Stickman Readers' Submissions February 22nd, 2013

Top Ten (Mis-)Conceptions Of Vietnam – How Can We Explain The 5% Return Rate To This Country?

Vietnam is a popular destination on the South-East Asia backpackers-trail. Usually this trail consists of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. However, compared to its neighboring countries, many travelers either love or hate the country. There are some persistent (mis-)conceptions of Vietnam which many travelers seem to reinforce. In this article I would like to take a closer look on these conceptions, and find out whether they are true or not. Having lived in Vietnam for more than a year, knowing the language, and having travelled extensively in the country, I think I can provide a pretty decent picture of the country. But please feel free to discuss and challenge my ideas. The top 10 (mis)-conceptions of Vietnam, in random order are:

Misconception number 10: Vietnamese people tend to hate Western, in particular American and French people.

You often hear travelers saying this, like for example our experienced internet backpacker Nomadic Matt. However, in the year I’ve lived in Vietnam, I have never witnessed any hate towards Americans or French. Vietnamese people are incredibly progressive about the past and consider the wars as something which should be kept in the past. While that is something astonishing since everyone older than 35 has experienced the American war. It happened over and over again that when I raised this issue to people, they would tell me: stop living in the past, it has happened and we have gotten over the grudge (while the pain still lasts, every year thousands of people are still affected by Agent Orange or unexploded bombs).

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– But… But… I was treated badly, just because I am an American!

– Ask yourself the question; was that the reason why you were treated badly? Maybe you just encountered a jerk or perhaps you had the wrong attitude, expecting to be treated badly just because you are an American… The self-fulfilling prophecy…

Misconception number 9: People in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia were much friendlier than the Vietnamese! Why do Vietnamese people smile less?

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One mistake which many (Western) travelers make is misinterpreting the Asian smile. Many Asian people (please correct me if I am wrong) use the smile in so many different situation which does not only include being genuinely friendly. I am not an expert on Thailand, but I can imagine that a smile in Thailand can mean anything from feeling uncomfortable until not knowing the answer or from a greeting to a sales trick. In Vietnam, a smile is just differently used. Therefore, the fact that the locals seem to smile less or appear to be less friendly is just a cultural thing. It does not necessarily mean that they are less friendly. Stop comparing people.

Misconception number 8: it’s impossible to cross the street in Vietnam

For the first time traveler the traffic in Vietnam seems to be the biggest danger of the trip. And it is true, traffic accidents are a huge problem in Vietnam. All of my friends living in Vietnam can tell me stories about their own motorbike accidents. And I fell off the thing a few times myself. However, for a pedestrian the traffic is much easier to cope with than for example in Malaysia. First of all, there is a system in crossing the street. Walk with the same pace, keep eye contact and don't make any sudden movements. If you do this you should be fine, even in Ho Chi Minh City. Or if you are really that afraid, just follow the locals. It happened to me a few times that I was waiting besides a busy road, and that a local grabbed my arm, because he / she thought I was trying to cross the street. But, generally, motorbikes are your friend. They know how to avoid you. The most dangerous vehicles in Vietnam are the public busses. These suckers stop for nothing. On the opposite, in for example Malaysia (hey, nothing against Malaysia, ok?), there are far more cars on the streets. I found it much more challenging to cross the street in Malaysia since cars are not able to dodge you that easily.

Misconception number 7: in Vietnam they eat dog

Actually this is not a misconception. Dog, or Thit Cho, is a popular dish among Vietnamese people, especially the Northern Vietnamese. However, the chance of eating it accidently is almost zero, since dog meat is relatively expensive.

Misconception number 6: Vietnam is just another China

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Like I said, stop comparing people. While Vietnam has been influenced by Chinese culture, it has a culture on its own.

Misconception number 5: People in the South of Vietnam are friendlier than people in the North

This is a difficult one… While I heard many northern Vietnamese people say the same, I honestly don’t know. I have found people in central Vietnam to be among the friendliest, but it all depends on your own experiences.

Misconception number 4: Don’t eat the street food as it makes you sick

Let me turn this conception around. Don’t eat food in tourist restaurants. Their menus are often too big for a small kitchen, and they store a lot of ingredients for this big menu which may have gone bad. Street food in Vietnam is among the healthiest in the world, since it is always fresh. Food stalls have at most five different dishes, and therefore most ingredients are fresh since it’s a come and go of people. Don’t necessarily think that food in restaurants are always more hygienic. We tend to think that because we don’t see how the food is prepared, we’d rather live in ignorance about it. No, the best food in Vietnam can be found on the streets.

