Give Vietnam a Chance
Vietnam is a marmite country—you either love it, or you hate it.
—Someone on Reddit
As a travel destination, Vietnam is apparently divisive. This caught me by surprise, as I’d only heard rave reviews.
Steaming soups with mystery bits, best enjoyed from low plastic stools. Ice-cold beers dripping with condensation, for less than a dollar apiece. The intoxicating fumes of motorbike exhaust mixing with herbs, spices, and—oh, is that durian? Paradise on earth, according to them. That’s Vietnam.
But after just one night in Saigon, I was over it.
The cities are grimy. Trash piles up in the gutters and overflows onto the riverbanks. Stray dogs roam the streets for scraps and shelter.
It’s chaotic. The ankle-level guardrails sprinkled around street corners fail to keep motorbikes off the sidewalks (which I assume is the intended purpose) and only succeed in tripping the hapless tourist (aka me) wandering by.
It’s loud. And it’s an entirely different kind of loud from the relatively orderly bustle of New York or Hong Kong. The narrow streets and alleys constantly reverberate with ear-piercing honks and droning diesel engines to the point it actually hurts.
Vietnam just wasn’t clicking for me like so many other countries had. Was this country just not meant for me?
Barricaded inside a fourth floor walk-up in the heart of chaos, I aimlessly clicked around the Internet and discovered I wasn’t alone with my misgivings.
Angry travel bloggers very publicly aired their grievances against Vietnam. Titles ranged from the somewhat-pensive “Vietnam: Why I’ll Never Return” to the Comically Capitalized and shamelessly click-baity “10 Harsh but True Things about Vietnam that you WISH you had known.”
It’s utter mayhem, one commenter warned. The people have no sense of personal space. You’ll get run over by a motorbike on the sidewalk! Prepare to be scammed, robbed, or worse—they just see you as walking ATMs. I saw children shit in the streets, and I might’ve stepped in a puddle of human pee!
Dirty, smelly, crowded—I don’t know why I ever came, I hate it here, and I can’t wait to get out. This is Vietnam.
Disgruntled online personalities aside, a study conducted by the non-profit Pacific Asia Travel Association found that out of the tens of millions of tourists to Vietnam every year, only 6% ever return. That’s compared to 60-70% for nearby Thailand, and a comparable 60% for Singapore.1
There seems to be a consensus. But why?
Why are Vietnamese people so mean? Why can’t things be more tidy? Why does it smell bad? Why bother coming here at all?
To learn how we arrived here, it helps to turn a few pages back. Unfortunately in this story, those pages lead to war. Many, many wars.
Just one generation ago, Vietnam was bombed to pieces. More than 7 million tons of ordnance, nearly 4 times the amount dropped during all of World War II, devastated millions in the cities and countryside.
To root the enemy from the impenetrable jungle, planes dropped chemical defoliants that caused unimaginable birth defects among the children of anyone caught in the toxic shower. You’ve probably heard of Agent Orange, but what you may not know is that there was an Agent for nearly every other color of the rainbow.
Hundreds of thousands of tons of napalm bombs exploded over militants and civilians alike, splattering a slimy, highly flammable petrochemical that stuck fire to eyes, ears, and skin.
And this was just during the American War.
In the past century alone, Vietnam has been invaded by the French, the Japanese, and the French again. It’s waged wars against neighboring Cambodia, its former ally China, and most tragically, with itself.
So what do you expect? A country—only just emerged from the trenches of war—to brush themselves off, get over it, and welcome you with open arms?
Incredibly, Vietnam seems to have done just that.
While the war is hardly forgotten as it is for most Americans today, the Vietnamese have largely moved on. But still, the country is shaking off the wars’ lingering residual effects: poverty, loss, and a slow road to recovery.
Life can be hard, and when you’re struggling to survive on the streets of Hanoi, exchanging pleasantries with rich foreigners just isn’t a priority.
Yet it didn’t take long, just one good night’s rest in fact, for the country’s beauty to materialize.
Rampant taxi scams? The only out the ordinary experience I had was when I paid ₫110,000 for a ₫101,000 fare, the extra 40 cents intended as a tip. The driver yelped in surprise and handed me ₫10,000 back (“just 1, just 1!”) and cheerfully waved me along.
A bit dazed, I stepped out of the cab somehow owing him money.
