First Day in a New Country: Here’s What I do

What I love about China (it’s not what you think)
May 2, 2012
The Traffic of Hanoi [photos]
May 7, 2012

First Day in a New Country: Here’s What I do


eating my first bowl of Pho in Vietnam

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.

pickup soccer match in Halong City Vietnam


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 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.

vietnamese coffee

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.
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Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno has been traveling the world and writing about it for the better part of 20 years. His articles and essays have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, and Transitions Abroad magazine. He blogs at Bohemian Traveler and edits the independent travel magazine He most recently set up a tour company offering authentic, small group tours at Unquote Travel. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


  1. Ayngelina says:

    I LOVE Vietnam. I was only there a few days but fortunately Toronto has great Vietnamese coffee, pho and bun cha. Can’t wait to see what you discover here.

  2. Stephen Bugno says:

    Ayngelina, Vietnam is certainly not disappointing in regards to food. I had Bun Cha for the first time in Hanoi and ate it several times before I left.

  3. Stephen Bugno says:

    @Michael Are you sure you’re really for the coffee? It’s super think ad sometimes lace with vanilla.

  4. Mike B. says:

    Food looks amazing! Looking forward to my trip. I am ready for a Ca phe den nong. Any Pho King Restaurants in Vietnam?

  5. Adam says:

    Definitely try to do all these things to help orient myself at first. And I remember when I first arrived in Vietnam, I dropped my bag in a hostel and then immediately when to get a big bowl of pho!

    Enjoy 🙂

  6. alexis says:

    Great advice! I do pretty much all of these when visiting a country. Eating is my favorite part!

    I do wanna add to your “Read” category that reading a little bit about the culture isn’t such a bad idea. Little things like not having to tip your server in other countries or making sure not to wear sleeveless clothing if you’re a woman in certain countries would help. You wouldn’t wanna offend anyone you encounter at a new place.

    My favorite part is learning how to say “Thank you” or “Hello” in different languages. It shows that you’re trying and people are more willing to help you if you are. =)

  7. Stephen Bugno says:

    Yeah John, I guess it’s good to just experiment with both ways.

  8. John says:

    Good tips! I have gone back and forth between reading a lot on a country and just letting the country reveal itself to me. If I don’t read a lot beforehand, I feel like I am missing out somehow, but it also allows the country to reveal itself on its own, and not through a guidebook.

  9. Noel says:

    Good advice, I especially like the part where you just wander. It’s one of the best way to see what the place has to offer. Oh! And I love Bun Cha too! And not to mention Cau Lau in Hoi An!

  10. myvan pham says:

    I am Vietnamese , thank you for love my country! CHAO mean HELLO and
    CAM ON mean THANK YOU in Vietnam language .If you can go thought small village you will see a lot of things interesting ! and so many kinds of foods . Eating a local food also my favorite part too ! I have a plan to come back next year for high school reunion! I am so excited! I want to see San Cau market- a oldest,traditional market in Vietnam

  11. Denise j Quigley says:

    I had planned to visit Hoi An in 2020, but of course, all was cancelled. I like to unpack once and do day trips (just 2 weeks), do you think Hoi An would be good for that? my only experience in Asia is Chiang Mai Thailand, and that certainly worked for me there. Any advise appreciated.

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