When I first visited Vietnam I didn’t know what to expect. It was my first time in Southeast Asia and part of a Vietnam Laos Cambodia tour so I was open to whatever came my way. When friends that had met up with us complained about Ho Chi Minh City I didn’t know how to take it. They had just arrived after a month in Thailand and were used to the well-beaten tourist path there. They were then faced with finding their own way for the first time in weeks and weren’t having it. Again, it was my first experience of Southeast Asia so I had nothing to compare it to. All I knew is I loved it.
Fast forward to this year and my time in Thailand before my return to Vietnam. I started to see exactly what my easy-going friends meant. Thailand is ridiculously tourists friendly. Vietnam, not so much.
Or so I thought.
My return to Vietnam this year was an eye-opener. Driving through the busy streets I couldn’t help but notice that everything seemed polished. There was a gourmet coffee shop seemingly on every corner and there were cranes building skyscrapers in the distance. In four short years, much has changed. We took a walk to the square in front of city hall and found it green and alive – a stark contrast to the brown vegetation found in the same spot four years earlier almost to the day.
We wandered over to the nearby Ben Thanh Market and was surprised by the amount of tourists found there. Last time we struggled to communicate (not that this is a problem) however this go around we had full on conversations with locals. The crowds continued at a rooftop bar where we sipped pricy cocktails. The bar was packed with visitors Europe and North America, something we certainly didn’t see last time.
So why the change?
The fact is tourism in Vietnam is up. Way up. Last year over 7 million people visited – more than doubling 2009 tourist numbers. And with good reason, Vietnam is a gem. From the beaches along the coast to the jungles and islands in the north, this country has lots to offer. I was happy to return to Vietnam just for the food. My God the food.
Beating That Path
Still, I couldn’t help but think back to my friends complaint about Vietnam not being easy like Thailand. Over the past few years this gap has closed significantly – but who wants another Thailand? Vietnam may lose a bit of it’s charm and cost may rise if trends continue. Of course this happens to all off the beaten path countries as they get discovered for how great they are. My return to Vietnam taught me to make the most of these gems before the crowds really start to show.
It’s somewhat selfish for me think that way without sharing my thoughts here. For those looking to enjoy the charm of Vietnam (and maybe struggle a little along the way) should consider heading there sooner than later or consider a return to Vietnam for those that have already been.
Or not. More Pho for me.