“Vietnam – Endless Beauty”. The country’s official slogan holds true, both for the incredible nature including the many national parks, remote regions, highlands, bays and beaches, and for its unique culture, history and people. Well, they surely fought hard for it; if a roly poly were a country, it would be Vietnam! The country has been under foreign rule for most of its history but has never seized to withstand cultural drain. Chinese influence lasted for more than 1,000 years, followed by Portuguese trade explorations, French colonization, only interrupted by the Japanese invasion during World War II, and finished off by the American War.
Through all of these times, Vietnam has built up an immense patriotism and identity that is everything but just a copy of Chinese or French culture. ‘Made in Vietnam’ signs are hanging from many stores, and although in some Westerners minds this might trigger pictures of sweat shops and underpaid labor, the Vietnamese are very proud of this label. Yet, Vietnam’s beauty and culture are still fragile in many ways and are mostly hidden below the surface to protect it from foreign influence. Since the country had reopened itself to the world and its markets after the collapse of the USSR, tourists and investor money have been changing the country massively and is continuing to do so. Therefore, if you deem yourself an ethically responsible traveler, here is what you need to know in order to have both a wonderfully deep experience and help make a positive impact at the same time.
Don’t embark on the guilt trip! It will hold you back from experiencing the real Vietnam, and it might send the wrong message to the Vietnamese. Rather look beyond the surface! Every visitor will likely come with a certain level of high school history education and be confronted with in-your-face communist propaganda. You almost can’t help feeling “guilty” as a Westerner in every way, as the government pushes messaging on you at a significant level. But neither neglecting this as propaganda brain wash, nor fully embracing it as the newly discovered truth, will give you the full picture. As with many things, the truth lies beneath the surface, and one step towards that is realizing that the American War was only one small instance in a long line of conflict that the Vietnamese of today seem to almost shake off with a patriotic pride that says “you did not seriously think that this would hold us back.”
As in every country, to know what’s really going on you will have to talk to educated locals and get their opinion on things. Be mindful when asking provocative questions in public, as there’s still a lot of government undercover agents watching and listening. Good resources to find locals that are open to mingling with visitors are international networking sites like Internations or A Small World, or a quick search on LinkedIn or FaceBook. Especially the younger generation is pushing a major shift in culture and national character, and it is interesting to get their take on things. The whole country’s development depends on shaping its brand and image internationally, so choose to be part of the ambassadors that can tell the real story of Vietnam to their families and friends back home.
Embrace your ethical responsibility of shaping the country’s markets! Vietnam still is a very affordable country to vacation in. 90 minute massages for 25 USD, or a high-quality multi course dinner for 15 USD – you’re getting a lot of value for your Vietnamese Dong. Unfortunately, this also attracts a lot of tourists looking to get easy pleasure at low prices. Drugs and prostitution are strictly prohibited, but where there’s money, there is options, and Western money is too attractive for the country to pass on. Thailand is a good example of what can happen if paradise is invaded by low-cost tourism.
Therefore, think twice about where you invest your money, as every dong will help a specific industry grow and define a young market. Apart from the obvious industries, also beware of the hidden ones, even the beautiful hand-manufactured jewelry in the Sapa region. They are easy to fall for, but they also tempt many families to keep their children out of school for them to help sell souvenirs. There’s no reason not to buy them, but try to look for non-profit organizations like Sapa O’Chau, a local organization selling beautiful handmade crafts while running fantastic tourist tours, using the profit to fund and create sustainable education systems for the youth. The country still needs investment in sustainable rather than short-term initiatives, and the government is not always providing these on a necessary level.
Go with the flow and take the chaos with a smile! Although Vietnam was massively influenced by Chinese Taoism and its values of community and collaboration, there are two areas where in Vietnam everyone is fighting on their own: Traffic, and business! It almost seems contrary to the positive, warm and inviting experiences elsewhere, but it’s a fact: Once you’re out on the street or in the markets, your heart rate rises significantly! The flood of scooters that ignore every traffic light, sidewalk or pedestrian crossing will cause massive anxiety within the first 24 hours of our stay, and walking over a street market will include merchants yelling at you, grabbing you by the arm and stepping in your way to prevent you from moving on – especially in the northern parts of the country.
Knowing that this is part of everyday behavior might ease your anxiety and help you approach it with peace and a smile on your face. It is sometimes hard to overcome the air of aggression that kicks in with the third person trying to physically drag you to their stand, or in the headlights of ten scooters racing right at you, but the calmer you are, the easier it is to escape. In both situations, the key is to keep walking on, slowly but steadily! The chaos and risk of feeling offended in these situations is potentially the number one reason that will shut down your interest and senses to this beautiful country and society, so try to neglect it and move on. It will be worth it!
Having said this, visiting Vietnam is definitely one of the biggest treats of your Asia experience and right now is a truly unique time to go. The country is a sleeping giant that is currently realizing how tall it can be. Being amongst the ten countries with the highest economic growth rates world-wide, it is but a question of time when the process of change will have impacted the culture and changed things forever. Make sure you visit soon in order to still see the development in the early stages, and be part of this process in the most responsible way possible.
And in all you do, help preserve and co-create what the country stands for: Endless Beauty!