Vietnam should be on everyone’s “Must Visit Before I Die,” bucket list. No IFS ANDS or BUTS! You have NO IDEA what you’re missing if you pass up on any opportunity to visit this country. Maybe I’m a little biased on account of being of Vietnamese descent, but this goes beyond any of that. This country offers such a rich history that is both sad and beautiful, amazing landscapes to peer your eyes over, pristine ocean shoreline for a refreshing dip, and tasty food that will BLOW YOUR MIND, not to mention the stories her people holds.
If you want to truly experience the rawness that is this country it’s best to do so soon, before mass tourism turns it into another saturated spot for social media influencers.
Here are some of my personal favorite tips to ensure your first visit to Vietnam will be the start of many more:
Haggle. Haggle. HAGGLE!
Whatever you’re looking for or even if you didn’t know you wanted can always be found at the markets in this country. That being said it is wise to practice your haggling skills! It can be intimidating when you’re looking at these sweet little ladies selling their goods, trying to make a living off of your dollar, but don’t let them fool you. These are ruthless, cutthroat business women who know how to play the game! They’re thorough bred hustlers.
The game is simple: you see something you like, you conjure up a price that is the MOST you’d be willing to pay for it, you feign interest when the shop owner ask if you need help, they’ll toss a few numbers at you, you counter-offer, a little tug and pull action happens, they drop the ‘please help me feed my family’ line, you feel some type of way (it’s best to NOT BE WEAK at this moment), you negotiate another price, they say no and to come up a little higher, you go back and forth and ultimately you leave empty handed.
Ahh this dance, I know it all too well! My tip here? Be as ruthless as they are. They will say anything to tug at your heartstrings, even give you a few sad glances, but don’t cave. Banter back and forth, feign interest in the item or ultimately walk away. Walking away can sometime be the deal sealer. If they want your business they reel you back in and give in to your price, if not plenty of other stores to venture in.
NOTE: I have gotten things at over 50% off what they asked simply by haggling. It’s an art form this back and forth, so if you dance in it prepare to step up.
How to Cross the Road!
No, this isn’t some sort of throwaway tip – crossing the street in Vietnam is a very talked about subject when visiting! Vietnam is home to some of the CRAZIEST traffic I have ever seen. If you wanted to see a mass exodus of people all vying for some small patch of pavement during rush hour on thousands of scooters then this is your country. Crossing the street at any time of day can be challenging, some time even anxiety inducing.
So you need to cross the street and you’ve been waiting for ten minutes for someone to halt their pace. Of course this is all for not as NO ONE will stop for you in Vietnam, no one. Your best bet is to LITERALLY walk out onto the road and walk towards the other side. Of course you should keep an eye on oncoming traffic and to never break eye contact with whomever is barreling your way.
The trick is simple: KEEP WALKING FORWARD and NEVER HESITATE. The scooters, cars and other motorists WILL GO AROUND YOU. If you walk and then halt, stopping even in the smallest of steps, you will get hit, or the very least disrupt the flow of traffic entirely. After a few street crossings you will be pro in no time. That is if you make it in one piece to the other side. JOKING!
Eat Like The Locals
Vietnam has some of the best food, flavors, and iconic dishes the world has seen so it’s no wonder a lot of people flock here to sample it all. Eating out is almost as common as cooking at home, sometimes it could be even less for families to peruse food streets than to cook a meal. The result is no shortage of street food culture.
Speaking of food streets you will find MANY of them in the larger cities (i.e. Saigon, Hanoi, Da Nang, Da Lat) that boasts a small table with accompanying chairs all situated by busy streets. Most of these food streets specializes in one or two particular types of dishes and the reason for that is because they DO THEM WELL. You can find some that only serve BBQ meats you cook yourself, another street slanging out hot bowls of bun rieu, and yet another that does just banh bot loc.
Find the street with the dish you are craving and make way. The menu are giant signs either above or on the side of the establishments so don’t expect a waitress to be handing you any. The way to order is to be stern and make full eye contact with the cook or the one cleaning the table. You can either order on your way in or at your table by simply shouting towards their way. It’s rude compared to western practices but if you don’t do this then you simply won’t be eating!
