From cycling through the flat landscapes, enjoying my trustworthy cheese platters and living a well-organized life in The Netherlands, to the complete opposite: Vietnam. Experience my six greatest shocks in this overwhelming country, but please remember, this country, its nature, food and people have stolen my heart. See this as a preparation for your visit, not as reasons why not to go.
Vietnam has been on my bucket list for quite a while, so when I finally got the chance to visit the country of ice coffee, beautiful nature and of course the Cu Chi Tunnels, I could not book only a two weeks holiday. No, I had to live the life of a Vietnamese, therefore I decided to make fully use of my visa and stay for three months to travel from south to north. Completely taking the time to understand the culture. My boyfriend joined me because obviously, the survival rates of a culture shock are higher when you are together.
Our first stop was in Ho Chi Minh City where we immediately got to endure our first culture shock:
1. The organised mess of screaming traffic
I thought that I had seen traffic in Beijing and in Teheran, but those cities are nothing compared to Vietnam’s capital. With its 6.6M inhabitants, the city counts 7.4M motorbikes. Sidewalks have become parking spots, which leaves pedestrians walk on the road and practically fear their lives. So you have pedestrians, cars, motorbikes, heavily loaded bicycles, buses and trucks, all together on the roads. Just imagine . . .
After a while, you kind of get used to it and you even will find a way to cross the roads, but that is only when you finally understand that the only valid traffic regulation is to trespass all the set regulations. If you stop for a red light or for a crosswalk, you lose. As a pedestrian, if you wait until the traffic gives you space to cross the road, you lose as well. Everyone seems to go with the flow of reckless driving and honking is just a way to let others know you are here too, not even to warn others to go out of your way. So the honking game is strong.
After staying for two weeks (way too long!) in the city, we started to believe that this might actually work for the locals. Strangely enough (and happily), we did not experience even one traffic accident. It is a hot organized mess.
We decided to leave the city life and travel a bit more south to hop on the famous Phu Quoc island, which is actually an island that is closer to the Cambodian border than to Vietnam itself (a totally different story for another time).
On this beautiful and calm island, where we actually found the guts and the safety to rent a motorbike to explore more, our second shock, which we already felt in Ho Chi Minh City, got confirmed.
2. The deep roots of pollution
Personally, I had no idea of the pollution in Vietnam. You would think that a country that has received so many beautiful blessings by mother nature, would know how to protect it. Unfortunately that is not the case. When we were in the capital, we noticed how the streets
turned into large bins at night; a paradise for huge rats. And how plastic is being overused; they even serve drinks and soups to go in plastic bags.
Unfortunately, not only the locals have an ‘If I don’t pollute, others will’ mentality, but also the tourists feel like it is ok to throw everything on the ground, ‘because there is already so much on the ground’. This is the reason why a lot of the beaches on Phu Quoc are difficult to enjoy and many trash hills are making the forests unbearable to walk in. Organisations are working day and night to clean up the trash, but it is almost an impossible job. Hopefully the government will come up with a good solution really fast. Even a plastic bag ban would be a great start.
We rounded off our adventures in Phu Quoc and started travelling towards Danang & Hoi An. Now we had seen 5 different cities in Vietnam and all of them were completely different from each other. The landscapes, the specialty dishes, the weather and the people. But all of them had one thing in common: my next shock.
3. The extreme desire for tourist money
Although the Vietnamese locals are super kind, helping and welcoming, the shop owners cannot help but chasing the tourist money. In a way, I do not blame them. Even if they would double the price for a bowl of Pho (Vietnamese soup) it would still be €2,- for me. However, It is not a nice feeling to know that you are being scammed, especially when they mumble aggressively once
you have passed down their offer. Or when they give each other their sneaky looks and smiles, which gives away their intentions after having asked the price for something.
Once you know a few words of Vietnamese, you will get more respected and can easily negotiate the price. They will even give you their biggest smile, cutest wink or pet on the shoulder once you have pointed out their unfair price. Just as a sign that they do appreciate you. Do not underestimate their language. It is as complex as Chinese and maybe ever more since not only pronunciation and intonation is important, but also volume plays an important role to communicate the right thing.
This brings me to my next shock:
4. Their habits & manners
I have always learned that being too loud is rude. The Vietnamese however, do not have anything like this in their books of manners. They talk very loud, which I learned to understand is important to bring their word across. But they also walk loudly, not lifting their feet from the ground, and they spit, champ and contumelious pick their nose. Their lack of hygiene is in general striking. I might be a bit over sensitive for this with my misophonia and love for hygiene, but it still was a shock
5. The contrasts
Vietnam is a country of many contrasts. For example, the contrast between the rich and the poor. While in one street you see houses that have no electricity or furniture and the kids are playing outside without shoes and with ripped clothing, the parallel street can be filled with high-end stores like Louis Vuitton and Chanel and filled with Vietnamese upper class (and lots of tourists of course).
In Phu Quoc the locals live on the street because most houses are build for sleeping rather than living, but a few streets further Marriott hotels has claimed a huge territory to build its newest five-star resort with private beach and shopping street. More and more entrepreneurs are following Marriott’s foot steps, which means forests are being destroyed down to make space for concrete. Everything seems to be created for the tourists and the expats rather than looking at the needs of the locals and trying to improve their lives as well.
In addition, the big contrast in the country’s landscapes is worth mentioning. Vietnam has everything! From big metropolitan cities, to beautiful bridges in Danang, mesmerising caves in Phong Nha, mind blowing mountains in Ninh Binh and gorgeous rice fields in Mai Chao. Every half an hour you find yourself in a new setting. It is breathtaking.
A final contrast to talk about it the Vietnamese fashion. Our first night in Vietnam, we noticed an old lady wearing a co-ord suit. The next days we noticed that a lot of the old generation women wear printed co-ords in a fabric that we are used to wear indoors. Something like PJ’s. Some outfits looked fashionable, others really looked like PJ’s. In cities like HCMC, Danang and Hanoi, we noticed how fashionable Vietnam can be. Next to the PJ wearing women, there were also a lot of stylish women. The many shops with Vietnamese brands were jaw dropping as well. You can get your hands on really special items there.
6. The food
Let me round off my shocks with this best one: Vietnamese food. First thought: ‘What have I been eating before in my life?’ and ‘why is this food not available in The Netherlands?’.
The beauty of the food culture in the country is that it brings everyone together. Whether you are rich or poor, in Vietnam you can always eat. From a small street food vendor with the lowest chairs that sells Pho for €0.30 to a high-class restaurant where you can enjoy different specialities of the country. There is a perfect option for everyone.
Everything is fresh and the flavours are so new, it makes you want to try out all options. They eat a lot of pork, have little choice in vegetarian food and do different kinds of magic with rice (rice paper pizza, rice cake, rice rolls etc). Also, they have some weird specialities:
– Chicken knees
– Egg fetus
– Octopus suction cups
– Fried goat (in its entirety)
To finish off with the best of them all: Ice coffee! Vietnam is a true queen of Ice Coffees and I miss it every single day. Try the regular, the one with condensed milk, the coconut coffee and the egg coffee and let me know which one is your favourite.
Hopefully, my six shocks have prepared you well for your trip to Vietnam instead of scaring you off. Or Have you ever been there and can you relate to these six points? Let me know in a comment.