Traveling isn’t always fun. There are moments when I just want to scream, cry, and catch the next flight home. I had a few of those thoughts during our time in Vietnam. Even Bryan often felt aggravated and annoyed.
To say the least, we definitely won’t be adding Vietnam to our ever-growing list of favorite countries. This came as a shock to us. We’d heard from other travelers how wonderful Vietnam is so we were expecting to love it. We spent over 2 weeks there and really gave it a chance. Unfortunately, a long list of negative experiences with locals just left a really bad taste in our mouth.
And speaking of taste, we also weren’t fans of Vietnamese food. Bryan is looking even skinnier now. The majority of their diet seemed to consist of bland soups and mystery meats. Some people say they love Vietnamese food, but we tried a lot of things and only liked a few. We try to eat as much street food as we can so we can experience what the locals really eat, not just the tourist version of their food. The locals in Vietnam eat a LOT of soup – many times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Many of the soups didn’t have much flavor though (so you added your own spices), and were very similar so it became quite monotonous. Dog is also eaten in Vietnam, so I was constantly paranoid about what type of meat I ordered. Over the last two years, I’ve become much more open-minded about what I eat. But dog is one thing I really don’t want to try. I won’t judge people for eating things because we all were raised with different ideas of what food should be and different cultural norms. I personally just can’t separate dog meat from the thought of my own two dogs (whom I consider part of my family). I’d also heard horror stories of pet dogs being stolen from people in Thailand, crammed and locked into trucks for 3 days straight, and smuggled into Vietnam to sell for meat. 🙁 I will say that the common issue of stray dogs is not a problem in Vietnam! I think I only saw a couple.
I’m not trying to be a Negative Nancy here. But hindsight being 20/20, I wish we’d spent less time in Vietnam and more time in Cambodia before we needed to catch our flight to Myanmar (Burma). So maybe our experiences will give other travelers something to think about while planning their time in Southeast Asia. Or will at least prepare people for what they might have in store so they won’t be as unpleasantly surprised as we were!
This was the first country (out of nearly 100) where we felt generally unwelcomed. We’re not rude travelers either. We try to be patient and don’t act like ignorant, obnoxious tourists. So I really felt that we didn’t deserve to be treated like this. We noticed the change as soon as we crossed into Vietnam from Laos. Despite researching the correct ticket price for our bus to Hanoi, we had no choice but to accept the bogus, inflated price or be left behind. The driver went so far as to have fake tickets to give us with a much higher price than the tickets the locals received. We knew we were getting ripped off which is frustrating. It was also aggravating when we asked for help from the locals on the bus and they ignored us. I can see why locals might not want to get involved, but we’ve been to other countries such as India and Bolivia where people stepped in to assist us. These people just acted like we were invisible.
This was just our first small taste of “Vietnamese hospitality” towards tourists. Every day and almost every time we purchased something, we had to argue to get close to the real price for anything from ferry tickets to a simple bread baguette. It was exhausting and frustrating. It’s not about the money either. In the grand scheme of things it’s not very much money over a few weeks. And I know we have much more money than most of the locals. But it’s that we are not treated like respectable human beings. It’s the fact that we are being blatantly lied to and regarded as stupid tourists or walking ATMs. Twice we were in a legit grocery store, buying drinks and snacks. The prices were actually marked on the items so we thought we were in the clear. We went to the cash register to pay for the items, they rang up as marked and then the cashier changed the price by increasing the unit price. Bryan was looking through the money in his pocket and didn’t notice. I saw it and just walked out, leaving the items unpurchased on the counter.
There were some friendly locals. The sisters that taught my Vietnamese cooking class in Hoi An were lovely. They were quite aware of how tourists were treated. One of the women was telling our Canadian friend Natalie about how cheap it is to buy the spice saffron in Vietnamese markets, especially compared to the prices in North America. “But it won’t be cheap if you go to the market and buy it,” she told Natalie. “If you walk in there with your white skin, the price will be expensive. But it’s cheap if I buy it.”
And when we did pay the inflated prices, many times we didn’t receive the service that we were promised. On one long distance bus, they dropped us off along a random road outside of our destination city. The bus was continuing along the road to the city but they forced us to get off beforehand. All four of us asked if we could stay on a bit longer to actually get to where we were going. The driver plugged his ears with his fingers, acted like he couldn’t hear my requests, and started yelling at me. After being forced off the bus with the drivers laughing as they drove off, we continued our journey into the city center on foot with our backpacks.
