Six Degrees of Vietnam

Travel Stories: Julia Ross went to Vietnam seeking relaxation and a place to recover from a breakup. She found a whole lot more.

11.18.08 | 11:50 AM ET

Vietnam street

What you really want is a week to decompress, recover from an untethered year studying Chinese and a man who chose his dissertation over you. You yearn for a palm-fringed escape, somewhere that won’t require too much thought. Vietnam is within reach: a three-hour flight, and you know the food will be good. You book a week in June and wait for confirmation to arrive by scooter, in the thick of Taiwan’s plum rains.

The Quiet American has left you with romantic notions of Vietnam: Whirring ceiling fans at the Hotel Metropole, wide, tree-lined avenues and crumbling colonial villas, ochre paint peeling in lazy drifts. You look forward to real croissants (unavailable in the Chinese-speaking world), thick, cinnamoned coffee and young women swanning through the heat in split-sided ao dais.

You arrive and it’s all there, like Graham Greene promised, but that isn’t the story of your trip. You figure out pretty quickly that Vietnam wants a piece of you.

On earlier trips, to Prague and Chiang Mai, you knew what was expected of a woman alone, the stereotypes locals preferred to paint you with, out of pity or curiosity or naked self-interest. You played them to your advantage, to smooth things over, but Vietnam won’t let you off so easily. Right away, it asks more: six degrees of you as a traveler, six ways to see yourself moving through the world.

The Damsel in Distress

There’s always that pregnant moment, just off the plane, when the acrid smell of unfamiliar earth hits the back of your throat, and you wonder how you’ll manage the next leg of your trip. The uncertainty brings an adrenaline rush: Your ride might not show; your visa might be rejected; the ATMs might be out of cash. But in truth, nine times out of 10, your entry comes off without a hitch.

Hanoi is the one time it doesn’t.

You’re five minutes down the highway when you realize the taxi driver doesn’t speak a word of English, and your guidebook’s locked in the trunk. You try a little Chinese to direct him to the hotel, but he looks nonplussed, so you motion that you need the book. Soon the problem presents itself: The trunk is jammed shut and there’s no help at hand, only a cell phone to call for advice. You gaze out over flat green fields—expecting to see water buffalo and tiny women harvesting rice, but finding none—and wonder if it’s an omen. The driver sucks the air through his teeth, shrugs, and signals that we’re reversing course.

His sidekicks back at the garage are equally flummoxed. When you pull in, they smile embarrassedly, kick off their flip-flops, climb onto the back of the car, and jump. You watch, open-mouthed, and when nothing gives, they pull out the tool box of last resort, go in like surgeons through the back seat, and deliver your pack as if by cesarean birth.

You’re relieved that the driver now understands where you’re headed, but on arrival, he wants a bigger tip than you’ve offered, for rescuing you from your unfortunate mistake. In Vietnam, you learn, there’s a price for princely conduct.

The Easy Mark

The first day, you’re approached four times around Hoan Kiem Lake and at the war museum, and the line is always the same: I’m a poor student from the country. But before that, there’s the buttering up. They sidle up, fresh-faced and speaking perfect English, to tell you how much they admire America. They want to know what you think of their city, whether you’ve been to see Ho Chi Minh, and recommend hiking with the hill tribes in Sapa.

You are polite at first, but underestimate their tenacity. They follow you for blocks, having figured there’s no husband around to intervene. You resent this, so on the fifth try, you turn to the smiling young woman in the pink baseball hat and Western logo T-shirt and ask, “Do you know how many times I’ve heard that same story today?”

She gets it, and cuts her losses with cool efficiency. Her demeanor melts into a scowl; she turns on a dime and evaporates amid a cloud of motorbikes. She’s practiced at this, you think—gauges her marks carefully. But you’ve caught her off guard with your cynicism, a first-time souvenir.

The Mystery

What you need is to get out of Hanoi, away from the death-wish traffic and the unsmiling hotel receptionist who is baffled by your frequent internet use. You decide on a two-day cruise on Ha Long Bay, hoping that a glide over jade waters will remind you why you wanted to come. Thuy is your escort to the coast. He stands at the front of the tour bus and makes bad jokes, a new graduate in a freshly pressed polo shirt and eager to please. He says things will go well for him if you compliment his service on the post-cruise evaluation.

Later, in the blue hour, he sees you sitting alone on deck with a beer and figures you need company. He recognizes you as a woman of a certain age, lines etched around your mouth like insistent parentheses. You wonder what he’d think if he knew how they got there: betrayal at the hands of a diplomat’s son and the loss of a loved one.

Thuy settles into the chair opposite and asks, unexpectedly, if you’ve heard of Arthur Conan Doyle.

“Sure—he wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories,” you say.

“Do you also know he wrote a book called ... ‘The Woman Who Travels Alone’?”

