Let’s be honest — no matter how perfect a trip may be there are always also negative parts to it. And as much as I loved Vietnam, I also want to talk about the few things that I didn’t like. While I normally don’t dwell much on those things, I found it much harder to ignore the frustration I felt during my recent trip to Vietnam.
I experienced these three things throughout the whole country. I have also heard from many travelers that they had the same experiences which even caused some of them to say they would never visit Vietnam again. Nonetheless I still very much enjoyed my time in the country and would definitely come back, if not just for the amazing nature.
Important Note: I only want to address these matter that I personally experienced on my recent trip. I want to emphasize that I am certainly in no position to judge the locals on their behavior. I just think it is important to be prepared before you visit, so these things don’t catch you by surprise. But by all means — don’t sweat it and quickly cancel your flight, but try to embrace the unfamiliarity of it.
So here they are: 3 things that really bothered me in Vietnam.
1. Constantly being ripped off
During our month in Vietnam we probably encountered it all: the cheap tricks, ruthless scams and annoying rip-offs.
The longer we stayed the worse it got, so far that I was frustrated to the point of leaving the country earlier. I never knew whether people were sincerely nice or just wanted my money, which caused me to become almost paranoid about people’s intentions.
I had so many nice ladies chat me up only to be dragged to their store afterwards and urged to buy something. When I refused (because no, I simply didn’t need nor could I afford a sparkling, tailored evening gown) they kept on pushing me to “just look at this” or “buy this for a really good price”. Refusal was met with annoyance at best and emotional manipulation or aggressive behavior at worst.
Now I know that it is common in Asia to haggle and sometimes be overcharged because of it, and I usually like to practice my negotiation skills — but while in other countries in South East Asia like Thailand or Malaysia you can always find a good compromise for both parties or simply say no if you don’t come to an agreement, the Vietnamese sellers were outright hostile.
They spare no efforts to get you to buy something and will unashamedly take advantage of your tentativeness.
I was once almost pulled down from my bike at the beach in Hoi An by a women who wanted us to leave our bikes in her “parking place” and told us that it was forbidden to drive any further.
Understandably enough I didn’t want to take any risks and dismounted the bike, but Ben didn’t believe her and continued on — and what do I have to say, of course it wasn’t forbidden. On the contrary there were plenty of restaurants further down the road who had bike parking for free.
Another time we were manipulated into changing our booking.com review (an honest 6.5/10 rating) of a homestay by a crying young girl that told us in elaborate sentences how she would lose her job if her boss saw the “bad” review and begged us to change it to a 10/10.
That was nothing though compared to the one time we got pulled over by the police:
We were driving down a relatively empty street in Mui Ne and wondered why the oncoming cars were honking or flashing their lights at us. It soon became clear when we saw the group of uniformed people at the side of the road. They signified that we had to stop and asked us for our licenses. When we could only produce a photocopy of our international driver’s license, which you only need in addition to your regular license, they wanted to confiscate our bike, have us take a cap back to our hotel (we were in the middle of nowhere), come back with the license and pay a ridiculous fine on top of that.
We started arguing with them, that it was not within their right to confiscate the bike and that no, under no circumstances would we leave the bike with them here, it was after all just rented.
Ben eventually took out his phone to snap a photo of their name tags and that was when they freaked: they took his phone and deleted the photo, but not before scrolling through his whole personal photo library against our outraged attempts to get the phone back.
This was also when we started wondering what was going on, it is after all our perfect right to know the names of the officers wanting to confiscate our bike. The argument just got messier and messier from then on, to the point where they said they would bring us to the police station now (in hindsight we know that this was probably just a bluff and we should have agreed).
Eventually they let us go with a 500.000VND fine (that’s 22 US$) which is very pricey for Vietnamese standards. We were just relieved to get away and quickly drove away.
Shortly thereafter we realized we were driving in the wrong direction and turned around. It had only been a couple of minutes, but the police officers (complete with their setup of chairs and tables) had vanished.
When we later told the owner of our homestay he explained that they were actual police officers doing a rather illegal business.
