Five percent. That’s the rate of return for foreign tourists to Vietnam. In other words, 95% of people who visit this country once find no reason to come back. If you think that rate sounds dismal, that’s because it is – especially when compared with other countries in Southeast Asia.
Vietnam seems to rub some people the wrong way. A few of the more prominent travel bloggers I read have a bone to pick with this country. I could never relate to their accounts of feeling a lack of respect from locals or their gripes about being overcharged for anything and everything. For me, double standards in pricing and occasionally being taken advantage of because you lack language skills is just part of the experience. That doesn’t make it any less frustrating, but it’s no reason to completely write a country off.
Our first time travelling in Vietnam was back in 2012. It was our first time in Southeast Asia and we were overly cautious, so we planned everything in advance and over-budgeted. We stayed in beautiful hotels up and down the coast and paid extra for our pre-booked train tickets to be delivered in a white envelope to our hotel reception in Hanoi. For this reason, it was a very smooth trip – no hassles, no scams, and only one case of mild food poisoning. Vietnam was easy and fulfilling. But it may have been a different story if we had been backpacking on a budget.
When we decided to move to the region in 2015, we were more inclined to spend time in Thailand or Laos than Vietnam. But I was always open to the idea of returning here, either as a tourist or for a long-term stay. Five years since our first visit, we’ve bucked the trend and returned to Vietnam. (This is actually Ross’s third time in the country, so he’s pushing the boundaries even further.)
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is just as I remember it: hectic, pungent, and rich in every sense of the word. Nothing beats an early morning walk through the backstreets. But there’s more to Hanoi than its historic heart, which is without a doubt the most touristy part of the city and probably losing a bit of its character as a result. We’ve already branched out and seen more of Hanoi than many tourists – Truc Bach, West Lake, and our little neigbourhood, Ngoc Ha village.
Even with a minute amount of Vietnamese under my belt, I feel a lot more comfortable interacting with people on the street (not to mention in my workplace). Language lessons have given me a much more nuanced understanding of Vietnamese culture, too. I had no clue how important it was to know a person’s age and demonstrate respect for elders in your choice of words – even if someone is just a few months older than you. For the first time in my life I’m actually interested in politics, and it’s fascinating to see how capitalism, socialism and communism all meld into a system that appears to be working, at least on the surface.
So far we are happy with our decision to return to Vietnam. We’re happy to be part of the minority. Our experience as short-term residents is going to be a total contrast to our first time in Vietnam – I can only hope it’s just as rewarding and half as smooth.