touism guilt – first impressions of Hanoi, Vietnam


Coming to you with a knockoff North Face pack at my feet, wearing athletic sandals and harem pants, from a hostel computer in Hanoi, Vietnam – I’ve chosen to go backpacker chic and half hate myself/half am so excited to pretend to be this person.

Leaving Taipei felt surreal; even as we landed in Vietnam’s capital city, I felt like we would soon return from one of our hare-brained weekend adventures, raring to eat some beef noodle soup at the place behind our laundromat that serves food til 3 am.

Our first day in Hanoi, we spent walking around in a post-Taiwan haze: comparing all the food prices, the kindness of the people, the commotion of the streets, the amount of foreigners. It made us all a bit down, I have to admit.

Vietnam (and Hanoi especially) made me think immediately of urban India – stray dogs, the smell of exhaust, food sellers hawking wares in singsong tones, buildings bearing the brunt of monsoon rains with rusted steel, horns used as a form of communication, playing Frogger in order to cross the street. The big difference however, is that this is a tourist town, and almost a tourist nation. We’re here during the high season, and walking down the street, we see almost as many Caucasians in expensive gear as we do locals in rubber sandals (and more than we’ve seen in over 2 months in Taiwan).

The Vietnamese speak far more English than the Taiwanese and most restaurants advertise “Pizza” or “wifi” clearly targeted to the foreign demographic. Over 40% of the Vietnamese economy has become service-oriented, serving the millions of tourists that come to experience the beaches/heat/food/embrace their own backpacker chic.

I sit here in my privilege and this kind of tourism makes me uncomfortable. I feel at some points that I have no real right to be here – walking around with the ‘I’m rich’ badge of my camera hanging around my neck, and turning my face from the beggars who could make a life with all the shit I’m carrying on my person.

But there is also the other side of it all – that visiting, booking their tours, taking their taxis, eating at their restaurants, and staying at their hostels is a respectful way of sharing wealth – for services provided.

But I can’t shake the weirdness of it all, that no locals seem to frequent a majority of the restaurants, that I hear more English than I’ve heard in two months on the streets, that I can pay in US dollars if I don’t carry enough of the incredibly inflated Dong (1 USD = 21,000 dong). The fact that I, as a US citizen, am welcomed into the country where some of my compatriots are proud of their imperial involvement (and killing) only 40 years prior – that feels weird.

We all want to see the world and experience “exotic” culture but then we want to go back to our clean hostels, our clean planes, and our clean lives in clean, developed countries. I wonder about the true motivation and pleasure that we are all deriving from this, and it is a question I’m really unsure of how to answer as of yet. I guess the conclusion I came to is to be a conscious tourist – to try not to haggle down the sub-minimum wage priced wares that I buy, to treat all with a smile and a sincere thanks, to try and learn about the true background of these varied, mostly kind and pretty people. I can tell its going to continue to be weird, but here’s to me reporting back soon with some good feels, good vibes, and good pho~