He utters the last word, “alone,” in a lower register, raises one eyebrow and gives you a sidelong glance, making it clear he thinks there’s more to your story. The limestone karsts loom over windless water, and you feel not unlike an Agatha Christie heroine. You let the unsaid dangle in midair and vow to make the “woman with a past” thing work for you in future travels.

The Confidante

Here’s one thing you didn’t know before Vietnam: “Sex sells in the Halloween business.” The lithe Californian, sitting cross-legged on the aft deck, should know. She tells you she’s rediscovered herself, having opened a costume store in the wake of a failed marriage to an older man who stifled her spirit, in business and in mind. Now she teaches yoga on the side and has the freedom to travel in summer when business is slow. Soon she’ll spend her days stocking the black-cat bustiers that are the lifeblood of her trade.

She, too, is ambivalent about Vietnam. Her dad was a GI and her mom is from Saigon, so she’s got a history here, but she says the people aren’t any friendlier in the South. Her sister got flattened by a motorbike on their first day and ended up with six stitches in her scalp. The trip didn’t get much better from there.

What she really wants to know is why you struck out on your own and are you single by choice? “Unattached is the way to go,” she sighs, and you imagine she has no problem finding lovers with the yoga body and the long, dark hair, and maybe an item or two borrowed from the shop. She figures you for a quasi-academic—not a likely purchaser of bustiers—but that’s OK: Out here, what’s a lack of lingerie between two women who refuse to be boxed in?

The Comrade in Arms

Back in the city, you draw on a strawberry smoothie at a backpacker café and recover from a rain-streaked afternoon jostling through the narrow lanes. You lean back on oversized saffron and magenta pillows and wonder what percentage of the clientele is Australian. They’re everywhere, but you strike up a conversation with a group of Canadians, recently out of grad school and winding through Southeast Asia.

The girl with the mud-caked sandals tells you they’ve come from Cambodia, where the poverty depressed her, but they were in for a greater shock once they hit the train station in Hanoi. The warnings were right there in the Lonely Planet guidebook: Beware of touts offering illegal guest houses. They ignored the advice, and got dropped off at a flophouse; then the manager screamed for money when they refused to check in. “You can’t trust them,” she says. “You need to be on guard at all times.”

You think, first, you’re glad you’re not in your 20s anymore, and second, you usually bristle at this kind of thing, but in Hanoi it’s been truer than not. So you tell her you’ve had run-ins, too—those motorbike taxi guys (“Madame, where are you going, Madame?”) have hounded you from day one—and agree that Vietnam is not for the travel naif.

The Love Interest

Jean-Marc is at least a breath of fresh air. He’s 10 years younger and not really your type, but still, he’s sweet and speaks some Mandarin, so you have that in common. You meet on the Ha Long boat, where he studies you through a haze of blue smoke, bats his dark eyelashes and asks, incredulously, “Why do you not have a boyfriend?”

“It’s complicated ...” you hedge, but admire him for being unintimidated and think, yes, the French do appreciate their women.

A silence swells between you as the boat heads for port. Then he says, “We should go out,” as if it’s been decided.

You arrange to meet for lunch near the cathedral, at a Western café with granite tabletops and high ceilings, a place that could have been lifted from Amelie’s Montmartre, and one that reminds him of home. The conversation is easy. You exchange your Chinese names in traditional characters and discuss the wonderful economy of the language, how it compounds words like “good” and “eat” to make “delicious.”

He tells you that Vietnam isn’t easy for a Western man, either: The staff at his budget hotel have spent the week trying to sell the delights of local women, irritated by his rebuffs.

The afternoon doesn’t take a romantic turn—you knew it wouldn’t—yet he can’t help but kiss you on both cheeks and email you a photo from the lunch three weeks later, just to make sure you haven’t forgotten.

When you open the photo back in your flat in Taipei, the night market roiling below, you see that you are smiling and unwary, and wonder if perhaps you were too hard on Vietnam. Perhaps six days in the land of a thousand come-ons restored something—a small, grudging something—in you after all.

Julia Ross is a Washington, DC-based writer and frequent contributor to World Hum. She has lived in China and Taiwan, where she was a Fulbright scholar and Mandarin student. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time, Christian Science Monitor, Plenty and other publications. Her essay, Six Degrees of Vietnam, was shortlisted for "The Best American Travel Writing 2009."

29 Comments for Six Degrees of Vietnam

Chachi 11.18.08 | 7:35 PM ET

While I found the piece to be written well, the second person travel story has been to death, as has the escaping a break up angle. I wish Eat Pray Love was never written.

Eva 11.19.08 | 10:38 AM ET

Thanks for this, Julia. I really enjoyed it.

Funny, Vietnam is one of the only places I’ve traveled NOT as a solo female - now wondering what I would have thought of it under those circumstances.

