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I have a love-hate relationship with Vietnam. I’ve eluded to it in several posts prior to this so I figured now is the time to elaborate.

Vietnam: Love it? Or hate it?

Vietnam Love it or Hate it-

Vietnam – The First Attempt

I first visited Vietnam in 2003 when I’d just turned 21. I’d worked hard to afford the trip, spending 20+ hours a week in a call centre on top of full time study. I’d saved every penny I’d earnt for a whole year. My plan – to spend three weeks in Vietnam followed by three weeks in Thailand with a girl friend. However, things just didn’t work out and, after ten days in the country I bailed and came back to New Zealand.

What happened to make me hate Vietnam?

Constant Touting

There’s a lot of hassle involved in travelling Vietnam. The biggest one without a doubt is the constant harassment from touts wanting you to look at their hotel room, check out their restaurant menu, visit their tailor shops, ride two blocks on their motorbike. It just never ends. For someone who had never travelled in the developing world, let alone outside of New Zealand or Australia, it was just too much. It’s not in my nature to say “no” to people. I’d end up in long conversations with touts, unable to get away and ending up wasting hours of every day.

Rip Offs

Hand in hand with the hassle of the tout comes the endless rip offs. Nothing ever seemed to be the agreed upon price. The $12 hotel room would somehow turn into $15. The soft sleeper train ticket you had in your hand suddenly magicked it’s way into being a hard seat when the helpful “train station attendant”. The price for that souvenir you want jumps from 10,000 dong to $10.  Part of my problem was I just didn’t have the experience or guts to stick up for myself. Had I stood my ground I wouldn’t have had nearly the amount of difficulty. I just couldn’t. It was too scary. I didn’t want to get into an argument or offend anyone… so I just ended up forking out more and more money.

Travelling with a Friend

I learnt the hard way that travelling with friends just doesn’t work. I actually did a guest post on my travel partner from hell which goes into all the gory details but, basically, if one person does all the travel planning and then the other person complains about all the plans, the whole damn trip is going to fall apart. Trying to please two or more people from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed is almost impossible. Making even the tiniest decisions like whether to walk or take a moto-taxi or gain a consensus on where to eat for dinner become a dreaded chore. Granted we were both mentally spent from the touts and rip offs but I’d still never recommend travelling with a friend for along period of time. Meeting random people and spending a few days together works. Holidaying with your parents or siblings works. Travelling half the year with your husband and child works.

 

Vietnam – Success the Second Time Around

Now, fast forward five years. I’d been living in London for a few years and had just gone through a break up with a long-term boyfriend. I wanted out. I quit my job and headed for Asia. A friend of mine had met a young woman in Saigon and she offered to show me around the city for a few day. How could I say no? I wanted to go back and give Vietnam another go. So many people rave about it and, in my brief visit, I did see many qualities in Vietnam that I love about a country. Warm weather, great food, plenty of history and wonderful landscapes. So off I went for 30 days, bottom to top. And this time it was a resounding success.

What happened to make me love Vietnam?

 

A Day with Friends in Dong Nai Province

Befriending a Local

I spent the first week of my month in Vietnam in Saigon with my new Vietnamese friend. She was a lot younger than me and very different but we still had a fantastic time together. I stayed at the guest house she worked and we did a lot together. We visited the War Remnants Museum – an interesting choice to see through the eyes of a local. We ate ice cream, went for walks, hung out with friends and went to a water park. The very best experience was riding a motorbike out to her home village in Dong Nai and spending the day with her family. We ate lunch together outside, chatted, took photographs and napped in hammocks. It was a wonderful glimpse into life for the everyday Vietnamese.

 

Exploring Vietnam’s Beaches at Mui Ne and Nha Trang

Ease of Travel

Travel in Vietnam is actually really easy. The country is long and skinny so easy to traverse from bottom to top (or vice versa although I’d always recommend starting in the South as the people are much friendlier.) Travel by train, bus or even plane is cheap. There’s so much to see and do in Vietnam it’s almost criminal that one only gets a 30-day visa!

