Photo: GaudiLab/Shutterstock

You Know You’re in Vietnam When…

Insider Guides Vietnam
Photo: GaudiLab/Shutterstock
Joe Batruny
Feb 3, 2015

You spend the night drinking on a tiny plastic stool.

If you’ve visited Vietnam, you know. If not, imagine tiny, red or blue plastic chairs arranged on the sidewalk and street like an oversized game of music chairs. You sit and wait for a second, before smelling the cart of dried squid passing by. Then your bia hơi arrives. What’s bia hơi? A beer found all over Vietnam, brewed daily and served up street-side. Big deal, right? Not so fast. Each glass of beer typically costs 15-to-25 cents. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself spending an hour or two nightly on tiny chairs, knocking back bia hơi with friends and strangers alike.

Crossing the street involves dodging no less than 35 motorbikes.

According to Vietnam’s Ministry of Transport, there are 37 million registered motorbikes in the country (compared to roughly two million registered cars). How do you cross the street, you ask? Well, start walking. With confidence. Not too fast. Not too slow. Don’t hesitate. Don’t stop in the middle of the road. Just. Keep. Walking. Drivers will zip past you on their motorbikes, dodging you in the process. The name of the game is trust, because frankly, traffic doesn’t really stop. If you’d prefer not to risk it, well, enjoy your side of the street.

You quickly learn not to bat an eyelash at public urination.

It might be surprising the first or second time you see someone pull their pants down and start using the restroom in a public area (street, square, you name it), but you’ll quickly get over it. And don’t worry — if you’re in Vietnam long enough, you will see it. With that said, you might come across public defecation, too. No word on if you’ll ever get used to it, though.

You manage to offend a local via your broken Vietnamese.

Think the Vietnamese language might be easy because it’s written with the Latin alphabet? Think again. Instead, think diacritical marks, diphthongs, triphthongs, and offglides. Any mark above or below a letter can change the sound or meaning of a word. For that reason, you’ll likely think you can read every street sign, but chances are you’ll pronounce them in a completely incorrect manner. Or you might just happen to make a local’s eyes widen when you make an unsuccessful attempt in telling them in Vietnamese that the pomelo they just offered you was delicious.

You get a haircut on the side of the road.

If you’re in Hanoi and you need a cheap, quick (and good) haircut, you could always go to a nearby barbershop. But who needs barbershops when you have barbers running their businesses street-side? Walk up. Get a haircut. Pay. Walk off. Sure, you might become a tourist attraction for the 10 to 15 minutes that you’re getting your haircut, but it’s worth the experience. Besides, you probably don’t get to enjoy the nice weather while getting a haircut very often back home, do you?

You witness several mattresses being transported — on one motorbike.

If seeing thousands of motorbikes daily wasn’t enough culture shock on your first visit to Vietnam, make sure to take a look at what’s being transported on them (and they’re not giant Harley Davidson bikes, mind you). Several pigs. Several mattress. Tires upon tires. Dozens of goldfish in plastic bags. Entire families. And every time you see something giant being transported via motorbike, you’ll shake your head in disbelief, feeling as if you’re watching a Cirque du Soleil balancing act.

It’s karaoke time. Enough said.

Karaoke is one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Vietnam, but the experience isn’t your typical karaoke night at Applebee’s. You’ll go out, have beers, hang out with some people, and drunkenly belt out tunes all night. You may or may not get to do this on a junk boat in Ha Long Bay. While many of the karaoke bars are awesome, keep an eye out. You might end up hanging out with some cool, friendly girls and having a great time almost by “coincidence,” but you won’t be quite as excited when it’s time to pay the bill.

You’re invited into a local’s home after knowing them for 10 minutes.

If you’re visiting Vietnam for the first time, chances are that you don’t have too many connections within the country. Lucky for you, everyone is pretty damn friendly. Eating a banh mi prepared by a couple as the rest of their family hangs out in the background? Don’t be surprised if you’re offered (yes, offered not sold) tea, fruits, and an impromptu Vietnamese lesson before going on your way. Trying to bargain with the hotel concierge while booking a Ha Long Bay cruise last minute? Well, you might not necessarily get a huge bargain, but you may end up being treated to homemade rice wine, rice liquor, and hot pot by the hotel employees. Not such a bad deal after all.

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