As it stands, for me it has the questionable distinction of being the only place I’ve been where multiple locals have assumed that my father was my husband.

Terry Ward 11.20.08 | 9:11 AM ET

Nice story, Julia.

I traveled in Vietnam five years ago and it’s one of my favorite travel experiences. Half the time I was with a close girlfriend, and the other half with a European charmer. I am sure traveling solo there would have been a different experience. Everywhere we went in the south of the country, people wanted to ‘practice their English’ - and mostly just talk about our country and theirs. It was genuine, and we were invited into homes for meals and festivals and had some fascinating moments. It was everything I hadn’t found in Thailand.

The north was more closed, but when push came to shove (there were no hotels around in one particular town, and night had fallen), we were invited to stay with a local family in their stilt house in countryside. They offered to kill their only chicken (we declined, feigning fullness). The grandfather explained, through shooting gesticulations and repetitive use of the word “America,” that he had once fought the Americans and now he welcomed us into their homes. We helped push the baby swinging in the cradle all night. They were some of the most generous hosts I ever met.  I wonder what Vietnam would be like if I went back. It’s high on my travel list.

Sharon 11.20.08 | 1:55 PM ET

I actually thought it was a very clever conceit, very well executed—that a woman (of a certain age) traveling alone was as exotic as Vietnam was. I didn’t see this as a getting-over-the-breakup story at all! In fact, I think this would make a great, regular travel column—a tale of two exotics…

Jim Benning 11.20.08 | 1:59 PM ET

I agree, Sharon. I love this piece.

Lewis Hitchcock 11.26.08 | 3:29 AM ET


This author gets it, more than I (resident of Hanoi 10.5 years) can say for a lot of the travel-writer professionals - half of their writing identifies them as your typical newbies (don’t know their b*** from a hole in the ground).

katherine 11.27.08 | 3:35 AM ET

the story kind of put a chill up my spine.
i now would never intend to visit, or recommend travels to the country.

Torah 11.29.08 | 6:01 PM ET

This is extremely beautifully written, Julia. I look forward to more of your writings!

Judy 12.01.08 | 3:31 PM ET

‘... wonder if perhaps you were too hard on Vietnam.’

Yes, you were.  This is a beautiful country with welcoming people.  I’ve been five times and am planning a sixth trip…to be the godmother to a friend’s(Vietnamese)child in Nha Trang.  Go now before the changes I’ve seen in 8 years change the look forever.

Rebecca 12.01.08 | 6:10 PM ET

Hanoi is on my list of places to visit.  Thanks for the article.  I think I will do some research on Vietnam.  I know the basics, but studying the language will come in handy if I do travel to the country. What’s that saying “when in Rome…do as the Romans do”

Jaice 12.01.08 | 10:36 PM ET

Thank you Julia! Excellent writing style that captures my sentiments exactly~ yes I’ve experienced both the welcome embrace of warm local hosts AND the slight manipulation of predatory encounters using the solo female identity… Travel would not be so inspirational if it was a static hum of pleasure and comfort. I value it as a challenge and self-assessment tool, as well as a means to heal…

Joel Carillet 12.05.08 | 4:04 PM ET

Great story and well written, Julia.  Thank you.

John M. Edwards 12.05.08 | 8:25 PM ET

Hi Julia:

This was a very well-written piece. I, too, had troubles in Vietnam, where I was traveling with my girlfriend. Spontaneous “friendships” always came in the form of Vietnamese guides with salamander smiles, with money exchanging hands in the end. Some of my stuff was nicked also. Because the country was unused to tourism, I found many of the locals unfriendly and hard to deal with. As an Asia old hand, I’d say Vietnam is my least favorite country in the region. Still, it’s all worth it, when you see the UNESCO world heritage sight of Hoi An and take a long lingering boat ride on the karsty wonderland of Ha Long Bay.

John M. Edwards

victoriaxx 12.05.08 | 9:25 PM ET

Don’t let this story fool you. I been to Vietnam four times and before I arrive there, I thought it was going to be rough. Indeed Vietnam is a poor communist country, but the Vietnamese people enjoy life to the fullest. Every night I go out shopping, or partying. The night life is wonderful full of adrenaline and hundreds of people. Vietnam has always remain cultural with french, chinese, and Vietnamese cuisine. Its food is very cheap and even the clothes there. Vietnam has become more modernize with better infastructure. Most parts of Vietnam look rough, but there are some few places you haven’t been to. Vietnam even hosted Miss Universe at Nha Trang. Nha Trang will take your breath away, with its beautiful mountain island chain. It’s a great escape…

Vietnam Travel 12.07.08 | 12:55 PM ET

It’s a real pity that for six days Vietnam didn’t help the writer of this story out her troubles. It’s a true pity that she engaged in a few encounters with the “not-so-true local Vietnamese”. If this story reflected the true Vietnam, then it’d be a pity that many of the travellers with Paradissa didn’t see the true Vietnam like the author of this story: all of the thousands of them who have done Vietnam with us had a fantastic experience in the country called Vietnam and many keep coming back.

