To enjoy trips to Vietnam, forget the bus and understand cultural difference

N.C. from the US recommends that tourists stay away from touristy areas and public transportation, and tolerate cultural misunderstandings in order to have a positive experience when touring Vietnam.

I frequently recommend Vietnam to others because I had mostly positive experiences while touring the country.

I also caution that if they are going to see the country by bus or public transportation, the experience will likely not be that great.

My best experiences were the random encounters with locals, almost exclusively away from tourist areas, and the relationships that I developed while spending time in Danang in the central region.

Personally, I really disliked most of the main tourist areas, where the locals were much less warm and more obviously interested in my wallet.

A foreign tourist learns how to use fishing net with a Vietnamese fisherman in Quang Nam Province, located in central Vietnam.
Photo: Tuoi Tte

It is understandable that when local people see hundreds of new tourists every week, they are not going to be interested in anything besides what the tourists have to offer.

I felt that Thailand was like this almost everywhere I went. The vibe I got from the Thais was, “Either buy what I'm selling or get out of the way.”

Thailand has been a major tourist destination for many years and it shows in the attitudes of many of the locals. I'm not sure what can be done to improve that.

As for Vietnam, not everyone can (or would want to) motorbike through the country.

Consequently, most tourists are going to be using public transportation, going to the same tourist destinations, being greeted by the same people who see hundreds of tourists a week getting off buses.

Sending busloads of tourists to less popular destinations would only breed the same attitude found in the main tourist areas, removing the warm, funny, curious attitudes that I loved in the random non-tourist places.

I also think one of the reasons for negative views about Vietnam is simple cultural misunderstanding.

When I buy a coconut for twice the price that a local person would pay, I am OK with that.

But when the vendor makes a joke to his neighbor and both are laughing at me, I might get angry that they are joking about how stupid I am.

It took me a while to realize that in general many Vietnamese make a lot of jokes; they flirt, and what we would call “bust each other's balls”. (i.e., when someone is joking with you)

So maybe that coconut vendor made a joke about how tall I am or about my facial hair, or maybe a joke about how he is a better salesman than his friend. Probably a joke I would have laughed at if I understood it.

But not understanding has people leaving comments about Vietnam like, “They will rip you off and laugh in your face while doing it.”

So maybe there is a way to let foreigners know that jokes and busting balls are part of the culture. It is usually good natured and should not be seen as locals laughing about how stupid, ugly or funny-looking you are.