There is no doubt about it – Vietnam is a gorgeous country. Rolling mountains, limestone karsts and pretty beaches make it every nature lover’s paradise. But throughout our month of travel here, Vietnam left a bittersweet taste in our mouth – for every moment of pure bliss, there always seemed to be one of absolute frustration. Vietnam gave us some wonderful highs but sadly, they were always inevitably followed by some kind of low.
We had read about this phenomenon in several blogs before our trip. We had heard about it from travelers along the way. There were so many mixed reviews that we almost skipped visiting the country altogether. In the end though, the promise of Sapa’s terraced rice fields, Tam Coc and Halong Bay’s bejeweled scenery, and Hoi An’s lantern obsession swayed us to trying out Vietnam for ourselves. We wish we could say it was different for us but it was indeed quite the rollercoaster of good times and bad.
So why the volatility? We found that the tourism sector in Vietnam swung between genuine and kind to shockingly vicious and rude. Every place had a mixed bag of people and every city left a different impression. The vibrancy of Saigon was followed by dishonesty in Dalat. The inflated prices in Nha Trang gave way to unexpected generosity in Hoi An. The lasting beauty of Tam Coc was spoiled by the lack of respect in Hanoi.
Everywhere we went, there were always people we liked. But somehow, there were always more we wanted to strangle. We had lived in India for over two years, we had already traveled to Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. We were familiar and used to the haggling, scams and touts that come with travel in developing countries. But something about Vietnam made it indescribably worse.
Sellers here didn’t just quote inflated prices and anxiously hope we wouldn’t notice. They would laugh about it with their friends and insult us to our faces while trying to rip us off. Van drivers, fruit peddlers, hotel owners, shopkeepers yelled and snickered and jeered and made us feel unwelcome. We felt more judged, ridiculed and taken advantage of here than anywhere else. And it was the mean spiritedness of it that stunned us most and ultimately tainted our overall impression of the country.
Not everyone has this love-hate relationship. But it seemed to be a common thread especially among the longer-term budget travelers and it seemed more prevalent in the north.
We also wondered whether the problem lay in the language barrier or the lack of having our own vehicle and independence to get off the beaten trail. But we met travelers who spoke Vietnamese and others who were touring on their own motorbikes – and surprisingly, the same stories prevailed.
We entered Vietnam on three-month visas. We had hopes of finding work; we had hopes of taking our time and traveling leisurely through the stunningly beautiful country. We came in with the utmost sympathy, compassion and respect for a nation that had so recently seen such a horrific and brutal war. We tried to stay positive. We tried to rationalize and justify the bad experiences.
But after five weeks of constantly having our guard up, of swaying dangerously between elation and frustration, awe and anger, we were exhausted. We had met some wonderful locals and seen some beautiful places, but in the end, the bad apples won. We wanted out.
We had yet to see the famous Halong Bay that we had spent so much time daydreaming about. We had yet to do a two-week motorcycle trip that we had carefully budgeted for. We still had seven weeks left on our visas. But there was no point staying in a place that wasn’t making us happy. We were down to the last bit of our money for this leg of the journey and we wanted to end it on a good note.
Lucky for us, a new destination was just over the horizon 😉
For reference, here are some other blogs that touch upon similar challenges we faced and others that faced none at all. Just goes to show that so much depends on your personal experience:
nomadic matt – Why I’ll never return to Vietnam