In Vietnamese we have a saying “Nguoi buon canh co vui dau bao gio”. There’s no translation here due to cultural difference between Vietnamese and English, but it’s like when you are ill, food doesn’t taste that good; when you are in troubles or big troubles, don’t pass judgements on things as they are troubles anyway. Vietnam was not lucky as it was viewed through a “troubled lense”.

I’m sitting here with my hot wine and my cozy room. Out there it’s the chill of late autumn in Ha Noi and it’s pitched dark. I had a beautiful weekend with my adventures shooting Vietnam for our coming releases. I had a fun experience with the kids who rode water buffaloes on the dike of the Red River, even though one of them broke the lense of my camera at the end of the game. The last photos of Vietnam on this trip didn’t come out that nice…But Vietnam is not the photos taken by a camera with broken lense….It’s good that the story was well written typographically, not perspectively. The past passed and in Vietnam, we look forward to the future….

An Nguyen 12.12.08 | 1:35 PM ET

I have been in Vietnam for 14 years and now I’m studying aboard.But when I found this article,read it,and I think it’s true.BUT Vietnam still have a lots people nice and friendly.It’s depeding on a lots of thing too.I lived in South,so I know a lots about South.South Vietnam is where you can go out whatever you want,you don’t need a car or something.The only thing you just need is 5 mins for walking.If you know all the places over there,you will feel better and happy.Many foreign people said that My Country is poor and impolite,however,that are the negetive signs of it.I don’t know what you think,but my opinion is: When you are traveling,you don’t think about things that make you feel bad.Travel means enjoy so let’s enjoy it by the good ways.No one is perfect,and affect to country too.
P/s:If you guys want to know more about where to eat good food with cheap price,you can contact me.
I know my writing not so good,so dont mocking me,pls.Hihihi

The Hanoian 12.16.08 | 2:21 AM ET

An outstanding and accurate read by Ms Ross. She found the Vietnamese as do many others – rapacious, rude, and the worst people in SE Asia. Some are retorting that Ms Ross is wrong.

Is there an answer? Yes, there is an irrefutable one. Of those visiting Thailand 80% return for another visit; for Vietnam, only 5% return.

I’ll address just one aspect. A visit to Vietnam may leave you maimed or worse, with their being documented as the worst drivers in the world. UN recommends their employees never get on a motorbike. Finally, after years living in Hanoi, it hit me that that doesn’t work either, for you could very well be run over on the sidewalk. It happened to Gerry Herman, owner of “the best thing in Hanoi – the Hanoi Cinematheque.” He, on the sidewalk, was run over in front of the New World Hotel by some uncaring Vietnamese flying out of the hotel’s underground parking. Vietnamese drivers don’t care about anyone but themselves, as our health clinic in Hanoi set forth in its newsletter.

A foremost authority from MIT, a professor, was here to consult regarding Hanoi’s traffic. He was run over, by a motorbike, crossing the street from his hotel, ending up in the French Int’l Hospital – Hanoi in a coma.

My Hanoian wife knows not to propose a holiday in Vietnam, for the Vietnamese are what I need a break from. Make it Singapore; make it Thailand; or make it the Philippines.

You don’t believe me? Then see paragraph two above.

Vietnam Travel 12.16.08 | 2:53 AM ET

If Vietnam doesn’t have 80% of the visitors returning, then Vietnam is similar to most other countries in the World. The world is a beautiful place and I visit a country at a time and another at another time, so that I know more of the planet called Earth before I travel to the after-life world…

People get killed for various reasons in different countries. They could be killed by traffic accidents in any country and there are lots of traffic accidents in any country. Vietnam is no acception.

With the 02 above-mentioned reasons, Vietnam is still quite similar to most other countries in the world. “Travel broadens our mind, except for that of the fool” ....

Khun Rum 12.16.08 | 11:52 PM ET

Embassies in Hanoi picked up this Julia Ross article for their daily newsletters to facilitate gathering intelligence. And we’re glad, for otherwise we would have missed her masterpiece of superb writing and perception.

Reading Julia’s article reminded me of Emily Barr’s “Backpack,” about a woman traveling alone through Vietnam etc. The latter noted, for example, from six floors up in her hotel room in Hanoi that’s how she liked the Vietnamese best – six floors removed from them! The Vietnamese had been trying to cheat her every time she turned around.

And Julia and some other respondents, you should expect it: Vietnam, this rat hole, this cesspool, seems to engage some people on some emotional level, and how deeply it pisses (rankles) them off when anyone says anything about the place that differs even in the slightest way from their own personal perceptions.

