Vietnam: No Love Affair Here

There is no denying that Vietnam has had a tumultuous history.  Ruled by the Chinese, colonized by the French, brutally invaded by the Americans and  their allies as they aided the Southern Vietnamese in a senseless and devastating war, and now overcome with hordes of hedonistic backpackers, many of whom are here simply to get wasted, laid and tanned.  Cheaply.

With that being said, the Vietnamese are an amazingly resilient people.

However, it’s undeniable that the strain of these conflicts has created a palpable tension between locals and outsiders.  Many travel bloggers have openly lamented the situation.  One of our favorites, Nomadic Matt, wrote an impassioned post why he will never return to Vietnam.

Silvia and I tried hard to keep open minds as we began our foray back into Southeast Asia.  We overlooked the rigged taxi meters (because let’s be real, awful taxi drivers are universal).  We stayed calm when we were given the wrong change.  Oh, you really thought that 200,000 dong note was a 20,000?  Okay.

So we tried, we really did!  But one evening in Ho Chi Minh changed everything.  Silvia and I were crossing the street on our way to dinner.  Now, crossing the street in Vietnam can be pretty challenging.  It usually involves going lane by lane, finding gaps in the steady stream of motorbikes.  Scary.

So, we did as we always did, but then something went wrong.  In a split second, a motorbike that had been at a safe distance was flying towards me.  I looked up, saw two men on the bike, felt a tug, and my purse was gone.  Instinctually I began to shout and run after my purse, though I quickly knew my efforts would be futile.  I looked around, hoping that one of the many locals who witnessed what had happened would help me.  Nothing.  Within a minute, everyone had returned to what they were doing.

I knew I wasn’t going to get my purse back.  I cancelled my debit card, accepted the loss of $100, mourned the loss of my student ID (how will I get discounts!?) and felt grateful that my hostel had my passport.  I was okay and unharmed.  It could have been worse.

But my outlook on Vietnam completely changed.  Everybody was a potential thief.  I lost patience with the endless amount of street hawkers and motorbike taxi drivers offering their services.  Polite “no thank yous” became withering glares.  I dreaded crossing major roads, and hugged my new (much sturdier) purse to my body, worried that more hands would reach out to snatch it away).  I hated the feeling of being mad at an entire country, and constantly having my guard up took away from my experience.  This isn’t to say that I haven’t met many incredibly friendly, kind hearted Vietnamese.  Every hostel worker has been amazing, my Halong Bay tour guide endured constant bitching, but I never saw him stop smiling.  There was the banh mi lady who did my hair for me (I think she was just sick of watching me play with it but still, so sweet), and so many others.  Even as I write this, I can feel the ice around my heart thawing.  But are these good experiences enough to outweigh the bad?  I don’t know.  Will I ever return to Vietnam?  Probably not.

In many respects I knew this was going to happen when we got to Vietnam. I mean, I didn’t know Danielle’s purse would get stolen or that she would leave the country feeling quite so much hate, but… we weren’t in Central Asia anymore. Returning to the tourist trail was never going to be easy. And what tourists we found on that trail.

Some of the people we met were great. But most of the tourists? Constantly yelling at locals and calling them idiots, walking through town in barely existent shorts and nipple pasties (actually), and drunkenly demanding better drink deals at the bar– why would locals possibly want to rip off or scam these lovely guests? I mean hey, the Vietnamese must at least see our behavior as an improvement from our parents or grandparents who had come charging in with guns and bombs.

It’s a sad cycle of rude tourists making locals bitter making tourists rude making locals bitter that we’ve seen several places before, only this time it’s all exacerbated by Vietnam’s unhappy past with Westerners. Are the economic benefits tourism brings to the country worth it? Each time Danielle and I  approached a group of locals who were happily joking with each other and then watched their expressions harden as they noticed us, I had to think no, it’s not worth it, they would be better off without all this.

