Vietnam’s Best-Kept Secret

by Christy on

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.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

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.

Making Friends in Vietnam

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.

Coffee Bike in Vietnam

This is where you can get some of the best Vietnamese coffee in Saigon!

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).

Making Friends in Vietnam

Have you traveled in Vietnam? What was your experience?

{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

Chrystal McKay June 11, 2012 at

I read all the negative stories AFTER I visited Vietnam. I had an excellent experience there! Everybody was friendly – and two of the boys I was with got invited IN to a local wedding they happened to pass by. Vietnam was great – I agree that you have to take what you read with a grain of salt because everybody experiences something different through travel!
Chrystal McKay recently posted: A Farewell Moroccan Feast

Reply

Christy June 11, 2012 at

Wow, that experience sounds awesome! It’s hard because you want to help provide perspective for other travelers, but at the same time everyone is going to experience it differently. I think a large part of it is attitude and how open you are, but a large part of it is also luck and who you happen to come into contact with. You just never know.

Reply

A Montrealer Abroad June 11, 2012 at

Damn, if I had a nickel for every time I warned a person against Paris I would be LOADED, haha. But I agree with you – definitely don’t take someone else’s advice and GO see things for yourself.

Reply

Christy June 11, 2012 at

LOL! We actually aren’t the biggest fans of Paris, either (it’s just SO over-hyped), but it’s true that everyone has to figure it out for themselves.

Reply

Camels & Chocolatetwitter: LunaticAtLarge June 11, 2012 at

I am with you guys! We absolutely loved Vietnam and were only in Saigon the whole time (six days), a city most people say to “skip entirely.” Scott and I had the best experience–from the food to the nice locals to the great shopping (including bargaining)!
Camels & Chocolate recently posted: Music City? Try Musical State

Reply

Christy June 12, 2012 at

We also spent most of our time in Saigon and really loved it! Granted, we tend to enjoy bustling cities, but most people sing the praises of Hoi An or Nha Trang and we didn’t even visit those areas.

Reply

Jonathan Look, Jr.twitter: lifepartII June 11, 2012 at

I have found that when you open yourself up to possibility it is almost always an amazing experience. I am sure most people know of all the “scary Mexico stories”. I have not had a single experience where I have felt in danger. If I had my guard WAY up all the time I would have missed out on so many wonderful things. You miss out on so much when you live your life in fear.
Jonathan Look, Jr. recently posted: Climbing Tonina

Reply

Christy June 12, 2012 at

That’s such a good point about fear, Jonathan. Too often we’re controlled by our own fears (or fears hawked to us by others), but it only serves to limit our experiences. Obviously it’s wise to be a cautious traveler, but I think it’s possible to become OVERLY cautious.

Reply

Cole @ Four Jandalstwitter: fourjandals June 12, 2012 at

I hate when people write off countries based on others opinions. Although I did write a post about why I won’t go back to Marrakech haha. But that’s because I got sick and said at the end to make sure that people still go as it is awesome!
Cole @ Four Jandals recently posted: Tips for Visiting the Ancient Roman Colosseum

Reply

Christy June 12, 2012 at

Hahaha, well at least you’re open about the cause being personal! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sharing personal experience; I just think travelers should read ALL stories with a grain of salt. :)

Reply

Christy June 12, 2012 at

We had a great experience in Vietnam as well. Nothing but kind people and nobody tried to take advantage of us (that we know of at least). I’m glad you guys didn’t get nervous and run when the English speakers approached. That happened to my mom and I in Bali on the beach. It was a group of young girls. They were so adorable and sweet.
Christy recently posted: Springtime Bliss in the Italian Riviera

Reply

Christy June 12, 2012 at

It’s hard because you never know when someone is trying to sell you something! But we had vaguely heard somewhere that local students might approach Westerns to practice their English, so we were less surprised than we could have been.

Reply

InsideJourneystwitter: InsideJourneys June 12, 2012 at

I love how this turned out. Proves you really can’t go by other people’s experiences and that the best way to see a place is with a local, even if the food is perplexing!
InsideJourneys recently posted: 5 Things to do in Montego Bay

Reply

Christy June 12, 2012 at

Definitely the best way to see a place is with a local! We don’t have that opportunity often, so it was great when we had the chance.

