For a long time I had dreamed of visiting Vietnam. In 2012, I even had my visa and plane tickets ready, but I had to cancel my trip at the last second. During my trip to Asia at the end of 2014, I couldn’t skip the place I had missed out on two years before. I only had a little bit more than a week in Vietnam, which was definitely not enough to see everything, so I chose to explore the northern part of the country. Our plan was to spend a few days in Hanoi, go to Halong Bay, and hike in Sapa.
As the trip was approaching, I started hearing and reading horrible things about Vietnam, especially the North. Other travel bloggers were either in love with the country or listing it as one of their least favorite destinations. I was prepared for the possibility of getting scammed, but it turned out that no matter how prepared you are, there will always be a way that you can get screwed over in Hanoi. The story about how I got completely scammed by people in Hanoi on our trip to Sapa I’ll leave for another post. But scammers are not the only reason why I didn’t like the city.
Food in Hanoi
I grew up on Vietnamese food for years. After the war in Vietnam, a lot of refugees went to Poland and opened small Vietnamese diners. The food was cheap and tasty so my family was going there at least once a week. When I finally went to Vietnam, I couldn’t have been more disappointed in the food. After living in underdeveloped countries like Zimbabwe, I learned to love street food and I understand what cooking conditions are like in less privileged countries – by that I mean I didn’t expect Michelin star dining in Hanoi.
I expected what I read about Vietnam: street food prepared on the spot and consumed while sitting on small blue plastic chairs in the street. But I didn’t expect to see my food being prepared next to a kid taking a shit into a plastic bag and the plate being ‘washed’, or actually rinsed, next to a pile of garbage! I felt like if I stepped into a puddle, I wouldn’t be so sure if I didn’t step in somebody’s pee. No matter what I ordered in Hanoi, it was super dirty and served on a dirty plate. I was constantly sick after eating anything and every time I went out to eat I felt unwelcome by vendors trying to charge us double what they were charging the locals.
I asked some friends who have been to Hanoi for a recommendation and they pointed us to a place called Quán Bún Chả Hàng Mành where we went for dinner. There I ate “bun cha,” a cold Vietnamese soup with pork, served with vermicelli and crab rolls. Everything would have been fine if I didn’t feel sand in my teeth after eating some salad. After that I started doubting the quality of the rest of my food.
After 9pm almost every street vendor is closed so one night I ended up going to a Western style restaurant instead. While my friend ordered a sandwich, I ordered a crepe with ham, cheese and mushrooms. I asked the waiter (who spoke English surprisingly well) if it was a filled crepe and he assured me that it was filled with Western cheese because Vietnamese people don’t eat milk products. ‘Fine’ I thought. After 20 minutes I received my dish: ripped crepes with a pile of ham dipped in some sort of cream, everything cold, obviously. ‘Where are the cheese and mushrooms?’ I asked. ‘Inside, it’s inside’ said the chef, insisting that everything was fine. When I showed him that they were clearly not there, he went back to the kitchen and brought me 2 raw mushrooms in a little bowl of milk decorated with a stripe of cheese. Really…?
Scams in Hanoi
As a white person in Hanoi you’re being scammed pretty much all the time, it’s just that sometimes you might not know it, or you don’t want to know it. The worst part of it is that when you actually do pay attention to the behavior of the locals, you’ll notice that after they charge you three times as much as the others, they’ll laugh about it in Vietnamese in front of you.
You can also never trust anyone even if they seem nice in the beginning. After an initially great experience at our hotel, I decided to book a tour to Sapa with them. In spite of their nice behavior before, they didn’t hesitate to scam us on this tour. I also heard horrible stories of foreigners being seduced by local women and then being robbed.
The city of Hanoi
In spite of my horrible culinary experiences, I wanted to give this city a try. I wanted to discover Hanoi and find something that I could enjoy. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy drinking my black coffee (tip: never order coffee with milk in Vietnam, because you’ll receive it with very sweet condensed milk) while watching the locals skillfully maneuver their scooters under the webs of electric cables.
However, the city itself didn’t have anything that would make me want to go back. The famous lake in the center doesn’t look nice at all, not because it’s green, but because it looks abandoned. I went to every museum in the city in only a day and during the rest of my time there I felt like I was just wandering around. It was just not my type of city.
I’m not surprised that Vietnam has only a 5% return rate while other Southeast Asian destinations like Thailand have over 70%. Vietnamese people simply don’t seem to understand that by scamming the visitors left and right and laughing about it in their faces isn’t going to bring them any more tourists. During my time in Asia I met a lot of travelers who shared my views on Vietnam and in the end i left earlier than expected.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t visit Vietnam, I would just skip Hanoi. I loved Halong Bay and as long you don’t book your tour with a company in downtown Hanoi, you’ll have a great time. I also didn’t go to Saigon which I heard has a much more friendly atmosphere.