidentally turning the wrong way on a one-way street).
Safety can be an issue. Backpackers have been robbed late at night on the streets of Hanoi after a night of heavy drinking. And I was warned repeatedly by hostels in Nha Trang and Hoi An not to take motorbike taxis because they will take tourists to a back alley and mug them.
The sleeper buses themselves are an experience. Some backpackers loved the sleeper buses, which are unique in Vietnam (and banned in the UK because they are so unsafe). I personally hated the sleeper buses and their bunk-bed set-up. The Vietnamese drivers were the worst drivers I encountered in Southeast Asia, with no regard for motorists or the speed limit (lol what speed limit). And it's not unheard of for backpacks to be rummaged through as they sit in the luggage storage. Every overnight journey was a heart-pounding, sleepless journey for me, and I tried to stick to day buses as much as possible.
Then there's all the propaganda. There is no shortage of war tourism and propaganda in Vietnam regarding the Vietnam / American War. As an American, it was hard to confront the war while traveling through the country. The War Remnants Museum displayed fetuses in jars that had been deformed due to Agent Orange and graphic photos of tortured POWs. It wasn't easy to feel welcomed in a country that seemed so blatant in its hatred for Americans (and the French). Sometimes it just felt plain awkward being American.
And there's the locals. When Cain and I were driving by motorbike from Hue to Hoi An, there were two instances where we were flipped off by passing locals. One of them gave me such a withering look that I remember cringing as I clung to the back of the motorbike. When we stopped to get a soda in a rural part of town, a nearby local seemed to look at us in fear and extreme wariness. When I was rapelling waterfalls in Da Lat, our group passed several Vietnamese who were fishing by the river. I smiled and waved. I was met with stony stares in return.
But wait, I'm in the "lover" box, right? Right! So, despite encountering all of the above, I still fell in love with this country. And for good reason.
Vietnam is, simply put, a beautiful country. And I didn't even see Sapa or Ha Long Bay! The scenery in Vietnam was different than anything I had encountered in my travels. I loved the lush mountains, the serene rivers, the open roads. The cave system in Phong Nha left me speechless; the fact that the world's largest cave went undiscovered in Vietnam until 2009 added even more mystery to the country's misty landscapes. The views in Ninh Binh made me feel like I was on top of the world and the lanterns of Hoi An charmed me every time I walked by. Even the chaos of the motorbikes in HCMC and Hanoi mesmerized me and added character to the metropolises.
Vietnam forced me to confront a war that I knew very little about it. Vietnam really made me think. I knew nothing of the Vietnam War; I barely remember learning about it in high school, obviously because we lost that particular war. Yes, there is a lot of propaganda in how the war is portrayed in Vietnam, but you acknowledge it for what it is (propaganda) and instead acknowledge the lessons that can be learned. And there are a lot of lessons to be learned from that war.
Vietnam locals are extraordinarily kind and helpful. With the exceptions I shared above, the locals I met - from the taxi drivers to hostel owners to vendors - were very welcoming. I stayed at homestays in Da Lat and Hue; both families cooked huge, delicious dinners for all guests and were very eager to offer advice on things to do and see in Vietnam. The local owner of my Da Lat hostel even jumped on her motorbike and raced to the bus station to give me my laptop charger that I had forgotten in the common room! In HCMC, I was approached multiple times by university students who asked if they could practice their English with me. In Hanoi, I accidentally handed a vendor a 100,000 bill (I thought it was a 10,000!). I was given the correct change back. I was often humbled by the hard work and resilience of the Vietnamese people.
My verdict? Screw the haters and give Vietnam a chance. Hold onto your bag, board a night bus, and let Vietnam work its charm on you. Slowly but surely.
To help make Vietnam as enjoyable as possible, here are a few tips:
- Vinasun and Mailinh are the two most reliable taxi companies that consistently use their meters. Be aware of "fake" companies that try to match their branding to these companies. Have the address written in Vietnamese, since very few taxi drivers speak English. Uber is also a popular option.
- Wear a crossbody purse when touring the city. Do not take your phone out on busy streets to check directions or text. Do so away from the street or in a small shop.
- Exchange money only at counters that offer clear exchange rates and receipts. Exchange in small amounts, if possible, because it is easy to get confused when handed back millions of Vietnamese dong (ie, I exchanged $240AUD and was given $5,100,000 million back! I had trouble counting the money to make sure I was given the right amount).
- Stay in homestays when possible. I recommend Da Lat Friendly Fun Homestay and Hue Happy Homestay.
- Since I didn't rent a motorbike in Vietnam, I'm pretty useless there, but this website has good info on what to look for when renting a bike.