Vietnam: Beyond the stereotype

A Travelfish long read by Joshua Zukas
First published on 29th December, 2020 |4,227 reads.

Vietnam is awash with antiquated and orientalist fantasies. Travel media outlets manufacture nostalgia for a colonial heirloom with crowded street kitchens and conical hat-wearing hawkers. Foreign travel companies overrepresent Vietnam’s beaches as if the country exists to serve sun-starved Northeast Asians and Europeans. And although Vietnam has been at peace for over four decades, American films continue to portray a perilous place reeling from war.

As discerning visitors, we should explore the history that forged Vietnam as well as the geography that defines it. But we should also be mindful of perpetuated fallacies and remain open to exploring Vietnam’s dynamic energy and modern aspirations.

Paul and his friends are enjoying a boat tour through a floating market, a quintessential Mekong Delta travel experience. It is uncomfortably warm, but as American veterans that served in Vietnam some four decades prior, the group adjusts to the humidity quickly. The atmosphere is jovial as they take in the sights, sounds and smells of the market, washing down the experience with a few beers.

Not a whole chicken in sight. Xeo Quyt, near Sa Dec in the Mekong Delta. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Not a whole chicken in sight. Xeo Quyt, near Sa Dec in the Mekong Delta. Photo: Stuart McDonald

A Vietnamese vendor paddles up to Paul and offers him a live chicken. Paul refuses politely, but the vendor is persistent. He grips one of the chickens and pushes it closer to Paul’s face as it gives a few jarring flaps. Paul, now angry, refuses again. The vendor tries one last time, now with a fatter, flappier chicken. “Get that fucking thing off of me,” Paul yells. “No, motherfucker.” The atmosphere turns and the vendor is horrified. “Motherfucker?” he retorts. “You killed my father and mother!” Paul is livid. He lunges at the vendor while his friends restrain him, and the scene descends into chaos.

Paul is not a real person, but a character in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, which premiered on Netflix in 2020. Indeed, Paul (played by Delroy Lindo) could not be real because this scene is so implausible. Vietnamese market vendors don’t force live chickens on tourists; they also don’t accuse Americans of killing their parents when the sale doesn’t work out. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen churlishly puts it in his scathing analysis of the film in The New York Times, the Vietnamese are more likely to see foreigners—including Americans—as “walking wallets, not to be offended.”

Da 5 Bloods’s portrayal of Vietnam and the Vietnamese gets more absurd as it progresses. According to the film, gun-wielding mobsters rule the land mine-littered countryside and ignored temples lay derelict in the jungles. Organised crime and residual land mines may exist in Vietnam, but they remain far removed from anything a visitor would ever experience—including American veterans. And as for the ruined temple, these days it would be restored, ticketed and swarming with tourists.

Cham weaver, near Chau Doc, Mekong Delta. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Cham weaver, near Chau Doc, Mekong Delta. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Da 5 Bloods received rave reviews for its worthy portrayal of an untold story: The Black American experience of the war in Vietnam. But the film does so at the expense of Vietnam and the Vietnamese, from rendering a country that doesn’t exist to devising one-dimensional local characters. The underlying orientalist narrative is as present in Da 5 Bloods as it is in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now from the 1970s and Oliver Stone’s Platoon from the 1980s: That the so-called Vietnam War was actually all about Americans.

Vietnam now

Decoupling Vietnam as a tourist destination and Vietnam as a former war zone is one of the objectives of, Vietnam’s official tourism website. Launched in 2018, the site is managed by Vietnam’s Tourism Advisory Board (TAB), a consortium of industry leaders and stakeholders from the private travel and tourism sectors, in partnership with the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT).

“We don’t want people coming just for war history,” says Tran Trong Kien, TAB’s chairman, lamenting that much of the world—and the western world in particular—still associates Vietnam with conflict. But the notion that Vietnam is defined by war is just one of the myths that hopes to dispel. “We also don’t want them just coming for the beach,” adds Kien. “We want people to come and experience Vietnam for what it is—a dynamic and lively place.”

Dining with locals at Ayun Pa, near Pleiku, Central Highlands. Photo: Cindy Fan.
Dining with locals at Ayun Pa, near Pleiku, Central Highlands. Photo: Cindy Fan launched the Vietnam now campaign in 2019 to help promote this dynamism and liveliness and show that “there’s more to Vietnam than the traditional image of rice paddies and conical hats,” according to the website. Part of the campaign is a series of My Vietnam videos that introduce different destinations through the eyes of young and passionate locals. A streetwear fashion designer presents My Ho Chi Minh City and a receptionist at a trendy co-working hub presents My Hoi An. “It’s very much about looking forward to the future, and not so much about looking back to the past,” says Kien.

Challenging preconceptions is a theme that extends into the products of Vietnam’s tourism and hospitality innovators. Restaurateurs and mixologists want to show the world that Vietnam’s food and beverage scene is not all about street food and street beer. Modern architects are demonstrating that hotels and museums can go beyond heritage buildings. And products that are opening up the country’s countryside are proving that, despite what Da 5 Bloods might suggest, Vietnam is simply not that dangerous.

