Vietnam: Love it or hate it

halong bay sunset
Halong Bay at sunset

Vietnam is a polarising destination. Without exception, I’ve found friends, couchsurfers, and bloggers either adore the country (rare), or found it a disappointment (the majority).

I get it. It’s understandable why some find Vietnam underwhelming.

Getting sick at some point seems par for the course. That can easily sour your experience, logical or not.

Getting ripped off is also part of the deal. Be it paying twice the highest amount listed on the side of the food cart (while the tourist couple ahead of you were only charged a 50% premium) … or getting charged a different price for the exact same item at the exact same shop by the exact same person on different days … or that pause when a random stallholder throws out a price no doubt conjured out of thin air – probably the highest number they think they can extract from you. But hey, are you really going to quibble over a few cents here, a dollar there?

For all that, though, I’m in the first camp.

war remnants palace saigonwar remnants palace saigonwar remnants palace saigonwar remnants palace saigon

Scenes from the Reunification Palace

I’d decided I liked Vietnam already by the time we got off the bus.

The drivers seemed to stick to their side of the road most of the time. The heat in Ho Chi Minh seemed downright mild after Cambodia. And our bus stopped exactly where it was supposed to stop, just a few doors down from our hostel.

I don’t know if that’s because we travelled with a good bus company or if it’s simply a function of arriving during the day. We’d previously always arrived at dawn, when it was still dark or close to it. Result: a busload of disoriented passengers, ripe for scammage from local drivers. Here, just a few drivers clustered around the doorway, and half-hearted would be too kind a word to describe their sales efforts.

Admittedly, Vietnam isn’t the most welcoming country for tourists. Visas are required for most nationalities, and they’re expensive. English signs/menus are few and far between, though I actually really like and respect that.

What really elevated the experience for me was the people – the friendly hotel staff in Hoi An, Hue, and Hanoi (not Saigon, though) and the equally friendly couchsurfers we met all through the country. While not many are in a position to host visitors, most are eager to meet up for a coffee or to show you around. Heck, most seem to use Couchsurfing to meet travellers at the local meetups and practise their English – in Hue, I found a local student through her post offering herself up as a free tour guide to tourists. If it weren’t for them, I don’t think I would have rated Vietnam quite so highly. It made all the difference. Little things, like learning what the giant red building you pass every morning is (their high school), or their instinctively taking your arm to guide you across the road, because even after two weeks of acclimatising, getting from one side to the other is still a scary proposition.

monkeys halong bayMonkeying around at Halong Bay

As for the eating, I found Vietnamese food surprisingly enjoyable, and downright sublime in some of the central regions. I didn’t really know what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised by the subtle yet full-bodied soups.

That said, two weeks was enough. Enough of the noodles, the traffic, the sickness, the heat, all of it. I must admit we did very few of the typical touristy things in Vietnam, but I still feel I got as much out of it as I could. (I don’t say ‘we’, because the whole country was a bit of a bust for T, who was under the weather for most of the time.)

No, Vietnam wasn’t the easiest, but it was a one-of-a-kind experience, and I’m thrilled to have the memories.

halong bay2000 islands in Halong Bay – the mind boggles. The varying shades of mountain give you an indication of distance

amazing cave halong bayamazing cave halong bay

The Amazing Cave, which well and truly lives up to its name.

15 thoughts on “Vietnam: Love it or hate it

  • Reply Digital Nomads July 1, 2013 at 10:33

    I just want to pack and go! It seems that you had a pleasant experience which is good. Travelling is all about opening our minds to new cultures (which is different, right?) I can’t stand whining people, just drive me crazy. If you can’t stand different food, customs, culture…. then stay home.

  • Reply krantcents July 1, 2013 at 11:32

    I heard you should only travel in Southeast Asia in the Spring. I once worked for a Taiwanese company and had to present the budget in August. The temperature and humidity was close to 100 degrees. It was very uncomfortable to be outside.

  • Reply Michelle July 1, 2013 at 14:37

    Most of my friends that have gone to Vietnam absolutely LOVE it! I can’t wait to go and it’s on my top 20 places to go.

