When I told my dad I was going to Vietnam on vacation, he couldn’t believe it. As someone born in 1950 and coming of age during the height of the Vietnam War (though luckily never having to serve), he was baffled that the country was friendly toward American (and all Western) tourism. I can see why from this perspective, and as someone who has never traveled internationally, he had a hard time comprehending the popularity of the place. With Cuba still relatively closed off to Americans, tension with Russia that never truly ceased, an uneasy peace with China, how could another stalwart of Communism be one of the world’s most popular underdeveloped nations for tourism? Hell, the United States didn’t even have diplomatic relations with Vietnam almost until I graduated high school.
But for me, in the online circles of digital nomads I belong to, some place names come up over and over again as meccas for wandering remote workers like myself. Lisbon (Portugal), Tulum (Mexico), Chiang Mai (Thailand), Medellín (Colombia), and Bali (Indonesia) are the top destinations. And Vietnam. Nowhere specific in Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and Da Nang all come up as options, but Vietnam in general is a wildly popular destination. And pretty much everyone I know who enjoys international travel has been there on vacation. Still, I truly didn’t understand how popular it was until I got there.
I’ve been spending my time in far, far less popular places. For example, in 2019:
- Argentina had 7.4 million visitors
- Panama had 2.49 million visitors
- Ecuador had 2.3 million visitors
- Bolivia had 1.24 million visitors
In the same year, Vietnam had 18 million visitors.
Also, keep in mind that I started my extensive travels to Latin America at the tail end of 2021, when most people were still too nervous to travel internationally. So the number of white people I saw was still a small fraction of 2019 numbers. But in Hanoi for Christmas and New Year’s 2022 (both of which are widely celebrated there), there were white people everywhere!
I couldn’t believe it. Yes, of course old town Hanoi is touristy, but it seemed like every other person was white. And not only white people, but white families. This is what really stunned me – it seems like Vietnam is a great destination for a family vacation. Kids of all ages, from not even able to walk through surly teens were there with mom and dad, bickering over what to eat and what knick-knacks to buy.
I say white people because they are the ones who most obviously and immediately stand out as tourists, but there were plenty of brown people too and the occasional black person. And who knows how many people like the friend I went with who are of Vietnamese heritage but don’t live there. Just an unbelievable amount of foreigners.
And while I found the crushing volume of tourists frustrating in places like Halong Bay and found myself craving to be on an Andean mountainside instead, I get the appeal of Vietnam. Compared to places like Bolivia and Ecuador, Vietnam is easy. It’s more orderly and less extremely poor and dirty than my brain was prepared for. It seems like everyone speaks English, getting around is simple and convenient, it’s shockingly inexpensive, and the Vietnamese have hospitality dialed in.
The places I stayed in Tam Coc and in central Vietnam before and after my caving adventure were absolute luxury. For one-third the price of what I pay monthly for an average AirBnB in the United States, I could stay in a gorgeous hotel with daily housekeeping, extensive hot breakfast, free bicycle rental, afternoon tea, and an evening footbath of hot rose water brought right to my room. Services like laundry and massage are readily available, cheap, and high-quality.
Many times I pictured myself spending a week in any of the places I stayed with my laptop and nothing to do but work on creative writing projects. Or in Old Town Hanoi, indulging daily in the fabulous café culture and knowing that anything I need could be found steps from my door for just pennies on the dollar.
But then I remember how sick I got and how awful the travel was there and back and think, probably not. I also didn’t feel drawn to the county like I do to Ecuador and Argentina. I realize this is weird because it’s not as if I’m Latina, but while I feel comfortable in Latin America, I just felt super foreign in Vietnam. Still I understand why Vietnam is a top destination. You should go see for yourself.