25/04/2024

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Is Vietnam Actually… Underrated? (Honest Pros and Cons)

12 min read
Is Vietnam Actually… Underrated? (Honest Pros and Cons)

Vietnam can be rather love-it-or-hate-it, maybe even controversial among travel buffs.

It actually happens to be one of my favorite destinations to talk about, exactly because I’ve had such dramatically different experiences there.

There were times when I thought Vietnam must be the most overrated country in Southeast Asia. Other times, I thought it was the epitome of adventure travel, making me want to scream from the rooftops about just how good it is.

Not all aspects of Vietnam will always please everyone, especially in the most touristy locations. But dig a bit deeper and you may discover the other Vietnam. I went from having mixed feelings to considering Vietnam one of my favorite travel destinations — and here I’ll try to explain why.

OK, poor yourself a drink. We have a lot to talk about.

Fair warning: I’m going to be very honest about the negatives! Do give the post a full read so you can make up your own mind, as travelling in Vietnam can’t be easily boiled down to just a few quick bullet points. Needless to say, all travel experiences are ultimately subjective.

DON’T go to Vietnam if…

You expect jaw-dropping Insta-worthy beaches

This is generalizing, but on the whole Vietnam’s beaches are just… fine.

A truly picture-perfect beach paradise is hard to find in Vietnam. Still, given such a long coastline, there are plenty of decent sandy beaches to go around. The wow-factor just in no way compares with what you can find in Indonesia, The Philippines, or Thailand.

Beach in Da Nang

Some commenters have argued this point with me, usually mentioning some forgotten local beach in a place that’s difficult to get to. I agree, there are always hidden gems. If you’re on a motorbike trip through Vietnam, you might stop by some wonderfully pristine fisherman’s beaches somewhere along the way.

But when considering the beaches in tourist hubs like Ha Long Bay, Da Nang, Nha Trang, Mui Ne, and Hoi An, I think it’s fair to rate these as average.

Ky Co beach, often rated as one of the best

Many beaches lack scenic features or are quite polluted. Snorkelling in Vietnam is often disappointing due to poor visibility and dynamite fishing resulting in a lack of aquatic life.

The best beaches are in the south, such as in Phu Quoc and Con Dao. But I think it’s best to think of the beaches in Vietnam more as a side dish than the main meal.

You can add some beach days to your itinerary and enjoy some relaxing times by the water, but if you just want magnificent beaches, you’re better off going to Palawan, one of the numerous Indonesian islands, or even Krabi in Thailand.

Ha Long Bay
You are ONLY going for Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is an archipelago of over 1,600 islands and islets featuring spectacular limestone pillars rising from the sea. It’s highly impressive and UNESCO-recognized, so no wonder it became the sight to see in Vietnam.

Sadly, with this also comes a lot of overhype and mass tourism. While it’s still worth visiting, you need to accept that it’s a major tourism honeypot. Chances are you’ll have to share the bay with an armada’s worth of cruise boats, have to elbow your way to one of the viewing points on land, and probably see a fair bit of rubbish in the waters.

You can improve things a bit by taking a multi-day cruise instead of a day trip, or going to less-visited but further bays like Bai Tu Long Bay.

However, Ha Long Bay is not the only nor even the best reason to visit Vietnam.

You expect clear skies always

Okay, real talk: Vietnam does not always look like the professional stock photography that is often used to promote it.

For example, this is how Tam Coc is often shown:

But chances are that it’ll look more like this:

The north in particular has a real persistent habit of being cloudy and smoggy. You have to be a bit lucky to experience the clear skies and sun-draped aesthetic here, especially during the Nov-Feb high season.

This isn’t so much an issue in practice. In fact, the north is my favorite region! However, the idealized imagery can sometimes set unreasonable expectations, which is something to be aware of.

The super golden green rice fields are also only seen at the end of the rainy season (September-October), whereas most tourists tend to visit Vietnam in the dry season after it’s already been harvested.

You’re unprepared for the scams

Unfortunately, Vietnam has a bit of a reputation for tourist scams and pushy salespeople. I have to admit that on my first visit, I let this sour my impressions of the country quite a bit.

I was overcharged by taxi drivers, had a menu switched on me in a cafe (to one with higher prices), got harassed by fake charity collectors, and got horribly pressured by tour guides and market sellers into parting ways with my money. It was all rather stressful.

Sign in the remote north suggesting locals how to behave

To be fair, I have the impression Vietnam has mellowed out a bit on this in recent years. Taxi scams can now be avoided by using the ride-hailing app Grab. The scams and annoyances also seem to evaporate almost entirely once you’re outside of the 5 or 6 most touristy places.