Such foreigners see themselves as the self-appointed guardians of ‘the truth about Vietnam,’ and they sneer loudly at anyone who sees things differently or who may have a different perception of the place. You must be ‘fools’! They swell up at you like you’d insulted their girlfriend! Vietnam may have some positive attributes, but I don’t intend to marry it.

A respondent covered the danger on the roads well, but I can tolerate the streets of Hanoi, described as the world’s capital for brain injuries (three dozen ‘serious’ brain-injury cases show up daily at Hanoi’s Vietnamese-German Hospital). This is despite going down hard, injuring a knee, hand and elbow, on a Minsk when a Vietnamese surprised me with his going the wrong way on a 1-way street when I turned on it, for I could wear full-body armor.

I can tolerate the Vietnamese, perpetually described as Southeast Asia’s worst people.

But what makes me want out of here is air that is microscopically damaging you every second, air now rated world-class Top 10 for micro-particulates that once in your lungs stay forever. Non-smokers are now succumbing to emphysema! It is a function of Vietnam’s mindless development, making the place unlivable. WHO and doctors, indeed, just advised me to get my two young kids out of here because of the air.

My sister had never heard of the Cham who formerly were the residents of much of Vietnam. Many of their magnificent temples are easily seen throughout the vast Central. The Cham were obliterated by the Vietnamese, function of the Cham put resources in to religion, the Vietnamese into war. 

Hence, I sent my sister an article on the My Son Cham ruins, and she just responds, ‘Should I visit Vietnam?’ Stopped me in my tracks for I didn’t know how to answer. After all, I never say I hate the Vietnamese, for it goes beyond that. Rather, I despise them. Finally, I ‘answered’ her by sending her “Six Degrees of Vietnam” by Julia Ross!

Vietnam Vacations 12.17.08 | 9:57 AM ET

“Chim khon keu tieng ranh rang,
nguoi khon noi tieng diu dang de nghe” - Old Vietnamese saying
(The wise birds have a nice chirping, the wise people have a nice language) - Through the language, we can tell a lot about a person.

Some peoples hate another people for something half-legend and half-history which happened thousands of years ago, and even with the so called “history”, the forefathers of the now Vietnamese were victims of attacks which led to later consequencies. The capital city called Ha Noi was called Dai La or Thang Long that time was attacked quite a few times…Let us go and read the 7th Article in the United Nations Charter to know about the right and the wrong.

Some peoples are born to hate another people for no specific reasons. In Vietnam, we need reasons for our actions. In our culture, actions without reasons are considered not controlled by brain, but by a coconut-shaped shell filled with beancurd-like materials. The first university of Vietnam was built nearly a thousand years ago - 1070 A.D and in Vietnam we do respect education. We know that lack of education is dangerous, but half-education is even much worse…

Viet Nam means the Viet in the South. Viet means to travel, to go and to run. The name shows the hard course of life that we have had to lead. We had to travel from one region to another to avoid conflicts with our “friends”. When we came to the area of Vietnam now we had know further place to go: it’s a narrow strip of land bounded by the sea to the east and to the south, and by high mountains to the west. It happens that this narrow strip of land is among the bests: it’s location, location and location….But since we had no other place to go, we had to to accept all challenges….We didn’t have much time of peace to build up the country…

With so much hardship and after so many conflicts, we treasure peace as much as any civilized peoples in the world. We are a tolerant people and we know that some time someone does something wrong: the Vietnamese do “Gan Duc Khoi Trong” (to filter the small particles out of murky water to make it clear) Traveling in Vietnam now, you’ll meet one of the most friendly peoples in the world. It doesn’t matter to us that much if you engaged in any mishaps with us in history or not, once you are visiting our country, we treat you as guests and friends.

It’s a real pity that someone who has never been to Vietnam or who happens to encounter a few troubles in Vietnam in a few days keeps the thinking that Vietnam is a troubled country. It’s quite understanding that because there are people with a troubled mind like these, the world is not a perfect place yet. Worldhum is a place and should be a place where people share their travel experiences and their culture; so that we could hum alongside one another as life passes beautifully. Worldhum is not a place where people pour their troubles onto others…

Brian Curtis 12.18.08 | 11:55 PM ET

Dear Julia,

Your honesty in reporting is invaluable and greatly appreciated.

My wife and I spend about five months in South East Asia each year. Because of the “strange” visa regulations in Thailand, when our ninety day visa ran out, we decided that, rather than doing a pointless “visa run”, we would take the opportunity to visit Vietnam.

