Women Traveling to Vietnam

Interview by Allison Martin

Good news, and a bit of advice, for women traveling to Vietnam. An interview with Jan Dodd, author of the Rough Guide to Vietnam.

I have never felt that my gender has been particularly relevant in Asia. I am usually treated with courtesy and, as far as work is concerned, I have never been ignored or had any problems getting to see the people I need to. In fact, being a woman can actually be a benefit on occasion since we are sometimes perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be less threatening than foreign men.

However, one thing I remember from my first trip to Vietnam, before people got used to seeing a lot of Western tourists - people often assumed I was a man! The vast majority of young Vietnamese women have long hair, while mine is cropped short like a man's (better for travelling). I'm also not the most voluptuous female around, so I could forgive them for wondering!

Rather than simply being a woman, perhaps more of an issue is a woman travelling on her own. Nowadays this is fairly common, of course, but even so the reaction I most often get is that people feel sorry for me! Obviously I have no friends and I can't be married or have children or I would be at home looking after them! In Asia it is sometimes hard to convince people that I'm not a complete social outcast, that I have a family and a home but am still be able to travel by myself, and to enjoy it.

On the other hand, people are perhaps more likely to talk to you if you're on your own. They can also be incredibly kind. This was particularly true in China, where I was often "adopted" by someone on a train, for example, who would feed me and make sure I got off at the right place.

One of the greatest features of Asia, of course, is that these are some of the safest countries to travel round as a single female - long may it last! I certainly don't take stupid risks, but I've never once felt threatened during my years on the road.

If this is your first trip to Vietnam, read and learn as much as possible about the country and its culture before you go. A large part of the success, or otherwise, of any trip depends on your expectations and how well prepared you are.

I'd recommend building in a couple of days at the beginning of your trip to adjust, especially if it's your first time to a tropical or semi-tropical country. Apart from recovering from the flight, the heat, noise, bustle and new diet can really take it out of you, though you may not realise it at first because of the inevitable excitement.

Related to this, don't try to pack too much into your schedule. I personally feel that it's better to experience (not just "see") a few places in depth rather than dashing from one place to another covering all the main sights, but not actually learning much about the country and its people. It also helps to keep a fairly open schedule and not to expect everything to go like clockwork. If it does, that's great, but it's by no means guaranteed. Some degree of flexibility also means that if you really like a place you can simply stop for a while.

Keep an open mind. Things will certainly be different from what you're used to - but that's why we travel. Be open to the new experiences and, again, try to learn as much about the country and the culture as you can. This means not always sticking to the "safe" tourist places. After you've found you're feet and are attuned to how things work, try eating in local restaurants, taking public transport, talking to local people. It's also worth trying to get off the beaten track at least once. It will require more effort, and things may not work quite as planned, but it the rewards are likely to be far greater.

Finally, try to be aware of the local culture and remember you are a guest in another country. I've been horrified by some of the insensitive behaviour I've witnessed - a bikini-clad woman sunbathing near Sa Pa, a group in Hoi An teaching kids to swear, others sticking cameras in the faces of hilltribe women with no please, no smile, no nothing, just as if they were in a zoo. It makes me sad and ashamed to be part of the whole tourism business. Fortunately, it's only a tiny minority that acts so appallingly, and many tourists try very hard to fit in and not cause offense. However, it's still a point worth repeating - please try to be sensitive to your impact on the local culture and the local environment.

Jan Dodd is the author of a previous The Rough Guide to Vietnam, a well known travel guide for Vietnam. She also wrote The Rough Guides to Japan and to Tokyo, and is a regular contributor to The Rough Guide to France. Jan Dodd writes for various newspapers and journals, including the Independent on Sunday and National Geographic Traveler Magazine.