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I can think of very few countries that inspire as passionately varied reactions from travelers as Vietnam does. Its fans wax poetic about the breathtaking landscape, the intriguing culture and the resilient population. Its detractors spew bitterly about the traffic, the crime, and most of all: the unfriendly people.

I’m fascinated by this. What is it about Vietnam that sparks these reactions? It’s not just anecdotal, either. Take a look at these statistics on numbers on international tourists (Source: Each country’s tourism board. All figures are from 2009 unless noted, the most recent year statistics are available for most countries).

Malaysia: 22 million (skewed somewhat by Singaporean residents)
Thailand: 14 million (up to 19 million in 2011)
Indonesia 6.9
Vietnam: 3.7 million (up to 6 million in 2011)
Philippines: 3 million
Cambodia: 2.1 million
Laos: 2 million

For two countries so close together and with so much coastline, there is a staggering difference between Thailand’s 14 million visitors and Vietnam’s 3.7 million. Yet, Vietnam brings in more visitor’s than neighbor Cambodia, who boasts the bucket-list destination of Angkor Wat. But here is what I find to be the most interesting statistic of all: Vietnam has a return rate of just 5% compared to Thailand’s impressive 55%. (Source: The Economist) What is keeping the vast majority of Vietnam’s visitors from returning?

Dumpster in Saigon

Since that isn’t the kind of thing that Vietnam’s tourism board is going to gather data on, I only have my own experience to report. And it isn’t all pretty.

I’ll start off  by saying I had a lot of fun times in Vietnam, and I saw some of the most beautiful vistas I have laid eyes on. I have plans to return and see the North. But if I had a gun held to my head and had to confess my least favorite country, Vietnam would have that honor. It’s hard to articulate, in the grand scheme of things, why. I made it no secret that I loathed Saigon. But a whole country? That’s a bit harder to be so adamant about. So let me share a few anecdotes.

Bus Rides From Hell

It took me a few moments to unfold myself from the six hour mini-van ride we had taken, against our will, from Dalat to Mui Ne. We didn’t bat an eye when the mini-van came to fetch us from our Dalat hotel, as it is common practice for these to deposit you at the main bus stations. And of course we had paid for and been promised a normal, human-sized bus. Despite being smacked in the face with the reality of Vietnam several times, we were still under the impression that this entitled us to a normal, human-sized bus. Ha!

We collected more and more passengers, squeezing into acrobatic shapes in order to accommodate the luggage and people teeming into the tiny vehicle. I tried to fight back claustrophobia while wondering how much further the bus station could be. Once we hit highway and I realized this would be my prison for the next 5+ hours, I nearly burst into tears. Except my face was shoved into someone’s shoulder, so that deterred me a bit.

So, we had four people to a three person seat and then the last poor suckers to embark sitting on stools in the “aisle.” The couple shoulder-to-shoulder with us had it worst of all, as the luggage was so overstuffed into the trunk that it wouldn’t allow the seat to lock into place, forcing them to sit at a 45 degree angle the entire journey. And off we went, with the van boiling from recycled air and lack of air-conditioning and bouncing around the road with absolutely no respect for the human bladder. I remember thinking: Vietnam, you got us again. You son of a bitch.

Vietnamese transportation brought me to tears on more than one occasion. And before you accuse me of being a fussy princess who can’t take a little discomfort, let me assure you my complaints have nothing to do with comfort standards. Returning from my first trip to Cambodia in 2009, I had happy memories of buses with cracked windshields, no suspension, a constantly blaring horn and equally loud Khmer pop music videos playing. I found it charming. Here’s the difference in Vietnam: It was all so mean-spirited. In addition to the scam we were subjected to above, we took three other long distance bus rides. In all three, we paid for a bus with a bathroom. In all three, the driver locked the bathroom, presumably so he wouldn’t have to clean in. In two, the driver laughed in my face when I pleaded with them to let me in so I wouldn’t have an accident. I was in physical pain bouncing around in a bus with no suspension because the bus driver was too lazy to do his own job. This made me verge on homicidal. When I return to Vietnam I will travel exclusively by train.

Transportation in Vietnam

Scams Here, Scams There, Scams Everywhere

“You pay for parking.” He held up enough fingers to indicate that we owed five thousand dong. “There is a sign literally behind you that says parking is free,” Mark said incredulously. The man shook his head and pointed to the portion of the sign that said 5 thousand dong… for car parking. We are driving a motorcycle, which remains as free as it was five minutes ago. “Sir. There is a line for line English translation of that sign. I’m starting to doubt you are even an employee here. Good day!”

Scams happen all across South East Asia. But never have I seen them executed with the same fervor that there was in Vietnam. Parking was a particular recurring issue, but really that was just the beginning. Police invented fake fines to extract bribes, admission was charged by random families with a card table set up outside waterfalls, and bait-and-switch tours and transportation were rampant. It was exhausting to have our guard up constantly. And it wasn’t just elaborate scams — simple robberies seemed to take place on an unheard of level. Almost each day brought a new tale of violent bag snatching or pickpocketing.

One scam we were victim of twice happened at spas. Both times after paying for a massage (one turned out to be in a happy-ending parlor, but that’s another icky story) the masseuse would come back into the room with a sheet of paper asking you to “evaluate” her — and pledge a tip. Tipping is not common in Asia and in the ten million massages I have had in Thailand not once has a tip been expected, let alone solicited. When I expressed discomfort with the whole thing and refused to write an amount, they claimed they weren’t paid at all and worked solely for tips. The whole thing was so stressful and uncomfortable it negated the point of getting a massage at all! I left raging mad both times.