  • Reply Untemplater July 1, 2013 at 18:06

    Very cool pics! I would love to take a 3 week trip to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. I love all those islands in your pic of Halong Bay. It’s gorgeous!

  • Reply anna July 2, 2013 at 03:21

    Great shots!! Love the cave ones especially, did you have to go on a tour or can you just enter them?

    • Reply eemusings July 3, 2013 at 05:16

      You’ll have to get yourself on a tour; there are some dirt cheap ones to be found but odds are you’re probably better off paying more for a higher end one! We went on an ODC tour.

  • Reply ti July 2, 2013 at 17:18

    nice to know that ur interested in our country. However, it’s sad that there’s so many problems, especially attitude towards foreign tourists of our people. I read some articles bout experiences in vn before, and some of that clearly said that there’s no way they be back here, and I just hope that not every single person in vn is that bad. Vn is really lovely, friendly. It’s a young country growing up everyday, so that bad sides r unavoidable. I really appreciate ur love w my country, much as sbd bring me love. I love my country and I wish you guys’ll find vn nice. Xoxo

  • Reply Jess @UsedYorkCity July 6, 2013 at 01:07

    Love that you had such a great experience! The only Asia country I’ve visited thus far is Japan, so I really don’t have much to compare, lol. I imagine the two experiences were pretty night and day;-) But I do love reading other travel blogger’s experiences in Asian countries so I can decide what to put on the “travel bucket list” next! Vietnam is now definitely up there!;-)

  • Reply jimbo August 23, 2013 at 20:37

    Vietnam is great – food, people, countryside. Im surprised to hear the bad experiences as outlined in the intro. Travelling is all about new experiences and doing things not quite how you are use to. Bartering is one of those things in Asia that you might love/hate but you get use to it and at the end of it all you mihgt have yourself a bargain, or perhaps youv’e paid a whole 50pence/70cents more than you should have done. Oh well. Vietnam has so much to offer the traveller as it is oso diverse – Hanoi – Sapa – Hoi An – Mekong – different places and people….anyway…no surprise, but I love it.
    In response to Jess – Japan is awesome too, but completely unique and different to other country – try vietnam/cambodia/Laos 😉

    • Reply eemusings September 23, 2013 at 12:22

      I’m not talking about haggling! That’s entirely different. When you aren’t in a bartering situation at a market, being charged more for the same thing that the other traveller just in front of you bought kinda sucks, straight up. But as I say, a dollar here or 50c there isn’t a huge deal.

  • Reply Amber January 20, 2014 at 13:21

    Great take! I have written about similarly about Vietnam’s reputation, the good and the bad. I also fall into the love it camp. I have been several times, have lots of friends there, and will continue to go back. I may even live there at some point. But, you are right. Vietnam is not easy. It is, though, worth it.

  • Reply Lifestyle Carnival #61 - Frugal Rules January 25, 2014 at 08:27

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  • Reply bobby February 12, 2014 at 14:54

    Nice piece of text and picture. Vietnam don’t leave anybody whitout a tremendous opinion. They totally love it or hate it but at the end the important is to have something make us live differents experiences good or bad. Often after awhile the best become the worst and the worst become the best. We change over time in our life think about veggies when were kids

  • Reply Sarah April 1, 2014 at 16:29

    My co-worker travelled SE Asia and Australia for a year, and said Vietnam was hands down his favourite place he visited. A friend did much the same trip as my co-worker and has told me she never wants to return to Vietnam.

    I personally would love to visit, if only for a short period of time. You have some amazing photos! I think there is a lot to see, no matter the country. You just have to be able to put inconveniences (ie lack of English) and discomforts aside, and take it for face value.

  • Reply Loes August 4, 2014 at 21:47

    I am living in Vietnam, 2 years now, and I have two more years on the clock!

    I meet a lot of people who adore Vietnam. I think you just have to have some good experiences. Vietnamese people can be so extremely sweet and helpful. There is always someone who will help, if you are in need. Without wanting anything in return.

    There are a lot of things you can do btw to avoid being ripped off!

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