We recently finished 30 days in Vietnam and while we had some good times and met some wonderful people – both Vietnamese and travelers – I can’t say I love the country. If I’m honest, I spent most of those 30 days (1) wishing we hadn’t booked a departing flight in advance so we could get the hell out, and (2) trying to keep my anger and stress to a minimum. Maybe I’d have felt differently if we hadn’t just been to Cambodia, a country I love and would consider living in someday. Or perhaps if people hadn’t raved about it so much and my expectations were lower I wouldn’t have been so disappointed time and again. But as it stands, I don’t love Vietnam and would only return if someone else offers to foot the bill for a luxury trip with private pre-arranged guides. And even then, I’m not sure I’d accept the offer. Here’s why.

Walking anywhere = putting your life on the line.

A calm Hanoi sidewalk used for parking.
A calm Hanoi sidewalk used for parking.

Our first stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City a/k/a Saigon. According to locals, the approximate population is 11 million people, 7 million motorbikes. Crossing the street is terrifying as motorcycle drivers swerve around pedestrians, cars, and other motorcycles. Traffic lights are sometimes observed but often not. At some point, you just have to step out into traffic and trust the drivers will navigate around you. I’d read and heard about this insanity so although nothing truly prepares you for it, I was at least expecting it. What I wasn’t expecting is how many people drive motorcycles on the sidewalk – at high speeds and in both directions. So no matter where you try to walk, you’re constantly in the path of motorbikes. I’m always a little on guard when I walk down a street anywhere in the world but this was a new level of stress, one I’d be happy to avoid for the rest of my life.

It’s hard to feel healthy with an always-present headache and a frequent cough.

All those motorcycles? They’re loud. The engines roar and the drivers constantly hit the horn. Jen wrote about the drivers in Cambodia laying on the horn instead of using turn signals and honking to let others know they’re coming and the same is true in Vietnam. It didn’t bother me in Cambodia the way it did in Vietnam because, quite simply, there are more people, more cars, more motorcycles in Vietnam. The sounds are multiplied. On top of that, Vietnamese drivers have discovered what I think of as designer horns. Instead of a single tone blast, a push on the horn causes a multi-note dissonance that seems to last an eternity. When multiple buses or trucks hit these horns within seconds of each other while motorcyclists lay on their horns, the cacophony is downright painful.

All those motorbikes also lead to some pretty serious pollution. In Saigon and Hanoi and in downtown areas of most smaller cities and towns we visited, I couldn’t take a deep breath without risking a coughing fit. The combination of noise and smog left me with a low-grade headache and a generally run-down feeling almost every day we were in Vietnam. It’s hard to love a place that causes such malaise.

Blatant attempts to rip-off foreigners are exhausting.

At one time, the government set prices for things like airplane tickets, electricity, and telecommunications at different rates for Vietnamese and foreigners. Since 2005, this is no longer the case. Everyone is supposed to be charged the same prices. But the mentality still exists and foreigners are quoted prices for everything from bottled water to bus tickets that are sometimes laughably high. We don’t mind overpaying a bit for some things (the difference between 35 and 50 cents for a bottle of water isn’t always worth bargaining for) but the constant attempts to cheat us really wore me down. And in Vietnam, it went well beyond what we experienced in Cambodia. Case in point: I went to the main Hanoi post office to mail a card and a postcard to the US. We’d bought postcard stamps at a post office elsewhere in the country so I had a sense of how much postage should cost. Indeed, the postcard I had with me was already stamped and I just needed to drop it off. The card, however, had some enclosures and needed weighing.

Vietnamese post offices have multiple counters, each with specific purposes so I entered and started reading the signs above each counter. Before I could find the one I needed, I was accosted by a man dressed similarly to the counter staff who nearly ripped the cards out of my hand to see what I needed. I tried to get them back and head for the counters but he quickly took the card behind the counter, weighed it, and returned to me. “70,000” he said and handed me the cards. I told him that was too much and approached the appropriate counter. “Ok, 35” he called after me. I shook my head and stood my ground. Actual cost when properly weighed by a postal employee: 25,000 VND. Really buddy, you think I didn’t notice your shirt was missing the emblem the staff shirts had and that I was going to pay nearly three times the appropriate amount to mail this card?! What kind of moron do you take me for?

Moments like this happened everywhere we went, even sleepy Bac Ha, where no one came looking for our business and few tourists stay overnight. I can count on one hand the number of times people blatantly tried to rip us off in Cambodia but in Vietnam, I can count that many instances in one day.

Sightseeing can only be done by motorcycle, group tour, or incredibly expensive private guide.

I'm smiling because we're stopped.
I’m smiling because we’re stopped.

I’ve never been a fan of motorbikes, big or small. When I drive one, I spend the entire time envisioning myself on the side of the road with broken bones and when Jen drives one, visions of her being hit by an oncoming car or another motorbike haunt me. She’s a better motorbike driver than I but many roads are unpaved, other drivers often behave unpredictably, and accidents happen. So I can’t help it, I worry. A foreigner can’t legally rent a car in Vietnam without also hiring a driver, making it prohibitively expensive for anything longer than a few hours. But anyone can hire a motorbike for $4-7/day plus the cost of fuel. There are no tuk-tuks or shared trucks the way there are elsewhere in SE Asia. So outside of a city where you can walk, ride a bicycle, take a taxi or bus, motorbikes are really the only way to sightsee affordably on your own.

I’m also not a fan of group tours – being shuffled about from one place to the next on a pre-determined schedule with stops at countless places where people try to sell you all kinds of crap no one needs. We took a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels, one in the Mekong Delta, another of Halong Bay, and skipped seeing all sorts of places because we couldn’t stand joining another tour.

