Vietnam's authentic side is behind each front door

November 1, 2023 | 04:11 pm PT
Michael Grosberg Businessman
The tourism industry in Vietnam is at a competitive disadvantage with some other countries in the region in terms of appealing to travelers looking for leisurely beach vacations.

Thailand, Bali, the Philippines, to name a few, are more synonymous with the type of picture postcard powdery white sand shores that, for better or worse, have been developed with resorts for all manner of budgets.

Vietnam’s strength, rightly often taken advantage of, is its history, culture, food, and people. However, all of these are also often represented monolithically. To North Americans and Europeans, especially, there’s the French colonial past, the Vietnam War and then the manic vibrancy of a semi-capitalist economy represented by traffic-clogged city streets, female office workers in ao dais and ‘exotic’ street food.

Other than an outdated conception of the ‘North’ and ‘South’, the country’s regional and ethnic diversity is lost. There’s a generic Vietnam many foreigners picture before a visit. It’s challenged upon traveling and experiencing the country. But it’s not what draws them here. And one of the obstacles to changing this is that the tourism industry, the professionals who act as gatekeepers to the country, underestimate the appeal of Vietnam's diversity and foreigners desire to really get to know and understand it.

Tourists capture images of a boy playing with floodwaters in Hoi An, November 2016. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong

Tourists capture images of a boy playing with floodwaters in Hoi An, November 2016. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong

‘Real’ Vietnam exists behind the front door of Vietnamese homes. Visitors flock to night markets and street food because they want ‘authentic’ experiences. They see the fruit, produce, meat and fish locals buy at the market and then head to restaurants, sometimes to taste the closest approximation of a home-cooked meal possible. But local life remains unknown and unknowable.

There’s no shortage of online sites and travel guidebooks professing to explain the lives of Vietnamese. But short-term travelers rarely happen upon it fortuitously, and the organized ways, tours that include brief stops in villages or homes, are mediated. Guides, large groups of travelers end up speaking with one another and rarely get to know the people whose homes they’re in.

The individuality of Vietnamese people is lost. The specificity of people’s experiences, ambitions, familial histories are all left unsaid, unexpressed. This is a loss, a resource that tourism can access. The beauty of a place, especially Vietnam, is revealed more fully when you truly connect with the people. This is the essence of culture. Traditionally, the travel industry doesn’t meet this need. But there are opportunities to address this, and for Vietnam to tap into this desire, and leapfrog its neighbors in at least one regard. Opening its front doors to the world.

This year, I had the opportunity to visit a Vietnamese family in District 4, Ho Chi Minh City. This was just before the Tet festival, and they were all gathering together to prepare rice cakes. It was an amazing experience that no tour company could offer. The living quarters surprised me initially. There was a large yard surrounded by houses, all inhabited by just one family: brothers, sisters, their children, and grandchildren. The sense of community and the warmth of the family were palpable. Everyone had their specific role, and, at the same time, the elders were passing down skills to the youngsters, ensuring that the tradition is preserved for future generations.

Of course, my friends and I tried to get our hands into the rice cake-making as well. It wasn't easy, requiring a smooth technique developed over time. However, witnessing the family dynamics was the most memorable part of the experience.

This is the type of 'encounter' that is unique; even if you do the same activity with another family, it will be distinct in its own right.

This is what I mean when I say "opening its front doors to the world," and I'm honored to be part of this venture.

*Michael Grosberg is a Lonely Planet writer, and co-founder and Business Development Executive at

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