Scams in Vietnam

Just Go Away

The Market in Dalat was like any other I had been to in Asia, swirling with colors and people. As usual I had my camera in hand, ready to shoot when the moment struck. I noticed an enormous cauldron of soup being stirred at a food stall. I saw the photo in my head. I made eye contact with the woman running the stall, and raised my eyebrows and my camera slightly while nodding towards the soup in the universal gesture for “May I take a photo?” “NO NO NO!” she spat back, so aggressively that I stumbled backwards in response.

Never have I felt quite so unwanted in a new country. I experienced something similar working in Grand Cayman, where locals were reserved and a bit uptight, but nothing on the same level as Vietnam. I feel hesitant to share these thoughts because I don’t want to generalize or say something so harsh about an entire country, but this was my experience. It’s not something I say lightly. Of course I met friendly and warm people in Vietnam. Unfortunately, for every one pleasant encounter I had, there were two negative ones to follow it. People laughed at us meanly, stared at us wearily, ignored us completely, and did little to disguise their contempt for us. I felt thousands of miles from “the land of smiles” (Thailand’s ingenious slogan).

People in Vietnam

The Guilt Factor

The worst part of all? Instead of feeling indignant about our treatment as guests in a new country, I felt guilty. My immediate reaction was: How else could I expect to be treated, considering the atrocities my own country has committed against this one? But intellectually, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. As my friend Matt put it, as a Jewish person does he have a free pass to be rude to German tourists in the US and make them uncomfortable? I don’t think so. But the government is going to have to make some changes if they want the public’s attitude to change. From the harsh and one-sided propaganda about the war that I saw being publicized in Vietnam, it’s no surprise that the Vietnamese react the way they do to Westerners.

And if Vietnam hopes to continue to derive a large part of their national income from tourism, I think they have a public relations issue to deal with right now. It is every traveler’s responsibility to be respectful and sensitive to their host country. And in exchange I believe that any country promoting international tourism should do its best to be a good host.

Feeling Lost In Vietnam

What the Future Holds

Six million people were drawn to Vietnam in 2011. Six million people came to learn, to bear witness, and to enjoy. Statistically, only 180,000 of them will enjoy themselves enough to return. People return to Thailand year after year because it’s effortless to enjoy. And I think they fall for Cambodia and Laos because despite the difficulties of travel there, they win you over with charm and heart. I think Vietnam has a long way to go if it wants to gain a reputation as a tourism superstar. First of all, it’s got to find some heart.

Have you traveled to Vietnam? What was your experience there?

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235 Comments...
  • Grace
    February 1 2012

    Hmm, interesting.

    I went to Vietnam for a month several years ago, and had a somewhat similar reaction. It’s really really beautiful, and there are so many cool things to see.

    Bad things: The constant cheating was exhausting. Fake train tickets, sending us food we hadn’t ordered, “foreigner” prices, attempted thefts…Someone even tried to steal from my backpack WITH THEIR FEET! We only got ripped off twice, but it took a massive effort to accomplish this.

    The everyday level of violence was also shocking to me (especially given other SE Asian countries). We were chased by a knife-wielding maniac, my boyfriend got punched (argument over a ticket scam), lots of hostile screaming, etc. And it wasn’t just because we were foreigners: I saw so many women routinely being kicked/hit/beaten; they often didn’t even react, because it was just another typical day.

    It was worse in the South, and in heavily touristed areas (when we went to the inland mountains, there were no other foreigners and everyone was really friendly). There seemed to be a certain necessary exposure to tourists necessary for the scams to appear. (In the little villages, it hadn’t occurred to anyone that we COULD be scammed.) It’s also cultural though: given the violence against women and their general abysmal position, I think that sets a certain tone for the whole society.

    On the other hand, if you avoided scam “triggers” and lowered expectations to what was possible, then things weren’t that bad. We had a much better time for the second half of our trip.
    Grace recently posted..Little R Starts School

    • Alex
      February 1 2012

      It’s true, I probably should have mentioned that we were definitely on the “tourist trail” while we were in Vietnam. I’m sure those that visit more rural and un-touristy areas have a completely different experience. However, Thailand for example is FILLED with tourists. And yet you don’t encounter the level of scamming and crime you do in Vietnam. And take Cambodia, which has had some pretty devastating decades as well. The people there are some of the warmest and friendliest on Earth! Basically, I don’t know what it is about Vietnam. Something just doesn’t add up.

      • Johnny
        May 29 2014

        Something just doesn’t add up? Hmmm ,,, I wonder what that possibly could be, wouldn’t have anything to with a certain war? No that’s right America were the good guys in that war right? Didn’t do anything to create resentment amongst Vietnamese people. Your sense of entitlement and audacity is disturbing. How about being appreciative for a change?

        • Alex
          May 29 2014

          Hey Johnny, perhaps you’d find this post I wrote about my feelings visiting Vietnam as an American post-war interesting. I think you’re throwing around a lot of judgement pretty freely.

        • sunny
          October 26 2014

          @ Johnny

          It doesn’t matter if you’re an American, African, etc; scammers will still scam foreigners.

        • brian
          February 11 2017

          Johnny,

          you’re a retard. The Americans did make a mistake going there, but this doesn’t give the people a free pass to be rude assholes to people who go there to spend money and support the country.

          • Alex
            February 12 2017

            Hey Brian, I really debated deleting this comment. Please don’t call people names here. Criticism is welcome, name-calling is not.

    • Just a common person
      April 25 2013

      Hello there, Im vietnamese and I completely agree with you. That is my feeling when i travel in vietnam. Vietnamese people are like that, of course not all of them but a lot. Very annoying and i always wonder whats wrong with these people. Dont they think about long term benefit? But ithink they can not. I have know a many vietnamese people thousand, but only few of them I can trust and have a friendship. They cheat you all the time. You never know whats going on. I think as a foreign tourist you should send this article to the tourist office in vietnam. They would appreciate it if they really want to develope.

