Vietnam: No Love Affair Here

There is no denying that Vietnam has had a tumultuous history.  Ruled by the Chinese, colonized by the French, brutally invaded by the Americans and  their allies as they aided the Southern Vietnamese in a senseless and devastating war, and now overcome with hordes of hedonistic backpackers, many of whom are here simply to get wasted, laid and tanned.  Cheaply.

With that being said, the Vietnamese are an amazingly resilient people.

However, it’s undeniable that the strain of these conflicts has created a palpable tension between locals and outsiders.  Many travel bloggers have openly lamented the situation.  One of our favorites, Nomadic Matt, wrote an impassioned post why he will never return to Vietnam.

Silvia and I tried hard to keep open minds as we began our foray back into Southeast Asia.  We overlooked the rigged taxi meters (because let’s be real, awful taxi drivers are universal).  We stayed calm when we were given the wrong change.  Oh, you really thought that 200,000 dong note was a 20,000?  Okay.

So we tried, we really did!  But one evening in Ho Chi Minh changed everything.  Silvia and I were crossing the street on our way to dinner.  Now, crossing the street in Vietnam can be pretty challenging.  It usually involves going lane by lane, finding gaps in the steady stream of motorbikes.  Scary.

So, we did as we always did, but then something went wrong.  In a split second, a motorbike that had been at a safe distance was flying towards me.  I looked up, saw two men on the bike, felt a tug, and my purse was gone.  Instinctually I began to shout and run after my purse, though I quickly knew my efforts would be futile.  I looked around, hoping that one of the many locals who witnessed what had happened would help me.  Nothing.  Within a minute, everyone had returned to what they were doing.

I knew I wasn’t going to get my purse back.  I cancelled my debit card, accepted the loss of $100, mourned the loss of my student ID (how will I get discounts!?) and felt grateful that my hostel had my passport.  I was okay and unharmed.  It could have been worse.

But my outlook on Vietnam completely changed.  Everybody was a potential thief.  I lost patience with the endless amount of street hawkers and motorbike taxi drivers offering their services.  Polite “no thank yous” became withering glares.  I dreaded crossing major roads, and hugged my new (much sturdier) purse to my body, worried that more hands would reach out to snatch it away).  I hated the feeling of being mad at an entire country, and constantly having my guard up took away from my experience.  This isn’t to say that I haven’t met many incredibly friendly, kind hearted Vietnamese.  Every hostel worker has been amazing, my Halong Bay tour guide endured constant bitching, but I never saw him stop smiling.  There was the banh mi lady who did my hair for me (I think she was just sick of watching me play with it but still, so sweet), and so many others.  Even as I write this, I can feel the ice around my heart thawing.  But are these good experiences enough to outweigh the bad?  I don’t know.  Will I ever return to Vietnam?  Probably not.

In many respects I knew this was going to happen when we got to Vietnam. I mean, I didn’t know Danielle’s purse would get stolen or that she would leave the country feeling quite so much hate, but… we weren’t in Central Asia anymore. Returning to the tourist trail was never going to be easy. And what tourists we found on that trail.

Some of the people we met were great. But most of the tourists? Constantly yelling at locals and calling them idiots, walking through town in barely existent shorts and nipple pasties (actually), and drunkenly demanding better drink deals at the bar– why would locals possibly want to rip off or scam these lovely guests? I mean hey, the Vietnamese must at least see our behavior as an improvement from our parents or grandparents who had come charging in with guns and bombs.

It’s a sad cycle of rude tourists making locals bitter making tourists rude making locals bitter that we’ve seen several places before, only this time it’s all exacerbated by Vietnam’s unhappy past with Westerners. Are the economic benefits tourism brings to the country worth it? Each time Danielle and I  approached a group of locals who were happily joking with each other and then watched their expressions harden as they noticed us, I had to think no, it’s not worth it, they would be better off without all this.

As a backpacker I’ve faced this question before. I loved Tajikistan, maybe more than any other place I’ve visited, and so of course I want to tell everyone I know to go there. A boost in tourism would surely mean wonderful things for Tajikistan’s economy, and it would make it easier for more people to experience such a beautiful and charming country. But at the same time, part of me wants to keep Tajikistan a guarded secret, because I’m unsure how well Tajik hospitality and openness would hold up against masses of tourists. I can see myself returning in thirty years to find the streets of Khorog filled with vendors calling out lewd remarks like the locals in Kuta, Bali, whose only English seemed to consist of “hey baby” and “sexy girl want sunglasses?” (did they even know what they were saying?). What a horrible thought.

No, I guess all Danielle and I can do is try to be respectful and patient tourists. We might not have loved Vietnam, but it’s clear that it is a beautiful country with a rich culture, delicious food and kind people. People I know who have lived there as expats only have wonderful things to say about it. So if asked, I would say go to Vietnam, but try to get away from other tourists for a bit (and keep an eye on your purse).