Category: Tips for the Traveller


Here’s another round of Tips, and things to prepared for when you set foot in VN:

Expect to be poked fun at for your weight.

Not so much with strangers, but if you have family or friends, well…

I’m a pretty average weight here in Canada. But boy, in Vietnam, I’m a freaking an elephant. I fit size XXL shirts and tops there. Don’t even get me started on pants. While shopping one time, I decided to try a pair on. Needless to say, I struggled (I pulled them up to my knees before I gave up).

Looking back at all the group pictures, the size of my leg always looks about the same as my cousin’s torso. It’s rather depressing.

Don’t get upset! They can laugh all they want. I like to think I’m well-nourished.

Do not publicly display your support for democracy.

Before we visited Vietnam last year, my brother was packing his clothes. He was picking out t-shirts when he came across one with the Democratic Vietnamese flag (yellow with three horizontal red stripes – it was the flag of South Vietnam before the Vietnam War and represents the Vietnamese who support democracy or live in democratic nations). My mom started joking: “You can’t wear that in Vietnam, they’ll shoot you on sight.”

Yes, the locals know you support democracy (coming from Canada, the United States, etc.), but that doesn’t mean actively flaunting your belief system in Communist Vietnam. Maybe you won’t get shot, but it could still get you into trouble with the officials.

Seriously. Don’t do it.

Saigon vs Ho Chi Minh City

Perhaps there is some confusion on what exactly to call that city, since both names are used. To explain: Saigon is the original name used for Vietnam’s previous capital. They renamed Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City in 1976 (following the Vietnam War), after the leader of the Communist Party of Vietnam. You’ll still see both names used. While Ho Chi Minh City is the official name, a majority of the locals still call it Saigon. You’ll also see Saigon used in travel brochures, bus transportation, and so on. By the way, the Vietnamese who fled overseas after the Vietnam War never call it Ho Chi Minh City (see Saigon, not Ho Chi Minh City). So, safest bet to prevent offence is to use Saigon, at least until the other person uses the name Ho Chi Minh City themselves.

Be careful where you put your generosity.

To illustrate why, here’s something that happened to me:

A man approaches me and begs for some money. My cousin Phat takes me by the arm and starts leading me away. When we’re out of earshot, Phat says:

“That guy has a job, but he comes to this street corner everyday to panhandle.”

“Oh yeah? How do you know?”

“I see him leave work, then he comes here afterwards. He makes a lot of extra money that way.”

“Huh! Con men like him.”

My cousin sighs, “Yeah, he makes more money than I do.”

So what do you know? A rich panhandler. You’ve just got to be careful that your generosity isn’t wasted and is actually going to help someone in need.

Want to share some other tips on staying alive abroad?

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Even though things can be pretty different here, I never really got hit by true culture shock. Vietnam just feels like home. Perhaps it’s because I have so much family here? But for those who’ve never been to Asia (or to any other continent for that matter), the differences may be striking at first.

Random differences between VN and Canada

Those moments that will stop you in your track:

– Ice cream trucks take on a bicycle format here, with a cooler strapped onto the back of the bike. Still plays the same tell-tale music though.

– City/construction workers sometimes wear orange jumpsuit uniforms. No need for a double-take when you spot an “outlaw” fleeing via motorcycle.

Did you hear that someone escaped from prison yesterday?

Did you hear that someone escaped from prison yesterday?

Things you need to watch out for:

– Be careful where you step. Pets will wander outside, and no one cleans up after them.

– The mosquitoes are savages here. Expect to be bitten everywhere. It’s not even the number of bites that’s irksome, but the fact you can’t see perpetrators in the first place. They’re pretty tiny and very elusive.

– Beds are hard as rock. Okay, I exaggerate somewhat. But don’t expect cushiony springs. Solid foam, no padding. Enjoy night #1.

My cute nephew. Oh yeah, and that's a standard bed behind him.

My cute nephew. Oh yeah, and that’s a standard bed behind him.

