I just arrived in Vietnam last night on a bus from southern China. So what do I do during my first day in a country? How do I orient myself?
This is my standard initiation to any country. To see what’s up—head out to the streets. Open up your eyes, keep your ears open, and see how day-to-day life operates.
In Vietnam there’s lots of life on the streets. Halong City, my first stop, isn’t too big, so there’s not very much traffic. I’m staying in Hon Gay, a non-touristy part of the city. Motor bikes wiz by the storefronts below buildings that are mostly under five stories high. The Vietnamese like to eat outside. For breakfast the go-to food is noodles. I settled at a street stall only two blocks from the hotel, pulled up a tiny plastic chair and ate a bowl of noodles.
Before visiting a new destination, most people devour as much information as they can. And I usually do the same.
But occasionally I don’t. Your ignorance may end up leading you to meeting more people and getting better travel experiences. I wrote a previous post about why less is more.
Before entering Vietnam I did read up on the country—in my guidebook and on the web, reading of the experiences of other bloggers and travelers who had gone before me. I picked the brains of travelers I met in Southeast Asia who had previously been to Vietnam. I was supposed to visit Vietnam the last time I was in Southeast Asia when I went to Borneo and missed Vietnam because I spent too much time in Malaysia, northern Thailand, and Laos.
Jot down notes
Get the important things straight—like coffee. I just read an informatively fun post over on GoBackpacking.com on getting the perfect cup Vietnamese coffee. So here are the essential notes I penciled down:
Order Ca phe sua da when I want a black coffee mixed with sweetened condensed milk, served on ice.
Get a Ca phe den nong –when I need a cup of robust pitch black coffee without milk or sugar.
Also it helps to write down the essential phrases and numbers in the local language. Any person appreciates a thank you in their own language. Even if you mess up the pronunciation, they’ll still smile.
Not one café, street stall, or coffee shop had their prices written down. Get an idea of approximate costs from your guidebook, so you have a base to go with. Vietnamese habitually overcharge anyone who looks foreign. On the rare occasion that someone charges you the local rate, you’ll be shocked by how cheap this country could be.
It’s important not to be gullible, but also don’t be accusatory. If you think it’s too expensive, either ask for a cheaper price or just smile and move along to the next noodle vendor.
Eating is one of the easiest ins into a culture. Vietnam is a great example because people eat out so often. Somebody once said Vietnam is a country of skinny people obsessed with food. It’s true. Prepared food is affordable and delicious. In fact, most cultures adore food, so this will work most places.
Compare to Previous Country
It’s hard not to compare Vietnam to the country I just came from: China. Here are the most noticeable differences after the first day.
- More outside life. This probably has to do with Vietnam’s climate—but eating, drinking, socializing usually takes place outside. If it’s not a street-food cart with outside seating, then the café’s tables will pour out onto the street.
- In China there is sufficient public transportation and lots of pedestrians.
- In Vietnam, public transportation is everybody go out and buy your own motorbike.
- In China, traffic is light, but heavy—meaning fewer but much bigger vehicles. In Vietnam, it’s lots of little vehicles.
- In China I was generally quoted honest prices. In Vietnam I have seen a huge fluctuation with the same product between different vendors.