Vietnam is known as being one of the most difficult countries in which to travel. Even Nomadic Matt, a big-name travel blogger, wrote a post about “Why I’ll Never Return to Vietnam”.
So what’s the problem?
Unfortunately a lot of (Western) travelers in Vietnam get ripped off, over-charged, subjected to scams, or just treated poorly. We had friends tell us that every single time they bought something they were deliberately given the wrong change. Locals are known to gossip about tourists right in front of them, offer tours or amenities that are vastly inferior to the promises made in their advertising, or just plain refuse service and ignore customers.
In short, Vietnam was portrayed to us as the sort of environment in which travelers can’t relax or let their guard down for even an instant.
But in our experience?
We didn’t come across any of these problems! We were never scammed or ripped off, we encountered tons of friendly locals, and almost everyone we met in the service industry was overwhelmingly friendly and cheerful.
In fact, we had one of the most positive and culturally engaging travel experiences of our whole trip in Saigon.
While we were hanging out in one of the city’s central parks, we were approached by two college-aged sisters who wanted to practice their English skills (this is apparently quite common). A few minutes into the conversation we were joined by another student… and then another… and then a few more!
Eight of us talked for hours about everything from rural life and obnoxious pets to college woes and cultural expectations around marriage and premarital sex.
They asked questions about the US (“Is it really like what you see on TV?!”) and we asked questions about Vietnam’s politics and religion. They gave us local recommendations, and we wrote down words they weren’t familiar with and drew terrible maps while attempting to explain how various states relate to each other.
We even sketched the Golden Gate Bridge!
Finally, after most of us had parted ways, the two sisters asked if Kali and I wanted to get coffee at their favorite street stall the next afternoon. Of course we said yes, so the next day we hopped on the back of their bikes and got a whirlwind tour of the city before ending at their favorite coffee “stand”.
And by stand I clearly mean bike.
Apparently in many areas street vendors are prohibited, so bike vendors can make a fast getaway if the police decide to make a sweep. Clueless tourists who buy illicit coffee, on the other hand…
The night ended at a hole-in-the-wall eatery where we had an incredibly delicious, authentic, and totally perplexing Vietnamese dinner. It involved cooking meat over a brazier of hot coals using chopsticks, which is actually a lot harder than it sounds, and some oddly stiff rice paper to wrap around it. Like I said, delicious but perplexing.
So what’s the moral of this story?
Don’t completely write off a country just because someone else had a negative experience; visit and see for yourself!
Once you’re there, try not to be too influenced by the horror stories. It would have been easy for us to presume the worst when approached by random strangers in the park… but then we would have missed out on this amazing experience.
And, perhaps most importantly, if you visit Saigon you should head to the park to meet some locals! Who knows, you just might make a new friend (or two).