Five days after our arrival in Saigon (HCMC), my wife’s tightly fastened bum-bag was snatched whilst we were crossing the road in front of the Metropole Hotel. You should understand that there are five million motorcycles in Saigon and they “swarm” around you as you cross the road. The staff of the hotel told us that bag-snatching is rampant and the manager seemed very sympathetic – “Please use our phone,” he said. When we got the bill, not only had the calls been charged at full rate but so had a reverse charge call. We were now short of money so as a quick fix, we decided to change some baht into Vietnamese Dong. At the Exchange Bureau, we were offered a rate of 330. This was low but we accepted – when the money was handed over, the exchange had been conducted at 300.

We headed for the west coast, Nha Trang, where we stayed for a few days. Just before we left we hired a Cyclo, a bicycle that takes two people plus the rider. We asked him to take us to the end of the beach road and agreed a price. We had only gone a few hundred metres before he turned off the beach road towards the town and refused to turn back. He only stopped when I yelled at him at the top of my voice.

Our apologies to the nice people that we met but our overall opinion of the Vietnamese is that they are aggressive, rude and predatory, they regard the tourist, not as someone who has come to help their economy but as fair game for lying, cheating and stealing – anything to separate the tourists from their money. The police are almost non-existent and are certainly not there to protect the tourist. The hotel advised us not to report the bag snatch to the police because it was a waste of time.

If you are thinking of going to Vietnam, our advice is don’t.

Brian Curtis


Viet Smile 12.23.08 | 9:42 AM ET

I’ve read all your comments of Vietnam and appreciate all your opinions, be it positive or negative. We are in travel business in Vietnam and very embarrassed that there are still mishaps to tourists in our beautiful country. We surely will dedicate all our efforts and expertise in making it a better and better destination for all of you who travel to Vietnam with a warm heart and open mind…

It’s a real pity that our country - Vietnam is still a poor country and infrastructure as well as personnel in travel business are not perfect as they should be. We haven’t got good solution for educating the taxi drivers, rickshaw drivers yet…We are also aware that prices in Vietnam are too cheap and of better values than many developed destinations.

It’s a big pity that for a developing country which is even regarded as “a rat hole” or an “exotic destination” like Vietnam don’t deserve good planning before traveling here. Many of those of you on this forum including the author didn’t seem to have much planning before departure. Some are even so irresponsible to themselves that they come to Vietnam to avoid visa in Thailand which is regarded as “strange” visa regulations. It’s quite clear that the gentleman doesn’t seem to have basic education at home and hence give no respect to the country he travels to. I was wondering why on earth he got here in South East Asia where people are famous with the infectious smiles….? Visa formalities are required by all countries (including his home one) for many foreigners. For most of us-Vietnamese or Thai Nationals, or South East Asian People… applying for a visa to enter a developed country, it’s not only expensive but it is even too difficult to get and many times impossible to get. It makes more sense to me that the the taxi drivers or rickshaw drivers don’t get much education in Vietnam; but it doesn’t make much sense to me that a gentleman who comes from a civilized country is hardly educated at all like that. I’m sure that the Confucius is right saying “there are some kinds of people with whom education has no effects at al”....

I remember that on my trip to London in 2005, I nearly had to pay USD 100 for a bottle of water in the red light street. Don’t get me wrong, I came there not for sex but for a mere experience. I didn’t do have sex there at all. I was nearly beaten as I walked away after asking for the price without paying for it. I know that all the countries I travel to, all have crimes and scams and surely that is not an excuse that Vietnam is not a perfect place yet.

I see that those on this forum with negative view of Vietnam bumped into no more than 3 mishaps with the locals. Who are the locals here? They are rickshaw drivers, taxi drivers, robbers….? In Vietnam we have over 85 million people. With a few encounters with a few bad people in Vietnam (and there are bad ones somewhere on earth anyway….). Such a few encounters can not spell Vietnam…

It’s quite amazing that a country which has been invaded for thousand of times in the thousand of years of history is regarded as “aggressive” and “predatory”. What about the people in the countries who came to ours to invade it and to colonize it and to dump bombs and toxic chemicals like agent orange on it….? We appreciate most of the travellers in Vietnam. But please kindly know that we don’t need mercy even though we are poor. Some come to our country to have child sex and do all kinds of stupid things on our people in our country and ask us to pay gratitude to them….! Many come here and honestly the money they spend is not even worth the rubbish mess that we have to clean afterwards due to their present…For those, we’d kindly advise “don’t” too…......

Sterling Holt 12.27.08 | 2:11 AM ET

Julia’s story was a delectable morsel from a range of articles I examine for an embassy in Hanoi. I would pay for such writing.

She related that her Hanoi journey was bad within five minutes because of her airport taxi driver. It could have been worse, Julia.

An embassy worker arrives at the same airport, sees a sign with his name on it, boards the taxi, is taken to an isolated area, and is robbed. How did the taxi driver know such details? It was probably an inside job between the hotel the embassy worker was to stay and the taxi driver.

Vietnamese travel people who wish to inform you aren’t aware of such and worst. It may sound unbelievable but among more than 600 news broadcasters and newspapers in Vietnam, none is privately owned. Almost all are under governmental censorship.

Readers are noting that the Vietnamese are the worst of the SE Asians. I see a like conclusion in reports from time to time. The following speaks volumes in this regard. 

Little more than within hours of arriving in Phnom Penh, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Bangkok, Osaka, Honolulu, and my home country, I’ve been the recipient of random acts of kindness on the streets by drivers, and remember clearly each example. How long did it take me to finally see an example for such polite civility in Vietnam, in Hanoi? You wouldn’t believe it: 9 years, 8 months; yes almost 10 years!

I had the beast (Minsk) loaded down from shopping, was unable to cross over to the correct lane for turning, and a man in a car stopped to let me change lanes. He could have been Singaporean or someone appearing similar to a Vietnamese, but I’ve given the Vietnamese credit, and it took them almost 10 years.

A couple of conclusions result from this deplorable phenomenon. The Vietnamese who one thinks are nice really aren’t. When they are around someone they know and have to appear to be nice, they will be. But once they are out in society and can be who they really are, they are the worst. And that is my second conclusion: Anytime 10 years elapse before you witness a random act of kindness on the streets, you’re not talking of the worst people in SE Asia; rather, the Vietnamese, objectively, are the worst in the world.

Before arriving to this point of the feedback for Ms Ross’ travelogue, you might have noticed that the Vietnamese can’t handle criticism. They are like their communist government in that regard: “You chose us, meaning you should not complain – and forever not complain.” I even hear it from my Vietnamese wife when I note it’s time to get the kids out of here: “You chose to come to Vietnam (x) years ago (and you can’t change your mind).” She doesn’t like the communists, but little does she know, they have her thinking just like them!

To listen to the Vietnamese, they are poor little innocent things, always invaded, always for peace…, deserving serving as the world champs at not being shy about having their hands out begging. The opposite is true. Right now and for some time, they have been stealing the ancestral lands of the Montagnards in the Central Highlands, and in at least one area will shoot with a blowgun any Vietnamese entering their land. A respondent has already set forth the Vietnamese obliterating the huge empire of the Cham in what’s now Vietnam.

Look at the history of Nan Ning, China (the first city north of Hanoi), by web search, and you will learn that part of their history was having to fight off Vietnamese invaders. Vietnamese intellectuals respond that it is true, but they had their reason for invading.

Vietnamese history includes obliterating or otherwise subduing about 30 empires and states. Some of the vestiges of them can be found today, shoved back into the rugged mountains where the Vietnamese had no interest in living. The Vietnamese always had large families; hence, they thought it necessary for continual war to gain land needed for their increasing population.

The Vietnamese are needing a great historical figure they can look up to. Hence, although there are no remains of temples, citadels, and the like to support that the chosen site at Viet Tri, to the northwest of Hanoi, was ever the home of any “Hung Kings,” they’ll take care of that by building a vast complex, including a temple to them. Notice that “Hung” sounds like the Thai “Khun.” Yes, the “Hung Kings,” the Vietnamese think are “theirs,” were probably Thai!   

Another myth you came across was child sex tourism. As the lady head of the Vietnam’s Ministry of Social Evils volunteered: The exploitation of children for sex in Vietnam is by corrupt Vietnamese officials.

A professor named Korski made the same finding in Cambodia. He painstakingly followed up on the reported statistics on the exploitation of children for sex, followed step-by-step the evidence trail, and finally had the two relevant Cambodian officials, a lady and a man, face-to-face, and they had no choice but admit that all the cases, he’d found cited, were of Cambodian men.

Michael J. Colucci 01.03.09 | 2:15 PM ET

I have travelled the complete length of Viet Nam solo and had no problems. I found that the “touts” were actually a bit helpful, as if you follow their plan for you, things move along smoothly. I recommend LESS planning beforehand and more spontaneous travel instead. As far as food goes: I found so many amazing places to eat, most just Mom and Pop sidewalk noodle shops are the best!

I used the train for most of my longer trips, and this was wonderful for me. My second class sleeper was always filled with three Vietnamese women and this was always worth the trip alone as we always shared food and stories, even though nobody understood a word I said, ha ha (I speak a lot with my hands, a trait of my Italian/New Jersey roots).

Did anyone try to hustle me? Yes, of course they did, but this is all part of travelling. Just don’t put yourself in too dangerous a position and you will be fine. Certainly, there MUST be some people there that would want to kill me, just like there are here in the USA.

As far as the driving goes, it is amazing to me! I always joke that there must be mass graves somewhere to hold all the traffic victims. I use motorcycle taxis to get anywhere, but as I weigh a lot, I am careful as to which moto and driver I select. I always pay extra at the end of the day since they have to work harder.

