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 from close friends and travel heads.
You’ve probably heard the stories too. 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—this is Vietnam.
But after just one night in Saigon, I'd already become disillusioned with it all.
For one, the country’s simply not built for tourists like other major cities in the region. A functioning metro system is nowhere to be found. Construction has been well underway in both Hanoi and Saigon for decades now, with no end in sight.
The cities are grimy. Trash piles up in the gutters and overflows onto the riverbanks. Stray dogs, ones that wouldn’t play nice with the well-coiffed, fit-in-a-Fendi crowd, roam the streets for scraps and shelter.
It’s chaotic. The ankle-level guardrails sprinkled around occasional street corners fail to achieve their intended purpose (keeping motorbikes off the sidewalk) and only succeed in tripping hapless tourists wandering by.
It's loud, 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 motors. As for the booming voices over loudspeakers—whether communist propaganda or motorbike vendor, I’m not sure.
It's also true that many Vietnamese don’t immediately come off as beacons of warmth and positivity.
Shopkeepers greeted me with suspicious glances. I was ignored by street vendors or shooed away with a terse "Sold out!" Even at ostensibly foreigner-friendly establishments, service was hit or miss.
Vietnam just wasn’t clicking for me like so many other countries had. Did that mean this country just wasn't meant for me?
Barricaded inside a fourth floor walk-up in the heart of chaos, I aimlessly clicked around the Internet to see if anyone shared my misgivings. That's when I discovered I wasn’t alone.
An entire cohort of travel-blogger-types 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."
These sentiments echoed across message boards everywhere. 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 voices 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 at the present, it's often helpful 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.
Chemical defoliants—one for nearly every color of the rainbow, but most notoriously Agent Orange—caused unimaginable genetic defects for anyone caught in the toxic shower. Babies were born without limbs or faces, blind, deaf, with two heads on one body, two bodies to a head, disfigurements and cancers. The scars are borne by survivors to this day.
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. The flames became glued to clothing, trapping victims in an inferno so intense they desperately shed to bare skin for relief. That’s what happened to Kim Phuc. You may know her as the napalm girl.
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.
After the Americans were long gone, the communists continued their genocidal purge. Those lucky enough to escape execution were put into “re-education camps" for just a few days, a month at the most, they were told. For some, that meant imprisonment until 1986—17 years after they arrived.
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. So the brusque nature you encounter on the streets isn't out of resentment of war per se. It's more that many Vietnamese, and the country as a whole, are still 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 is hardly top of mind.
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 proffered 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?
It wasn't until later that night, when I charged ₫160,000 to my Amex for a pour of Talisker (a steal, I thought) that I realized:
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 deftly placed each ingredient—thick, udon-like noodles, shrimp, crab meat, scallions, and more—in a precariously thin plastic bowl for takeaway, her long metal cooking spoon paused when it 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. She continued her ritual craft, but soon paused once again on a giant slab of blood cake, bubbling in a frothy orange bath adjacent her cart. Once again, I smiled and nodded, which only elevated the mood.
We didn't have much time together after that—just enough for her to pour boiling broth into a plastic bag (sorry, food-safe resin-code unknown) and tie it off with a rubber band. Once silent, she now chatted animatedly. I have no idea what she said, but I like to think she said nice things.2
Vietnam strikes me as a place you learn to love. Visiting requires some preparation: mental, logistical, and—according to my travel nurse—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 is almost definitely not yours. Be friendly, but not naive.
Seek out places with few foreigners. If you're surrounded by more foreigners than locals, move on.
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 cleaner and 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 the most vile smell, with what I can only imagine was 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.