Being overcharged left and right? When I handed a bánh xèo vendor ₫20,000 (~$.85), she leaned forward and reached for the folded bills in my right hand. Thinking I was finally experiencing the infamous foreigner tax I’d read all about on the Internet, I sheepishly offered an additional ₫20,000 note. She shook her head and reached again.
She was reaching for the empty plastic cup clutched in my other hand, which she tossed in a nearby rubbish bin with a friendly chuckle.
In fact, in only two out of several dozen food vendor encounters do I think, maybe—just maybe—I might have paid slightly above market price. What’s tragic isn’t that it happened (or rather, might have happened), but that I gave it even a second thought.
The difference between expected and actual costs for both instances came out to about ₫40,000. That’s the equivalent of a dollar seventy. A dollar. And seventy cents.
That’s the price of oxygen per minute in San Francisco nowadays. The meter starts ticking the moment you step outside your door. Indoor oxygen is extra; surge pricing applies.
Even now, I feel stupid about it. After reading stories of scams galore, I often found myself obsessing over price movements in the local micro-economy. Were those spring rolls really worth ₫40,000? Didn’t I just see the local in front of me pay with a blue-ish (probably ₫20,000) note? Or was that for something else? Had I been made out for a fool?
Yes, I was indeed a fool, but a fool of my own making.
When I finally put Internet hearsay and personal prejudice aside, the country embraced me for it.
I found the bánh canh cua lady in a cramped alley in Saigon. As she scooped thick, udon-like noodles, shrimp, crab meat, and scallions into a precariously thin plastic bowl, she paused when her spoon reached the bright red bird’s eye chili paste.
She looked up, her eyes simultaneously unsure and subtlety daring. “Yes, please!” I replied, nodding enthusiastically. This seemed to please her. But what about the blood cake, bubbling in a frothy orange bath? Once again, I smiled and nodded.2
Vietnam strikes me as a place you learn to love. Visiting requires some preparation: mental, logistical, and physical.
So the key to discovering Vietnam’s beauty is powering through the chaotic introduction and not giving up on its rougher edges. It’s a process you only have so much control over.
But that’s not to say you can’t hurry that process along.
No one’s expecting you to become fluent, but learn to say hello (xin chào) and thank you (cảm ơn). Sometimes you might get a reply in English (in my case, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese too). Sometimes, none at all. At least you tried.
Read up on common scams before visiting. Learn which taxi companies are reputable, or just download the Grab app. Get familiar with the currency notes. If a stranger approaches you in the street and calls you “my friend,” he probably isn’t yours. Be friendly, but not naive.
Prepare for disorder. Take the AirPods out and focus where you’re walking. Observe how locals cross the street, then do the same. Things can get crazy, but you’ll get used to it. You may even learn to like it. But if things get too overwhelming, the outer suburbs (where expats and the well-to-do mingle) tend to be tamer.
Have empathy. What would your country be like if it had just endured a century of war? If your fathers and mothers lost brothers and sisters, suffered through famine and hyperinflation, survived one autocracy after another—and were only now seeing peace for the very first time? Witness the resilience of the nation; strive to imitate it.
And lastly, remember that a little humor can go a long way.
When I boarded my (very delayed) Vietnam Airlines flight from Saigon to Da Nang, my eyes immediately picked up on the aged interior. The plane was dirty and smelly, even by American standards. The seats were cramped, the carpets mysteriously stained, and to top it all off—the lady behind me opened the floodgates to what smelled like a dead cat in her plastic duty-free bag.
I could’ve sulked and simmered and cursed the country for it all. But then:
“Sir, you are seated in an exit row …”
As an ex-consultant I’ve flown more segments than I care to re-live, and I can practically recite the obligatory exit row advisory from memory. So it was much to my surprise when I heard:
”… so please don’t open it.”
“Please do not open this door. It is for emergencies only.”
I must have had an incredulous look on my face, because she followed-up with:
“And please don’t let anyone else open it.”
“Do .. do people do that?” I sputtered, the corners of my mouth unintentionally rising in a reflexive smile.
“Yes. Yes, they do,” she replied gravely, her face an expressionless stone. Then, she walked away as unceremoniously as she had appeared.
I dutifully guarded that exit door for the next hour and a half. I’m almost sorry to report that no one attempted to open it.
Give it a shot. As with all things in life, you might like the country, the food, the whatever—or you might not. Just make that experience your own, not colored by the accounts of others. And with Vietnam, reach a little further, far outside your comfort zone, before calling it a wrap.
The more I opened up to Vietnam—the more it opened up for me. I bet it will for you too.