 

The Highlights of the North – Halong Bay, Hoi An and Hanoi

A New Mindset

If you go in with the mindset that there will be a few minor hassles and rip offs then you’ll be OK. Just expect it, prepare for it and do your best to avoid it. Negotiate with a smile and never get upset (except if a 500m taxi ride in Hanoi costs you $10… then you can get upset!). I’d been to four other countries in South East Asia between my first and second trip to Vietnam. I was wise to the games, the bargaining and the little tricks of the trade. Reflecting back, I can see how I did get ripped off the first time around but I realise a lot of that was due to my own ignorance and lack of experience.

 

The Mountain’s are lovely but it’s the gorgeous, friendly people that make Sapa special!

The People

Everywhere you go in Vietnam the local people are curious about you. Kids especially are keen to speak with you, giggle and run away in a mild attempt to practice their English. If you get curious back, even the people you may think are trying to scam you, are interested in a little chit-chat, a laugh or a smile. It’s rare to find anyone truly horrible in Vietnam. I did find though, that the further North I went, the more reserved people were. I think that’s why I much prefer the South. There’s always an exception to every rule and the hilltribe people in Sapa who are by far the friendliest, happiest bunch of folk I’ve ever encountered.

This Vietnam guide has some more examples of good nature of Vietnamese people. It’s not all bad despite what some popular bloggers say.

 

Vegetarian Vietnamese Deliciousness

The Food

I love the flavours of Vietnamese food. It’s so fresh and delicious. As you traverse the country, the food on your plate changes along with the landscapes. I was a vegetarian both times I visited Vietnam and there were so many options to please my palate. I can’t wait to visit Vietnam again as a meat eater though!

 

I still don’t recommend Vietnam for first time travellers. I do think everyone should go once and then go again to really enjoy it. Who knows what I’ll feel on my third visit? I’m yet to find out but I can’t wait to experience travel in Vietnam with Lee and Reuben.

 

What are your thoughts on travel in Vietnam? Have you been? Did you love it? Or hate it? I’d love to hear what you thought.


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Showing 46 comments
  • Alyson
    Reply

    What beautiful photos Bethaney. We love Vietnam, but we’d been around the block a few times before we got there and new how to bargain ourselves out of most situations, you still get caught out now and then, but treat it as a game, some you win, some you lose. You’re right about Vietnamese food, it’s divine, they are the masters of tofu cookery, I’ve never had my favourite beef pho in Vietnam, I’m an on/off vegetarian too, maybe next time!

  • Talon
    Reply

    I’m glad you went back and were able to enjoy it the 2nd time around. Definitely sounds like a place for more veteran travelers.

  • Living Outside of the Box
    Reply

    We arrive in Saigon on Wednesday. I’m curious to see how it goes! Hahaa!

    • Bethaney
      Reply

      Hopefully you enjoy it Alyssa!!

  • TammyOnTheMove
    Reply

    I have only been to Saigon and the Mekong Delta so far, and I left feeling a bit disappointed to be honest. Like you people tried to trick me all the time and I got scammed by motorcycle taxis and a taxi three times in one day. We agreed a price in advance every time, but they still tried to scam us. Once they said that the price they agreed to was per person and another time they said that it wasn’t 15,000 Dongs as we thought was the agreed price, but 50,000 Dongs. The taxi driver tried to drop us off somewhere we didn’t want to go. We actually went past the cafe and told him to stop, but he insisted the cafe we wanted to go to was further down the road (which it wasn’t of course). Now I consider myself quite travel-savvy, but even I wasn’t prepared for the scams. I also never experienced such hostility towards tourists like I did in Saigon. Rudeness, greadyness, swearing and spitting are just a few examples. I would love to see the rest of the country though, especially the north. A lot of people say that people there are much nicer and represent the real Vietnamese culture.

    • Bethaney
      Reply

      I found the North much worse than the South in terms of rip-offs and hassles. I do think you should give Vietnam another go, especially since you are so close in Cambodia. Halong Bay is beautiful and absolutely worth the visit. Sapa was a real favourite of mine particularly because of the hill tribe people and the fact that it’s so much cooler up there.