The everyday stuff:

– If you’ve been reading past posts, you’ll know that inside washrooms, there is usually no separation between toilets and shower. No biggie, just close the lid.

– Heated showers are not a matter of simply turning the tap a little further. There is a whole device which provides heated water. You turn on the shower tap (cold water), turn on the water-heating device, then turn the dial for the desired level of heat. Those are the simple ones. I’ve seen some that have additional wall switches. The worst is when the switch is located outside: you’ve changed out of your clothes, are ready for a nice hot shower, turn on every switch, and freezing cold water shoots down onto your unsuspecting body. You realize in misery that you forgot to turn on that random switch outside. Either call out to a good Samaritan to flip it on, or grab a towel and make a mad dash out and back in before anyone catches you in all your embarrassing glory.

Below, a semi-upscale washroom:

And something a bit more typical:

– Beware flickering lights. I haven’t quite figured out why this is, but everywhere, everywhere, I go, lights will flicker momentarily when you turn them on. It takes a few seconds before the lights actually stay on. Pretty sure they’re seizure-inducing. Make sure to close your eyes as soon as you flick that switch.

Things that will take getting used to:

– Sometime, drinks/other liquids are sold by plastic bags. Make sure not to puncture it!

Below is nước mía, sugarcane juice:

– There’s always lots of sound in the afternoon. Since people keep their doors open, you’ll hear neighbours’ music/karaoke, street vendors calling out, chickens, motorcycles coming in.

– Roosters can be heard around 6am. Everywhere T-T

– Age calculation is weird here. As I understand it, you’re your normal age plus one (time in your mother’s womb counts for one year). Also, you are traditionally considered to be one year older after Tết (Vietnamese New Year, the Lunar New Year). Although birthdays are still celebrated here. Which is kind of odd.

– Even very little kids know how to use money. My cousin sends her kid (aged 6) out to buy things from the store nearby (just down the street). I see kids all the time ordering drinks, buying snacks.

The plain bizarre:

– One of the few things that did surprise me: during one night, I heard a band playing (drums, trumpets, trombone, the works). A fanfare, by the sounds of it. I’d heard that funerals were a big ordeal here, and that they’d play loud music. Could it be…? No, the music was way to happy. But, when I headed out and asked my cousin about it, he said yes it was indeed a funeral. Go figure. For a great description on exactly what this event entails, check out Tara and Tyler’s blog: Going Slowly.

Photo Credit:

Road Worker: Geordieb
Typical Bathroom: Shawn Smith

Random things you need to know when traveling to Vietnam:

– Electrical outlets are 240V, NOT 100V as in Canada. My mom learned this the hard way last year, when she fried her electric shaver (luckily, you can fix these things for cheap here). Always check your device to see if it can handle the voltage before you plug it in.

– When riding as a passenger on the motorcycle, do not hold on the driver. Instead, hold the handles on the back or keep your hands to the side. Hugging also means you’re a couple, which can lead to awkward situations. The first time I got on, I grabbed on to my cousin, to the amusement of everyone in the household.

– Walk slowly when crossing the road. While instinct may tell you to bolt, it’ll make you look like a fool. Look for gaps in traffic, take a few steps up and wait. Hold your hand out (as if to say “stop”) and keep going until you reach the other side. Intimidating at first, but the cyclists/cars will swerve around you while you’re stationary (hence, sudden movements = death).

Regarding animals:

Don’t be surprised to see critters roaming all over the place. The locals will laugh if you start screaming at the sight of ____ running across the floor/walls.

– In the more rural parts of Vietnam, you get cows on the road. No worries here, they’re not like deer and won’t jump in front of your motorcycle/car.

– Chickens are everywhere! Wandering around back alleyways, outside (and sometimes inside) restaurants.

– Lizards are everywhere! These are small little guys, and quick. I saw one in our bathroom, and tons of them at a restaurant.

– Cockroaches are everywhere =( Every once in a while, I see them scurrying around on the streets. To my dismay, I also saw one at my uncle’s house. None at my aunt’s house though, thank goodness.

I hope.

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