How apt are you at dealing with culture shock?
Being thrust into dizzyingly unfamiliar surroundings is one surefire way to find out! Enter Vietnam…by far the craziest, noisiest and most difficult country I travelled through in my four years of global gallivanting.
But how long does the disorientation stemming from culture shock generally last? One or two days? Up to a week? What happens when it consumes the entire trip?
I spent my first day in Vietnam utterly bewildered, picking my way through the chaos of a Communist country that ironically appeared to run entirely ungoverned by any road, social or safety regulations.
A seasoned traveller, I presumed my feelings of discomfort would fade in the face of my easy ability to adapt to most environments.
However, four weeks went by and I was still struggling to overcome the challenges of travelling through a country where nothing seemed to make any sense.
While there were many things I liked about Vietnam, unfortunately these aspects were ultimately outweighed by myriad aspects of the culture and lifestyle that I simply couldn’t get used to.
I left Vietnam exhausted, but also brimming with advice for first-time visitors about how to prepare for (and survive!) what might be your biggest culture shock to date.
Behold, 10 brutally honest tips to make it through your Vietnam holiday:
1. Cross the road with confidence
If you need to cross the road, walk straight into the oncoming traffic. Yes, you have just read that in a Vietnam survival guide. Wait for a gap in the traffic and you can wave goodbye to at least five years of your life. Maybe ten.
2. Don’t assume you’re safe on the sidewalk
With pot plants, stray dogs and scooters scattered in a haphazard fashion along, across, and up & down the length of what should be the pedestrian’s domain, you’ll probably find yourself banished from the sidewalk and forced to use the roads to get anywhere on foot.
However, since bikes like to use the sidewalk to avoid traffic or secure that last parking spot, you’re probably safer on the roads anyway!
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The mean streets of Hoi An 🤔 #street #streetphotography #urban #urbanphotography #backstreets #offthebeatenpath #hoian #hoiancity #vietnam @vietnam.destinations #travel #motorbike #explore #solotravel #backpacker #nomad #seetheworld #instapassport #passionpassport #havecamerawilltravel #girlabouttown
3. Take earplugs
And not just if you’re staying in hostels. Vietnamese drivers are prolific beepers, and while I’d like to tell you that you stop hearing it after a while…you don’t. The locals also seem averse to using headphones when making phone calls or watching videos on their devices (even restaurant staff while you’re trying to enjoy a meal).
In a nutshell, Vietnam is a noisy country, so if you want some peace and quiet or need to get some work done, pack those earplugs and keep them handy.
4. Learn to like your coffee strong
Vietnam is renowned for its coffee, which is served black and very strong. If it’s too much to handle, give it a stir to mix in the thick layer of sweet condensed milk at the bottom of the cup.
Alternatively, try an egg coffee, which is made with egg yolk and condensed milk. Reminiscent of melted marshmallows, tiramisu and frothy cappuccinos, it’s easier on the taste buds and a firm favourite among locals and tourists.
5. Accept that people will spit in the streets
Undoubtedly one of my least favourite things to do in Vietnam – watch the locals spit up in public. Some people will happily hawk up a mouthful of phlegm before proceeding to deposit the result within inches of your feet. Lovely!
It’s noisy, unpleasant to watch and equally unpleasant to hear, but hey – this is Southeast Asia, and in Vietnam spitting is considered completely normal and totally acceptable.
6. It’s okay to ignore (some) people
“Hello, hello, madam, madam…OI!” Being accosted by drivers and street vendors gets incredibly tiresome after a while, to the point where you stop feeling like a person and start feeling like a walking cash dispenser.
While it’s understandable in a developing country, it’s not particularly pleasant, especially when some people deliberately try to scam you out of your money (watch out for the women carrying baskets of fruit).
7. Learn to haggle
And learn to haggle good. Otherwise you’ll pay five times as much as savvy tourists and ten times as much as locals to get where you need to go – and there’s no worse feeling than knowing you’ve been ripped off. Same goes for street food and goods at the market.
8. Don’t expect things to go to plan
As far as Vietnam travel tips go, this is up there with the best of them. Never, repeat NEVER, expect things to go to plan. Public transport is a nightmare. From burst tyres to overflowing toilets and trains that run like sloths on marijuana, it’s often easier (although generally more expensive) to fly.
Twenty-two hours on a train with no wifi, charging points or English speaking staff was certainly an experience I won’t forget in a hurry! My advice? Pack an extra book and resign yourself to the fact that you’ll almost definitely arrive late!
9. Watch out for typhoons
Typhoons can hit at any time, even out of season, so be prepared to rearrange or even skip some Vietnam destinations. Hoi An is particularly prone to severe flooding in the event of a typhoon, to the point where boats replace tuk tuks and tourists have to be evacuated out of second floor windows. Keep an eye on any weather warnings and adjust your plans accordingly!
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The river and the streets become one after a night of heavy rain in Hoi An ☔️ #flooding #flood #water #river #streets #urban #urbanphotography #girlabouttown #urbanscape #cityscapes #hoian #hoianancienttown #vietnam #asia #travel #solotravel #backpacker #nomad #wanderlust #instapassport #passionpassport #havecamerawilltravel #reflection #seetheworld
10. Brush up on your high school French
Vietnam was colonised and ruled by the French until the mid 1950s, when the country was finally declared independent. As a result, a small percentage of the population still speaks French and I personally found what little French I do know came in very handy, particularly on the Reunification Express. The same applies to Laos, if you plan to visit either side of Vietnam.
So there you have it – 10 tips to survive your first trip to Vietnam! If you’d like a bespoke Vietnam itinerary tailored to your personal preferences and requirements, I’d love to help. Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s get the ball rolling on your adventure in Southeast Asia!