Reply

Ruth (Tanama Tales)twitter: tanamatales June 12, 2012 at

As I said in a recent post, I ultimately travel becuase of the people.
Ruth (Tanama Tales) recently posted: Car Rental Nightmare

Reply

Christy June 12, 2012 at

That’s a great attitude, Ruth — I think we’re fairly similar, though we do also travel for the food. ;)

Reply

Jon June 13, 2012 at

My girlfriend and I have been living in Saigon for the last three months. Prior to here, we were living in Thailand for four months.

We love it here. Saigon is one of the best value cities in the world. A way better value than where we lived in Thailand. I’ve lived in NYC, Taipei, Miami, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and on, and on. I have some points of contrast. Again, incredible value here.

They have a cafe culture here that rivals Paris.

Another unexpected value in Saigon. Sushi.

There is a large Japanese population here, and thus, lots, and lots of great sushi places. For example, you can get good quality tuna belly (toro) for a couple of bucks, and a bottle of decent saki for $6 bucks.

Also, wine is a good value in Saigon due to the French influence here. It’s not the best stuff, but compared to the insane prices of wine in Thailand we’re in heaven here with regards to wine.

In terms of the people we’ve had really positive experiences. Our apartment rental experience was super easy, the landlord is honest, and the staff are friendly.

One thing to remember about all the negative write ups of Saigon. I’m willing to bet that most of those doing the write ups are probably staying in the backpacker district, Pham Ngu Lao. That part of town is shitty and filled with scammers.

I also can’t stand Khao San Road in Bangkok, which isn’t much different. A magnet for scammers, and opportunists where you can revel in expatness.

If you’re a digital nomad looking for a place to post up and get work done. This is hands down, one of the best values combined with a great experience for that kind of lifestyle.

Reply

Christy June 13, 2012 at

Thank you so much for leaving this great comment, Jon! It’s really interesting to hear how affordable Vietnam is, especially compared to other SE Asian countries. And I think you’re right that a lot of the issues are in the backpacker areas — of course that’s where most of the scams are going to be, so it’s best to avoid the super touristy districts as much as possible.

Reply

Edna June 13, 2012 at

Great story! I have to admit, if they had come up to me I probably would have been pretty wary. So good to hear there are still people who actually just want to talk to you and learn about other cultures! I also loved Vietnam; we actually did end up getting scammed but I still found the positives of the country outweighed the negatives.
Edna recently posted: 13 little things I love about living in Paris

Reply

Christy June 13, 2012 at

What a bummer you got scammed! What happened? We’ve heard most of the scams are w/ taxis and exchanging money, but there are a lot of other random ones as well. I’m glad you didn’t let that completely color your view of Vietnam, though. :)

Reply

Annie - FootTracker June 13, 2012 at

I agree, everyone’s experience will be different (good and bad). It is good to read about other people’s experience to keep some things in mind, but does not mean one should not try or go somewhere =)

O_O this is the first time I see someone selling coffee on bike….how do they heat the coffee up?
Annie – FootTracker recently posted: The Machine that Saved My Life @Japan

Reply

Christy June 13, 2012 at

It was actually iced coffee! The vendor had a small cooler of ice, then she poured in condensed milk and a thick black coffee brew (that she’d already made). Voila! Pretty brilliant, huh?

Reply

Erica June 13, 2012 at

I love this post dearly! There are quite a few places that we visited – even after hearing horrible things. I can’t imagine what our life would have been like if we missed out on Colombia.
Erica recently posted: On the Road Again…

Reply

Christy June 13, 2012 at

Absolutely! Even if we had experienced negative things, I still would have wanted to see for myself. You just never know!

Reply

Dave from A Couple Travelers June 13, 2012 at

Really glad to see you guys had a great time in Vietnam. I’ve read so many travel blogs, as you mentioned, where they completely writ off the country. We recently ran into a Vietnamese girl around town and she mentioned setting us up with some of her friends back home – really got us thinking positively about the country and I hope to not be disappointed.
Dave from A Couple Travelers recently posted: Best Hostel Websites

Reply

Christy June 13, 2012 at

That’s awesome, Dave – do you guys plan on traveling to Vietnam soon? Meeting with locals makes a world of difference, in my opinion – so if you have the connections, run with them! :)

Reply

Vicky June 21, 2012 at

We don’t leave for our trip until September and we’re starting out in Japan so we won’t make it to Vietnam until December but we’re going to spend a month there so hopefully that’ll give us enough time to get a glimpse of both the North and the South.
Vicky recently posted: Three Months To Go!