Misconception number 3: Motorbike taxi-drivers are impossible to get rid off

That is simply not true. Just be polite but firm. Don’t smile and say maybe later, or tell them to f@#$ off. Being overly friendly is not recommended because that can be interpreted as: I might get a chance if I continue to ask, and most certainly don't be rude, because then it’s your own fault if the motorbike driver is annoying you. Please imagine that a motorbike driver has a family to feed, and that in cities, like Hanoi or HCM City, there are more motorbike taxis than tourists. However, if you are firm and polite, they will you leave you almost immediately alone in nine out of ten cases. It’s all about the attitude.

Misconception number 2: Vietnam has little to see; basically you have Halong Bay, Hanoi, Hoi An, Nha Trang and HCM city

Vietnam is a huge country and there is plenty to see – just allow yourself more time to see Vietnam. Travel to more unknown destinations, such as Phong Nha National Park, Hue, Sapa, the Mekong Delta, Dalat, and so on. Or you can be even more adventurous and visit some unknown provincial capitals (and their surroundings). My personal favorites are: Ha Tinh, Vinh and Dong Hoi – all in central Vietnam, for some reason I really love that region.

And the biggest misconception of all time: Vietnamese people are rude and are always trying to rip me off

We have touched this topic before, but let me elaborate more on this one. Let me first say that Vietnam is not an easy country to backpack for the beginner, and you will get relatively more ripped off in Vietnam than in for example Thailand. However, that is not because of its people, but because of its developing tourism industry which still needs a lot of improvement. I have found Vietnamese people to be one of the most open and friendly people in Asia. It’s not hard to meet locals in Vietnam at all, and I can honestly say that in all the countries I have been to, I made the most friends in Vietnam.

– If that is the case, why did I have such a bad time? Or why did my friends / other people have such a bad time?

There are several factors which explain this. Let me first start saying: don't be so biased when you travel to Vietnam. Don’t think that the Vietnamese are rude or trying to rip you off before you have even visited the country. This is another case of the perfect self-fulfilling prophecy. I have heard travelers complaining about the Vietnamese, while it was just their first day in Vietnam. Backpackers in Vietnam are often so inward looking, only spending time in the (self)-designated backpacker areas, that outside those areas you hardly find any foreigners. Naturally the scum of Vietnam feels attracted to such places since it’s easy to make a quick buck there. Therefore, if you are that backpacker who only hangs out in their hostel and who only strolls around in the tourist areas of a city, you have never experienced the real Vietnam nor its people.

– But… But… How do you explain the 5% return rate? Why does Thailand have a return rate of 50%?

It’s unfair to compare both countries, since the tourism industry in Thailand is much more developed. Thailand is a mass-tourism destination with plenty of resorts, party islands, cheap flights from most parts in the world, lesser visa restrictions, and a well-developed tourism infrastructure. Furthermore, Thailand has explored several other tourism-branches such as romance tourism (the so-called Thai brides), medical tourism and various forms of ecological tourism. Westerners are more likely to marry local Thai women compared to their Vietnamese counterparts, and every time they return, they are labeled as a ‘return-tourist’ which is not really fair.

Vietnam’s tourism infrastructure is still developing. Therefore, most tourists who visit Vietnam have a been-there done-that feeling. It’s not necessarily because they dislike Vietnam that they don’t come back, they just don't see a reason to, even though they might have enjoyed Vietnam very much. I would like to see the return-rates of travelers to Indonesia or Laos, to make a fairer comparison. Therefore, don't let statistics fool you. The low return rate doesn't say anything, and needs to be closer examined.

Final thoughts:

– So, if you know it all so good, could you give us some tips on travelling in Vietnam?

– First of all, make clear agreements regarding the price you want to pay for a commodity or service. Just be clear. Second, use your common sense. Only make use of respectable taxi-companies, don’t whine about being ripped off for a few cents more (your monthly salary is more than the average yearly salary in Vietnam) and don’t expect that a cheap country should be ridiculously cheap. A taxi ride will never cost you 5,000 dong, neither a bowl of Pho or a guidebook, so please don't expect that. Third, move your lazy ass and venture out to the non-touristic parts. You have plenty of opportunities to drink and party in your own country so make full use of being in a foreign country and explore the local culture. If you’d rather do the former, that's fine by me, but then don’t bitch about the locals, since you don't know any. Fourth, just have a good time and visit the country with an open-mind.

Stickman's thoughts:

Vietnam is a country I really like, but I can see that many who like Thailand won't care for it. honestly, if I was not so heavily invested in Thailand, I'd probably be in Vietnam. That's not to say that other expats in Thailand would like it – in fact I think the opposite is more likely true – but for me personally, I think it's great and that I personally am a better match to Vietnam than Thailand.

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