“Hello, where are you from?!”
Dozens of school children littered the road, beaming with delight at the opportunity to showcase Vietnam’s favourite English stock phrase which was being shouted out to us from every direction. The kids egged each other on and waved enthusiastically as we passed, encouraged by their equally smiley parents. My travel companion Derrick and I had soon learned that we didn’t always have time to stop and chat- our choice in transport had seen to that. Because despite the rather appealing option of buying a motorbike staring us in the face, we had decided to complete the thousand mile journey from Saigon to Hanoi it by bicycle.
Vietnam’s exceptional warmth and welcoming attitude is my overriding memory, our slow progress north the perfect way to experience it daily. But I couldn’t help but notice that many backpackers and Westerners in general see Vietnam through a different lens. It may only be slight but I found travellers to be more alert, more on guard and ultimately less trusting in Vietnam compared to its neighbouring countries.
And thinking back, this underlying feeling of uneasiness isn’t all that surprising. Before I had even set foot in Vietnam, I remember reading blog posts of seasoned travellers who vowed never to return to Vietnam on account on having been constantly ripped off and hassled. Even people who had never been there told me to be especially careful in Vietnam, although these warnings always seemed to include comically vague references to the Vietnam War…a war that ended forty year ago.
Sleeping in on most days, we made sure to relax with a delicious Vietnamese coffee before idly looking at a map to plan our day. We used Google Earth as much as Google maps to navigate our way through the back roads to make the most of the stunning mountain and coastline scenery, as well as taking tips from locals who were on the whole quite bemused at the level of hype certain places receive.
The places they were referring to most were Halong Bay and Sapa, destinations that are billed as being simply unmissable. But we did exactly that; we missed them and given that I am now preparing to return to Vietnam as an English teacher, it didn’t exactly take anything away from the experience.
To be clear, I don’t want to preach to anyone to avoid mainstream places because not only is it poor advice, it’s also desperately irritating. Halong Bay and Sapa are hotspots for a reason- they’re beautiful places and with more time, I’d have liked to have seen them.
But there’s no getting around the fact that places like these have a completely different atmosphere because of their popularity. Scams, pick pocketing, bag-snatching…the frustrated bloggers aren’t lying. It does happen. But the point is that it only ever happens in an environment where there is a complete disconnect between local and traveller, i.e. backpacker areas on the tourist trail which probably only accounts for a few dozen roads in a country of around 90 million inhabitants.
All the advice you hear of having to be constantly vigilant and on guard is meant well but because it is so clearly unrepresentative, it does have quite effect on the mindset of travellers who can then barely see an oncoming fruit-seller without becoming defensive. And that’s part of the problem; we unconsciously often only notice the things that already support our pre-existing beliefs.
For example, we met some travellers in Hoi An who were outraged by the prices going up during the Vietnamese New Year. According to them it was just another example of how travellers are being unfairly targeted by locals. But having had just celebrated new years with various Vietnamese families however, Derrick and I were able to point out that prices for restaurants etc. rise everywhere in Vietnam during this time and that this has got nothing to do with tourists.
This isn’t anything groundbreaking. In psychology, this is called confirmation bias and for me, this goes some way in explaining some of the tension there is amongst some travellers even if yes, crime does sometimes occur.
By comparison, the experience we had on the road was worlds away, best typified by one of our last stops before Hanoi, in the city of Thanh Hoa. Arriving relatively late and on the lookout for a guesthouse, we were approached on the street by a young man called Tai who after asking where we were going immediately offered us a place to stay. I’m not sure how I’d have reacted to Tai if I had just spent two months moving from one backpacker area to another. But as it was, we had no doubt. Fast forward a few days and we still hadn’t left, having been warmly welcomed by all of his friends who showed us all around the city and nearby beaches.
The hospitality of Tai and his friends summed up everything about Vietnam because as humbled as we were, it was hard to even be surprised anymore. We had experienced this kind-hearted, welcoming attitude on daily basis where people just wanted to connect with us and the dramatic landscape provided the perfect setting for it. With Vietnam becoming an increasingly popular destination, it’s good to know that with an open heart you will be rewarded.