Note: The views expressed in this article are purely anecdotal, and should be regarded as such. They are not meant to offend any party, or to be taken as a definitive guide in helping you decide whether to visit this destination.
I rarely hate a place. Sure, there were places that didn’t quite live up to my expectation, such as Paris and the Maldives, and there were places that made me feel unsafe, like Surabaya where I almost got raped by a bus driver, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I hated them.
Vietnam, however, was the first and only country that I could honestly say I hated. I went twice, first to Hanoi in 2011, and the second time to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in 2015.
I thought the second time would change my opinion about it, but unfortunately it only confirmed the fact that this was the worst country I had ever visited. Whatever redeeming qualities it had were far outweighed by the annoyances I experienced.
It turned out that I wasn’t the only one feeling that way.
The famous blogger Nomadic Matt also said he wouldn’t return to Vietnam. So did Alex of Alex in Wanderland who had mixed feelings about the country, and Patrick Gaveau who listed down 22 reasons why he hated Vietnam. Even Hunter the Traveling Panda chipped in about his less-than-stellar experience in Saigon.
If you google why tourists hate Vietnam, you’ll find many similar stories. While most of the complaints, such as pollution, bad weather, bad smells, and rip-offs are actually common things throughout Southeast Asia — including in my own country, Malaysia — there are some that are specific to Vietnam.
Crazy Motorbike Traffic
Crazy traffic is not an uncommon occurrence in Asia.
But I have traveled to many countries in the region and a few in Africa, and I have never seen anything quite like the traffic in Vietnam. Specifically the motorbike and scooter traffic.
According to Wikipedia, there are 45 million registered motorbikes in Vietnam on a 92 million population headcount, making it one of the highest motorbike ownership rates worldwide. Which would have been fine had there been any semblance of order on the road, but there’s none.
Those tiny slick vehicles always have the right of way and would stop for no one. There never seems to be any traffic lights in Vietnam, and if there is, nobody pays any heed to it. Everybody simply moves in all directions, weaving in and out, trying to avoid collision.
And if you happen to be trying to cross the road, well, good luck to you.
I didn’t take any video of the traffic in Vietnam, but these are two that I found on YouTube:
Evidently, crossing the roads in Vietnam is something that you would get used to over time, but it gave me so much anxiety that I started to dread stepping out of my hostel (you’re not safe on the sidewalks either).
Okay, I know that scams happen almost everywhere in the world, but I’d like to give this one special mention because it was the first time it happened to me, and I totally didn’t see it coming.
I expected scammers to come in the form of a dodgy-looking person, a fake travel agent trying to sell bogus tours, a money changer who tried to shortchange tourists, or a taxi driver who tried to rip me off, but this one was a little different.
I was walking down a street in Hanoi one day when all of a sudden, an elderly lady seller blocked my path and placed her traditional fruit baskets on my shoulder. She was yelling something I couldn’t understand.
Note that this was my first time in Vietnam and my first day there to boot. I was still a novice traveler then — having only been on 5 or 6 weekend trips abroad — so I wasn’t too good at detecting scams.
I had honestly thought the lady needed help moving her stuff, since she looked so old and frail. So, I confusedly but willingly obliged.
Instead, she went on and put her conical hat on my head, and asked for my camera. I — still unsure of what was going on — slowly handed it to her. She then took a few pictures of me (which actually turned out to be pretty decent, so at least there was one good thing that came out of this).
After retrieving her hat and fruit baskets, she asked me, quite forcefully, to buy her pineapples at an exorbitant price. I smiled and said no, but she started yelling again. Not wanting to make a scene, I paid the amount.
True, this was just a minor incident, but it really gave me a bad first impression of the city. What does it say about a place when you can’t even trust the old ladies there? And unfortunately that’s only one of the many common scams in Vietnam that target tourists. Culture Trip has listed out 10 more.
While these scams are annoying, they’re nothing compared to snatch thefts (which could cause serious injuries or even deaths), and tourist kidnappings by taxi drivers in Vietnam.
Rude & Aggressive Sellers
I don’t usually shop when I travel, but one of my friends had asked me to help her buy a backpack in Vietnam.
In Southeast Asia, Vietnam is known as the place to buy cheap stuff (read: counterfeit products) of fairly good quality, backpacks being one of them.
So, I went to one of the shops in Hanoi.
Buying for yourself is one thing, but buying for someone else is another — you want to make sure that everything is perfect and fits all their desired criteria.
And so, I might have spent a little too long trying to make up my mind when the shopkeeper suddenly snatched the backpack out of my hands, and shouted, “NO SELL!”, after which he practically shooed me out of the store.
In Saigon a few years later, it wasn’t any different.
My travel partner wanted to visit the Ben Thanh market but didn’t want to go alone, so I had to come with her. There were all sorts of things on sale — from souvenirs to foodstuff to clothes, but we spent most of our time at the fabric section.
The fabric sellers in Ben Thanh market were really something else. They would literally grab on to you and not let go until you buy something. And God forbid you ever touch anything on display. They’d force you to buy it.
There was one seller who, when asked the price of something, snapped at us, “You want to buy?! If you don’t want to buy, don’t ask!”
It wasn’t like we had lingered too long at her shop — we had just arrived.
And that was the general attitude of most people we met in Saigon — rude and unfriendly, if not downright aggressive.
As mentioned previously, I have since traveled quite a bit in Asia, so believe me when I say I’ve seen some persistent sellers. But never have I ever visited a place that made me feel so unwelcome as I did in Hanoi and Saigon.
What Finally Changed My Mind
I knew that I wasn’t going to give up on a country so easily — it’s not fair to judge an entire nation based on just a couple of visits.
Still, it took me another 4 years before I visited Vietnam again. This time, I chose Da Nang, Hoi An, Da Lat, and Nha Trang, all in the central part of the country. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little apprehensive about the trip.
However, I was in for a big surprise.
The motorbikes were still there ruling the streets, but what surprised me were the people. They were all so welcoming and friendly, including the sellers! I’m not talking about isolated incidents — in all four cities I visited, I experienced the same warmth.
People actually smiled and greeted me. They didn’t grab me by the arms or extort money from me or chase me out of stores.
What was going on?! It felt like a different country altogether.
Are the people in central Vietnam friendlier because they are more used to tourists? Is it because the cities are not as hectic as Hanoi and Saigon, therefore people are more laid back?
I didn’t know the answer, but I truly enjoyed my two weeks spent there, where I went to the beaches, learned to make lanterns, tried stand-up paddling on a river, went cycling among rice fields, visited the ‘Crazy House’, rode on an alpine coaster, and bathed in a tub of mud.
Whereas on my previous trips to Vietnam I couldn’t wait to go home, this time it was over too soon.
It has been said time and again that Vietnam is a country that you either love or hate. I’ve met several other travelers who wax lyrical about Vietnam, saying that it’s their favorite country in Southeast Asia. When I relayed to them my negative experiences, they were very surprised and almost didn’t believe me.
I still have no idea why there’s a world of difference between central Vietnam and the other parts I’ve been to. Perhaps it was only a matter of me being at the wrong place at the wrong time and meeting the wrong people.
I’m glad I gave it a third chance. Now I can say that I don’t hate it anymore. In fact, when my mind was no longer clouded by contempt, I began to discover more and more things I loved about the country.
Would I go again?
Yes. There are still a lot of places in Vietnam that I haven’t explored. I may even revisit Hanoi and Saigon, just to see if I feel differently about them, but I think I’d rather skip the markets this time.