Before I came to Vietnam, the only thing I really knew about the country was that it was in Asia and there were lots of films about the war there. Not really a well-rounded view of things… I had some ideas about what it would be like, many of which were wrong. So, for other people that don’t have a clue about the place, maybe I can clear up a couple of silly ideas of my own before you have them too.
It’s super cheap
By Western standards, Vietnam is definitely a low-cost place to stay. However, in comparison to the surrounding countries, it’s probably about the same. Rent is higher than Thailand, but pay is also better.
In terms of transport, there is no train to get around the city (though a Sky Rail is on its way) so most people get taxis, moto-taxis or buy a motorbike. I chose the motorbike option thinking that it would be an investment that would save me money in the long run… Oh, how wrong I was! After numerous trips to the mechanic, this has become one of my larger expenses here, not to mention a big time-waster.
Food-wise, a Vietnamese meal can be bought very cheaply here, often less than D40,000 ($2). However, food that is not Vietnamese (not just Western but anything else) is usually substantially higher. Doing supermarket shops add up more than eating street-food but markets can save you a bit of cash if you’re good at haggling (which I’m not). So, basically, if you’re happy to eat noodles for every meal of every day and bargain the hell outta beef, food is cheap. Take that as you will.
It’s always hot
This is actually a misconception I had until very recently. The weather was astoundingly hot (for a Brit, like myself), occassionally surpassing 30°C and often feeling a few degrees hotter down on the ground. I could scarcely believe that the weather would ever change and I assumed that the Vietnamese locals were simply exaggerating about how cold it would get. ‘It won’t get to a tough Northern lass, like me’ I thought.
I could not have been more wrong! There is quite a clear (and cold) winter in Hanoi. As I write this, I am sniffling into a tissue and wearing a puffa-coat and scarf indoors. It’s 8°C today which, although not too chilly in many parts of England, is a huge drop from a few weeks ago here. My body has hardly adjusted and I’m freaking out every time I hear news of another dip in temperature.
No one speaks English
Actually, almost everyone speaks a few words, which is more than most English-speakers can say for Vietnamese.
As an emerging contender for TEFL teaching, the locals are making huge leaps in the language. In the Old Quarter especially (the city centre in Hanoi) every other person can speak English.
The Vietnamese language is impossible to learn
When I first heard the Vietnamese language, I was absolutely certain that I’d never master it. And, just before I get your hopes up, I was 100% right. I am still near incomprehensible.
However, it isn’t impossible. Yes, there are a load of crazy tones, every word means a million different things, and no one understand you even when you say words correctly because they assume you’re trying to say something in English… BUT it is possible.
I have been denying this for a long time but every time I say ‘Vietnamese is too hard to learn’, I seem to meet another ex-pat who speaks the language quite confidently. So, although I cannot brag having learnt it myself, it wouldn’t be honest to say that it’s impossible to master.
The roads are super dangerous
For anyone visiting from a country with relatively organised roads, it is certainly a shock to the system. Red lights are constantly ran, zebra crossings mean nothing and car horns are the soundtrack of the nation. (Seriously, bring ear plugs.)
However, because the roads are so unpredictable, most people are very cautious. You can’t tell by looking as it just looks like madness, but the reactions of the drivers here are super-sonic!
Surprisingly, the rate of road fatalities is actually 23.10 per 100,000, ranking lower than its neighbours Malaysia and Thailand. Saying that, don’t go hopping around in roads unnecessarily.
People are rude
Originally I was offended by every person who stared at me with interest and every time someone elbowed me ever-so-slightly and didn’t say sorry. Spoiler alert: if you enter Vietnam with this attitude (HCM and Hanoi especially) you will spend all of your time being very angry.
After a while I realised, this wasn’t rude in Vietnam. In fact, my smiling inanely at strangers was not really appreciated and people were always extremely confused when I said ‘sorry’. In short, there are just entirely different impressions of politeness here, and I’m still learning what they are.
Of course, there are people who are purposely rude, but fortunately they’re in the minority!
The food is bland
SO much of my time was wasted here whining about how watery and plain the food was. I didn’t get the big deal about Pho and I just couldn’t get excited about a bowl of noodles.
Then, on a day out with a couple of locals, I was shown how to properly eat Vietnamese food. ‘What do you think all these things are on the table?’ they said ‘Chili, lime, salt, salad – it’s for you to season your own food!’ Ahha… Problem solved.
Everything can be fixed
You know the saying ‘If you’re going to do something, do it well’? That does not apply here.
Something that I was completely infatuated by for my first few months of living here was the ability of every handy-man, mechanic or random Vietnamese guy on the street to be able to fix absolutely anything.
Your motorbike has broken down? They’ve got you. Your watch has stopped ticking? They’ll fix it. Your head has fallen off? They’ve got you covered.
However, be warned, these fixed do not last long… Vietnam is the King of the ‘bodge job’.
I’m going to eat dog by accident
Yes, dog is served in some meals here. However, it’s unlikely you’ll be ‘accidentally’ served it for a few reasons.
1. Dog is a speciality.
It will cost more than your average meal. It’s not something that will be added to your meal to make up for a lack of other meat.
2. There’s less dog around than there used to be.
Although there’s still way too much dog cooking than there should be (in my humble opinion), there have been a few campaigns recently to raise awareness about the practise and why it shouldn’t be supported.
3. It’s pretty obvious it’s dog.
If you don’t want to eat dog, don’t go to the stall with an animal on a skewer that clearly looks like a dog. Easy.