We also heard from many others that got ripped off by the police or people pretending to be police for ridiculous reasons and had to pay insane fines.
2. Vietnamese People can’t (or won’t) queue
This might not sound like such a big deal and unless you’re from the UK where queuing is a national sport, you’re probably used to this from your home country anyway, but the Vietnamese really overstep the mark.
You especially have to watch out for the tiny ladies that barely reach your chest but boy are they strong — they will push you mercilessly and when you turn around to look at them furiously, they just stare back at you and continue pushing.
You need to be particularly careful when boarding a bus. While you usually stow your luggage in the compartments under the bus and then wait to show your ticket and find your seat, this can become fatal in Vietnam!
In rural areas local people often times don’t buy a ticket but just show up and pay the driver, whom will gladly let them in before all the others waiting patiently in line.
That is how it came that our bus from Sapa to Hanoi was so full with locals that all the tourists who had bought a ticket in advance were told to wait for another bus due in a couple of minutes. This wouldn’t have been a big deal hadn’t we already stored our luggage in the now closed compartments.
When we told this to the driver he just repeated that we needed to take the other bus and wouldn’t listen. There was no other choice than to do it the like the locals: pushing through and not accepting no for an answer.
There was an unfortunate group of young girls however that wasn’t as bold and lucky and was left standing at the side of the road, their luggage leaving without them.
3. The Environmental Pollution
If you travel to Vietnam you better leave your inner environmental activist at home — he will just be lost for words.
Lacking proper informing and a working waste disposal in a lot of rural areas the locals literally live on top of a garbage dump.
Worst of all was the Mekong Delta, a stunning ecological system practically ruined by the trash in some places.
Sailing by on the river we saw plenty of people coming out of their houses and dumping their litter Right. In. Front. Of. Their. Door.
Our ship’s propeller became entangled in plastic waste every other kilometer and once our boater had it cut off — he just threw it right back into the water. It was insane.
On our trip to a rice noodle factory they explained to us that they burn scrapped clothes because it’s cheaper than wood or coals — resulting in dead black billows of smoke darkening the sky above the factory.
In other places, mostly on the countryside, there were blazing fires high as a house and numerous smaller fires on the side of the road burning the trash every night, fogging the whole area (likely with toxic gases).
It was a sad spectacle — and an unexpected one.
Vietnam is considered to be the highest developed country in Southeast Asia, but apparently they haven’t caught up with the waste disposal standards. It is not so much a matter of dirty cities or littering, but rather fundamental pollution of the environment on a large scale.
I was always perplex when I read about the estimated amount of plastic in our oceans but after my trip to Vietnam I wonder no more.
While these three things personally bothered me the most, there are some other things that I found irritating or was told by other travelers, including
- the way they treat animals (living pigs strapped on the back of a motorbike, paralyzed goose hung by their necks or stuffed into plastic bags) which can be hard to look at if you are a sensitive animal lover
- the constant honking of motorbikes
- the insane and at time life-threatening traffic (although I have to admit I kind of enjoyed this one — I would sometimes cross a busy street just for the thrill. Don’t do it!)
- the frequent power outages especially in the North of the country that left the towns in darkness for hours
- the way that locals would always give you an answer even if they knew they were giving wrong information because they would never admit that they didn’t know
However, I can’t stress enough what a beautiful country Vietnam is. It offers an incredibly multifaceted culture (and the “negative” aspects are just as much part of it as all the good ones) to its visitors and is definitely worth a visit — so don’t be discouraged.
Just be prepared and attuned to these matters before you go, so you know what you have to pay attention to and how to react if things don’t turn out the way you expected sometimes.
Most importantly though: ALWAYS be respectful towards the people and their culture, no matter how much you might disagree with some things. With an open mind, an optimistic attitude and a warm heart you will surely see all the great things this country has to offer.
Have you struggled with some of these matters or heard about it from someone who has? Share your opinion in the comments below or tell me on Facebook or Twitter. I’m always curious to hear about other people’s experiences.