Safety first

Dien Bien is a mountainous province northwest of Hanoi. It was the scene of a climactic confrontation between the French colonisers and the Viet Minh revolutionaries in 1954. A decisive victory for the later expedited the French withdrawal from Vietnam and catalysed the division of the country into communist north and capitalist south. The destination attracts a small stream of foreign visitors, virtually all of whom come to see key battlegrounds, military bunkers and antique tanks.

Wild scenery en–route to Dien Bien Phu. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Wild scenery en–route to Dien Bien Phu. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Though a destination for war history buffs, local company Community-based Tourism launched Dien Bien CBT to highlight the province’s other attractions. “We realised that Dien Bien has enormous potential,” says Dinh Thi Hau, Community-based Tourism’s director. Hau understands Dien Bien’s historic significance but feels strongly that there is a lot more to discover. “The landscapes are very diverse, with mountains, rivers, freshwater lakes and natural forests,” she says. “There is also cultural value.”

Dien Bien is an ethnically diverse province, with Thai, Hmong and Khmu minority groups living in small, traditional villages dotted around the countryside. Many Thai families still build impressive wooden houses on stilts, and Hau’s team worked with two of these families to set up homestays just outside of Dien Bien Phu, the province’s capital. Here visitors can get a sense for what life in a traditional Thai village is like. They sleep in a stilt house wrapped by rice terraces and enjoy local food with ingredients sourced from the garden. Despite the former battleground setting, the product has virtually nothing to do with war. Furthermore, homestay experiences such as these demonstrate that exploring outside of Vietnam’s cities is safe.

Canyoning near Da Lat. Photo: Supplied.
Canyoning near Da Lat. Photo: Supplied

When the media portrays Vietnam as lawless and deadly, it’s easier to believe that danger lurks in all corners of the country. Even in destinations that have little to do with the war, the industry has to work hard to show that Vietnam is not a dangerous place where anything can happen. In 2016, three British tourists died tragically in Da Lat in the Central Highlands while canyoning, an adventure activity that involves abseiling down waterfalls into rock pools. The tragedy was given comprehensive coverage in the British press, which referenced an unlicensed tour guide, shoddy safety equipment and disobedient backpackers. With only the tour guide’s account to go on, we can never know the complete story, but we do know that the tragedy still impacts Da Lat’s responsible adventure tour operators. This tenacious reputation for danger has been difficult to shift, and operators need to go above and beyond to demonstrate the professionalism of their tours.

“The safety of our participants is our number one priority,” says Le Trong Thanh Liem, co-founder of Highland Sport Travel and presenter of Vietnam now’s My Da Lat, after describing how hard his company has had to work to show its commitment to safety after the 2016 tragedy. “We have an in-depth risk assessment in place that is continuously reviewed, monitored and updated.” Highland Sport Travel includes this risk assessment in the contract with the customer so that they can see the risks and what the company has done to minimise them. If the customer doesn’t read and sign the contract, they can’t join the tour.

In Phong Nha in central Vietnam, Oxalis Adventure has a permanent team of international caving and safety experts connected to the British Caving Association (BCA). “Everything about our tours takes safety into consideration,” says Nguyen Chau A, founder and CEO of the adventure tour company. “We pay attention to the terrain, the weather, the ability of the customers and the use of technical and safety equipment,” he explains. Oxalis Adventure imports their equipment from Europe, ensuring that it meets European safety standards, adjust itineraries when faced with unpredictable weather and prepare multiple emergency exits from the caves.

Within the vast Hang En, Phong Nha. Photo: Cindy Fan.
Within the vast Hang En, Phong Nha. Photo: Cindy Fan

With the biggest caves on the planet, Vietnam offers some of the world’s best caving experiences. Four-day expeditions to Son Doong, crowned the world’s largest cave in 2009, involve underground swimming, scaling the rubble of ceiling collapses and a 90-meter ascent using ropes and ladders. Oxalis Adventure has grown to offer tours across a handful of caves, from one-day discovery trips to immersive multi–day expeditions that rival the Son Doong experience. And with European safety standards and equipment, first-time cavers and seasoned experts alike should feel safe and secure.

Urban refresh

While operators in the countryside battle to show Vietnam as a safe destination, innovators in the cities are igniting the country’s modern urban flair. Visionary architect Vo Trong Nghia, who is getting worldwide attention for his green buildings, is challenging the notion that crumbling colonial mansions and blocky communist apartment buildings dominate Vietnamese architecture. “We have a chance now to forge a new type of architecture, one that takes critical issues—like climate change—into account,” he says. “We need to think about energy efficiency and sustainability at every stage.”

Keeping the environment in mind at Chicland. Photo: Supplied.
Keeping the environment in mind at Chicland. Photo: Supplied

One way that Nghia tries to achieve sustainability is by using bamboo instead of wood. He wants to challenge the use of timber and felling of trees by demonstrating that bamboo can do a better job: It’s pliant, fast-growing and, unlike a tree, bamboo branches can be harvested without killing the plant proper. In Casamia, a hotel in Hoi An, Nghia designed a clubhouse made entirely of sustainably sourced bamboo and thatch. The Tra House & Bistro in Da Nang’s Chicland Hotel uses bamboo to enhance the interior design. The outside of Chicland Hotel is also wrapped in tropical trees and plants—another of Nghia’s trademarks—which absorb sunlight and minimise the energy spent on cooling the building.

