Vietnam is my favorite country on this planet. I’ve mentioned this repeatedly in past posts. That’s why I was shocked when I read Nomadic Matt’s post about why he’d never return to Vietnam. The dishonesty, overcharging, and mistreatment left a bad taste in his mouth. So much so that he swore to never go back.
Admittedly, he’s since adjusted and strongly encourages people to visit Vietnam. It’s always great to keep an open mind to things, even if you had a bad experience the first time.
Yet, his post was still an intriguing read. As I read, I tried to square the Vietnam he experienced with the one I experienced when I visited in 2017—a full 10 years after him.
Things can change a lot in 10 years, but do people’s attitudes change much in that time? I don’t know.
In Matt’s experience in Vietnam, he was tricked, swindled, and generally disrespected by the people he came into contact with.
Sellers consistently tried to rip him off, cabbies adjusted their meters to make him pay more, and some wouldn’t let him out of a clothing store until he bought something.
I, admittedly, went into his article with a skeptical mind. I love Vietnam. And the people, for me, were what made me love it. Surely there are going to be overreactions in this post, I thought to myself.
Yet, the experiences weren’t overreactions. If you’ve ever visited Vietnam, it was clear each experience was legitimate. And I found myself getting angry at the people in the story as I read.
Some of the experiences he described, I had experienced a similar thing myself, albeit to a lesser extent.
For instance, Matt’s experience in a store while buying t-shirts. He describes three women who wouldn’t let him leave until he purchased something, even if it meant grabbing at him to keep him in there.
I laughed, envisioning my experience with this exact scenario.
I stayed in Hoi An for three months, doing my best to ingratiate myself to the locals while trying to seem like one myself.
One day, my girlfriend and I visited one of the many clothing shops that line Hoi An’s Old Town. We wanted to pick up some shirts to take back to friends and family in the States when we returned.
We entered a store and decided on a couple of t-shirts we liked. Great. That was easy.
But that wasn’t enough. The saleswoman continued to pressure us to buy more. But we didn’t need anymore. How many t-shirts do people need that resemble the Starbucks logo with “Vietnamese Coffee” written above it?
We shook our hands and our heads. No, thanks, we told her.
Nope. She continued to grab other shirts, shoving them into our hands or holding them up to us to show how great they would look on us. We continued to say no. But a simple ‘no’ didn’t seem to hold the same weight here.
It became so cumbersome we set the shirts down and began to leave and try our luck elsewhere.
She cut us off, continuing to try to get us to buy other t-shirts. It didn’t matter we had just sat down the ones we had, signaling she was losing a sale. She was hell-bent on getting us to buy t-shirts we didn’t need.
I started to get visibly irritated, which I try my best to keep inside when traveling.
She eventually capitulated, picked up the t-shirts we originally intended to buy, and put them in a bag. We paid her and left with our t-shirts. We knew we weren’t going to go through that experience ever again.
However, this is where Nomadic Matt’s experience and mine diverge.
This was a one-off instance for me. Outside that, I found the Vietnamese people warm, friendly, and eager to help—even when there was no monetary gain for them.
One of the best examples of this is a Grab driver whom we befriended. We exchanged numbers to make it easier to get a ride in the future and formed a mini-friendship.
One day, I messaged him, asking if he knew where I could find a fishing pole. There was a small pond across from where we lived, and I figured it’d be fun to go out and cast a line occasionally to see if I could catch anything.
He messaged me back immediately, telling me to meet him closer to Old Town.
When I arrived, he was waiting for me and ushered me into a shop full of fishing poles. I had passed by this place dozens of times and never noticed the apparent fishing gear.
He spoke very little English, and I spoke even less Vietnamese. This didn’t stop him, though. He proceeded to grab a pole, line, sinkers, hooks, and everything else you’d need to fish.
He communicated with the seller while I just stood by, feeling entirely out of my element. Both because I didn’t understand anything they were saying and because I didn’t know shit about fishing gear.
Finally, the man rang it up, and the Grab driver paid for it all.
“No, no, no,” I said, shaking my hands back and forth. There’s no way I could let this man do this. We barely knew each other, and I was already inconveniencing him by taking his time with something I should have been able to find on my own.
We exited the store, and I shoved money into his hand. He smiled, looked back, and pushed it right back into mine. This was surely comical to any casual observers.
Eventually, he agreed to take some money, even though it was only a fraction of what the total had been. I thanked him, we said goodbye, and he got back into his car to continue working.
I walked back to my bike, astounded by the generosity. The money was one thing, but I’m always amazed when someone gives their time. It’s cliché at this point, but time is the one thing you can’t get back. This man owed me nothing at all, yet he went out of his way to help me find something I was looking for and expected nothing in return.
This was a recurring theme in Vietnam. My friend, Chicken Wing (real name Nguyen), invited me to eat an elaborate Vietnamese meal and refused to let me pay. Our landlord welcomed us to Hội An by inviting us to his restaurant to eat and provided us with a fantastic meal. Like all the others, he refused to accept our payment.
That’s the fascinating thing about travel. No two person’s experiences are the same. A country that sweeps someone off their feet, enamoring them from the start, is the same country another traveler loathes and would never return to—even for a large payday.
This is the reason you need to give a country a second chance, as Matt points out in his post. Things change, people change, and you change.
My time in Vietnam was full of welcoming people who made me feel at home, despite that I was thousands of miles away from my actual home. I had experiences I hope never fade from memory.
These are experiences that come flying back to my mind with a simple smell or thought, instantly transporting me back.
It takes me back to a small market in Vietnam. The scent of fish wafting through the air, leafy green veggies lining the stalls, and a hive of life buzzing around you as shoppers come and go.
Or it will take me back to Phu Quoc, where the sunshine is warming my skin, waves crashing against the beach. The slow-paced island life easing me into relaxation and asking me to stay a bit longer.
These weren’t the same experiences Matt had when he visited, but that’s why they’re unique to me. And your experiences will forever be unique to you.
Maybe I can drag Matt to Vietnam with me. Although it would be him dragging me, as I’m a fraction of the traveler he is.
Either way, we all have a place special to us. And Vietnam is that place for me, forever calling me back to its loving embrace.