There are just some things that are so small you don’t think about the fact that they might be done differently in another culture. I’m not talking about driving on the other side of the road – even simpler than that… these are some that I’ve learned through trial and error!
- Don’t depend on Vietnamese to respond to your email. You have to call them if you require information. I assume that this is because of the tonal quality of their language? I have no clue ultimately as to why, but it’s obnoxious. Apparently this is an Asia-wide thing.
- Most people will have just enough English words, especially in service industries, to understand and help you. If language breaks down, miming and gesturing like you’re in Acting 101 will get you far. However, you will make someone’s day by attempting Vietnamese with them, even if you’re getting it wrong (which you probably are). They probably don’t even know what you’re trying to say… but you’re trying!
- Master “no thanks!” You will need it if you visit the sprawling touristy District 1, or anywhere there’s a xe om driver chillin’ (so, everywhere). A headshake and a flat-handed “cut off” gesture will usually work, but some of these guys are INSISTENT and will follow you, talking quickly in English, trying to be buds with you or warn you of the dire results your stinginess will have on their family. NO THANKS.
- NEVER hail a cab with your hand up in the air, fingers pointed in the sky or beckoning with your palm to you. It is rude, like calling a dog. ALWAYS point your fingers out, palm down, and flutter like you’re saying goodbye. You can expect a taxi or three, and a mass of xe om if you so desire (you probably don’t, although it’s fun).
- Always write down both your destination and your return address in Vietnamese on a piece of paper prior to flagging a cab. No one expects you to get the street name pronunciations right, but this will avoid most annoying problems, such as…
- If you go by xe om, especially, don’t even bother giving an address and simply follow along on the GPS on your phone, and yell out directions as you go (left, right, ahead, stop, in Vietnamese). Many times taxi drivers will drive you the long way on purpose, start the fare at 30k VND, or simply drop you off anywhere if they think you aren’t paying attention.
- Chopsticks shouldn’t touch your lips, mouth or tongue. (A STUMPOSSIBLE RULE.)
- Don’t use the water. For anything. No, don’t wet your toothbrush. No, don’t gargle with it. It’s ok to put it on your face, but don’t ingest it unfiltered in any way. For cooking, it is ok to boil first and then use for rice or pasta, but really, get it to a rolling boil and let it hang for a minute. Shit is nasty.
- Don’t drink bottled water that has the seal broken! Restaurants will ALWAYS give you a bottle with an unbroken seal. If it’s broken, don’t trust it and ask for another with a plastic seal.
- Accordingly, water is as expensive as a regular drink here, and is almost never complimentary. It’s cheaper to bring your own, or drink coffee or tea (hot drinks where boiling has been involved).
- Even vegetarian dishes may come with meat-y parts not specified on the menu, usually pork of some kind or a meat broth. Tofu dishes do not equal vegetarian dishes! It does, however, usually mean that the dish will be damn tasty.
- The smaller the animal, the smaller and more ridiculous the bones. Fish and frog are almost impossible for me to eat without my fingers (but they are SO TASTY).
- People like to laugh! Even if you’re laughing at yourself (actually, especially so).
- It’s ok to walk away from the unwanted attention of merchants of all kinds. Vietnamese are out to make a buck, and they’re persistent. We may find them rude, but they’re just being ruthless businesspeople. Don’t be a dick, but don’t let someone steal something just as important – your time or attention. They could be trying to distract you while a buddy rips you off.
- Keep your belongings on you or in the hotel/building safe at all times – Passport, Visa, computer, money, everything. Do not trust the maid. Do not trust the maintenance guy. Do not trust that dog that follows you home. Do not trust anyone you didn’t come out of or played catch with as a child. They have to earn it, and you won’t be here long enough for them to earn it.
- Pay attention. To the traffic. To the people around you. To street signs. To the position of the sun. To your surroundings. To the guy on the motorbike driving down the sidewalk against the one-way traffic on the street. To the guy trying his best to guilt trip you into getting a sandal shine that you don’t need. To the kids. To the sidewalk as it dips up and down for motorbikes. To construction workers and environments you walk through. To the million people you’re jostling against as you try to buy bottled water. Just pay attention and be present in the moment.