As you can see from the Where Are We Now? sidebar on the blog, we are back in the United States. Although we are settling back into “real life,” I intend to keep blogging until I’ve gotten all the way through our trip. I’d like to finish telling our travel stories, and I’d also like to do some reflecting on our experiences now that we’re on the other side of this journey. And after that? We’re not done with travel, by any means. We already have more travel plans in the works, and Matthew has set a goal of reaching 30 countries by the time he turns 30! So I would love for the blogging here to continue as we incorporate our love of travel into a more “conventional” life. (At least for now…Who knows what the future holds??)
These random facts and observations posts are becoming a kind of tradition each time I start writing about a new country. (You can see all of them by clicking here.) Matthew and I really enjoy observing and processing cultural differences as we travel. We’ve talked a lot about wanting to travel internationally with our (future) children so that they will see from an early age the incredible diversity of the world and understand that there’s more than one way to live your life.
We like sharing the things we learn and observe here on the blog because we think it helps to provide more context for when we start posting about whatever we got up to in that particular country. Vietnam remains at the top of my list of favorite countries we’ve visited, so I can’t wait to start sharing more about it with you!
Here are 31 random facts and observations about Vietnam:
- The official language of Vietnam is Vietnamese.
- Written Vietnamese used to use a modified version of the Chinese character system. However, after France took over Vietnam, they wanted to eliminate Vietnam’s connections to China, so they created a new character system using the Latin alphabet and forced the Vietnamese to use it.
- By the time Vietnam received its independence from France, the romanized character system was so widespread that it was maintained as the official script of the Vietnamese language.
- There was a bit more of a language barrier in Vietnam than in Thailand. People working in the hospitality industry could generally speak English well enough for us to communicate with them, but at local shops and food stalls, English was nearly nonexistent. (And our ability to speak Vietnamese was even more nonexistent.) We got by with a lot of pointing and gesturing.
- We noticed that people who were learning English were very eager to talk with us and practice their English. Several mentioned that they liked to watch American television on Youtube as another way to bolster their English studies. (One particular man mentioned that his favorite was the Ellen DeGeneres Show!)
- Over time, we realized that there were certain English synonym pairs where most Vietnamese people could understand one of the words but not its synonym. For example, we learned that we needed to ask for a “big” water, not a “large” water and an “iced” beverage rather than a “cold” beverage. Once we saw a tourist and a waiter go round and round because of a misunderstanding about iced vs. cold. The tourist ordered a beer and wanted to make sure it was not going to be warm. He said he wanted it “cold.” The waiter didn’t understand at first but eventually figured out what the tourist was wanting. To confirm he said, “You want it iced?” He didn’t really mean that they would put the beer on ice. It’s just that “iced” is the word that he knew for a cold beverage. Of course, the tourist didn’t realize that, so he said, “No, not iced. Cold.” And they went round and round some more.
- More examples of this phenomenon: At the end of the meal, you need to ask for the “bill” not the “check.” Also, if someone asked where we were from, we had to respond “America” because no one understood if we said “United States.”
- Historically, Vietnamese religious traditions were influenced by Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.
- Today, the majority of Vietnamese people do not categorize themselves as religious. Among those who do practice a region, Buddhism is the most common (~12% of the population), followed by Catholicism (~7% of the population).
- Although 86% of people living in Vietnam are ethnically Vietnamese (also called Viet or Kinh), Vietnam is also home to 53 other ethnic groups, each with their own unique cultural practices and traditions.
- As in East Africa and all over the rest of Southeast Asia, the tap water in Vietnam is not considered safe to drink. We didn’t drink it, but we did use it to rinse our toothbrushes. (Using bottled water to rinse your toothbrush every night is a pain and wastes a lot of water.) We never got sick from doing so.
- The etiquette around eating is different in a number of ways from etiquette in the United States. For example, it is not considered rude to slurp when you are eating soup or noodles. In fact, doing so shows that you are enjoying the food.
- When you need to set your chopsticks down, you should rest them across the top of your bowl. Leaving them sticking out of a bowl of soup is considered rude.
- At many coffee shops and street stalls, we were served free tea, rather than free water (as is more traditional in the U.S. and a lot of other places). I guess Vietnamese people tend to prefer tea? As a bonus, if you’re served tea, you know that the water was boiled and is, therefore, safe to drink.