  • Ruth (Tanama Tales)
    Reply

    Very interesting article. I have heard several people express the same cons about Vietnam. Looks like it is not a place for travel virgins. Good to see you gave it another chance. In my case, traveling with friends and family(siblings, cousins) doesn’t work. I have had horrible moments in both cases. My husband is my best travel partner. I plan and he pretty much follows and we are both happy with how things end up.

    • Bethaney
      Reply

      Same here Ruth! I plan and Lee & Reuben just follow along. I do try to plan things I know they’ll enjoy though.

  • Greg Goodman
    Reply

    Thanks so much for this post. Much like you, I left Vietnam with a very bad taste in my mouth. Yet, in the years since, I have talked to so many travelers who love the country that it really makes me think I owe it another shot.

    • Bethaney
      Reply

      Please give Vietnam a second chance Greg! There’s so much good material there for a photographer like yourseld. I’d love to see the photos you take in Vietnam. I bet they’d be spectacular!

  • Amy Scott
    Reply

    When I saw the title of your post I thought, Finally! Someone who’s being honest about Vietnam! This is how I felt about it, too. I was not a “virgin” traveler; I went there on my second time to SE Asia, in about my six month of nine months traveling around the world.

    Even after spending time in other challenging places (like India), Vietnam was almost too much for me. Yes, I loved the food, the scenery, and some of the people I met, but I felt like a walking dollar sign the entire time and had plenty of the scam experiences you did. (I found Laos such a refreshing change of pace after Vietnam, though I wonder if that’s still the case; I haven’t been there since 2005).

    I definitely hope to go back someday, and it will be interesting to see if my experience is any different/better with more travel experience under my belt and more knowledge of what to expect.

    • Bethaney
      Reply

      I hope you can go back too Amy. I think having a local connection really makes a difference (and I can put you in touch with my friend if you’d like!) The biggest thing is managing expectations and just going with the flow of the country. That’s why I always tell people to go to Vietnam twice. Really, I think you’ll fall in love with it on your second visit.

  • Noah
    Reply

    How true. Vietnam is a Catch 22. Don’t go because you’ll hate it the first time, but return because it’s great the second time. I guess I have to go back. I experienced the constant touting, the constant scamming, and a few more misadventures, but after leaving the country, you realize how beautiful the country is.

    • Bethaney
      Reply

      A definite Catch 22. It is infinitely better the second time around though. Trust me.

  • Suzy
    Reply

    I haven’t been to Vietnam but I have certainly heard of other travelers either loving or hating the country. I have had similar experiences in different places though. Sometimes I think the inexperienced traveler can have a hard time with place, but once you return a little wiser, you can really change your tune.

  • Reply

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences! We’re heading to Vietnam in February and are looking forward to seeing what our own impressions are, especially since we heard mixed reviews.

    • Amy Scott
      Reply

      Ellen, I think it will help a lot for you to go in already knowing the mixed reviews. I’d heard nothing but glowing reports before I went, so some of the things Bethany talks about in this article were very unexpected and disappointing!

  • Reply

    Ive never been – I want to go! 😀

  • Wheres Sharon? (Sharon)
    Reply

    I have been to Vietnam twice and, unfortunately, only have a hate relationship with it. There is no way I want to go back for a third time. That is not something I say easily. After 80 odd countries, Vietnam and Egypt have been the only ones I have hated. I can not stand constant rip offs and touting and struggling to even be left alone in our hotel rooms.

    I went to many developing countries before I went to Vietnam, even ones that get a bad rep for hustlers like India, so it was not about being a newbie traveller in my case. No matter how many times I said no or was firm, the hassle just did not stop. I think there are just too many awesome places in this world for me to waste any more time there. I am glad others have enjoyed it though, just not for me 🙂

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      I feel the same way about Egypt Sharon. My time there was completely ruined by all the touting and sexual harassment… I’d never want to go back!!

      I have to say, I felt a lot less hassle this time around than on previous trips. Maybe things have changed, maybe it’s because of travelling with a little guy. We got a lot of positive attention instead of negative hassle.