 

With a group tour, less than 10% of the participants have a chance to try entering a tunnel like this one at Cu Chi.
With a group tour, less than 10% of the participants have a chance to try entering a tunnel like this one at Cu Chi.
Even fewer members of our tour tried this entrance to the Cu Chi tunnels.
Even fewer members of our tour tried this entrance to the Cu Chi tunnels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How long do you think it takes a group of 30+ people to work their way through 100m of tunnel?
How long do you think it takes a group of 30+ people to work their way through 25m of tunnel?
Too damn long!
Too damn long!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Halong Bay tour was the highlight of our time in Vietnam because we splurged and spent more than our budget allows. I’m sure if we’d paid for expensive tours elsewhere in the country or hired a private guide – something we saw plenty of people doing at the Cu Chi Tunnels – we would have enjoyed our time in Vietnam more than we did. But given our budget, I was constantly trapped between three terrible choices: risk life and limb on motorbikes, suffer the crowds and misery of a group tour, or skip out on seeing sights outside of cities. A stressful position to be in for a month.

Eating is dull for a vegetarian who doesn’t like mock meat.

This salad did not make me sick: I made it myself and loved every bite.
This salad did not make me sick: I made it myself and loved every bite.

For the meat-eaters of the world, Vietnam may be food heaven, I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s not hard to find vegetarian food, it’s just hard to find good vegetarian food. Oily bland rice noodles and vegetables; rice and oily vegetables; sometimes an overcooked egg swimming in oil or underseasoned tofu: that’s what I ate. Unlike the beef dishes that Jen ordered, mine didn’t come with herbs, chilies, and lime for flavoring. If I wanted chili sauce or basic salt and pepper, I almost always had to ask. There are vegan restaurants that serve mock meat dishes but seeing as I don’t like meat, I don’t appreciate food intended to taste like it. And outside of these places, it seems no one quite knows what to serve vegetarians other than those 5 items I just listed. Hoi An had a great vegetarian restaurant that I wish we’d eaten at more than we did as the variety there was better than anywhere else. And the Bahn Mi Queen there was happy to add a non-oily egg and some extra cheese to my vegetarian sandwich so on the whole, I ate pretty well in Hoi An. On our Halong Bay cruise, after I received French fries when everyone else was served shrimp and I got an overcooked fried egg while others had fresh squid with well-dressed vegetables, I chose to be honest when the staff asked if I enjoyed my lunch. The chef that night made me a veritable feast of vegetarian food that Jen loaded up on, too. So there were exceptions to my food misery but for the most part, I was hungry for a month.

Store employees hovering over me at all times made me feel like a suspected criminal.

This may be a cultural difference that I should simply respect and let be but I don’t take kindly to having a salesperson following me around in a store, keeping a distance of less than two meters at all times. I don’t like it in the U.S. where it only happens occasionally and I don’t like it in Vietnam where it happened in every store I entered that had more than one employee. I value privacy and being left alone so having someone looking over my shoulder so much of the time left me nervous and unsettled. The practice also makes me feel as though they expect me to steal from them if they don’t stick to my side. Maybe they want to be nearby to answer questions about the wares or maybe they like being in close proximity to another human. In truth, I have no idea why it’s so common in Vietnam but it always made me uncomfortable.

Hard selling: does it work with anyone?

This woman at the Coc Ly market did not try to sell us anything!
This woman at the Coc Ly market did not try to sell us anything!

I wrote about this in our post on Hoi An but it applies to just about everywhere in Vietnam: hard selling is ubiquitous. Vendors chase people down the street, press wares into hands that are barely open or wave wares in their faces, making it hard to continue walking; restaurateurs read menus to potential diners suggesting the most expensive dishes; cyclo and xe om (motorcycle) drivers follow foreigners around offering their tour services, claiming the sights people are obviously walking toward are closed and thus a tour would be a good use of an hour before the sights open; the list goes on. Hard selling tactics like these don’t work with me, with Jen, or with any other Westerner we’ve talked with about this subject. Whether they work with anyone I have no idea but day after day, they drove me nuts.

To say there are no food safety standards is putting it mildly.

Before we left, Jen and I both read How to Shit Around the World and we’re both sensible about eating fruit that’s been peeled, vegetables that have been heated to a safe degree, and observing the cooking practices of street food vendors before selecting one. Only at establishments that we’ve read use purified water to wash their vegetables or that we feel we can trust do we order salads. Even so, more days than not, I was sick. An American ex-pat we met told me that in her years in Vietnam, she’s seen vegetarians have more problems than anyone else. I can theorize why this is but at the end of the day, it comes down to a lack of sanitation in the “kitchen.” Time after time, we saw kitchen staff emerge from a toilet where we know there’s no sink or no soap head straight back to the cutting board.

And I can handle finding the occasional strand of hair in my food. I get it, the stuff falls out of heads and although it isn’t great to see in a dish, if the food is hot enough to feel properly cooked, then the hair is nothing more than a nuisance. But a long fingernail – the kind the locals keep long to clean their ears? Finding one of those in a smoothie crosses the line for me.

I lost weight in Vietnam (and promptly put it all back on in Thailand and Myanmar) and I’ve talked to plenty of others who suffered the same ailment I did there. Partly it was the lack of appealing food but the digestive ailments that accompanied what I did eat made for a miserable month.

A fun afternoon in Hue
A fun afternoon in Hue

There’s more to why I didn’t love Vietnam: the political situation; obvious sexism; being man-handled by men with creepy long fingernails trying to “help” me; the coincidental fact that my ATM card was eaten by a machine; the general feeling from people that I was only welcome in the country if I spent absurd amounts of money that I don’t have… Admittedly, it’s a beautiful country and as the rest of our posts about Vietnam hopefully show, we did have some good times and met some wonderful people. But I, for one, don’t need to go back.

 

 

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