    • Johnny
      May 29 2014

      What a load of rubbish. I’ve been living and working in Vietnam for over two years and have barely seen one of the horrible things you describe, I’ve noticed a nasty cycle of people bitching and moaning about Vietnam and after a little research have found that it is actually the travellers who behave badly, not the locals, They come to the country with a despicable sense of entitlement, yet fail to realise that it is actually they who are in a negative frame of mind which is easily noticeable and very very unattractive, how would you like it if foreigners came to your country and behaved like cautious little chickens, picking around and inspecting every thing you did with distrust and suspicion?

      • Alex
        May 29 2014

        Johnny, I’m happy for you that you’ve lived in Vietnam for two years without any negative experiences. That’s lovely. As you can see from the many many comments here, others have had a different experience. I’m happy for all readers to share theirs, positive or negative, but I’d appreciate it if we didn’t get nasty about it.

        • Ed
          May 26 2015

          I’m also interested in these experiences. A lot of people have them, but as someone who’s lived in Saigon for 3.5 years, I’ve had mostly positive experiences. Might be something to do with being a white guy of unthreatening height who’s always smiling and doesn’t mind a little haggling.

          One point on the reception of Americans — I think it’s a pretty widely-experienced thing, Americans are actually super well-received in Vietnam, especially by the younger people. It’s one of the best things to me about this country, that people are so quick to forget old ways of thinking and embrace new ones (of course, it’s a double-edged sword sometimes…). After all, if they were still carrying grudges from 40 years ago, there wouldn’t be one unified country we could call Vietnam.

      • mark mullally
        July 24 2014

        very interested in info you could provide, we are thinking of taking a couple of years out travelling vietnam laos and cambodia, ie rental prices 1 bed aparts, living costs, ie how much a month for a couple to live, many thanks.

  • Nadia
    February 1 2012

    I really enjoy these types of post. You do an excellent job of displaying cultural sensitivity and criticism simultaneously. Well done!

    • Alex
      February 1 2012

      Thanks Nadia! I definitely take more care with my words when I’m being critical. I try to think of the positive interaction I had with people I met in Vietnam and what they would think if they were reading it. Would they think I was being fair?

      • Tri Ly
        April 17 2012

        Hi Alex,

        I came across your site and would like to thank you for the posting. I have grown up in Vietnam and came to stay in the US for a while and see the perspective of both. I surely don’t think Vietnamese people is looking at American as they were in the war, or because of government one-sided propaganda. The sad thing is that in big cities like HCM city, there’s huge amount of migrants along with many problems that the government has not been able to address. Problems in big cities like this in Vietname is typical but not typical of the Vietnamese people and tradition, I just cannot give an definite answer.
        I hope you had more pleasant experience elsewhere in Vietnam, especially if you had a chance to visit towns in the central part. I’m from Nha Trang and I’m proud of its beautiful beach and a more quiet way of life.

        Bests,
        Tri

        • Alex
          April 17 2012

          Hi Tri, Thanks for your comment. I visited Nha Trang during my trip to Vietnam (you can find the posts by typing “Nha Trang” into the search box). I loved it! We went diving, went to the mud baths, had a great time. It is a beautiful place.

  • Dad
    February 1 2012

    I hope someone picks this up and gives wider distribution. It is an eye-opener.

    • Alex
      February 1 2012

      Nomadic Matt (who I linked to in this post) just wrote a story for the Huffington Post about why he will never return to Vietnam. He had a pretty similar experience to us!

  • Kathryn
    February 1 2012

    Al, maybe send this to the Vietnam Minister of Tourism? They can’t change what they don’t perceive to be a problem. You are balanced enough in your evaluation that someone just might listen.

    • Alex
      February 1 2012

      I think I’m far from the first person to bring this up, internet or otherwise. I mean, The Economist is the one who found that statistic on the low return rates!

  • Jade - ourOyster.com
    February 1 2012

    I have to totally agree with you! Vietnam was my least favourite place in Asia – just knowing that everyone was out to rip me off was enough to put me off of Vietnam. I would never go back either
    Jade – ourOyster.com recently posted..5 Things To Do In Edinburgh

    • Alex
      February 2 2012

      Believe it or not, I think I will go back! I just can’t leave Asia without seeing Halong Bay! But I’m not optimistic about changing my opinions about Vietnam… I’ve heard that the North is even harsher towards westerners.

      • Hân
        August 13 2014

        Yes, sadly it’s the truth,I’m a southerner and we are the friendliest here. And the North people…well, you best not involve in any argument with them. The young one can yell at you so rhythm that even I have to bow down, and the older one can look like a tiger especially women, really, don’t do that. Even us native can be rip-off just like you.

        • Halle
          January 27 2015

          You are criticizing on your own people. There are good and bad people living in the same place, all over the world. You cannot judge everyone basing on a certain person, especially when getting that point of view from some rumors, don’t you?
          Anyway, it is a sad but true fact that we need to be united, to change, to raise people’s awareness, to work on it, not to devaluate another people from different parts of country.

      • Phong
        July 13 2016

        In my personal opinion, Sa Pa and Ninh Binh are far better places than Ha Long bay. So if you come back and got some more time I do recommend seeing those two places in the North.
        I’m a Vietnamese, I do see why you’ve had negative experiences with the people which is fine. But if you ever had a chance to live, not just to travel, the country a little longer you might find another charming side of it 🙂

        • Alex
          July 13 2016

          Hey Phon, thanks for the recommendations! I’ll definitely add them to my list for next time 🙂

  • Karla Stride
    February 2 2012

    I totally enjoy reading your posts. Very raw. Great job Alex! I will be travelling to Vietnam next week for the first time. Went to Bali a couple of years back and I had a terrible time. Coming from Philippines I thought I was well prepared. Now I am dreading going to Vietnam although I am very much excited about Mui Ne.