Reply

Christy June 22, 2012 at

I think a month will give you plenty of time – we only had 10 days! We split that between Hanoi and Saigon, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to explore up and down the coast. There’s so much more to Vietnam than just what’s near those two cities.

Reply

Amanda June 13, 2012 at

Awesome to hear that you guys had such a positive experience in Vietnam. I’ll admit that I’ve been a bit wary of visiting because of all those scams and horror stories. It’s nice to hear it’s not always like that, though!
Amanda recently posted: Meet Giannina

Reply

Christy June 13, 2012 at

I’m glad the horror stories didn’t sway us… though to be quite honest, they almost did. We were pretty apprehensive when we first arrived in the country, but after a few days of smooth sailing we calmed down considerably. :)

Reply

Mark Wienstwitter: migrationology June 13, 2012 at

I fully back you up on your observations of Vietnam – I too heard all the stories about being ripped off in Vietnam, but on the contrary I found it to be an amazing country with lots of very friendly people. Sure in the very touristy areas there will always be some that want to take advantage of the situation, but that should never influence our thoughts for an entire country. Meeting local people, at for instance a park, is a great way to enjoy an authentic experience and make new friends. Great post!
Mark Wiens recently posted: How to Eat Like a Food Blogger and Stay Slim

Reply

Christy June 18, 2012 at

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Mark! I think every country has people looking to take advantage of tourists, so you can’t base your opinion on just that.

Reply

Ayelet - All Colorestwitter: allcolores June 14, 2012 at

I love that you came despite the stories and stayed willing to discover a different side of the country. That encounter with the locals sounds really wonderful.
Ayelet – All Colores recently posted: Jerusalem Ice Festival: Jerusalem Made of Ice

Reply

Christy June 18, 2012 at

It was super wonderful, Ayelet – we didn’t expect to make new friends while we were there, but that’s what happened.

Reply

Stephanie - The Travel Chicatwitter: thetravelchica June 15, 2012 at

I love hearing stories like this. I think you have to go in with a positive attitude, or you don’t go at all. Maybe you’ll see the negative side, but maybe you’ll have enough positive experiences like this to make up for it.
Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted: Foto of the Week from … Tarabuco: Small Town Beauty

Reply

Christy June 18, 2012 at

It’s amazing how much attitude can change things.

Reply

Kieu ~ GQ trippin June 19, 2012 at

I am SO HAPPY you guys had a positive experience in “our” country. :) Gerard and I are currently in Vietnam and it certainly feels like home. We’ve met quite a lot of “Westerners” who feels the same way as you, and certainly some that unfortunately had their run ins with getting ripped off but then again, it’s something that happens to everyone who is traveling. Vietnam is no different than Italy or India. Really enjoyed your post and thanks for reminding us that we shouldn’t write off a country based on one person’s experience. Really really glad you enjoyed Vietnam. I’ll eat a bowl of pho in your honor! ;)
Kieu ~ GQ trippin recently posted: Shanghai: Dumpling Duel

Reply

Christy June 20, 2012 at

Yessss, eat TEN bowls of pho for us!! :D I’m so glad you two are enjoying Vietnam; I think I read on fb that you’re in Hoi An right now?

Reply

Huy thành August 11, 2012 at

Glad to hear that you have good experience in Vietnam. I’m vietnamese. I used to go to that park and practice speaking English with tourism. Sometimes they say no cause they’re be ripped off (maybe or some wary I don’t know exactly )……. Some guys said ” ripped off and overcharge is vietnamese culture” sure. That right. Even I’m. Vietnamese but if I go to the north and say with southern accent I’ll be overcharge too.
I agree with you that you can’t base on personal experience and think something good or bad for a country.

Reply

39 Comments. Join the conversation!

Enable CommentLuv (add link to your most recent blog post after your comment)

Previous post:

Next post: