By S & D
Vietnam. What to say about Vietnam? Well, it is probably best to start with our mindset before we arrived. We were a little hesitant about visiting Vietnam. Why hesitant? Well, we had read several blog posts that commented on how tough backpacking through Vietnam could be. Below are two examples:
Nomadic Matt – “Why I’ll Never Return to Vietnam”
Or this other travel guy – “Why Most Tourists Never Return to Vietnam”
After our trip I can say our experience was not as negative as the experiences described in these posts. However, some of the themes were the same. We definitely felt like walking dollar signs most of the time. More so than other SE Asian countries. Also, I felt if we refused the vendors (whether it be hotel clerks trying to sell a tour or street vendors giving us a price for food), something was said under their breath about us to their fellow Vietnamese. Do I know for sure? No, I have no idea. It’s just the vibe I got sometimes. The issue seemed to be worst in the most touristy areas, but we are tourists, so we did spend a fair amount of time in these areas.
On the whole, it was pretty common to be overcharged for street food like the rice porridge example I described in our Hanoi post. We learned this is a common practice in Vietnam. When Vietnam first opened up to international tourism, the government imposed dual prices: one for foreigners and one for locals. This policy has since gone away “officially”, but many Vietnamese continue with this structure and see nothing wrong with it. Again, this is what we heard but didn’t verify, so someone let us know if they know differently.
How do we feel about this? I don’t know. I understand we have a lot more money compared to most Vietnamese people. And is $1.50 so much for soup compared to $0.50? No. But it was the attitude that set us on edge.
We talked about this issue with another Westerner who has lived in Vietnam for 17 years and speaks Vietnamese. He said he still gets charged different prices from locals. He gave us an example of one restaurant where he said, “Look, I know this is the price that other people pay. Are you sure you want to charge me more? I live down the street, and I will not come back if you charge me more.” The store owner’s response was basically that she didn’t care if he didn’t come back and she wanted the originally quoted (higher) price.
Another example of an uncomfortable interaction in Vietnam was the night we walked into a restaurant, and upon the staff seeing that we were not local (I’m guessing), they all sat back down into their seats and made no offer to invite us to eat there. We motioned toward a table, and got absolutely no response. This wasn’t in a touristy area, so maybe they had no idea what to do with English speakers. I don’t know. But it didn’t make me feel welcome. And we never had this sort of problem in the many other countries we traveled to.
Now don’t get me wrong. We met some really wonderful people. There was a girl who translated everything for us at a bus station and then gave us a basket of strawberries from her hometown because her town was famous for them and she wanted to share that with us. There was the girl who worked at the front desk of one of the hotels and wanted to chat with us for an hour to learn about our culture, share about her culture, and practice her English. There was the school teacher we met while trekking who wanted to take pictures with Danielle because she was “beautiful” (BTW she shooed me out of the picture.. #egocheck). These people were all amazing, and we will remember each of them as huge positives about Vietnam.
But because we had to eat (or take tuk tuks or buy souvenirs or stay in lodging) on such a frequent basis compared to the “good” local experiences, the country just wore us down to the point where we would continually go back to the same restaurants where people were nice to us (when usually we like to try as many new places to eat as possible) or we would go to the tourist restaurants because we would rather pay a bit more (and maybe get a bit worse food) in order to not risk feeling slighted again.
So did we like Vietnam? Yes. Would we go back? Probably not. I think we would enjoy Vietnam more as a regular vacation (see: not as backpackers). It sounds terrible, but in nicer establishments, people are much nicer to you. They have to be. It’s their job. So yeah, I think I could enjoy Vietnam more under those circumstances. And I wouldn’t get as upset about being “cheated” out of $2 if my daily budget wasn’t $60. But maybe I would because it doesn’t feel nice.
- Ho Chi Minh City
- Central Vietnam: Danang, Hoi An, Hue
- Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
- Total days in country: 24
- Number of times having laundry done: 3
- Night buses/trains: 5
- Number of runs: 8
- Number of beds slept in: 16 (night transit included)
The Vietnam List (a list of things we associate with Vietnam):
- Coffee – bitter, strong, cloyingly sweet, and available on every street corner.
- Amazing Food – I was tempted to list all of the dishes we enjoyed in this list but ain’t nobody got time for that.
- Night buses – ugh.
- Mopeds – they are everywhere.
- Sapa trek / cultural experience.
- Moped-ing around Central Vietnam.
- Valley of Love and Dalanta Waterfall. Dalat, man.
Least favorite experiences:
- Tourist pricing. Already discussed this in detail.
- Over the top tourism. Elevators to the top of mountains. Roller coasters to waterfalls (although I did end up enjoying this). Zip line to enter a cave. A (proposed and rejected) cable car to the world’s largest cave. In Vietnam, we felt the consensus attitude was that getting as many people to natural wonders/attractions is more important than the integrity of the attraction. Coming from the United States this is a difficult mindset for us to grasp. I love the National Parks in the US because of the lack of development. In Vietnam, development is the name of the game.
- Breakdown as follows:
- Food in Vietnam was quite affordable. Compared with Thailand it looks expensive, but this is because coffee is rolled into the food category and I drank tons of coffee in Vietnam.
- Transportation and lodging are also affordable.
- Big ticket items. Big ticket items for us were the cooking class in Danang and the Sapa trek. Without these our daily expenditures would have been around $52 USD. It is also important to note that we skipped Halong Bay which many folks swear by.