    I hope one day you’ll be able to visit Philippines. We are pretty much behind Vietnam in terms of tourism sadly but I’m sure you will have a great time there. Maybe I am biased but of all the places I have been to in SEA. Philippines has so much more to offer with over 7, 107 islands!
    Karla Stride recently posted..Gong Xi Fa Cai!

    • Alex
      February 2 2012

      Oh no, I hope I haven’t put you off your trip! Mui Ne was by far the most hassle free place we visited. I don’t know why, maybe we were used to it by then 🙂 The Philippines is definitely on my bucket list. I hope to get there in 2012! It will be hard because I will want to see so much as the visa on arrival is only 21 days! Maybe I’ll have to get the 3 months visa.

      • Karla Stride
        February 2 2012

        Not at all. Mark & I are very much looking forward to Mui Ne!

        Yay! Glad to hear that. Will look forward to reading all about your PH experiences here. I heard that they might extend the visa on arrival to 30 days soon. Plus the Airport Fee that used to be P750 will come down to P550 from this month. Must see: Coron, Donsol, Batanes, Bohol, Cebu & Mt. Pinatubo!
        Karla Stride recently posted..Gong Xi Fa Cai!

  • Fidel
    February 2 2012

    Obviously, I think, every one is going to have their own unique experiences in a place. When I first went to Thailand solo (not with my Navy ship), I vowed that I wouldn’t return after the scams I had to deal with. After a few weeks, my anger subsided and I went back recently and now I am completely in love with the country, people and food.
    My first trip to Vietnam was to Da Nang and Hue (with my ship). I returned last year when I went solo to Hanoi and Halong Bay.
    There is definitely a huge difference in North and Central Vietnam. I think if you went to Hanoi, you’d experience less of the scams, more of the culture and friendliness. Central and Southern Vietnam were more scarred by the American and French wars there, then the North. Perhaps that is why things are a little different with respect to the attitude toward Westerners. I can’t be certain of my opinion though.
    Also, in the central and southern parts of the country, you will find a lot of displaced former ARVN officers who lost their citizenship and passports after the American War ended. These are a people without a country and that was passed down to their children. Thus, hustling is the only way of survival for them.
    I hope you return, at least to the North. It’s a beautiful country as you saw and the culture, food and atmosphere is amazing.
    Fidel recently posted..I Love Japan

    • Alex
      February 3 2012

      I was hoping you would comment Fidel, as I know you are in the “Love It” team when it comes to Vietnam. It’s interesting that you say the North would be better for travel, as I’ve heard others say the exact opposite! But as I am definitely returning to Vietnam to explore the North someday, I hope that you are the one who is right! I really look forward to giving Vietnam a second chance and exploring Halong Bay and the rest of the treasures up North…

      • Sam
        May 10 2015

        Hi, Alex. I ran into your blog while searching for Ho Chi Minh city zoo’s objective perceptions. I’m originally from Saigon (as I prefer calling my home city that name), I was shocked and really sad after my trip to the zoo a few years back. I was closed to tears when I saw annoyed chimpanzees (there was this one that kept turning its back to the visitors and hiding its face in the loop of a rubber tyre with a sulky attitude. I noticed it, I tried walking around the cage to face it but it changed the position every time I got near, even got this tyre around its neck to keep from being seen at any angle), irritated tigers that marching around, depressed lions that slept all the time, nonchalant chained elephants, etc. I got overwhelmed and obsessed with the idea that this whole thing is totally wrong. And I wanted to see if there’s anybody feels the way I do, so your blog and posts are really helpful and relevant. All you were saying is sad but true. I appreciate your raw emotions when you talked about my country. I especially favor the word “mean spirited” that you used. It is really what it is. It’s truly stressing to deal with all these mean people in every day life that I have escaped to Finland for a change. It’s not that I don’t love my home country, but it just scarred me a great deal. However, there’s one thing I feel the need to tell you. Southerners are really nicer than people from the North. We Southerners actually don’t view Westerners as war enemy, we in fact believe Northerners invaded and stole our life and chased away our alley Americans. Life has become more miserable since they came. Scams are everywhere, not more or less in any particular place. But there’s one thing you should know, which I’m a hundred percent honest with you, (if you could speak Vietnamese and distinguish its accents, you’ll know), Saigon nowadays is the land of Northern immigrants. Most of true Saigonese had escaped on their boats to the States and other countries after the 1975 event. So basically Northern people just ruined it there in the South. They ruined everything. They keep their deceitful trait as an asset and have imported their scams to the land that’s feeding them. I don’t quite understand when some foreign visitors said the North is better. I don’t know what kind of experience they had had, but I personally think it’s probably because there’s less people there, all the cheaters have come to the South to make ends meet there.

        • Alex
          May 16 2015

          I’m sorry to hear your trip to the zoo was similarly disturbing. I hope those poor animals get a break one of these days 🙁 Thanks for taking the time to comment!

    • HQT
      June 19 2013

      I stumbled across your blog, Alex. I enjoyed reading this post and the comments and was waiting to see when the “Love it” team would start commenting…
      Well Fidel, I am sorry to say but I think you are on crack when you say “if you went to Hanoi, you’d experience less of the scams”, “Central and Southern Vietnam were more scarred by the American and French wars”. You clearly don’t know the many sides of Vietnam or its history. And your comments about children of former ARVN officers survive by hustling… well, you are seriously on crack!
      I’d be happy to address those points and more, but let’s face it, if you are in the “Love it” team, not much will change your mind, and vice versa.

