Among the online travel community, it is well known that Vietnam and backpackers have a rough relationship. Travel blogger, Nomadic Matt, wrote in his now-infamous post – ‘Why I Will Never Return to Vietnam‘ – that he was “hassled, overcharged, ripped off, and treated badly by the locals”. The lack of respect he received as a Western backpacker left the country on his no-go list.
Before departing to spend two weeks in Vietnam, I read Matt’s piece and the countless others lamenting how Vietnamese locals overcharge and mistreat Westerners. Each blogger picked a scapegoat: post-war animosities, mis-teaching of communism, the desire for the dollar. The masses of online travelers were in accordance. It had to be a problem with Vietnam itself, because backpackers could do no wrong.
Yet by the end of my time in Vietnam, it was not the local’s attitudes that I found insufferable – it was that of the backpackers.
Too many backpackers in Vietnam complain about how locals treat them differently, while remaining ignorant to one simple truth. They are different. Backpackers are blind to the everyday social realities of Vietnam that give them the privilege to travel on a ‘shoestring’. The reason why Vietnam is accessible for backpackers is the same reason that the rest of the world is inaccessible for most Vietnamese.
Backpackers are blind to social realities that give them the privilege to travel on a ‘shoestring’
Vietnam’s status as a ‘budget destination’ has solidified over the years. Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi tied second as 2016’s ‘best value destinations’ on Lonely Planet, and their ‘Southeast Asia on a shoestring’ is the #1 budget travel guide on Amazon. It is not uncommon to find backpackers haggling with street vendors over 5,000 VND, 15 pence, for items that would cost thrice as much in the UK. Once you pay for flights, Vietnam is very accessible to travelers on a budget. However, Vietnam’s financial realities exist not for the convenience of backpackers on a ‘shoestring’, but to prevent the country from falling back into poverty.
Vietnam’s poverty rate has dropped drastically in the past two decades, from 58.1% in 1992 to 13.5% in 2014. The Đổi Mới reforms of 1988 helped stimulate the agricultural industry and private sector. Rations on consumer goods ended, their prices aligned with local wages, and soon many Vietnamese rose above the poverty line.
While Vietnam’s poverty rate of 13.5% is technically less than the USA’s 14.5%, it’s status as a ‘low middle income country’ means the two are incomparable. The USA’s GDP per capita is $53,000. Vietnam’s is $1,910. What constitutes ‘livable’ in Vietnam would be considered ‘impoverished’ in the USA, while what is cheap in the USA is expensive in Vietnam.
During my stay in the rural Mai Châu district, I met people for whom these are not just statistics. Workers at a local bamboo factory work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, earning 7 dollars a day. These numbers seemed inhumane to me, but these workers are not ‘poor’. Their salary covers their rent, food, livelihood and some extra; they are comfortable. Ben, a local tour guide, told me a similar story. He makes up to 10 dollars a day, which covers all his normal expenses and funds his livelihood of motorbiking.
Although Ben makes enough to live in Vietnam, he could never make enough to leave. Ben has never gone abroad, and does not think he ever will.
This financial situation means that while Vietnam no longer suffers extreme poverty, it’s citizens are, on the global scale, socially immobile. They can live comfortably, but only within Vietnam. $1,910 a year can support a Vietnamese family, but would barely cover a holiday overseas.
Unsurprisingly, the Vietnam Society of Travel Agents reported 5 million outbound tourists in 2014 – 5.5% of the population. In comparison, the United Kingdom had 60.1 million outbound visits – 93.8% of the population. Similarly, while 212,798 British tourists entered Vietnam in 2015, the UK had 42,369 visits from “other Asian” countries, inclusive of Vietnam.
‘Freedom of movement’ is a human right that all backpackers access with ease.
The financial realities that make Vietnam accessible for backpackers are the same ones that prevent locals from accessing the rest of the world, a truth that many travelers ignore. ‘Freedom of movement’ is a human right that all backpackers access with ease. However, many Vietnamese are deprived of this right not because of their political regime or suppression, but global financial inequality.
Hereby, backpackers, no matter their budget, are privileged; while they may be blind to this privilege, Vietnam’s locals are not. The fact that backpackers could afford a plane ticket to Southeast Asia, that they budget alcohol and hostels into their spending, that they have the possibility to travel at all, gives them a privilege over the 94.5% of Vietnam. Since this type of spending is impossible for locals, backpackers are charged more and treated differently.
Despite this, many visitors still claim historical animosities drive the mistreatment of foreigners. When a street vendor charged me 30,000 VND for bánh mì, but a local 15,000, a fellow traveler commented “it’s your accent, too American…you know, the war.”
Yes, it is true that the Vietnam War has left some animosity towards the USA and Europe today. Many residents over the age of 45 have vivid wartime memories. I met a sunglasses’ vendor in Huế who’s entire family was killed after the USA bombed his village, forcing him to flee and work on the streets. The war killed over two million civilians, displaced over three million, and still impacts the population. Red Cross Vietnam states up to one million Vietnamese have continuous health problems and disabilities due to Agent Orange exposure.
However, history is not responsible for Westerners ‘mistreatment’ in Vietnam. Rather, Pew Research Center found that 76% of Vietnamese have ‘favorable’ views of the USA, and while North Korea celebrates ‘Struggle Against U.S. Imperialism Month’, there is no obvious anti-Western evocation under Vietnam’s communist leadership. Backpackers who blame a ‘clash of cultures’ choose to ignore their privilege and remain ignorant to the realities of modern-day Vietnamese society.
Nomadic Matt wrote “just because I’m a backpacker doesn’t mean I deserve any less respect,” and in a sense he is right. Everyone deserves respect, just as everyone deserves equal opportunities, freedoms, and human rights. While financial disparities do not wholly justify mistreatment of travelers, they help explain the logic behind them. It is exasperating that your passport dictates prices in Vietnam, but also exasperating that backpackers cannot recognize they have freedoms and opportunities that many Vietnamese do not.
Backpackers carry with them not just a bag, but a burden. The political, financial and social realities that allow them to travel on a budget, to experience new cultures, to see the world, are the same ones that prevent the majority of people from going beyond their own borders. Backpackers inherently benefit from other people’s struggles, and should not turn a blind eye to this privilege.