1. Wearing white April – October.
That whole “don’t wear white after Labor Day” thing is reversed in Nam, like it’s some sort of fashion opposite day. Why? The first rain of the season will inevitably be when you’re wearing a blue bra underneath that white tank and when it’s sunny out, no one’s any the wiser. But then you get that surprise drench from Mother Nature and it’s one giant wet t-shirt contest for the world to enjoy for free. Stacy London would not be proud. Neither would mom.
2. Attempt to wear the “massage underwear.”
When you walk into most massage places, they give you some garments to wear. Some places give you a robe, some places will give you something resembling pajamas, and once in a while either the assistant forgets or you just found a place to walk around nude. Most places I ran across would give the females “underwear” that was the same material as those disposable shower caps — white, kind of see-through? You know the kind.
I could wear them on my head, and that’s about it.
3. Try to be a model.
If you’re anything like me, that is. I’m just about 5’11” and a US 8ish, which is code for, “What the hell was I thinking?” Well, I was thinking that I was flattered and wanted to feel pretty, but that’s not how ‘Nam – or, well, most places – works.
It started with some modeling agent finding me on Lê Duẩn and giving me her card — within a week I was set up for their next runway show. When I went to the fitting, I was surrounded by giant Russian twigs posing as women and teeny Vietnamese girls running around with long, green fingernails. Now, my Vietnamese wasn’t fantastic, but when it was my turn, I was clued in enough to hear the phrase “Mập quá!” (“So fat!”) thrown around enough to make my ego sink.
Pretty obviously, it didn’t work out. They asked me to lose 5 kgs that week and I didn’t. The only solace I got was that their kelly green fingernails clashed with their forest green platform wedges. Platform wedges.
4. Not worrying about the tones…or pronunciation at all, really.
At the beginning, you won’t really notice it. But a few months will pass, and you’ll be sitting at a restaurant when that sad expat yells out, “Em oy!” and you cringe. The waiter comes over, they have an awkward conversation, and that same expat says, “Come on,” as “thank you.” Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s good that you’re trying and that you’re being polite – but everyone else who knows better is judging you and begging that you’d just try a little harder. Yes, Vietnamese is a tough language, but any effort to mimic the actual pronunciation is much, much better than none.
5. Only take taxis.
One of the quickest ways to feel humiliated happens when you and all your friends are standing outside the karaoke hall all about to depart. They grab their bikes or hop on with a xe om driver and you’re…waiting for the taxi you called. Why? Well, you’re too nervous to get a bike, and those xe om drivers are smelly — and once in a while, you get one who tries to wrap your arms around his mid-section. While this is true, everyone else is thinking, “Man up already. If there’s one place to experience ‘Nam, it’s the street. And you’re not.”
6. Turn down grandma’s cooking.
I’ll never forget the time I walked into my student’s house to the smell of something freshly grilling, said, “Chào mọi người!” (“Hello, everybody!”) and immediately walked up the stove to see what was cooking, telling them that the kitchen smelled great.
It was a rat. A full-on rat. Just petrified, lightly battered and browned, a little rigor-mortis-y in the frying pan.
And they harassed me for what felt like days on end until I ate some. Question after question came. Even after I told them, “Em ăn chay,” or “I’m vegetarian,” they didn’t relent. I knew they’d be a little disappointed and feel judged if I didn’t partake, and being in the spotlight for being closed-minded didn’t feel so good either.
And you know what? It tasted like chewy chicken.
7. Don’t scope out the salon before you dye.
Unless you have dark, fine hair, be wary. Even the nicest of salons, even the “Western” salons may wind up bringing on an existential disaster. My thick, coarse, blonde hair was no match for one of the highest-paid stylists in Saigon, and I walked out with hair that looked like Jessica Simpson post fake-bake. Oh, and fried. On the upside, I think I only cried once.
8. Not brushing up on the meaning of your hand symbols.
A common hand symbol in Vietnam is to shake your hands, palms up, fingers spread, to indicate “I don’t know.” I still use it to this day, sometimes without realizing it, and it’s incredibly useful. I used it all the time — to my students, to my superiors, to people on the street…and then one of my coworkers informed me that it can also mean, “I don’t know, so fuck off and stop asking.”
Whoops. Also, did I not realize how many people were telling me to fuck off? Great.
And that’s not even including the totally dirty meaning of crossing your fingers.
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