I’ll stop my rant with one more story. We purchased bus tickets for the 23 hour journey from Hoi An to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). With our experience in long-distance buses around the world, we knew to request seats towards the front of the bus (it’s less bumpy and it’s away from the stinky bathroom). There were no assigned seats on this bus (first come, first serve) but the travel agent wrote on our tickets “front seats.” The next day, when the bus finally arrived an hour late, all the other passengers (all tourists) were in the back of the bus. We got on and sat in the empty front seats. The driver went ballistic. He grabbed our daypacks out of my hands, and yelled at me to move. I snatched my bags back and yelled “NO, NO, NO! Don’t touch my stuff!” We got in an all-out tug-of-war and heated English-Vietnamese argument. Somehow we compromised on seats in the middle of the bus. A little bit later, the bus stopped to pick up a bunch of locals and they got all the good seats – Vietnamese in the front, tourists in the back. Then the assistant driver handed out bottled waters and wet naps to the locals, and none to the tourists, even though I’m sure we paid much more for our tickets. I asked the bus attendant for a wet nap and he very reluctantly handed me one.
I wasn’t sure whether to write this blog but I want travelers to know what they may encounter. And it’s not just us and it isn’t just because we’re American. Other travelers of different nationalities we met had similar experiences. I’ve also read other seasoned travelers’ blogs with stories like ours. After nearly 100 countries, this is the first place that we felt so unwelcome and mistreated.
With all that being said, we don’t regret visiting Vietnam. We just regret spending so much time there. There were a few things I loved about Vietnam. We had a great time spending 10 days traveling with our new friends Natalie (from Canada) and Jake (from the UK) whom we met on the way to the Laos-Vietnam border. It was nice to celebrate New Years in the capital city of Hanoi with them and a few other great people, especially since the “local, fresh” draught beer they sell everywhere can cost as little as 13 cents US! The city was even lenient that night on the midnight curfew (Vietnam is a Communist Country so rules are strict). When the clock neared midnight, the lake in the center of town was filled with thousands of locals and tourists waiting for the fireworks. But nothing ever happened. Midnight came and passed but there were no fireworks. We jokingly wished each other a “Happy Communist New Year” and returned to the little street bars for another round of super cheap beer.
Our two favorite sites in Vietnam were the caves around Dong Hoi and the floating markets in the Mekong Delta. Vietnam is full of caves in the jagged, limestone karsts that dot the landscape. Vietnam also boasts the largest cave in the world which just opened for tours. But because of the technicality of exploring it, tours costs around $3,000 USD. Obviously, we chose not to pay that much and stuck with the more accessible caves – such as Paradise Cave and Phong Nha Cave. The most fantastic caves are filled with enormous stalactite and stalagmite formations. We’ve seen tons of caves so I wasn’t expecting to be wowed. But we were. We walked around the whole time in awe. The formations were massive and intricate. Even more impressive was that the structures took millions of years to form. It was especially peaceful and eerie to tour Phong Nha Cave by boat.
Many caves in both Laos and Vietnam were used extensively by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam-American War. You can visit these but prepare to hear a lot of anti-American sentiments. Some things may be somewhat accurate but there is so much propaganda to sift through. One “documentary” they showed on our tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels talked about how the “Americans came like crazy devils dropping bombs on women and children.” I need to learn more about the war from a less biased standpoint!
The Mekong Delta was a positive way to end our 2.5 weeks in Vietnam. It’s quite touristy which we usually don’t enjoy but it was still possible to focus on the authenticity of the experience. We hired a private boat driver from the Can Tho waterfront to take us at 5 a.m. to the two floating markets on the Mekong River – Can Rang and Phong Dien. It was such a unique experience to see the locals in wooden boats completely filled with produce such as onions, watermelons, and pineapples. They rowed up to one another and started negotiating and swapping items. There were even a few women in boats selling hot coffee and other drinks. It was definitely a special way to get my Monday morning coffee, and it was of course a tiny fraction of the price of Starbuck’s or even 7-11. Our sweet boat driver weaved jewelry, flowers, and crickets from palm tree leaves for us as we floated down the mighty Mekong River.
We also really enjoyed the beautiful scenery in Vietnam despite the foggy weather this time of year. As I mentioned, there are limestone karsts, as well as some beautiful coastline. There are lots of rice patties with people in their traditional conical bamboo hats farming the land by hand or with the help of their water buffalo. In Southeast Asia, we’ve started renting motorbikes for the day to explore the area on our own. It was a fun and cheap way to have some freedom with our own mode of transportation. Bryan did relatively well for a beginner motorbike driver. Oh, except for when he accidentally popped a wheelie downshifting while going up a steep hill and threw us both off. We were okay, except for a cut on my leg and a sore hip. He’ll never hear the end of that though, especially now that our parents know. 🙂
So there were some pleasant times during our roller-coaster of ups and downs in Vietnam. If you had a great time during your travels in Vietnam, I’m happy that you had a positive experience. But as for us, Vietnam was definitely not a highlight of our World Trip. We grew tired of constantly being ripped off and feeling skeptical of people. There are so many other places we’ve visited where we felt genuinely welcomed and respected so we’d rather spend our time and money in those countries. If Vietnam is on your Travel Bucket List, don’t let me talk you out of it. The place does have quite a few unique things to offer. I just encourage you to stand up for yourself when the locals try to rip you off!
NOTE (from Bryan): Obviously the photos don’t really go along with the writing in this blog. I didn’t walk around Vietnam trying to capture all the rude encounters we had.