by Chi Lan
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 Nam.
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.
"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 a developing 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 Tourism.
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 strong alternative within the youth community.
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 cheap fares, 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 phuot.
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 ($288).
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