      • Alex
        June 19 2013

        Hey HQT, I appreciate your kind words on this post which took a lot out of me to write. However I think it’s a bit harsh to say that Fidel is “smoking crack” and assume he doesn’t know much about history. I know Fidel is very well traveled and has a unique perspective from him time in the Navy, and I appreciate his comments here.

    • Audun
      January 13 2014

      The scams are just as frequent in the north as elsewhere in Vietnam, believe me. I spent two weeks there, traveled from Hanoi, through Hue and Hoi An, then on to Con Dao and back to Ho Chi Minh. The scams are everywhere, and I probably saw more of them in Hanoi and Ha Long than in the south. The owner of the hostel I stayed at in Saigon even stole money (2000 Thai bath) from my ex-girlfriends purse. I confronted her and she acted like a complete fool. I left shortly after. Having traveled to more than 40 countries, NEVER has a country left me with such bad feelings as Vietnam. And it’s a big shame as the country itself is truly beautiful. The same can’t be said about the average Vietnamese person.

  • Cat
    February 3 2012

    So very interesting. I’m definitely a grain of salt and open mind type person or at least try to be. But, Vietnam is one of those places I have reservations about and wonder if I’m ok with just seeing photos and reading the stories. Your experience reminded me much of Nomadic Matt’s. Also, I have a Vietnamese friend from high school that returned with her mother about a year ago to visit family and even looking and being locals in a way, they still experienced many of the same things (i.e. scams) you did which surprised me. Ditto the other commenters, I think you did a really great job of expressing your experiences respectfully(?).
    Cat recently posted..Autumn at the Beach

    • Alex
      February 3 2012

      Thanks for that, Cat. I try! Matt and I are friends in real life and he warned me about his experience before I ever went. Like you I’m a “grain of salt” person, as you say, and so I was of course going to see for myself! And I’m very glad I did, despite the fact that we came to many of the same conclusions.

  • egwg
    February 4 2012

    I got sick of the constant overcharging in Vietnam. The bargaining at the markets are not good-natured either. When I responded with a low price for obviously counterfeit goods, I was met with curses in Vietnamese. I don’t speak Vietnamese, but it seemed equivalent to “go to hell”.

    • Alex
      February 4 2012

      It’s true! I’m very used to bargaining from the markets in Thailand and Cambodia (though I admit I’m a horrible bargainer). But in Vietnam no one would budge! I was really surprised because I thought bargaining was something ingrained in South East Asian culture.

  • Brett Johnston
    February 4 2012

    Vietnam comparative to Thailand

    Thai population 2/3 Viet.

    1.5 times more Sq area in Thai

    Mountainous regions with bitterly poor.

    Investment in Thailand – never ended.
    Sanctions on Vietnam – pretty regular.

    Total destruction of ruling party 12 times or more in Vietnam.

    Total love of the Thai King – ask a Thai!

    Attitude in Vietnam – FTW
    Attitude in Thailand – $%#% real cheap.

    Sorry if you got tour problems girl. But I got 99 problems and touring isn’t one.

    • Alex
      February 4 2012

      First of all, I wasn’t on a tour in Vietnam. I did take one day tour (the Cu Chi Tunnels) but the rest of our trip was DIY.

      If you are using “tour problems” to mean “tourism problems,” then yes, I realize that I’m talking luxury issues here. But I do think that if a country is going to actively promote itself as a tourism destination, it needs to work towards making itself a welcoming place to guests. Just as those guests need to act respectfully and be culturally aware. And that 3% return rate WILL be a problem for Vietnam if it hopes to be a major tourism destination!

      • Brett Johnston
        February 4 2012

        I thought the first rule of travel diaries was never to believe you need the place to change to suit you.

        I don’t want to get in the way of your politics.

        Why not just delete your posts about Vietnam if it was full of bad memories? Tear down all those photos of Mui Ne – not fit for tourists!

        • Alex
          February 4 2012

          Hi Brett. I can see I’ve touched a nerve here by criticizing a country that must be very special to you. However I think it is possible to have both good and bad memories from a place. And by posting both the good (my Mui Ne photos) and the bad (the experiences in this post) I am being honest to my experience. To me, that is the first rule of travel diaries.

          • Brett Johnston
            February 4 2012

            I’m just not convinced you know what you’re saying. Good luck with it!

          • HQT
            June 19 2013

            I don’t understand, Brett. What do you mean she doesn’t know what she’s talking about? She was talking about HER experience! And you know what you are talking about?! WTF!

  • paul | walkflypinoy
    February 4 2012

    i can totally relate to the sentiments here but not because of the same reasons you have. i still haven’t put my finger on it yet (i’m currently in central vietnam traveling south to north), but my experience here is still generally mixed. some parts i like, some not so much. maybe it’s that their culture is not as accessible as their neighbors here. i dunno.

    on another note, good to hear that you have my country (philippines) in your travel bucket list this 2012. try to go march to may. traveling during the monsoon season isn’t really fun.
    paul | walkflypinoy recently posted..Photos from the Holiest of Holiest Places in India: Varanasi

    • Alex
      February 4 2012

      Hi Paul! I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who feels this way. It is definitely a feeling that is hard to articulate, but I like what you say about the culture being less accessible.

      So, March to May is a short window period for visiting Philippines! How long is the monsoon?

      • paul | walkflypinoy
        February 4 2012

        nah. you can still travel during the monsoon. weather can be a hit and miss though. and yeah, long monsoon, lasts june to december. now that i think about it. jan and feb would be good, too. haha. it’s just march to may is really the philippine summer. 😉

        • Alex
          February 7 2012

          I will keep that in mind! It’s so hard to travel through South East Asia sometimes trying to balance all the monsoons and wet seasons!