      • Wheres Sharon? (Sharon)
        Reply

        Yeah travelling with kids can give a very different travel experience. I know I changed my mind about some places on last trip thanks to the positive attention our kids received 🙂

  • Charli | Wanderlusters
    Reply

    It sounds like you’re having a superb time! I’ve always been a little afraid of SEA but the more I read and the more I allow myself not to get caught up in preconcieved ideas of locations the more I think I’m going to love our time over there. Thanks for sharing Bethaney!

  • Warren J
    Reply

    I have been to Vietnam about seven times and spent all my time in Saigon. You’re right, especially in the tourist areas there is a constant cacophony of touting going on “motorbike, hotel, mary-wahnah” and the best one “mah-saaaaaaaaaa?????”. After so many trips, I just keep walking down the street and ignore them. I consider that a small price to pay for such an interesting place.

  • Lydia C. Lee
    Reply

    This makes me feel a little better – had planned to go in April but it was too rushed and pricey for just the 12 days. Going to Cambodia instead and staying put. Really keen on Vietnam but hopefully with that 30 day visa….

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      We just went to Saigon for a week which was nice but I wish we’d had longer to travel around. Vietnam is such a great country to travel the length of it’s a shame not to use the whole 30 days allowed on the visa. I think you made the right choice!

  • Amy Simpkins
    Reply

    I have been to Vietnam once, for about 4 days. I was in Hanoi. I generally loved it – the food, the people. I totally see where you are coming from. We got scammed by one taxi – after that we stuck to one of the known-to-be-mostly-honest brands. I don’t really mind the touts. I would definitely go back again….

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      Hanoi is just a city that grinds on me for some reason. I much prefer the South. If you plan to go back to Vietnam I’m sure you will love Saigon and surrounds even more. 🙂

  • Simone
    Reply

    Great post! We arrive in a few weeks and will be doing south to north, we think. After visiting 5 other counties in Asia before arriving I think we should do ok!

  • Jacque
    Reply

    Thank you for you insight on travel in Vietnam. We’ve just speant a month in Cambodia and love the culture and people. We’ve heard so many negative things about Vietnam and how difficult it is to travel in this sometimes “scandalous” country. We will not be skipping based on a few bad stories, but instead look forward to making some great memories of our own! Jacque + Paul http://www.magicaltravelingscarf.wordpress.com

  • Jacque
    Reply

    I want to thank you again for your post. We spent 21 amazing (and sometimes difficult) days in Vietnam and share your feelings on the country. They culture really got under our skin… good and bad… but I am so thankful we did not skip based on all the bad press, but instead adjusted our expectations. Unfortunately a few bad blog “reviews” on a country will divert someone’s visit. A change of mindset is key, in addition to an understanding of prices so you can negotiate firmly.
    Keep sharing your positive travel vibes! Jacque

  • Marcello
    Reply

    Sounds like you had a great time the second time around. Everyone has mixed opinions but if you have reasonable expectations, forewarning on scams, then it is what you make of it. I’m excited to visit, hopefully next year along with other Southeast Asian countries

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      I think the key with Vietnam is to go to Thailand first and get used to travelling in South East Asia. Vietnam is a bit more manageable once you know how to deal with travel in these countries.

  • Reply

    I love this post! I haven’t been to Vietnam yet, but really, really want to go. It is amazing how being aware and prepared can make the same type of experience so much easier.

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      Yes! You’re exactly right Katherine. Managing expectations, having a bit of experience and having a local connection made such a huge difference to me when it came to Vietnam. You should definitely go!

  • Reply

    Oh I am living this right now. It really is tough. We’ve been here six weeks now and each morning I wake up wondering if I’m going to love Vietnam today or not. And I can change my mind numerous times a day. I think it’s easier once you’ve been in the same place for a while, I’ve noticed the touting slows down as they’re used to seeing you and you saying no. For me the verdict is still out (and I may never actually make up my mind)

  • jan
    Reply

    Just been to Thailand, Malaysia, India and Nepal. Can they in Vietnam be bigger scam artists then in Nepal and India? It’s making me only more curious to go see. Flying next week.

