Why We Loved Vietnam and Why Others Will Never Return

On April 30th 1975, as North Vietnamese troops closed in on Saigon, helicopters evacuated the last remaining Americans from atop the US Embassy. It’s one of the most iconic war images in American history and it marked the beginning of Vietnamese independence, after years of occupation by the French, before the Americans took over. Naturally it took time for the nation to stabilize enough for Vietnam to open its doors to tourists, but as the industry has grown, so have the numbers of Western holiday goers to this once war ravaged nation. As an American and an Australian couple, we found the experience of traveling in Vietnam to be frustrating and challenging, but also beautiful, moving and rewarding. We loved Vietnam, but many will never return.

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Vietnam Military History Museum in Hanoi.

Notably, the biggest travel blogger in the world, Nomadic Matt (who is also American), has written on why he will never return to Vietnam. Matt Kepnes felt that during the 3 weeks he spent there, he was profoundly mistreated, more so than any other country he has visited. Others have written about having their purses snatched, unsafe pedestrian crossings (and they are indeed a spectacle to be seen), poor hygiene, contaminated food and constantly being hassled as reasons they will never return to Vietnam.

It was 2005 when Bell and I spent 12 days traveling Vietnam. We flew into Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and spent a few days there before catching a train to the beach town of Na Trang. We then flew to Hanoi in the north and took a beautiful tour of the Perfume Pagoda and spent overnight on a boat in stunning Ha Long Bay, kayaking among beautiful limestone islands and a gorgeous sunset. The downside was that our boat had no air conditioning, and before bed, while drinking a beer on the deck, I also noticed our boat came inclusive of some furry friends- rats! Vietnam is not a place for the squeamish and there were many moments when we didn’t think we’d look back one day and think wow, we loved Vietnam.

Ha Long Bay, one reason we loved vietnam
If you plan to visit Vietnam, here’s what you can expect, and some tips to make your stay more enjoyable:

Respect the Locals – This can frequently feel challenging because you often won’t feel respected in return. But we also had many friendly and honest experiences with locals where we felt genuine hospitality and goodwill. The Vietnamese have endured great hardship by the hands of recent Western generations and as a tourist to Vietnam you should be cognizant and sensitive of this. Many tourists these days aren’t, and simply go to get drunk on cheap beer and have no concern or interest in the locals. This creates a vicious cycle of resentment by both hosts and guests- do your part to break this trend and you will receive more respect in return.

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A traditional Beer Hoi in Hanoi. We babysit this little one for a wee bit

Be Patient- If there’s ever a time in life to exercise your inner zen, it will be trekking through Vietnam. You will constantly be hassled to be taken somewhere by either taxi, motorbike or bicycle and you will continually be pestered to buy things for higher prices than you should pay. Keep in mind that Vietnam is a developing country and many are struggling to feed themselves, so you are privileged just for being there, despite how budget you think you are. A firm “no thanks” and moving along will alleviate some frustration.

Know How to Bargain – We found Thailand to generally be better for bargaining. Some Vietnamese will not come down in price, or come down very little. If you really want something, check that it seems of reasonable quality and know your price point. Don’t be afraid to walk away, you may get called back for the price you want. But also try not to insult locals with an insulting counteroffer. Many Vietnamese continue to feel exploited by the West, and by trying to significantly undercut a reasonable price, it only reinforces this perception. Bear in mind that $1 goes much further for them than it does for us.

Understand the ballgame going in – Sanitation and refrigeration in Vietnam often aren’t that good. While we did not get major food poisoning, some people do. Bell had stomach difficulties and eventually decided to go vegetarian. If you think the food is suspect, perhaps stay away from the meat. Road rules are almost non-existent and crossing busy streets in Vietnam is frequently referred to as a “leap of faith.” In the beginning, it’s best to wait for a local and cross the street with them. It’s amazing how cars and motorbikes will miraculously veer around you, and eventually you’ll get the feel for doing it on your own.

On our first night in Vietnam, in Ho Chi Minh City, we had a balcony overlooking a busy intersection and spent 2 hours enjoying drinks and being in awe of the spectacle that is Vietnamese traffic. With that said, don’t carry your passport or too much money or credit cards in your purse crossing these intersections, as it is possible that your purse will be purposely removed by a thief on a motorbike.