- When I refer to “street stalls”, I’m mostly referring to a kind of hybrid between a street stand and a restaurant. These places had actual space in a building, but the fronts are totally open to the outside. Normally at the very front is the cooking area and then inside there are tables.
- You will also find food being sold at stands along the street. We were recommended not to eat at these stands (even though locals do.) The stands don’t have access to things like running water, so the food is more likely to have problematic bacteria. And as foreigners, our stomaches aren’t accustomed to the bacteria and can’t tolerate it as well as locals can.
- We ate at tons of street stalls but never ate at the stands. We had lots of delicious food, and we never got sick.
- Food at the street stalls is really fresh. At most restaurants in the United States, the ingredients have been shipped across the country (or the world) and then have been sitting in the fridge or freezer for a while. At the street stalls in Vietnam, the ingredients are purchased fresh from the local markets each and every morning.
- Most street stalls specialize in just one or two dishes. This is nice because it means they do that dish really well. It does mean, though, that you have to decide what specific dish you want (and agree among your group) before you go out for a meal.
- A lot of restaurants and street stalls have these plastic, child-sized tables and chairs that they set out on the sidewalk where customers can eat. But sometimes it looks a bit comical to see grown adults in these teeny tiny chairs. I assume they are used because they’re easier to stack up and store when they’re not in use.
- Coming from the United States, the driving in Vietnam feels very chaotic. You definitely have to adjust to the different driving customs if you want to drive yourself. (We didn’t drive, but we rode bikes during our 2.5 week stay in the smaller town of Hoi An.)
- Probably the biggest adjustment for me was that when motorbikes are making a turn, they will always take the shortest path. This means that if they are making a left turn, they will turn into the wrong lane. It only a took a few near-collisions with motorcycles for me to realize I needed to be on the lookout for that.
- In Vietnam, and especially in the bigger cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, you hear tons of honking. However, unlike in the U.S., honking isn’t an indication of anger or aggression. Rather, it’s a way of alerting people that you are coming. Many of the intersections have neither stop signs nor traffic lights, so you have to warn people that you are approaching.
- Moto drivers pretty much never want to slow down or stop, and there’s a near-constant stream of them on the road. If you need to cross the street, you can’t wait for the road to be clear or you’ll just be standing there looking like an idiot for a loooong time. (Trust us. We learned from personal experience.)
- So here’s how you actually cross the street if you don’t want to be waiting half an hour on the side of the road: Wait for a short gap in the motorbikes. Step into the road and start walking at a steady pace. The steady pace is the key. Your instinct might be to try to dash across the street, but that’s bad because it makes it harder for the moto drivers to predict where you’re going to be. If you just walk at a moderate and consistent pace, the drivers will go around you. It actually took a lot of focus for me to override my brain’s impulse to run or freeze as I saw motorcycles coming towards me out of the corner of my eye. But my confidence increased the more I did it.
- We noticed that shops tended to be grouped together by type. So there would be a whole street of just one type of shop: a street of lighting shops, a street of flower shops, a street of metalworking shops, etc.
- Visiting museums and historical sites related to the Vietnam War was absolutely fascinating. The language used was so over-the-top that it sounded like what someone might write if they were parodying propaganda. Probably the worst was the video they play at the Chu Chi Tunnels. Our guide actually apologized to us before we sat down to watch it. It repeatedly refers to some of the Chu Chi villagers as “American killer heroes.”
- We had the opportunity to speak to Vietnamese people from both the north and the south. It was surprising how different their perspectives on the war are even now, 40 years after the war. Depending on who you ask, Ho Chi Minh is either “a great man” or “a serial killer.” (Two quotes from actual people we spoke with.)
- Regardless of their viewpoint on the war, no one directed any hostility towards us as Westerners or as Americans. On the contrary, most people were quite friendly.
- We noticed that people working at hotels were almost over-the-top friendly. I think a lot of them go to hospitality/tourism schools and are taught to be very polite and accommodating. When we stayed in hotels, the staff members were always smiling, asking us about our days, and offering us things like drinks and cold towels.
- We also found that people were very curious about why we decided to come to Vietnam and what we thought about it. We were often asked where in Vietnam we had been, and people wanted to know what we liked about Vietnam and what we and didn’t like.