  • Peter
    February 6 2012

    Alex,

    Sorry to hear that you had a rough go in Vietnam. We found smiles were a bit more difficult to come by in Vietnam than other places. The politics aside – and to be honest, it’s very difficult to put politics aside when speaking of Vietnam – it’s just a challenging country in many ways. I enjoyed some of the history but that’s only because I find the Vietnam stroy interesting. If I were not interested in the history, it would be tough to convince me to go again.

    Laos on the other hand…
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    • Alex
      February 7 2012

      Hi Peter…. I agree, I found learning about the history of Vietnam to be one of the most interesting parts. It was difficult to hear, of course, because much of the painful parts were inflicted by my home country. And of course as I’ve mentioned I don’t think the information was presented in the most productive way. But I’m still so grateful to be able to hold down a semi-intelligent conversation on a topic I previously didn’t understand a thing about! As for Laos…. I can’t wait to get there!

  • Jade
    February 6 2012

    Being Vietnamese-Canadian, and having visited the country 15 times prior, I can tell you I completely understand where you are coming from. Being born there did not prevent me from being scammed (and I speak the language!). Obviously the more tourist heavy places had more unpleasant experiences, and I’m sure if you went “off the beaten track” you would have had nicer encounters. Are the people hardened due to past atrocities? I don’t know, but I can tell you it isn’t changing anytime soon. It has gotten worse as more tourists visit (from what I’ve experienced). It is a way of thinking and being as a culture, and it doesn’t change after emigrating to other countries. Good job on your article. You walked a delicate line and managed to get across!

    • Alex
      February 7 2012

      Hi Jade, thanks for commenting! Your insight as a Vietnamese-Canadian is fascinating. I am sure that I would have had a completely different experience had we gone “off the beaten track” but with only three weeks and a mild case of travel fatigue we stayed very firmly on it. It’s interesting to hear that more tourism only makes it worse, and that even you, appearing and speaking as a local, experienced scams. I’m not sure what to make of it, but it definitely adds another element to the mystery that is Vietnamese tourism!

  • Learn
    February 9 2012

    Lol uh… it’s not a scam. Paying for motorbike parking is standard practice in Vietnam. They’re providing you a service. Without them your motorbike could be gone by the time you get back. Then you’d really have something to sulk about…

    • Alex
      February 9 2012

      Well, I’m sure you can agree that parking scams exist, and in these cases that’s what it was 🙂 In the first case, we were at an aquarium and there was a clear sign in English stating that motorcycle parking was free. The attendant tried to charge us. In the second case, we were at a cable car and the parking attendant wrote on the ticket and tried to double the stated fare. We paid the amount printed on the ticket and didn’t give in to his game. In the third case, a child tried to extort us for parking on a public street. Perhaps you say this is “standard practice.” Well, we didn’t want to give money to a child threatening to turn us into the police so we moved the bike across the street and all was fine.

      In my world, those are scams! And I’m happy to say we didn’t give into any of them.

      • Learn
        February 10 2012

        That’s great, meanwhile the locals behind you are presumably paying the price as requested. And you get away with paying nothing because the attendant doesn’t speak enough of your language to explain the situation to you. The ticket book could’ve been printed years ago, 5000 dong is the usual parking fee these days. It’s not a wealthy country, and they’re not a wasteful people. It’s just as likely they were just using the same old ticket booklet until it ran out. And perhaps that sign is only applicable to actual customers of the aquarium? Perhaps you needed to get parking validated at the ticket office? Who knows? Not you… One English sign doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It’s not the local language and things are frequently mistranslated. Or did you think those really were “bugers” on the backpacker menu too?

        Sometimes you gotta just accept that not everyone is out to get you, there may be perfectly legitimate explanations to cultural quirks you’re not familiar with. You’re a guest in a country that has different customs to your own, so it’s respectful tread lightly, not storm off in a huff. But I guess it’s easier for foreigners to go stomping around like they own the place and anything they don’t understand is a “scam”. Never realising it’s behaviour like that which perpetuates the environment of suspicion and mistrust greeting newly arrived tourists and makes it harder for everyone else who comes after.

        • Alex
          February 10 2012

          Can I ask you a serious question? Do you really believe scams don’t happen in Vietnam, or South East Asia as a whole? I accept that sometimes people mistakenly believe they are being scammed. Can you accept that sometimes they legitimately are scammed?

          In the first case, we were customers of the aquarium! The sign was extremely clear that there was a charge for cars, but motorcycles were free. In the second case, I made sure when we went in to buy our tickets for the cable car to ask the employee how much the parking should be. She named the price printed on the tickets, not the one penciled in by the attendant.

          I certainly don’t think I’m always right…. but in this case I am 🙂 Those were scams, plain and simple.

          • Learn
            February 10 2012

            Yes there are legitimate scams, sometimes involving tens of thousands of dollars.

            This is not one of them. If anything, it’s a guy who earns 7 bucks a day trying to scrape together a few more pennies.

            Funny how in these tales the tourist is always 100% in the clear.

            Happy stomping!

          • Alex
            February 10 2012

            The definition of a scam is a deceit designed with the scammer’s gain in mind. Ergo, these are scams, even if they are small ones. It sounds harsh, but if I were to give fifty cents to everyone in the world making less than 7 bucks a day, I’d go broke. I help when I can and when I want to. Not when someone cheats me.

            I’m sorry if what I’ve written here struck a chord. What I experienced there struck a chord with me. And if you read through the many comments here, you will see that I’m not the only one.

          • ADT
            September 20 2016

            Personally, anyone who says scam doesn’t happen in Vietnam on a regular basis is either lying, or blissfully ignorant. I’m a Vietnamese living in Hanoi. I should know a thing or two.

