Travelling abroad can help Viet Nam’s

Across a noisy common room filled with guests from around the world, the hostel
receptionist in Taipei looked at me with sparkling eyes when I told her I came from Viet

She said I was the first Vietnamese person her hostel has received.

I was a little taken aback, but not that surprised at all. After all, this sounded quite
familiar. I heard the same thing the night before.

Heo Jung-deok, the new South Korean friend I made in Taiwan, told me he has met a
lot of Vietnamese back in his country, but I was the first Vietnamese traveller he had
seen during all his years travelling around Asia.

There might be some explanations for what the hostel receptionist and Heo had
in common. One is that they just hadn’t had the chance to cross paths with Vietnamese
travellers – that is, until I came along.

Or the more plausible reason is that Vietnamese just don’t get out much.

Weak recognition

“You know what, no one has ever guessed that I come from Viet Nam,” Nguyen Ha
Linh, a 25-year-old backpacker, said about her experiences with the locals while
travelling abroad.

“Most of the time they asked whether I come from China, Hong Kong or many other
places – even Indonesia or the Philippines,” she chuckled.

“But never ever has the name Viet Nam been mentioned.”

Unlike its next-door neighbour, China, which has a record population that has emigrated
around the world en masse, or the Asian tiger Singapore, one of its fellow ASEAN
countries, the world’s impression of Viet Nam has been rather limited. That is not
necessarily to say no one knows about Viet Nam; however, even now, most can only
talk about Viet Nam in the context of the famous Viet Nam War.

It has become a joke in Viet Nam when Vietnamese recount stories of the foreigners
they met who asked whether Viet Nam was still at war with the United States. A lot of
foreigners know about Viet Nam in the past, but unfortunately, not in the present.

Vietnamese travellers may enjoy the anonymity resulting from the world’s ignorance of
Viet Nam, but the low number of Vietnamese who travel abroad does little to clear the
fog surrounding the country’s image.

A report by the Viet Nam Society of Travel Agents shows that about five million
outbound tourists were recorded last year, accounting for about 5.5 per cent of Viet
Nam’s total population.

Frankly, the number was not that surprising because Viet Nam is still adeveloping
country with an average annual income of about $3,000, with 60 per cent of the
population living in the countryside.

But the number of Vietnamese travellers has yet to reach its potential.

The average price for a tour to Thailand, which is among the top three destinations for
Vietnamese, is comparable to that of Da Nang, a popular local holiday spot. They can
range between VND4-8 million (US$175-350), according to the tour agents.

Despite the affordable cost, Thailand expects to welcome only about 700,000
Vietnamese travellers this year, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Meanwhile, the number of locals who visited Da Nang in the first half of the year
reached 1.6 million, according to the municipal Department of Culture, Sports and

Language and money

“But I don’t know English,” said Tran Kim Chi, a 57-year-old Hanoian. “How can I travel
abroad when I don’t know the language?”

Chi and many others in Viet Nam were simply scared of travelling abroad without
knowing English, and that partly explains the low number of outbound tourists.

The younger generation, born in the 80s and later, has a better command of the global
language (at least better than their parents) and is more interested in crossing their
country’s borders.

But then they have another problem named money.

Financial problems are often the main hurdle preventing those young and daring
travellers from leaving their country. That is until recently, when the backpacking trend,
known as “phuot” in Vietnamese, emerged as a strongalternative within the youth

Ngo Anh Tuan, a young Vietnamese man who just had his first trip abroad to Thailand
in August, said he had never imagined being able to travel overseas because it used to
be quite expensive.

“But now, with the booming of many low-cost airlines offering really cheapfares, I think I
can afford it,” he said.

With the phuot trend growing, some debates have broken out as to the “right” way to do

Everything started with the story of a girl in October who managed to travel across four
European countries with VND70 million ($3,100), which shocked many because Europe
is known to be expensive for tourism. One month later, another Facebook story of
another girl detailed how she spent six days in Singapore with only VND6.5 million

Many criticised the two girls for acting like such low costs were achievable, even if it
meant saving every penny when travelling, which would mean no real travelling at all.

Many others, on the other hand, felt that the stories of the two Vietnamese girls were
inspiration, and the stories tempted them to try phuot overseas also.

The debate is ongoing, but honestly, I just want to say: Who cares about how we travel?
After all, travelling is all about personal tastes and experiences. You can’t force
someone to go to the museums with you when all they want is to dig into the local food.
And you can’t drag your friend to go shopping when they only want to have a cup of
coffee and have a leisurely afternoon to experience the local life.

Just go, say hi to the locals, learn something new and have fun. — VNS