Still, you sometimes need to be on alert or able to ignore people to avoid frustrations. I recommend reading up on common scams so you’re prepared.

You can’t enjoy Vietnam for what it is

Vietnam isn’t always so concerned with creating a ‘perfect paradise’ for tourists. Tourism only makes up 2% of Vietnam’s GDP compared to around 20% of Thailand’s, though that doesn’t stop the most popular spots from being overtouristed.

Another reality is that it’s an industrious country with a lot of modern development around its urban areas. As businesses diversify away from China, it’s experiencing an economic boom.

If you prefer quiet and less commercialized places, you have to zig where others zag and set your sights beyond the likes of Ha Long Bay, Nha Trang, and Hoi An.

Long convoys of tour bicyles in Hoi An

Vietnam may lack the renowned resort hospitality industry of the Thai islands or, say, Bali. But if you are motivated to travel to this country for its culture, cuisine, natural sites, villages, or buzzing cities, then it will be truly your oyster.

What I love about Vietnam is that it’s mostly just being itself, if that makes any sense, which makes it such a fascinating country to explore.

Which brings me to…

Reasons to LOVE Vietnam…

The roads less travelled

If you’ve only glanced at the headers so far, you may think Vietnam is just a terrible place to go. But if you ask me, the opposite is true!

Ha Long Bay may be ho-hum, but my perspective of Vietnam took a 180-degree turn once I set my sights on some less-hyped destinations.

I explored caves in Phong Nha, went motorbiking in Ha Giang, and went to smaller cities like Da Nang and Quy Nhon. Suddenly, all the best aspects of Vietnam came into focus.

Away from mass tourism, Vietnam is an absolute thrill and a privilege to explore. Even in the more touristy stops, you can have an incredible time by approaching them with some curiosity.

For example, read my guide on how to explore Hanoi, which focuses on seeing the local life, diving into the street food, and wandering the exhilarating markets, rather than merely ticking the usual churches and monuments off a to-do list.

The chaotic cities

The big cities of Vietnam — especially Hanoi and Saigon — are easily some of the best people-watching places I have been.

My very first exposure to Vietnam was in the northern capital of Hanoi. The traffic there is truly unlike anything I had seen before. Yes… the air is thick with exhaust and your ears will rarely catch a break, but I promise the sooner you get over this the more fun you’ll be having.

Go to any downtown area of Hanoi and you’ll see endless streams of scooters flowing through the streets, seemingly ignoring every traffic regulation yet somehow never colliding. You may see mopeds carrying glass windows, boxes full of chickens, and even a whole family of six.

One of the best things you can do is to grab a Vietnamese coffee at a cafe, preferably one with a little balcony, and watch all the madness unfold before your eyes.

The unbelievable road trips

Vietnam is renowned for being the perfect destination to explore on a road trip, ideally by motorbike.

Even if you can’t drive a motorbike or moped, you can still enjoy this aspect of Vietnam. Simply hit the road using one of the many Easy Rider tour companies, which let you hop on the back with a skilled local driver.

One of the regions with some of the most jaw-dropping scenery is the northern area called Ha Giang. Driving the mountain roads here is one of my most cherished travel experiences (but keep in mind the roads here are not for beginners).

Besides the northern mountains, there are some renowned motorbiking routes in the center such as the Hai Van Pass. I’ve also had an incredible time driving around the rice paddies and waterways of the Mekong Delta in the south.

With the freedom to explore your way, you’ll see Vietnam in a different light, meet friendly locals rather than scammers, and discover authentic spots away from the typical tourist trail.

If you’re interested in exploring Vietnam on two wheels, check out our tips for motorbiking in Vietnam, or check out the local blog Vietnam Coracle, which I love consulting for its many incredibly detailed road trip itineraries.

Incredible ecotourism

The words Vietnam and ecotourism are not often said in one breath, and no, it isn’t exactly Costa Rica. Nature is often poorly protected especially along the coast, but there are fortunately some very wild and exhilarating nature areas to explore in the interior.

Phong Nha is one of the best ecotourism hotspots to add to your itinerary. This small riverside town has happily resisted the temptations of overdevelopment, thanks to a concerted effort to promote sustainable forms of tourism.

Inside the Phong Nha National Park, you can find vast unbroken rainforests home to dozens upon dozens of limestone caves. Among these are some of the largest in the entire world.

I went on an expedition to Hang En, the world’s third-largest cave, which involved an extensive hike through the jungle as well as sleeping in tents inside the cave. The feeling of being inside a natural formation the size of an aircraft hanger is simply indescribable.