            Now regarding parking ticket, parking at coffee shops, restaurants and a very few other locations are free. The rest you’ll have to pay 3000 to 5000 dong. 10-20000 on holidays and special occasions.Yes, most of them are scams. But it’s not on a personal level. People bribe the local police to set up shops, parking lots, etc in public places, and you can either find an unclaimed spot and risk your bike or just pay what? less than 25 cent? And parking lot signs are more of a… lax guidelines. Some are there because people are to lazy to change them or take them down.

            It’s true though, that they might have tried to scam you for the cable ride ticket. These things happen. To everyone. It’s not so much the war or government propaganda or prejudice against foreigner. A lot of those people that you deal with on the street are poor, beaten down by the corrupt system, and ill-educated. There’s a post-war pre-1986 period where EVERYONE was on a sort of mandatory welfare (Imagine North Korea) thus leaving the older and generation with a nasty hoarder mentality: get what you can when and where ever you can.

            Locals get scammed much more often for a lot more than you guys, even more so if you’re a local tourist. People try to scam me a lot. Cutthroat pricing, counterfeit goods and everything. It’s a weird ass country.

            Not trying to defend Vietnam or discredit your point of view. I’m just offering some native insight on the matter other than ‘snob tourists’ and ‘sorry for my shit country’.

          • Alex
            September 22 2016

            Hey ADT, thanks for offering your perspective. Very insightful!

  • Andy Do
    February 15 2012

    Hi all

    I am a Vietnamese born Australian who’d spent more than 2/3 of my life growing up in Australia and only had been living and working here in Vietnam for the past 5 yrs. Being Vietnamese myself (fluent in Vietnamese/ completely understand the culture) still for the past 5 yrs since coming to Vietnam there has not been a day go by that I didn’t find something to complain about. I mean I walk and talk like the locals but that doesn’t exempt me from scams. In fact it’s even worse than one can let their imagination runs wild.

    For example : I was eating out at a food stall on the side walk(only just a couple of months ago) ordering the same dish as the guy at the next table, when the bill came it was almost twice the price for me simply because they can work out from my accent that I am an overseas Vietnamese. I was so very annoyed but didn’t want to make such a scene. Paid the bill and sworn never to come back, mind you this happen in a very OFF THE BEATEN TRACK city. ( my freaking birthplace)

    Moved into a new place in HCM city went shopping with my Aunty (a local) just 2 wks ago, bought some laundry baskets, my Aunty managed to haggle to half the original price, I was so shock (haggling was never an issue in Australia).

    Another shocking story was when my cousin (another local) who managed negotiate to only 1/6 of the original price. I mean I am completely shocked.

    I mean it’s has gotten to a point where I would be window shopping for what I want then get my local friends or relative to buy them for me cause I really hate HAGGLING.

    Being here for 5 yrs I must admit this is only a very minor issue amongst the many thousand of issues I had to deal with on a daily basis.

    I constantly complain to my local friends and relos and was told that it has long become a culture soon after the war ended, life was too tough and people would do anything to make sure that they will make ends meet. Even if it means that they will have to rip others off. Of course I understand but My question is “ HOW MANY YRS AGO HAS THE WAR ENDED ? “

    Becoming a culture ? yes I can see that very clearly now. Since I myself had on many occasions falling victim to the so called CIRCUMSTANCES.

    For those of you who think that somebody (GOV) should do something to better lift the reputation and the image of the tourism industry in Vietnam. Rest assured that it is only a very flimsy wish.

    I mean it’s a very pretty place plagued with an amazingly unhealthy belief. I am sadden but not supprized of such low return rate cause I myself despite my connection and how proud I am being of Vietnamese origin. If I must choose then surely Vietnam will not be on my much preferred list.

    I feel really sad having came across so many blogs which has more negative things to say about Vietnam. Problem is I can’t agree with them more

    cheers

    • Alex
      February 15 2012

      Hi Andy,

      Thanks for your interesting perspective. I have to say, living in Asia I’ve mostly gotten used to the foreigner/local pricing and the haggling. I’m not very good at bargaining and haggling though so I leave it to my boyfriend. I was quite surprised that in Vietnam our feeble attempts to bargain the way we would in other Southeast Asian countries was totally rebuffed. I assumed it was because they thought we deserved the ridiculously inflated prices they were quoting!

      • Andy Do
        February 16 2012

        Hi Alex.

        I completely understand how you feel as I myself despite being of Vietnamese origin, I constantly have to deal with such nonsense on a daily basis, ridiculously inflated prices, 1 meter of fabric turns out to be 0.95m, 1 kilo of food weights 800-900 grams and when you question, they simply shrugged and claimed that “EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING IT. THAT’S HOW THINGS ARE DONE HERE”. The first time I heard it I was like WHAT THE F***, I know it’s wrong to generalize and of course not everybody here in Vietnam is doing it however the majority of whom I have come across seemed to have the same trading personas.

        Don’t get me wrong, I love Vietnam as a country and what it has to offer (of course I do cause it’s where I was born), I love the culture and the people, those who practice it of course ( many don’t practice what they preach). What i find rather annoying is the lack of respect for others being locals or foreigners.

        My advice to you guys is to always half the going price when you haggle especially when you shop at the markets and sidewalk stalls, otherwise please shop at the supermakets where prices are marked and there is no need for haggling.

