Vietnam is a country that often evokes strong opinions from travelers.
Some love it. Some absolutely hate it.
Me? I definitely fall into the former category.
Sure, there are travel scams in Vietnam. There are taxi drivers and touts who will try to rip you off. There are market vendors that will swear at you and swat you away if you don't want to pay their prices. There's a really big pollution problem, especially in northern cities like Hanoi.
But, these issues are not confined to Vietnam — you'll find scammy drivers, pollution/litter, and unfriendly vendors all across Southeast Asia. In my case, I actually encountered LESS of them in Vietnam than anywhere else. Yes, there was smog. Yes, there were touts who would try to hang a shoulder pole on you and then ask you for money. And yes, I could see how a few bad interactions could color your whole travel experience.
Overall, though, I had a fantastic time in Vietnam. I didn't get scammed. I didn't feel unsafe, or unwanted because I was American. And, I didn't find anything to hate about this interesting developing country.
Yes, I am definitely in the “I love Vietnam” camp. And here's why:
Vietnam has some incredible landscapes, from the limestone karsts of Ha Long Bay to the braided waterways in the Mekong Delta. I was constantly surprised by how different different parts of the country looked — beaches one day, and rice fields the next. And the cities? They have their own sort of beautiful scenery, from imperial gates covered in carved dragons to colorful hanging lanterns. Vietnam is BEAUTIFUL, no matter how you look at it.
I'll admit it: I'm not a *huge* fan of a lot of Asian food. Try as I might, I have never loved Indian food. Thai food does nothing for me, either (probably because I don't like spicy dishes). Even Chinese food is hit-or-miss as far as I'm concerned. But Vietnamese food? It's probably my favorite Asian food I've tried so far. Fresh spring rolls, delicious pho, and Vietnamese coffee… mmm, my mouth is watering just thinking about it all!
Lastly, the people of Vietnam really made an impression on me. I traveled around the country in a small group with a local guide. We met a few of his friends along the way, and he always went out of his way to make sure that we met people who treated us well. We had lunch with a local family in Hue, where the neighbor kids came over to sing songs for us. We met a local “fortune teller” at a countryside market. We played an impromptu soccer game with a group of kids in Hoi An. And, on every bike tour we took through the countryside, kids would run out of their houses simply to wave, yell “Hello! Hello!,” and get some high-fives.
Never during these experiences did I feel like these people (or kids) wanted anything more from me than a smile. And THAT'S what will stick with me from my time in Vietnam.
A good impression
So why was my experience so positive in a country where so many others come away with negative feelings? Well, it was a mixture of reasons — but a lot of them focused around food and people. The meals I shared with the people I was traveling with, the meals I shared with locals, and all the interactions in between.
Recently, the team over at Withlocals asked me to reflect on some of my memorable local interactions in Vietnam, and I realized that a lot of them (like the little kids singing to us over lunch, and meeting the shriveled old fortune teller at a market in the countryside) centered around food in some way.
Even some of my favorite photos from Vietnam include produce.
Food can be a great way to connect to a new culture — and to its people.
I hadn't heard about Withlocals before I went to Asia, but now I really wish I had. Withlocals is a site that connects travelers with local people to share meals and experiences with. In Vietnam, you can join a local family for dinner, go on a locally-curated food tour, or even just find a local to hang out with for the day. And the best part? The experiences are all really affordable.
Sharing a meal with a local family no doubt would have made me love Vietnamese food even more!
In Vietnam, I was able to look past the touts and scams and downsides of the country that so many others hate. In doing so, I found a beautiful country filled with beautiful people — a country I definitely hope to return to someday.
Have you been to Vietnam? Did you love it or hate it?