The tour company Oxalis Adventure is the ecotourism expert in this region and I cannot recommend them enough. (This is not an ad.) If you’ve ever wanted to go on a jungle, caving, or river kayaking expedition, they are your absolute best bet. They’ll make you feel like you’re inside your own National Geographic documentary, while ensuring their work benefits the local communities as well as nature-conservation efforts.

Besides Phong Nha there are other highly worthwhile ecotourism areas, such as Ba Be National Park, and the mountain trekking routes around Sa Pa and Mai Chau.

Sleeping in a tent inside Hang En, the world’s third biggest cave, is one of the best things I’ve done in Vietnam.

The bustling markets

The food and produce markets in Vietnam are among the most fun in Asia to explore. Maybe I’m just nostalgic because Hanoi was my first time visiting a proper Asian wet market, but I was dazzled by all the things I saw.

There were bottles filled with snake wine, buckets filled with frogs, and boxes bursting with live eels still wiggling around.

When visiting markets in mountain villages in the north, you may be lucky to see members of local tribes such as the Hmong in their beautifully colored clothing.

In the south, the most thrilling markets to visit are the floating markets, which take place entirely on the river and where vendors in small wooden boats pass by selling their wares.

Being from The Netherlands where everything is orderly to a tee, I’ll never tire of experiencing the chaos, sounds, and smells of a Vietnamese market — and perhaps you’ll feel the same.

The phenomenal food

It’s no wonder that Anthony Bourdain just kept banging on about Vietnam. Whether you’re braving the street food (don’t worry, just dig in!) or prefer going for restaurant meals, you’ll find yourself in a foodie paradise.

Mixing Asian and French influences (colonial rule introduced such things as the baguette) and having distinctly different flavors in the north, center, and south, it’s impossible to get bored of Vietnamese cuisine.

If you’re not yet up to speed, one of the best things you can do is to book a street food tour with a local in whatever city you start your trip.

Taking a crash course in Vietnamese cuisine is going to pay off for the rest of your trip, as you’ll know just what delicious dishes to order beyond your typical pho soup.

The low cost of travel

Oh yeah, did I mention that travel in Vietnam is spectacularly good value?

You can travel happily on a backpacker budget of as little as $20 to $30 a day, with many delicious meals available for under $3 and basic private hotel rooms starting at $15 a night or so.

If you have a bit more money to spend, you can enjoy boutique-quality accommodations at budget prices.

You can check more details in my Southeast Asia travel budgets guide.

Cheap and delicious meals are everywhere
The long-stay visas

Finally, for many nationalities, it’s now easier to visit Vietnam than ever before.

Prior to 2023, Vietnam’s visa system was rather confusing, with several visa types offered with different requirements and restrictions. And if you wanted to stay longer than a couple of weeks in Vietnam, it was often more difficult to do so.

That’s all changed now with the introduction of the new Vietnam e-visas. You can easily apply for them online and if you have a Western passport, you are almost certainly eligible for a generous 90-day visa-on-arrival.

This has not only made it easier to get a visa for a holiday, but digital nomads wishing to stay longer will now find it much easier to do so. Da Nang, Hoi An, and Ho Chi Minh City are some of the top places for remote working in Vietnam.

Hanoi

So… is Vietnam worth visiting?

As you can probably tell by now, I think Vietnam is highly worth visiting.

Sure, Vietnam is where I experienced some of the most annoying scams, not to mention several disappointing cookie-cutter tours at Ha Long Bay and in the Mekong Delta.

But it’s also where I waited out the rain under a thatched roof in Ha Giang province, sipping a sweet and creamy Vietnamese coffee while conversing with a Hmong farmer purely through Google Translate and agreeing his chickens were beautiful.

Trang An

It’s true… Vietnam isn’t always picture-perfect everywhere and the beaches are only so-so.

Then again, the cities are an assault to the senses and a street photographer’s paradise — from the women sporting their flower-patterned pyjama fashions, to the artisan blacksmiths soldering away in the narrow streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, and locals ritualistically burning stacks of mock currency at the start of the Lunar calendar.

Hanoi

You may want to keep your expectations in check for the coral reefs, but dive deep into one of the national parks and you’ll see some jaw-dropping landscapes and some of the wildest areas of Southeast Asia.

“A country of contrasts” is a travel writing cliche, but if there’s one country for which we should still reserve this phrase, then let it be Vietnam.

Qui Nhon

I hope more people visit Vietnam with the right expectations, because if you do, it’s a unique thrill to discover this overwhelmingly vibrant and exciting country.

For more inspiration, don’t miss my backpacker’s guide to Vietnam, my 3-week Vietnam itinerary, and these 22 top places to visit in Vietnam.


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Posted FEB 28, 2024

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