        Please don’t let this rapacious trading mentality spoil your trip and your potential relationship with Vietnam. Surely you will get to see the positive sides of the country

        cheers

        • carolina
          December 15 2013

          hello andy, i just found this site and i wonder if you are still in vietnam, im from Nicaragua and i been in vietnam for 2 months so far, and gonna stay till end of january, but im having hard time meeting vietnamese people and its being difficult also in different aspects that alex already mentioned in the post, cuz i experienced my self all that, i would like to meet vietnamese people, the well educated one, that are open to talk and interact with a foreigner. hope to hear from you soon,

          • Andy do
            February 12 2014

            hi Carolina

            i am so sorry for my belated reply, i have been so busy with work for the past few months and had not anytime to visit this forum, just found your message today, i am so sorry too that you are having such a hard time here in Vietnam, it must have been so difficult for you i am sure, it’s a shame that i did not see your message earlier.
            anyway, you must have left the country by now and i am sure you did so without much fond memories of this lonely heartless place, yes i am still living and working here, it won’t be long now when i myself must pack up and return to Australia where ironically enough feels more like home to me than this so called ” birth place” place of mine.
            don’t think too much about it dear, one way or another we are all bound to have bad experiences at almost whatever we do.
            on behalf of a True blue Vietnamese, overseas Vietnamese that is, i wish you the best of luck, best of health and the greatest of wealth, should you ever have to return to Vietnam, please drop me a line on the email. andycm.do@gmail.com , would love to meet up over coffee or something, i hate how the locals here are treating foreigners, they give Vietnam and Vietnamese in general a really bad name.

            cheers

  • Athena
    February 16 2012

    You have such a nice shot at Vietnam. Thanks for sharing your experiences there despite the feeling that you couldn’t articulate it… They are hard on a foreign like you maybe because they don’t want their country to be a tourist spot, they want they’re country to be peaceful.
    Athena recently posted..Cd Mastering Denver Co

    • Alex
      February 16 2012

      It’s true that perhaps some people don’t want the country to become a tourist location. Unfortunately for now, the government is still promoting it that way, leaving travellers to believe that they are more than welcome!

  • Tammy
    March 5 2012

    Very informative blog. I never realized that Vietnam was that interesting.

  • Sherry
    March 20 2012

    Beautiful country to visit but based on what you have said I do not think that I would like to go there for a vacation.

  • saigondude
    April 10 2012

    For what it is worth, I’ve used ‘The Sinh Tourist’ bus service for almost all my point-to-point travel in Vietnam and have found it professional every time. On the other hand, I once took a rand-o-bus from Saigon to Vung Tau and they made about 5 stops along the way and even crammed someone’s home furnishings in next to me. So… my advice is to try and stick to highly reputable bus companies. ‘Mai Linh’ buses (and taxis) are good too.

    Also, you’re probably not going to get a ‘good deal’ in the markets if you’re a foreigner. I recommend patronizing branded chain stores, eating at the malls, etc.

    Lastly, if your visiting Saigon and you need a break from all the city-center clamor, head south to Phu My Hung’s Crescent Mall area to get some fresh air and go for a peaceful stroll.

    • Alex
      April 12 2012

      I will definitely keep the “Sinh Tourist” bus in mind when I return to Vietnam someday to explore the north! Luckily I’m not much of a shopper so didn’t have to deal with the haggling too much but when I do shop I prefer markets and such so it’s a shame its so difficult for foreigners! As you can see from my recent posts I’m mad about the markets in Bangkok!

  • Jenny
    April 13 2012

    I like your pictures, but I was curious bout the mode of transport that you were using as you relaxed with your laptop.

    • Alex
      April 15 2012

      Hi Jenny, good question. I felt comfortable showing my laptop as I was on a relatively short bus ride (about five hours!) and knew I wouldn’t be sleeping. Also, I was traveling with my boyfriend so I wasn’t nervous someone would follow me off the bus. If I was planning on sleeping or was traveling alone I would never flash something so valuable!

  • Shannon
    April 22 2012

    All I can say is that we as Americans need to open our eyes to the beauty that we have in this country. If you take a small pole you will find that the majority of Americans do not know or have not visited many of the beautiful sites in their homeland. Its time we begin to appreciate what we have.

  • Arlene
    April 26 2012

    I love the theme of your website and the play with the Alex(Alice) in Wonderland. I am not into Vietnam even though the photos are very good.

  • Vicky
    June 11 2012

    Great post. I too have read a lot of bloggers disappointed travel account of their time in Vietnam. The statistic you got in the Economist is just crazy – a 5% return rate in Vietnam compared to a 55% return rate – just goes to show you that most people must be having experiences similar to yours. My boyfriend and I are hoping to spend a month in Vietnam and I’m really hoping for a good experience. I’ve been looking into couchsurfing there because I think that might be a great way to find some locals to show you around, and recommended places to eat/see etc. Hopefully we’ll find some couchsurfers in the various cities we’ll visit. Do you ever couchsurf?
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    • Alex
      June 12 2012

      Vicky I would never tell anyone not to go to Vietnam. Beautiful country but in my experience there is some serious hard work involved. So now for the bad news: Vietnam is not the best place to Couchsurf. The country is still communist and legally locals cannot host foreigners in a private residence without permission and permits from the government. So while you might find a few rule-breakers on there who haven’t been caught yet, don’t expect much more than a few foreign english teachers in the main cities. Cambodia and Thailand are much better bets for Couchsurfing! Phnom Penh, Bangkok and Chiang Mai have particularly active communities.

      • Vicky
        June 12 2012

        Thanks for the quick reply. I didn’t realize that legally locals can’t host foreigners without permission- thanks for the info. During the course of our trip we really want to focus on couchsurfing as much as we can because we think it’s a great way to interact with locals and learn insider views into the culture/economy of a country. It;s a shame it won’t be easy to find hosts in Vietnam. I did find one guy on couchsurfing in Hanoi who is very active in the community and instead of hosting people on the site he has put his apartment up on airbnb but it seems like he dedicates a lot of time to getting to know the people who stay with him and showing them around so I’m definitely going to contact him when we are in the area.
        Glad to hear that at least couchsurfing shouldn’t be a problem in Thailand and Cambodia!
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