As a traveller, I never expect, nor do I want, any special treatment or fawning over me. Just treat me like a fellow human, no boot-licking is necessary. Personally, I felt that travel in Viet Nam is easier for a solo female than a male. Men tend to get “approached” more by those of dubious intent (pimps, dope dealers, thieves, etc.), wheareas women generally are not.

Mr. Holt, perhaps you are in the wrong job assignment.

Tom Hricko 01.04.09 | 2:19 AM ET

As a former long-term resident of Saigon now living in Cambodia, I was happy to return for a visit last week after an extended absence. Indeed, the city still looked charming and clean, especially compared to Phnom Penh.

My happiness vanished, however, as soon as I stepped out of my hotel on Mac Thi Buoi Street in District 1. I was immediately assailed by the most aggressive street hustlers imaginable, pushing sun glasses, post cards, t-shirts etc. in my face and blocking my path. Then there were the cyclo drivers following me like vultures shouting “you, you, where you go,” the motorbike taxi drivers clapping their hands in my face and the beggars, especially the women with rented drugged babies, pulling at my clothes and demanding money. And it was not just me.

Every tourist I saw was similarly hassled, many of them fleeing to the safety of their hotels instead of spending their money in the shops on Dong Khoi Street. Tourists I talked to at my hotel and in restaurants all agreed that Vietnam is a beautiful country but none of them said that they would return. They all cited aggressive hustlers and scam-artists, all over the country, as their main reason for not returning.

The Tourism Administration is fond of citing poor infrastructure, lack of tourist facilities and inadequate advertising of Vietnam as a tourist destination as the reasons for the drop in tourism. One wonders if they ever surveyed any actual tourists to see how they felt about their Vietnam experience before reaching this conclusion. If they did, they would get a very different picture. People who visit developing countries expect some problems with roads and facilities, but they don’t want to spend their hard-earned vacation money only to be tortured “in your face” by hustlers.

A successful tourist industry relies on repeat tourism for long-term profit. Knowledgeable people in the travel industry have told me that Vietnam’s repeat tourism rate is 5% (as opposed to 75% for Thailand), not a figure that bodes well for the future of tourism in Vietnam. Unhappy tourists are spreading the word, Vietnam is losing millions of dollars in tourist money and the Vietnamese only have themselves to blame. Don’t legitimate shop owners on Dong Khoi Street, for example, realize that street hustlers are driving away potential customers? Is no one willing or able to do anything about the situation?

Several simple partial solutions come immediately to mind. Cyclos are a wonderful way for tour5ists to see the city; the ride is relaxing, the vantage point good. Most drivers know the city very well and many speak excellent English. But tourists are reluctant to ride with a driver who follows him/her shouting “you, you, where you go?” Why not set up a few authorized cyclo stands around District 1 with posted rates and with cyclos queued up in an orderly manner while at the same time banning the roving drivers from the tourist areas?

The same could be done with motorbike taxis drivers. Street sellers could be assigned stationary points of sale. Finally, a corps of special English-speaking Tourist Police could be deployed in the major tourist areas whose job it would be to enforce the above suggestions and ensure that walking tourists enjoy their experience, spend their money and above all return to Vietnam.

One final observation. Despite the fact that Viet6nam has concluded intellectual property and copyright agreements with several countries, there in the international departure lounge of Tan Son Nhat Airport, for the whole world to see, a concession that I believe is a State company is selling counterfeit Rolex watches, fake Polo shirts and other goods of questionable provenance. Imagine a businessperson or worse yet a trade representative, on his way home after business discussion, coming upon these obviously counterfeit items. It certainly would give one pause.

Tom Hricko
Phnom Penh

Andre in HCMC 01.04.09 | 2:23 AM ET

Many true things have been said.
Overall I prefer the people of the South of the country. But still 60 or 70 percent of the Northerners are very nice. The problem is that all the predatory people aim at the newly arrived foreigners, you can’t miss them…
I live in Vietnam, sometimes I travel to Bangkok, and I find the people in Bangkok not so friendly and not smiling compared to Saigon.
I am happy, Vietnamese people are friendly with me, no problems, only good surprises…

Bangkok Visitor 01.07.09 | 6:27 AM ET

I hear they (the Vietnamese) are rude.

I don’t want to go there.

Richard 01.09.09 | 4:29 AM ET

Sigh. This piece tries too hard and borders on being self indulgent. However, as someone who was drugged and robbed in Hanoi, I concur with some of the points here.

Stay away from New Century Disco.

trang pham 01.14.09 | 3:15 PM ET

Iam living in hanoi.i love this place.all things that you experienced is one side.there’re a lot of another good things about my country.please think deeply before saying any thing.why don’t u find out more about my country.u will see that we are not totally bad as you think.I am proud of being vietnamese.

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