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Backpacking in Vietnam: Is it off the bucket list?

Backpacking in Vietnam: Is it off the bucket list?

Vietnam may not want backpackers to return to the country once international travel restrictions ease says Dr Nuno Ribeiro, a senior lecturer at RMIT Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City and leading researcher in tourism and hospitality.

“We may not want them here, to put it bluntly. We may not want their image. We may want to give the image that Vietnam is not for backpackers and that we want more upscale types of travellers,” Dr Ribeiro told The Bureau Podcast in a recent episode.

We’re sort of struggling with the question – what do we do with them?

Dr Nuno Ribeiro, RMIT Vietnam

According to Dr Ribeiro, who is an authority on how culture impacts travel behaviour, the typical stereotype of backpackers who visited Vietnam pre-Covid 19 was one of them being Western, younger than 30, budget-conscious, not at all interested in the culture and language, and “devourers of experiences.”

Listen to the full podcast episode below

“They aren’t necessarily seen as the most highly-desirable tourists,” he says, mostly because they’re unlikely to stay in four or five star hotels or eat at a fine dining restaurant.

He says they are also prone to risky behaviour, such as promiscuous sex and drug consumption, which is usually frowned upon in host countries.

“It depends on who you ask…whether or not they stand to make a financial gain from backpackers. We’re sort of struggling with this question – what do we do with them? Do we want backpackers, yes or no?”

PHOTO: Jordan Opel via Unsplash

Despite this, says Dr Ribeiro, who himself backpacked the length of Vietnam 20 years ago, the pejorative stereotype of the Western backpacker, or “tay ba lo” as they are often referred to in Vietnam, is changing – and for the better.

The image of the crusty looking traveller lugging around a backpack with a plastic bottle of water in one hand and (these days) a mobile phone for directions in the other, may soon become a thing of the past.

“We are seeing far more educated travellers with or without a backpack on their backs arriving in Vietnam…with a great deal more knowledge about the country,” says Dr Ribeiro.

Meanwhile, helping the cause in favour of a swift return of backpackers to Vietnam is what Dr Ribeiro calls the “ancillary impacts” they create.

Basically it refers to the free service backpackers provide Vietnam when they travel here – the creation of earned media.

He says this category of traveller helps promote Vietnam as a travel destination in an overwhelmingly positive light just as much or more than anyone else.

“Backpackers are crucial to Vietnam’s image,” he says. “We might lose advocates of the positive image of Vietnam if we discourage them from coming here.”

Listen to the full interview below

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Words by Matthew Cowan

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