Things operate differently in other parts of the world. Doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it’s just unusual from what we are used to. Part of the fun is figuring out how or why a certain culture does something the way they do. These are some of the quirky things to be prepared for if you visit Vietnam.
Toilet paper: In our apartment/long stay hotel, we have to supply our own toilet paper. We did have a small roll provided upon arrival. But, let me tell you, that goes quickly with the foreign foods you are eating. Travel Kleenex or wet wipes definitely come in handy if you cannot find a store to buy more or when you are out and about and have a pit stop. Some of the toilets are western style, like ours in America; others are just a hole in the ground. Many do not have paper available. All of them have a hand sprayer next to the toilet, which I haven’t used yet, but I’m assuming it’s used to spray off your bum? I just think that would get everything wet. So bring some extra with you at all times.
Soda: It’s not that common. You don’t see it everywhere with plentiful options like in the US. If they have it, your choice will be Coke or Sprite. No diet versions either. About three weeks in, I really wanted a Sprite Zero. My American cravings were starting to settle in. Now I don’t really drink soda on a regular basis, however I do like a Sprite Zero every now and then. I ordered Burger King one night (which FYI their food delivery system is totally on point here) honestly because it said it had Sprite. I really wanted that plus French fries. Yeah, my fast food cravings kicked in after eating too many spring rolls and noodles. So the guy showed up with a bottle of water instead. I was really sad, until I bit into a glorious, salty French fry and made my Sprite cravings leave quickly.
Madame: The locals here call you “Madame.” I’m not used to that at all. But apparently, according to our program leader Cam’s information, it is that their culture always calls you something older than what they think you are. So it’s a form of flattery. If they were to call me something younger, that would be an insult. When someone is trying to get your attention, they keep saying “Madame,” and I had no idea who they were talking to. Until I turned around and they were talking to me.
Beer is less expensive than water: Vietnam is still a developing country. They’ve come a long way for sure. But there is still a lot of poverty. You cannot drink the water here. Almost everyone has a water cooler or you buy bottles of water. So beer is cheaper and many locals drink that instead of the water. I admit I’ve had more beer here than I normally would but that’s because it’s more prevalent than wine. I cut back a lot on wine here because, well, I just can’t really find it. Plus, when you are sweating your butt off, a nice cold Saigon tastes better than room temperature wine.
Grab instead of Uber: They have a rideshare system here—it’s just called Grab. Cool thing is you can install it on your phone and it has a cash option instead of linking a card. It will tell you how much before you get the Grab. It’s super affordable too. Most rides are around 25,000 dong, which is $1. Once you figure this out, you will no longer walk anywhere. Then they have these crazy promotions. After I signed up and took a few rides, I got the next 5 free. FREE. Wish Uber would do that back home.
Motorbikes flood the streets: Everyone here drives a motorbike. They are more affordable than a car. So for maybe every 20 bikes on the street, there is 1 car. Makes sense though after you have been here a while. The traffic is nuts. It goes every which way, through red lights, on the wrong side of the road. You can look 20 ways when crossing the street then just pray and hope for the best. You can also Grab a motorbike. They have an extra helmet, and you just jump on the back and off you go!
It’s very safe: I honestly have not felt that I was ever in any danger the whole time being here. Walking, taking Grabs alone, has never been a problem. Biggest is if someone is trying to sell you something you don’t want. But you just politely say no or shake your head and move on. It’s easier to walk away in Hanoi versus in Mexico, Jamaica, or Roatan from my experience. Those sales people are like hound dogs and won’t leave you alone.
Haggling: Definitely need to learn that skill. Almost everything is negotiable unless you’re in, say, a grocery store. Or something professional. I didn’t like it at first, but if you just treat it like a game, it becomes fun. Try it out with something you don’t care about. The more times you put the item back on the shelf and walk away is when they come down. I’ve gotten the exact price I wanted each time. Then you sometimes find it the next day for half of what you haggled it for! Also, be prepared for haggling in places like the post office. Wasn’t prepared for that either. See my entire blog about my post office experience.
Street vendors: In Hanoi, street markets are plentiful. You can practically find anything and everything you want any time of day. They take the concept of an open free market to an entirely different level. They have streets that are specifically labeled for a certain product. For example, if you need shoes, you go to shoe street. Everyone on that street sells shoes. And it’s usually the same type of shoes too. You need fake flowers, you go to flower street. You need birthday decorations, you go to party alley. You get the picture. It’s bizarre to me because basically you are a business on a street with all of your competitors selling the exact same product. So if you don’t like the price of this pot, go next door and get the same one for cheaper.
Bicycle vendors: Then there are the people peddling bikes selling items in baskets in the streets. Everything from fresh fruits to underwear. Some have a loud speaker attached to it, yelling whatever product it is they are selling. But since we cannot understand, it’s like a weird scene from Mad Max. An old Vietnamese lady riding a bicycle slowly down a deserted, dusty street with a loud scratchy voice as if it’s being played on a phonograph, repeating the same words in monotone over and over again.
The police: Vietnam is still a communist country. You can’t really tell when you are just here as a tourist. But they are around in their green uniforms. I’ve heard they pull over the locals a lot on their motorbikes. However, not tourists because the police don’t speak English. But I do keep a photocopy of my passport and Visa on me at all times just in case. They do have the authority to do random checks in hotels, offices, and might just show up in a nightclub for no reason. I’ve seen the cops come down beer street and try to harass the bar owners but nothing really happened, which I thought was really interesting. Nobody seemed to care that the police were there. So I didn’t really think their presence was a big deal after almost four weeks of living in Hanoi. Nonetheless, one night we were at a hookah lounge. We were having drinks and a hookah, while other groups of young girls had large balloons which I believe were full of nitrous oxide—which seems to be the new drug of choice. The music was great, the vibe was fun, and we were having a great time until I looked over to my right and there was a cop standing about a foot from me in his green uniform. Since I hadn’t really seen much panic from their presence prior, I didn’t really think much of it at that second. Still, I thought it was odd that he was just standing there staring at everyone. Then he proceeded through the club to the other end and everyone got quiet, the music almost stopped, and the girls with balloons quickly deflated and were tossed aside. The officer walked upstairs and they turned all the lights on. People slowly started to leave as we were still digesting what was going on. For a bit I thought he was gone. However, I looked over to my left and he was in a corner on his cell phone and I swear he was staring at us. We were the only Americans that I could see in the club at that moment. We decided it was best to leave, now. As we got our bill, another police officer walked in. We paid and walked out as quickly as possible down the street and into our apartment with no delays. I did not want to stick around and see what was going to happen next.
*Look for the book coming out soon on how you can run your business while traveling abroad!