Asia, Destinations, Vietnam

Why I Don’t Understand Vietnam

Vietnam you confuse me. I don’t know what to think about you and after 20 days here I’m even more confused than when we arrived. Parts of you are so lovely, your food is amazing, the countryside is nice, and some of your people are amazingly friendly. However, there is another side of you that I don’t like quite so much, the side that rips me off whenever possible, that yells incessantly “you! buy something!”, that honks its horns so much that the constant noise pollution starts to feel normal, that dumps its trash wherever it pleases, the ocean, the rivers, the side of the road. I just don’t understand why in one moment you court tourists, building high rise luxury hotels and expensive restaurants, and the next moment you angrily chase us off the beach boardwalk for riding our bikes, all while letting locals on motorbikes fly along the path, that according to the signs, is for walking and cycling, not riding motorbikes.

In Saigon we did okay. We ate at local places that we had selected based on other travel blog recommendations (thanks to Migrationology) and ended up with great food for the correct prices. We stayed off the tourist path and had a lovely time, but we weren’t entirely free from incident. Our first run in with blatant scamming was ordering a banh mi op la, which means a bread sandwich with egg, and getting a very egg-less banh mi. Kane questioned it, saying again as she handed it to him “it’s op la?” and she guiltily nodded, hoping we didn’t know what op la meant. We didn’t think it was worth arguing over so we just left with our decidedly not op la banh mi and didn’t return. In Phu Quoc we saw the garbage problem for the first time, the pure disregard for the environment, and we started to see the Western prices. Pork turnovers that cost 6,000 dong in Saigon started costing 10,000 dong. There was a coconut sweets seller whose prices of cookies changed based on the day, who was serving us, and how much they thought they could get away with charging the Westerners. However, the worst was in Hoi An.

Hoi An is a pretty little town, an UNESCO heritage site due to its well preserved colonial architecture, but heavily touristed and where there are tourists there are scams. When attempting to park our bikes on the sidewalk, the accepted parking location everywhere in Vietnam for anything from cars to motorbikes to bikes, we had an angry old lady shaking her money can in our faces trying to make us pay to park on the public sidewalk. We told her no, moved our bikes to the other side of the street, and walked away without further problem. There was the fried banana seller who wouldn’t tell Kane how much the food cost until he had forced it into Kane’s hand, thus forcing us to pay an excessive 20,000 dong for a piece of fried banana. I know these prices aren’t that high in USD, the banana only cost about $1 USD, but what bothers me is the principle of the matter. A full meal of pho bo, beef noodle soup, should only cost 30,000 dong, making the 20,000 dong for less than 1 fried banana ridiculous. What bothers me is the fact that there are two prices, the local price and the Western price. I know we have the money to pay more, that it won’t kill us in the end, but it wears on you knowing that you are seen only as a dollar sign.

However, even after being ripped off pretty much consistently for our whole stay in Vietnam, there are still things I love about this country. In Saigon we ate wonderful food: delicious pho bo, savory bun bo hue, comforting fried pork buns, and the best chocolate stout of my life from Pasteur Street Brewing Company. In Phu Quoc, we met lovely people. The owners of our hostel, Be Home 2, were always offering us snacks and saying hello when they saw us. The restaurant down the street from the hostel, Hoa Hien, served wonderful food at non-tourist prices and the family who owned the place treated all customers like friends. In Hoi An, our standard for friendly hosts was blown out of the water by the owners of Green Bud Homestay. They were always kind, exceptionally helpful, and even invited us to have dinner with their family the last night of our stay, then went to the trouble of making us snacks for the road as a parting gift when we left for Da Nang.

In the end I really don’t know what to think about Vietnam. We haven’t had anything horrible happen to us (low key scamming isn’t awful), but we also haven’t been wowed by anything other than the food and some wonderful people we met. I want to say come here to see it for yourself, to make your own decisions about this confusing country, but I also wouldn’t choose it over a similar country in the region, like Thailand. I’m glad I have seen Vietnam, but I don’t feel like I need to stay any longer.

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