An Introduction to Vietnam

Students pose in front of a communism monument in the shadow of a Pepsi advertisement.

We’re on to Vietnam, where we’ll spend the next three weeks traveling. Since these posts are retrospective (we were there in April) and Vietnam is a country that gets mixed reviews when it comes to tourism, I wanted to start with this post outlining our overall experience in the country. Here are five impressions we got as first-timers in the country.

It was super-affordable

Excluding the flights into/out of Vietnam, we spent $600 USD a week, or $300 a week per person. While there are South American countries that price similarly, the difference here is we were living a step above the standard backpacker lifestyle: we flew between all our destinations (three flights), we rarely ate at street food vendors, we went to a Starbucks-like coffee shop almost every day, and we paid for two tour packages and a cooking class. We were more like we were upper-middle class tourists here than backpackers.

We flew everywhere in Vietnam. In some cases, flights were cheaper than the advertised bus and train fares!

You are an outsider

This is the feeling we struggled with most, and I suspect it’s the feeling that leads many backpackers to leave Vietnam with a negative opinion. You are an outsider in Vietnam and very rarely are you invited in. One reason is the language barrier; for people whose native language is English, Vietnamese is hard. In our three weeks we picked up only a couple of phrases, mostly to order coffee and thank people. Since language is often how we connect with people, it’s hard to move from outsider to insider, even for a backpacker.

Stoytcho walks through a crowded market.

The second, more insurmountable reason for this is that Vietnam has suffered a lot under actions of the West. Vietnam was as a staging ground for a proxy Cold War only a few decades ago, with the U.S. bombing the country while the rest of the Western powers looked on. Before that it was a French colony, where heavy-handed tactics were used to keep the Vietnamese in check. While the Vietnamese claim they hold no grudges, it’s in their rhetoric to say they won their independence and autonomy on their own. This means the Vietnamese people aren’t going to glare at you on the street, but they don’t have a reason to do you any favors. Or, as we found out when we asked a guide about the price of something in the market, “For you, it would cost about this much.”

The market where we learned prices were different for us and locals. It’s not a good feeling.

The tourism dollar comes at all costs

In Vietnam, the primary goal of tourism is wealth transfer from foreigners to locals. This leads to three problems: a lack of budget backpacker options, some shady dealings, and environmental damage. Vietnam doesn’t offer much in the way of super-cheap backpacker options because that doesn’t facilitate as much wealth transfer; we lived as middle-class tourists because we couldn’t find any backpacker options when it came to tours, food, and accommodation. There are hostels, but their minimum price is higher than in South America because they know that anyone who can afford to get here can afford to pay a little more for that bed. Tours start around $40 USD because the agencies know you can pay. This is why people have such different opinions after visiting Vietnam: those looking to travel middle class find a fantastic deal, but those looking to travel as backpackers wonder whether they’re being cheated.

There’s also a distinct goal of getting as much money from you as possible; some people are outright dishonest and lie to you, but more often it’s subtle omissions of information or referrals to friends. Things like “Oh, we forgot to mention that the all-inclusive resort doesn’t include drinks and you’re not allowed to bring your own,” or “you shouldn’t go with this tour agent, go to the one down the street (who I happen to be related to).” We took any info we got with a grain of salt and always looked for second opinions. And when it comes to providing good tourism, the goal is to again maximize that dollar. I cringed when I saw our tour guide feeding monkeys so they would come closer to us, and sighed over the massive environmental damage in Ha Long Bay. Like so many other developing nations, the Vietnamese know what cultural treasures their country holds but they’ve decided the tourism dollar is worth more*.

A monkey looks up at us, expecting more food from our guide.

The Vietnamese culture is amazing and unique

Even with the above issues, there’s no place like Vietnam. The food is like nothing else, a fusion of Asian and French cuisine that’s had centuries to become sublime. There’s pho, banh mi, fresh spring rolls, and a hundred other amazing dishes that haven’t yet made it out to the rest of the world. And there’s a plethora of healthy, fresh vegetables at every meal, so you’re getting good nutrition. Simultaneously, the Vietnamese celebrate and preserve their culture in temples, museums, and open-air displays. And it’s a culture that you can’t find anywhere else.

A dish from our first night (in Ho Chi Minh City). It’s fresh veggies, rice noodles, and fried tofu with fish sauce and citrus juice for dipping, and it was delicious.

The future looks bright

The Vietnamese are excited about the leaps their country has made in economic wealth in the past decade and they’re optimistic for the future. Cities seem to be under construction everywhere you turn, everyone’s starting a business, and people talk about the future with smiles rather than frowns. In rural areas, opinions seem more mixed—the residents here look at the growing wealth in cities and fear being left behind. We also have a biased sample – we can only talk to English speakers, and their economic prospects are much better than people who don’t speak English. But it’s invigorating and exciting to see people talk about their country with such pride, love, and excitement, and to see them look forward to the future.

Kids play in an open-air square in Hanoi. Optimism for the future runs high among the people we spoke to (in English).

*Note: While it feels bad as a traveler to be seen as an outsider and walking money, I find it hard to begrudge the Vietnamese for their behavior. They’re responding to blooming tourism after decades of hardship in the most human way possible: let’s make money and create better lives for ourselves, our families, and our friends. You can’t fault them for that, or for feeling no particular affinity of friendship toward visitors from the Western world that created many of their hardships in the first place.

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