As a backpacker I’ve faced this question before. I loved Tajikistan, maybe more than any other place I’ve visited, and so of course I want to tell everyone I know to go there. A boost in tourism would surely mean wonderful things for Tajikistan’s economy, and it would make it easier for more people to experience such a beautiful and charming country. But at the same time, part of me wants to keep Tajikistan a guarded secret, because I’m unsure how well Tajik hospitality and openness would hold up against masses of tourists. I can see myself returning in thirty years to find the streets of Khorog filled with vendors calling out lewd remarks like the locals in Kuta, Bali, whose only English seemed to consist of “hey baby” and “sexy girl want sunglasses?” (did they even know what they were saying?). What a horrible thought.

No, I guess all Danielle and I can do is try to be respectful and patient tourists. We might not have loved Vietnam, but it’s clear that it is a beautiful country with a rich culture, delicious food and kind people. People I know who have lived there as expats only have wonderful things to say about it. So if asked, I would say go to Vietnam, but try to get away from other tourists for a bit (and keep an eye on your purse).


15 Responses to “Vietnam: No Love Affair Here”

  1. Ann says:

    So sorry to hear about the mugging :(. I’m just a little confused about why it made the country a bad experience… I’ve had friends get mugged every place in the US that I’ve live (Boston, NYC (by gun point), and my smaller home-city). I would never want someone to judge any of those amazing cities by such a bad experience. I know from those experiences how horrible a feeling it is and would never wish it on anyone (its like loosing your life in a bag), but at the same time, its an unfortunate reality of most of the places I know (not that I’m a huge traveler). The tourists, on the other hand, sound horrible there…

    • Silvia says:

      Yeah, as a whole the tourists were awful. And I think that was exactly our problem with Vietnam; we were only in very touristy areas, and only for a very short time. I’m fairly certain that if we had spent more time in the country and not just seen the main destinations we would have loved Vietnam. The mugging probably soured Danielle’s entire experience of the country because she simply hadn’t experienced enough. Like, you have reasons to love those cities in the US because you’ve lived there, but we didn’t have much besides super delicious food to help redeem Vietnam for us. At least that’s how I felt about the situation, but it actually happened to Danielle so maybe she has a different response for you…

    • I totally get what your saying Ann. I actually had my purse stolen in Thailand as well but since I was there for 5 months I had experienced so much more, and that was just one bad experience alone with so, so many good. As for Vietnam, my entire experience there was characterized by being ripped off, cheated, lied to and ultimately having my purse stolen. I just didn’t have enough good experiences there, except, as Silvia mentioned, eating delicious food. I was also only there for two weeks. I’m sure if I had spent longer in Vietnam, things would have been different. Many people who live there absolutely love it!

  2. emma says:

    I got mugged as well last year, such a bad experience 🙁

    • So sorry to hear that, Emma! I hope you were okay and didn’t lose too many essentials. Our hostel said that it happens all the time, which is actually why they ask to keep guests’ passports until check out (thank goodness!).

  3. Sorin says:

    Local like to cheat tourists and to obtain that extra charge everywhere. Maybe more in Vietnam. Even myself got hijacked from my hostel to another ( probably a local scam) but the place was OK.
    Spend 2 lovely weeks in Vietnam. Yes, they are not smiling, are a bit rude but never to go back for one simple incident?

  4. Jenna says:

    I haven’t been to Vietnam but know a lot about the country because I work with Vietnamese who have settled in California. I am surrounded by about 100 Vietnamese every day at work. I love them–they are kind, funny, and optimistic people with a great work ethic and respect for others. It sounds like there are some unfortunate circumstances going on there, with the lewd tourists and, as in many places, some people who take advantage of outsiders. Glad there were many things about it that you enjoyed despite having your purse stolen.

    • Danielle says:

      We met many wonderful people who match your description perfectly! It was sad for us to see so many negative impacts of tourism. If we could do Vietnam over again and had more time we would go little bit more off of the tourist trail, and I’m sure our trip would have been better. It sounds like if you ever get the chance to visit Vietnam it would be an incredibly meaningful experience!

  5. That’s really unfortunate what happened, sorry you had such a bad experience. We were there 8 and 1/2 years ago and while it was touristy, it wasn’t as touristy as it sounds now. We found it frustrating then but we left thinking we’d return if the opportunity arose. Rude tourists that have no respect for locals do us no favours, shame on them.