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It’s not easy perusing shot down American planes in a museum, but you should understand the context of where you are

Have you been to Vietnam or have any interest to go? Was it a joy or a nightmare? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

11 thoughts on “Why We Loved Vietnam and Why Others Will Never Return

  1. I’m here right now! Just landed in Hanoi yesterday morning, been here for all of 36 hours — 78 days and 12 hours remaining 😉
    So I’m curious….what places would you suggest I make sure not to miss — or advise me to skip and not worry about?

    1. Hi Derek. Wonderful you are in Vietnam! And you’ll be there for a total of 80 days? Wow! Good on you- you’ll really get a wonderful feel for the country in that amount of time.

      Up near Hanoi you should definitely hike up to the perfume pagoda. It’s a beautiful 1 hour kayak ride steered by a local, you then do a wonderful 1 hour hike up to see the pagoda. By the time you get down you’ll be starving to have a big meal in the small village.

      Kayaking in Ha Long Bay and mingling with locals in Bia Hoi’s are also musts, as is visiting Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and the American War Museum. We’ve heard great things about the town of Hue, unfortunately we didn’t have time to get there. We loved Hanoi- beautiful architecture and tasty baguettes, left over from French colonialism.

      Have a wonderful time and swing by later with some recommendations of your own if you can! 🙂

  2. Great blog – I travelled up Vietnam last year and fell head over heels in love with the people, the culture and the landscapes. My heart breaks thinking of the history Vietnam and its neighbour Cambodia have suffered, but this is now a strong, forward looking country and I’d recommend anyone go there.

    1. Thanks for the complement JP! And for the nice comment. We haven’t visited Cambodia yet but it’s very much on the list- what a heart breaking past as well. One of my favorite films has always been ‘Apocalypse Now.’ On our final night in Vietnam, in Ho Chi Minh City, we visited the Apocalypse Now club. It’s actually kindof a seedy place but it was a surreal way to end the Vietnam experience. Worth swinging by for a drink! 🙂

  3. You should go to Mai Chau, Hoa Binh. It is a Thai ethnic village.It is just about 100 km in the northwest of Hanoi.

    1. Thank you for the tip! A Thai village in Vietnam sounds really interesting, if we make it back, we’d certainly be interested in checking it out!

  4. Great article and I’m glad you loved Vietnam in the end. I’ve been numerous times and stayed 6 months this last visit. The vast majority of people that seem to have trouble are American’s and I can’t help wondering why. Vietnam isn’t Thailand and the people aren’t full of fake smiles and deference like in Thailand. That they pay no attention to or treat a visitor any different is what makes it great for me. Treated as an equal. Walking around New York no one looked at me and got excited at an Aussie backpacker (which I liked and expected to be honest) so why expect anyone else to care about you just because you’re in Asia? Yes I’m sure I pay a few cents more for my Pho Bo than a local but with a salary 20 times a local one I don’t really see loosing out 10 cents as anything major. The constant negative publicity that numerous travel bloggers give Vietnam is quite frustrating especially Matt’s article that is still top of google (due to his sites power) yet it is 8 years out of date!!
    Cheers
    James

    1. Well said, James. Thanks for sharing that! Yes, the Vietnamese don’t put on as much of a show with as many fake smiles as the Thai’s do (not knocking their people, just a segment of hustlers). I can see why some Americans prefer Thailand over Vietnam because the customer service can be a little better at times. But it’s also easier to get hustled in Thailand with sometimes fake promises of great deals on jewellery, other goods and travel bookings. With that said, both countries are worth visiting, and culturally they’re just different. But often when you receive some special attention because you’re a tourist (and it happens in Vietnam too) it’s likely someone just wants to sell you something, so it’s often not genuine hospitality. Of course, there are exceptions and sometimes a person just wants a visitor to feel welcomed. Travelers need to be careful not to create cycles of disrespect, and realize that it’s fair to pay to pay a few cents more for fruit and other food on the streets compared to locals who make a significantly lower wage. And it’s important to respect the local people and their customs.

      Happy travels to you, James!

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