Chicland Hotel’s green shroud offers a glimpse of what Vietnamese cities might look like in the future, as Nghia is not alone in the architectural biophilic revolution. In central Ho Chi Minh City, a21studio designed The Myst Dong Hoi, a hotel with rectangular gaps that overflow with tropical plants. In fast-developing Phu Quoc, MIA Design Studio crafted Wyndham Garden, a beach resort with a canopy of hanging plants that cascade over gardens and swimming pools. In Hue, local architect Ho Viet Vinh fashioned Lebadang Memory Space, a contemporary garden art museum inspired by the royal tombs of the city.

A modern take on royal tombs at Lebadang Memory Space. Photo: Supplied.
A modern take on royal tombs at Lebadang Memory Space. Photo: Supplied

Nguyen Anh Thu, operations manager at Lebadang Memory Space, laments that when people think about Hue, Vietnam’s former imperial capital, they tend to only think about architectural relics: Tombs, temples and pagodas. But a modern museum dedicated to contemporary art should encourage people to start thinking differently about Hue, Thu believes. “Hue possesses the heritage of our ancestors—but also the heritage that modern-day people are creating,” he says. “This ‘contemporary heritage’ deserves more attention from visitors.”

This idea of creating contemporary heritage also drives the current capital’s food and beverage innovators. In 2018, Hoang Tung opened Hanoi’s Tung Dining after spending six years working in different Michelin-Star restaurants in Finland, Denmark and Estonia. For many visitors, Hanoi is synonymous with cheap street food, but Tung Dining shows that Vietnamese dining experiences are also available at the other end of the price spectrum. The fine dining restaurant only offers one tasting menu that constitutes 15-20 courses, each one expertly crafted by Tung and his team of chefs. “The point is to offer a culinary adventure,” says Tung, explaining that inspiration for his dishes comes from Vietnam and beyond. “Maybe you like it, maybe you don’t—the important thing is that you try.”

“The point is to offer a culinary adventure,” says Tung. Photo: Supplied.
“The point is to offer a culinary adventure,” says Tung. Photo: Supplied

Adventurous thinking also sparked Phan Tien Tiep to craft the pho cocktail, a gin- and Cointreau–based beverage infused with the same spices as Vietnam’s national dish: cinnamon, star anise and cardamom. Just like a steaming bowl of the noodle soup dish, the pho cocktail is served with lime and chilli on the side. Tiep is excited about the future of mixology in Vietnam. “More and more professional bartenders are starting to appear,” says Tiep, explaining that an increase of available ingredients and the unleashing of creativity is spurring a booming bar scene. “We are getting new products from abroad, but more important are the local delights that we are starting to use—including some top-notch Vietnamese spirits.” Visitors can try the pho cocktail along with other modern and marvellous creations at Ne, Tiep’s cocktail bar.

Why not Vietnam?

In October 2020, launched the campaign message “Why not Vietnam?” with a 30-second video that aired on international channels like CNN in the United States. The syntactic choice of the messaging is interesting because it assumes that Vietnam may not necessarily be top-of-mind for potential vacationers. Tourism authorities of mainstay destinations like Thailand need not question viewers because they assume that most people already want to go; they don’t need to encourage people to think differently about the destination.

Da Lat Easy Rider, Mr Bin. Photo: Cindy Fan.
Da Lat Easy Rider, Mr Bin. Photo: Cindy Fan

With the country’s borders firmly sealed to prevent Covid19 from seeping in, the message aims to get people excited about coming to Vietnam only after the pandemic is under control. Many tourism professionals, including TAB’s Kien, believe that Vietnam’s handling of Covid19 can help with the regeneration of its image. “Vietnam has shown the world that there is another way to deal with a pandemic,” he says. Indeed, few countries can claim to have crushed the virus so effectively. In 2020, Vietnam swiftly quashed three waves—the first from China in January, the second from Europe in March and the third of unknown origins in July. The government has recorded just 35 deaths.

Covid19 has upended life across much of the world. When the borders reopen, probably enabled by mass vaccination, the industry hope is that an upside of the pandemic will be the upending of people’s perceptions of Vietnam. Perhaps this is an opportunity for Vietnam to show the world that it is a dynamic and forward-thinking place—and that tourism experiences can be more comprehensive, less conventional and that they can go beyond tired stereotypes.

About the author

Joshua Zukas is a Hanoi-based writer covering travel, culture, lifestyle, architecture and innovation in Vietnam and beyond. He is a content producer for CNN Create and a regular contributor for Ink Global, which manages award-winning travel media for the world's biggest airlines. He also contributes intermittently to publications such as The Economist, BBC News, Wallpaper, The Diplomat, 1843 and The Red Bulletin. You can follow him on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn

Reader comments


Posted on: 2021-02-24 11:03:47

Great post. Thanks for sharing!

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