  6. becky hutner says:

    Thanks for being candid about your Vietnam experience, gals! That is truly regrettable about your purse, Danielle & was my biggest fear about traveling there. Which is why I freakishly hugged my bag to my chest the whole time. Felt silly but reading your experience, I’m glad I did (though of course shit happens & i very well could have been victimized too).

    That terrible incident aside…I have to say, I continue to be bewildered by travelers’ negative impressions of Vietnam. I spent 2 1/2 wks there last fall, in touristy places & non & am hard-pressed to think of one rude person, one glare, one rip-off…Ok, maybe Hanoi was a bit frosty but nothing that stands out in comparison to the rest of SE Asia or anywhere. In Saigon we were greeted with the biggest smiles at cafes & restaurants & so many questions about our home countries. In the central highlands, it was a million “helloooos,” & strangers plying us with rice wine & food. Friendliest of all was the fishing village of An Bang outside of Hoi An. The people we met there really touched our hearts, esp the staff @ An Bang Seaside Village Homestay who couldn’t do enough for us.

    I hope that this very positive account doesn’t come off as gloating. I have read the mixed reviews online & also have close friends in both camps. Some absolutely love. One in particular does not. IN FACT, my friend Jen is in the love camp & believes she was treated well b.c. as an Asian, she could be mistaken for a local (she’s actually Japanese). Conversely, my friend Alison felt she was mistreated BECAUSE she was non-Vietnamese Asian. Go figure! I just find it so interesting how certain places are really polarizing. I believe Morocco inspires similar division.

    For some pro-Vietnam posts, feel free to check these out on my blog:

    • Silvia says:

      That’s so great to hear, Becky! I know several amazing Vietnamese people in the States so I had been prepared to love the country and tried really hard to despite our bad experiences there. I still think we could have had a better time more off the beaten track, but it’s also great to hear that you had such a positive experience in the touristy areas. I definitely don’t like writing off a country, so your account is a bit of a relief. Am checking your links now!

  7. brh1976 says:

    It’s interesting to hear your complaints of skimpily-attired tourists and your interest in being respectful tourists, but at the same time to see the way you have dressed during your travels. I’m guessing that when you were living in Chiang Mai you never saw bare shoulders or knees on the locals, nor would you see this elsewhere in SE Asia. And you certainly wouldn’t see them in temples or other holy sites. Tank tops in conservative, Uzbek-dominated Arslanbob? Or in the Wakhan? Not even in liberal, Ismaili Khorog do you see Pamiris dressed like that. Also, a headscarf is probably not a very effective disguise when paired with a low-cut top.

    • Danielle says:

      Hi brh1976,

      Thanks for checking out so many of our blog posts. In my opinion being a respectful tourist goes far beyond what one is wearing. While we always felt comfortable in the way we were dressed, perhaps at times a t-shirt would have been preferable to a tank top. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. One of my favorite things about traveling is that I’m constantly learning, and that includes learning to be a more respectful traveler and world citizen. As for Chiang Mai, I think you would be surprised at all of the shoulders, knees and even mini skirts that you see on locals, especially around the university area which is where we both lived.


      • brh1976 says:

        I appreciate your response, and while I agree that being a respectful tourist goes well beyond how one dresses, there’s no doubt that dressing respectfully is a part of this. The reality is that Central Asian cultures are very conservative (especially in rural areas), with Uygher culture—free as it is from Russian influence—being even more conservative in many respects. SE Asian cultures are also quite conservative, despite being much more familiar with Western mores, and bare knees and shoulders are only rarely seen.

        As for Chiang Mai, I’m fairly familiar with Thailand (I spent a summer working in Bangkok and have been to Chiang Mai a few times as part of the two months I also spent traveling in Thailand), and outside of the skirts worn as part of school/university uniforms I don’t think I’ve seen more than a handful of bare knees, much less tank tops. While things may be somewhat different amongst University students, it remains true that this kind of attire is fairly atypical in Thai society and certainly inappropriate when visiting temples (as tourists are likely to do on any given day).


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