NOTE: Nhau is very much a Vietnamese tradition that everyone is more than welcome to partake in. Basically you have beer and what we call drinking food that accompanies the drinks. It’s to foster good times, great conversations, and to relish in old memories. Try it with some locals or in my case the 30 people wedding party I was with in Hoi An!
Don’t Be Afraid to Say NO!
People here have that hustler mentality ingrained deep into their DNA so you can find your first interactions with anyone selling you something overwhelming. Whether be it goods, food, a tour or even a scooter ride their hustle doesn’t stop. They can be relentless in trying to get your business so it’s best to start practice saying NO before you arrive.
I will be honest some time even just saying NO will not get the message across. Remember when I said they’re relentless? They will give you any excuse or reasoning to partake in their services and more likely won’t stop until you cave. You have to stand your ground and be adamant in your posture and your speech. Just echo back to what they teach you in that sexual harassment seminar that time at work; NO MEANS NO!
Get Comfy on Two Wheels.
Of the countless people I met during my travel through Vietnam we’ve all agree that riding through is the ONLY way to experience it. If you never have ridden on two wheels before then you should get some seat time in before heading here. It can get real dangerous real quick! But that isn’t to say learning to ride while in the country is difficult, in fact it adds to the experience!
Being on a scooter or motorbike you will get to see more of the countryside, the mountain valleys, and even the beach shorelines in ways that a tour bus just utterly can’t, without walls. There’s no other freer feeling than the wind blowing across your face as you rip through Hai Van Pass, the fresh mountain air rolling by Sa Pa or bombing at night by the beach in Hoi An on your way to Da Nang with friends.
Riding is Vietnam is just one of those things you need to check off your life’s bucket list.
BE AWARE OF YOUR BELONGINGS!
I cant stress this enough to people who travel to this side of the world: BE CAREFUL WITH YOUR BELONGINGS! We don’t want to think about this when we’re enjoying ourselves in new lands, but it’s an ugly truth and the more information you have the more prepared you will be.
Big tip is to NEVER USE YOUR PHONE NEAR BUSY STREETS. Ever seen someone get their phone snatched out by a passing scooterist? I have and I have heard plenty more horror stories from unbeknownst tourists too. I admit I sometime find myself being clueless and venturing way too close to busy main streets to get a Snapchat video of the locals – only to be warned by security guards to step back. If a local is warning you then you best heed the advice unless you like looking for a new cellphone at the nearest mall.
Another good tip is to LEARN THE CURRENCY QUICKLY. Vietnam currency deals in the hundred of thousands denomination. This means 500 (2.5 cents) dong is the smallest bill while 500k ($25) is the largest of the bills. It can get confusing when you’re trying to figure how much you need to pay when it’s time to square up. Often vendors will grab your cash to pull the right bills out for you, but other times they are quick to go for the big bucks and of course you wouldn’t be all the wiser when they do.
Just like with the phone situation I mentioned don’t pull out your cash near busy streets. The money is so colorful I would be hard press to think a passerby on a scooter won’t try to snatch a few bills right out from your hand. Again my aim is not to make you weary or afraid to travel to Vietnam, but to make you aware that it can happen and there’s simple ways to prevent it!
Learn Basic Phrases
When exploring foreign lands it’s always a great idea to learn some local custom and phrases. These small gestures will go a long way with the locals. It shows that you are taking MORE of an interest in the people and their way of life, a sign of respect I have come to learn. These simple phrases will get you a long way in Vietnam:
- Hello = Xin Chao (say Chao because Xin Chao is the FORMAL way to say hello)
- Goodbye = Tam Biet
- Thank you = Cam on
- Can you speak English? = Ban noi tieng anh duoc khong?
- What is your name? = Ten ban la gi?
- How much? = Bao nhieu?
- I want to buy = Toi muon mua
- Too expensive = Mac Qua (HAGGLE AWAY!)
- The bill please = Tinh Tien
- I am vegetarian = Toi an chay
- Where is the bathroom = Nha ve sinh o dau
- 1 more = Them 1 cai
- No Ice = Khong da
- Beer = Bia
- I like spicy = Toi thich cay