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      I haven’t been to Nepal or India so it’s hard for me to compare. Just keep your wits about you and I’m sure you’ll be fine.

  • jan
    Reply

    Ahh this a relaxing place! And to think I was actually afraid of going here. Very much like Thailand, but cheaper and with actual sidewalks to walk on.

    And what is this fuzz people make of the traffic here? This is nothing, a bunch of scooters!
    Compare to this to utterly unimaginable madness of Indian traffic. Completely beat up roads filled to the brink with literally every form of vehicular transport you can possibly imagine. Horse-karts, rikshas, tuktuks, huge transportation trucks of every kind, busses, cars, scooters, motors, bicycles, jeeps, all going at it and without any traffic rules to observe. And not to mention all the animals and all the cows wandering through that urban jungle like they own the place.

    No it’s clear to me now. Once you’ve seen India you’ve seen it all.

  • Andrei
    Reply

    Just my two cents, I think people just have wildly different experiences everywhere. All the negativity about the Vietnamese made me decide to go to Cambodia instead (it was a toss up between the two). Parts of Cambodia were nice but the touting was unbearable, the nature was mostly destroyed, people saw me as a walking wallet, especially in the more touristy places, and many places just had a creepy sleazy vibe to them . After two weeks I went to Vietnam and am loving it so far. Much fewer touts, people seem friendlier and more honest. I’ve been mostly in the south but I definitely don’t think people should believe all the horror stories about the Vietnamese. So far it’s been great, including the people

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      I totally agree. It depends on the frame of mind the traveller is in too, ow experienced they are, what they’re in the mood for, whether they are travel weary etc. My first trip to Vietnam was a disaster, my second was great and my third was just so-so. You get different results every time!

  • Emma
    Reply

    It sounds like Vietnam might not be ‘easy’ but worth the extra management of expectations in the end! I am excited but a bit nervous about my own upcoming trip there, but hopefully my experience in other parts of Asia will make me tough enough.

  • Huong Cao
    Reply

    Hi guys,
    I’ve read most of your posts and I love them all no matter if you sound positively or vice versa. To be honest, I am a Vietnamese and I live in the North of Central of Vietnam. I’ve travelled to a number of countries both in the Western world and in Asia. I found this page while I was writing to one of my English friends as he’s planning his biking trip from England to Southeast Asia and I just wanted to give him some warning as I had read quite a few of things like “I love Vietnam. I hate Vietnam”. He had a fairly very good impression about Vietnam when travelling by train from the North to the South but I am trying to tell him that all the good and bad stories about Vietnam are mostly true and don’t expect too much then you’ll see it is worth to do it. It’s like when you were thrown into water and you know you can’t swim so don’t try to “swim” but relax and relaxing can make you stay afloat until and find way to “move” in the water. My experiences when travelling abroad is to try and justify every “ood things” at my best and believe there must be some reasons for something to be there. It’s your mission of when travelling is to find out what they are. To me, chance for experiencing the good and the bad of any place that I am travelling to is ’50/50″. Your attitude and and experiences, either your own or you learned ones, could adjust them to 30/70 or vice versa.
    One more thing, for any of you who have been to Vietnam, it’s likely that you’ve tried and ate mango salad, a sweet, sour, nutty, salty, spicy dish with main ingredients including sliced green mango, steamed fresh bronze, dried nuts, onion, red chilly. I think Vietnam is similar to mango salad with all different tastes and you find it different every time you eat it.
    Have a noteworthy trip to Vietnam!
    P/s: Pls forgiven me for my poor English if you find my post a bit unclear and wordy! Huong Cao

    • Bethaney Davies
      Reply

      Hi Huong. Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your opinion and totally agree with you. It’s better to go with the flow and try to relax until you know what you’re doing. Totally! Also, attitude and personal frame of mind can play so heavily into whether you enjoy a place. I’ve been to Vietnam three times now and I’d definitely go back. 🙂

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