Viet Nam long held this wonderful allure for me; I backpacked around the country for three weeks in 2013 and more recently, I was invited on a trip in September 2016 with Topdeck Travel and was ecstatic to return. Travelling Viet Nam whilst black seems to be a bit of a concern for many travellers (there are quite a few negative experiences floating about online) but in the main part, I’ve loved my time there. There are a few little cultural nuances to be aware of if you’re planning a trip there as a black or brown person, however.
White is right, In Viet Nam
Skin bleaching creams are everywhere in Viet Nam and adverts featuring models with impossibly snow-white skin dominate billboards and magazines. It’s no secret that Vietnamese culture centres feminine beauty around pale skin and this year, my tour guide from Topdeck Travel explained that the general fashion in Viet Nam has always been been to be as white as possible. As was formerly the case in Britain and Europe, skin untouched by the sun denotes a higher social status, dating back to a time in which the whitest people were those with enough money to avoid manual labour outside.
vietnamese model Lan Phuong pic.twitter.com/CK4P3jzVc9
— jai (@bangtanelitist) May 26, 2016
I also remember in 2013 that my milky-skinned, dark-haired, Irish best friend was constantly asked for photos as we travelled the country together, which was amazing as she’d always been self-conscious about being pale. “You look like a Vietnamese model” she was told, repeatedly to her absolute disbelief. (She features in the photos of roughly 400 Vietnamese teenagers which are floating around, somewhere).
This obsession with whiteness can of course be a little daunting if you’re travelling Viet Nam whilst black, looking the stark opposite to what is deemed beautiful in society and surrounded by adverts that actively promote whiteness. I mean, it might even make you a little paranoid, and depending on where you are, you can definitely expect some curious glances.
Staring is pretty normal
Don’t be surprised if you attract more than a few long, unapologetic stares when travelling Viet Nam whilst black. You know – the type that bore into your soul and render you flustered and slightly alarmed? Yeah, those. It’s something you’ll get used to but from what I’ve read online and from my own experiences, it seems to be getting better.
Generally for me, the staring wasn’t a regular occurrence everywhere and it didn’t affect my experience much. I remember feeling a little more awkward in rural areas like Dalat in 2013 than I did in the big cities like Ho Chi Mihn and Hoian where we were surrounded by backpackers, but in Hanoi and Nhtrang I didn’t notice it much at all.
A stand-out experience from 2013 was when a Vietnamese man asked if my hair was a wig and wanted to touch it, which I just found pretty amusing.
However this year in Viet Nam, myself and the only other black traveller on the trip both noticed that we were being gawped at, whilst walking around Dhnang airport separately.
Everytime I looked up in fact, there was a pair of eyes on me.
I remember a family in the airport cafe actually craaaning their necks to catch a glance at me as I ordered coffee, fingers pointed sharply in my direction, faces blank when I glanced back at them with my eyebrows raised in confusion.
Similarly in Halong Bay this year whilst walking through a group of, what I assumed to be Chinese travellers (nice clothes, umbrellas to shade them from the sun and so very white), several of them just stopped in their tracks to watch me walk past in my bathing suit which, is HELLA uncomfortable for anyone who’s half naked in front of a group of people, and when you suspect there might be a racial component to it, even more so.
However, when I spun around to double-check that I wasn’t seeing things, one of them shouted; “beautiful!’, so naturally I smiled and strutted off with my head up.
There aren’t many black travellers in Viet Nam
I’ve learned that although the stares are inquisitive and persistent in some areas, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re judgemental. In my 2016 trip I noticed perhaps a few less double-takes and lingering looks from the Vietnamese locals than I did in 2013, and I think there are a few reasons for this.
Firstly, travelling Viet Nam whilst black isn’t something I’ve ever done solo. When I visited in August 2013, the many looks I received were alongside my two, white best friends (one statuesque blonde, the other who typified SE Asian beauty), and there were many points on our trip that we found ourselves as the only tourists around.
We’re also all female, taller than 5’7 and not particularly quiet, so collectively, we probably made an impact as very obvious foreigners and I know we all shared that feeling of ‘otherness’ in Viet Nam at times, because it can be alienating for any visitors.
Also, Viet Nam’s popularity as a tourist destination is growing each year and with this, there are also more Asian tourists visiting too.
This year I felt most of the curious looks I received were actually from Chinese tourists, not Vietnamese people. And overall I found that hospitality and overall friendliness towards tourists in Viet Nam had improved greatly in three years, although of course, I didn’t go to the remote spots this time around and I was visiting for half the length of time I did in 2013.
Also, in 2016, I saw several other black travellers during my short time in Hanoi (I think Americans) but in 2013 I really don’t remember seeing many for my entire trip, so I hope Vietnam is really opening up more as a tourist destination for Western black travellers.
If you’re concerned about travelling Viet Nam whilst black or brown; don’t be. The looks are mainly harmless and borne of out an innate curiosity rather than an any intrinsic racism, I feel. On my final day in Hanoi, I visited the country’s largest hair factory to see where Western hair extensions really come from and I was taken aback by the friendliness and openness at which I was received. “I have many black friends here” one of the factory owners told me “a lot of them come here to study. I hope they continue to do so.”
What have you heard about travelling Viet Nam? What are your experiences travelling Viet Nam whilst black? Let me know!