How can the people of one country be simultaneously “friendly” and “rude”, the food be both “divine” and “terrible,” and one’s person’s visit be “amazing” while the next person’s is “wretched”?
Since before I touched down here in Saigon, I’ve wondered about people’s opposite-ends-of-the-spectrum reactions to Vietnam. It’s not a purely recent phenomenon either. Decades ago, President Kennedy got such conflicting reports from two advisors simultaneously visiting Vietnam, he asked them, “The two of you did visit the same country, didn’t you?”
One doesn’t have to search online for long to find travelers who both love and don’t-love Vietnam. I’ve tried to understand how such opposite reactions spring from the same place. Here are my theories.
1. Expectations. Those with unrealistic expectations are disappointed; those with realistic ones are fine. People gush about places for any number of reasons. Imagine the traveler who has only heard about Vietnam in glowing terms and who hasn’t taken the time to research any of the pitfalls. He might sashay off the plane – jaw slacked and eyes wide, Canon™ dangling from his shoulder – only to be swooped up by an aggressive, unscrupulous cabbie in a common hotel scam.
While planning my trip, I must have read the internet’s entire collection of bad experiences in Vietnam. Even on my initial flight here, I neurotically removed all my jewelry and stuffed them deep inside my backpack. I’d read about the swarm of taxi drivers at the airport and knew to bee-line for the Vinasun counter instead.
By being slightly over-prepared for the worst and having otherwise realistic expectations, I’ve had an ok time here.
2. Vietnam is a mirror. In Vietnam, you get back what you send out. The Vietnamese are people watchers. Everywhere you go, locals are sitting on little chairs or on their parked motorbikes, chatting with friends and watching people walk by. Many people’s neutral, “just watching” facial expression looks unwelcoming or even intimidating. In response, I can either think to myself, “What’s that person’s problem?!” or I can give a little smile and a wave. After 2 months of walking around Saigon, I’ve found that 10 out of 10 Vietnamese look up and return the smile.
The above is a small-scale analogy, but I believe that Vietnamese “read” people and get a sense of someone’s motives pretty quickly. I can’t point to clear examples, but I’ve gotten this sense a number of times during my stay.
3. Time spent. Visitors leave before they have a chance to like Vietnam. For various reasons, Vietnam can be rough on the casual, short-term traveler. As a rule, those who dislike Vietnam the most stay here the least amount of time; as is true for most anyplace. Obviously people on holiday don’t have a leisurely year to dive into the culture, but Vietnam might just be one of those places that takes awhile to understand. (I certainly haven’t figured things out, but more on that in another post.)
4. It’s your “kind”. It’s the least-likely theory on the list, but I’m suggesting a culture-wide, visceral reaction to certain individuals.
It’s possible that certain kinds of visitors rub Vietnamese locals the wrong way. How else does one explain how some people seem to get mistreated by “everyone” here? My best guess is that, for whatever reason, there are some individuals who illicit a negative reaction from locals. (Like poor, misunderstood Grendel in the Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf. All he wanted was some friends!)
I’ve glanced at people before and thought to myself, “ugh. I hope I don’t have to deal with that person.” I wish I could grab a photo off facebook to illustrate my point. Alas, this cartoon will have to do:
On the other side of the coin, would be a person that Vietnamese people, as a group, intuitively like and trust. Like I said, it’s the shakiest theory of the bunch.
5. Touristy-Vietnam leaves a bit to be desired. Visitors who’ve disliked Vietnam are those who only had time/inclination for the standard “must-see” sights and tours.
If you only have a few days in HCMC then by all means, go to the War Museum, visit the Cu Chi Tunnels and take a trip to the Mekong Delta. But know, most of the people you’ll be around will be other tourists and those locals who deal with hundreds of tourists every day.
Aspects of the standard tourist experience here can be frustrating, and is best entered into with open eyes. Venturing “off the beaten path” is also no safe bet; it follows the same risk/benefit correlation as anything. That said, those who love Vietnam are often more adventurous types who did things like motorbike from Dalat to HCMC.
It’s up to each visitor to realize the kind of travel they prefer and to find out beforehand if Vietnam even offers it. People vary greatly in terms of their expectation of comfort, authenticity and adventure. At this time anyway, Vietnam does not seem to cover that spectrum as well as some other destinations.
6. Bad Luck Some people just have bad luck (and vice versa.)
Recently, a 36-year old American English teacher here in my alley was telling me how horrible her 7 months here have been.
One day, she took a xe om (motorbike) driver from Pham Ngu Lao, just as I’ve done dozens of times. Her laptop was in its bag in front of his knees while she kept her backpack on. He drove them to some desolate street and pulled out a knife. She ran away, leaving her laptop with him.
Another time, she was on a motorbike with a xe om when another motorist plowed into them, sending her to the hospital for 2 weeks and needing surgery. As I looked at the fresh scars on her hand and leg, I wondered how often something like this happens.
Nhung and other locals were extremely surprised by this story; the knife incident especially. I feel bad about questioning the victim – she seemed perfectly reasonable and not unlike myself. But this was the only time I spoke to her and I even have friends in the US who always seem to have crazy, unfortunate things happen to them.
Conclusion. I’m sure there are more explanations than the theories above, as to why Vietnam brings out such extremes in people. Strangely, I fall somewhere in the middle. Whenever someone asks if I “like” Vietnam, I immediately think of everything about my time here – the job, my few friends, the food, my neighborhood, the things I struggle with, everything I write about – everything. And what comes out of my mouth is a truthful, “I like it ok.”
Did you or anyone you know ever visit Vietnam? If so, was there a “love it!” or “hate it!” reaction? What was especially liked or not-liked about it?
Thanks for reading! Enjoy my collection of love/hate I grabbed off the internet: