One of the special characteristics of Vietnam is that it is a place in the world that retains a unique personality, way of life and culture. Therefore, there are some fairly significant differences that Westerners may have some difficulty adjusting to. Let’s talk about some of these differences, as well as a few tips to help when encountering these situations.
1) Crossing the Street
A few times, I’ve seen a group of tourists on the side of the road for like 5 minutes, with their necks stretched out into the street like ostriches, waiting for a break in motorbikes so that they can cross. I hate to say it bro, but just like that text message from the girl you met in the bar last night, that break is never coming.
The reality is, to cross the street in Vietnam, you gotta just kinda go, and trust the motorbikes to stream around you, like water running around a large rock in a river.
However, there’s a bit more to it than that; there are a few important rules:
Wait Until It’s Only Motorbikes Coming
You should actually wait until there aren’t any cars or buses coming; buses are a bit less capable of flowing around you, and obviously, the consequences of getting hit by a 4-wheeled vehicle are greater. I mean, you could time your crossing in a way to thread the needle between oncoming cars if you’re super-dope at calculating trajectories, but that’s a more Intermediate Crossing the Street in Vietnam skill. As a beginner, you should probably just wait until the only thing you see coming at you is just a sea of motorbikes.
Be Fluid and Consistent
Be like a confident, steadfast stallion; don’t be all f*ckin’ twitchy and spasmatic like a chipmunk. The key to crossing the street in Vietnam is to be predictable; you need to cross in one fluid series of motions so that drivers understand your trajectory and can calculate how to avoid hitting you. You can slightly adjust your walking pace, but be sure to do it gradually and fluidly. Definitely don’t start or stop suddenly. Don’t freeze up, and don’t bolt or abruptly jump forward or backward.
Don’t Worry about Getting Hit
It’s more likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy that way. If you’re worried and stressed, then you’re going to cross the street like a jittery crackhead, flailing all over the place and sporadically starting and stopping. In turn, that’s going to confuse and spook the drivers of the oncoming bikes.
Just don’t even think about how much high-velocity metal is currently barreling toward you. Think about lunch, how dope the song you’re listening to is, your date that night or whatever.
Make Yourself as Noticable as Possible
When you cross the street, you want to make yourself as big and noticeable as possible.
I mean, you could do that thing you’re supposed to do in Canada where you rigidly put your arm out in front of you at a 90-degree angle and march across the street like you’re in Germany seventy years ago, but I think that’ probably a bit excessive.
What Vietnamese people often do is put their arm out at about a 45-degree downwards angle toward the oncoming traffic, with their palm facing down. Then, they’ll kind of shake their hand back and forth to get drivers’ attention as they cross. This is also how many motorbike passengers signal that they are turning left or right. It’s usually effective enough.
Personally, I’ve found that just standing up as straight as I can and pushing my shoulders back as I walk across is usually enough to make riders notice that I’m in the street.
It Gets Easier with Practice
At first, crossing the street in Vietnam might seem like a daunting, perilous mission. However, keep practicing and you’ll get better. Also, you’ll feel really badass every time you successfully perform a solid, steady, well-calculated crossing; it’s like you’ll be able to feel your Vietnam Level increase in your brain.
Eventually, crossing the street will become second nature to you. You’ll be going for a morning jaunt, listening to music, with your head in the clouds thinking about breakfast, and then you’ll look back and realize that you just crossed like 4 lanes of high-speed traffic without even thinking about it.
Last Resort: Walk until You Find an Intersection with Traffic Lights
If you’re outside of the center of a major city, then you may have a long walk ahead of you to find an intersection with traffic lights. However, in the city centers of the major cities of Vietnam, you’ll often be able to find an intersection with traffic lights within a few-minute walk.
However, this method is more time-consuming and doesn’t include the badass feeling of successfully completing a traditional Vietnamese street crossing.
2) Driving a Motorbike on the Streets
Once you’re feeling pretty confident crossing the street. You might feel that you’re ready to graduate up to the next challenge: driving a motorbike on the streets. Now keep in mind that the biggest difference between driving in Vietnam and driving in a Western country is that traffic laws in Vietnam are more like guidelines than rules.
What that means is that you will have to remain focused on your surroundings and stay alert while driving.
When approaching an intersection, always be prepared for a motorbike or vehicle to dart out from the side. Also, keep an eye out for motorbikes driving toward you on the wrong side of the road, but people usually do that off to the side, near (or on) the sidewalk.
But really though, don’t drive a motorbike if you don’t feel comfortable with it; a lot of Westerners (especially Canadians) don’t have any previous experience whatsoever. In Pai, Thailand, I once saw a large English girl get on a motorbike she had just rented, and then within 3 seconds proceed to go from a stationary position to driving directly into a rice field on the side of the road (she was completely fine).
You should be honest with yourself about your riding ability; don’t feel like you need to drive a motorbike to get the Vietnam experience. There are other convenient and cheap transportation options in Vietnam. I’ve had the same motorbike for 5 years but barely use it anymore because I like to walk everywhere in the day (for exercise), and then take a Grab Bike (which is also pretty fun) when going out drinking.
3) The Amount of Horn-Honking
During rush hour, stand on the side of a major street in a city in Vietnam and count to 10. Close your eyes (but make sure your phone is away safely) and listen for how many horn-honks you hear. Maybe 5, maybe 10, maybe you don’t even f*cking know because they all blend and build off of each other into one monumental, epic crescendo of horn-honks.
In a Western country, if you hear someone honking their horn, it generally means someone f*cked up somehow. The idea is, if you are horn-honked upon then it’s because you almost caused an accident or did something else you shouldn’t, and someone’s telling you that you should feel bad.
In Vietnam on the other hand, everyone’s just honking their horn all day, every day.
In 2016, The first time I rode a motorbike on Yên Phụ highway in Hanoi, I was just honking away too cus it was just honestly pretty damn fun to feel a part of the high-speed organized chaos.
When going to my favorite burger spot (Valhalla Grill) in the Hanoi Old Quarter, I’d find it pretty amusing to see backpackers in elephant pants throw absolute conniptions when I’d honk my horn at them to get them to move out of the way.
But seriously though, there is a valid reason for the incessant honking. It’s not to say, “f*ck you” or, “I’m angry at you.” or, “You did something wrong.” or anything like that. It is to simply inform other drivers and pedestrians of your presence. Like, “Yo, I’m coming up on your left here; don’t abruptly turn left.” or, “Hey, I’m running this red light; don’t hit me.” or, “I’m coming up behind you and you’re a pedestrian, so get out the way please cus I’m faster than you.” (which would be my reason for honking at elephant-pants-clad ramblers in the Hanoi Old Quarter).
The point is, if you’re honked at in Vietnam, then don’t take it personally at all. If you drive a motorbike in Vietnam, then honk often (especially around intersections or when overtaking someone) to let people know you’re there.
4) Vietnamese People Are Ultra-Forward and Honest
In today’s overly-sensitive Western society, Westerners would be absolutely outraged at some of the things Vietnamese people say; but really, Vietnamese people are not trying to be mean or put you down, they’re just making an honest observation, without any malicious intent whatsoever.
I used to be fat, so Vietnamese locals I hadn’t seen in a while would say to me something like, “Oh, Rhys you got so fat.” and I’d just be like, “Yup, I sure did.” I mean, it’s f*cking true; I’m not guna argue with it or get upset about it.
After a massive night of drinking, Vietnamese servers in the bar would say to me, “Wow Rhys, you look so tired and bad.” Yup, you’re not wrong.
On the flip side, this goes both ways. After a few months of the gym and eating healthy, I was in a breakfast cafe, and while ordering the girl working said to me, “Wow, Rhys you look so strong and muscular now.” and I was all taken aback like, “Calm down it’s like 9 AM yo.” until I remembered that she was just making a candid comment, that’s all.
When Vietnamese people are brutally honest, they’re not doing it to try and manipulate your emotions or self-esteem, they’re just making an honest observation, just making conversation.
The same goes for how Vietnamese people often ask quite personal questions the first time you meet them. They’re just being friendly; don’t think too much about it.
5) Sitting on Short Chairs or the Floor
So in many restaurants and cafes (including on the sidewalk) in Vietnam, they use either short plastic stools or small folding chairs. Often, these chairs are about a foot tall. If you’re tall and long-limbed like myself, you might be sitting there with your knees up to your chest, feeling like a grasshopper about to take off and launch across the street.
If you’re fat, you might even break a plastic stool. The good news is, you don’t have far to fall.
However, you’ll get used to them eventually, and maybe even realize the charm in them.
Also, if you’re ever invited to someone’s home for dinner, there’s a decent chance that you’ll be eating while sitting on the floor.
My first month in Hanoi, I was invited to someone’s home for hotpot. It was winter and pretty damn chilly outside actually, but we all sat on the floor in a circle around a delicious crab hotpot; it was a super cozy, relaxed feeling; like the Vietnamese equivalent of gathering around a hearth on a winter evening.
6) Chopsticks and Scissors
Ok, so in the main cities of Vietnam, most of the restaurants near the city center actually have forks, but I honestly feel like a lot of Vietnamese noodle dishes taste better when eaten with chopsticks.
If you have a soup-based noodle dish such as phở or bún bò, then you can dual-wield with chopsticks in your dominant hand (for the noodles, meat and vegetables) and a spoon in the other hand (for the broth); this way, you can get all of the flavors and ingredients of the dish in each mouthful.
Also, you’ll often see people using scissors to cut food while cooking and eating. Anything from fish to meat to spring rolls to even pizza is often cut with scissors. For crispy spring rolls, you would actually probably crush the rolls if you tried to cut them in half with a knife rather than scissors.
Often I’ve been in a Vietnamese restaurant with a plate of noodles (bún) on the side, and the lady will see that my noodles are a bit stuck together, so she’ll come around with a pair of scissors and cut my noodles for me.
I’m going to be honest, I’ve gotten on the scissor train a bit myself. Whenever I eat steak at home, I use a pair of scissors instead of a knife. I find it requires less leverage and is quicker than a knife; I don’t have to pin the steak against the bottom of the plate and saw at it. Also, it’s effective if you’re trying to eat out of a takeaway container, where using a knife to cut things would be difficult due to the high edges of the container.
7) Eating Loudly
In Vietnam, it is fairly common for people to make slurping noises when eating noodles. Also, it’s also not unordinary for people to chew food with an open mouth. A few times, I’ve heard (and read) Westerners who were quick to condemn this behavior as “impolite” or “uncivilized”.
I’d argue that it’s not “uncivilized“, it’s just “un-westernized“; those words are not synonymous.
It’s not “a lack of manners”. It’s a cultural difference. In Vietnam, when someone is audibly slurping up some noodles it’s like saying, “Yo this bowl of noodles is delicious af; I’m really enjoying them, great job cooking.”
On the same note, when someone is chewing with their mouth open, it’s often a sign that they feel relaxed and comfortable where they’re at and with the people they’re with; furthermore, they might be engaged in a fast-paced conversation.
Some Westerners perceive Western etiquette as a universal and objective concept in the same way that 1+1=2 is. If you look at the concept of etiquette rationally and pragmatically from a sociological perspective, you’ll understand that this is not really the case.
Most social etiquette rules are simply societal constructs created over time, there is no inherent truth, virtue or morality behind them. Many things that a Westerner would call “polite” are nothing more than arbitrary social rules (such as shaking hands) that don’t really actually have a tangible function.
If people in Vietnam want to eat noisily, then a Westerner doesn’t really have any right to tell someone what is right or wrong, or to try and make someone feel bad about their “lack of etiquette”. Not everyone in the world is required to follow Western social rules, especially when you aren’t even in a Western country.
Like many cultural differences, if you plan on spending a lot of time in Vietnam, then loud eating is something that you should probably just get used to. Eventually, it’ll just seem like something that’s normal (because it is, in Vietnam).
8) Speaking Loudly & in Different Tones
Vietnamese is a tonal language. What that means is that if you say a word with a high pitch then that word has a different meaning than if you say it with a low pitch. For example, if you say “bạn” (with a very low-pitched tone like you’re being stern) it means “you“, but if you say “bán” (with a high-pitched tone like you’re excited or anxious) then it means “sell” (verb). Furthermore, if you say “bản” (with a tone like you are confused or asking a question) then it means “copy” (noun).
So when people speak Vietnamese, their voice goes all over the place like a rollercoaster, because that’s how words are assigned meaning. If they spoke in a steady tone then the words would have different meanings. Especially in Northern Vietnam, the tones are quite sharp and deliberate.
Most Westerners are not used to this. They sometimes think that it sounds urgent, angry or shrill, and so fresh-off-the-plane Westerners may feel uncomfortable when they are in a noisy beer-restaurant or other crowded, loud area. It’s important to remember that that’s just the way that people using a tone-based language communicate.
Although it’s not easy, if you start to pick up some Vietnamese words (and understand the tones) you’ll realize how badass it feels to nail a tone perfectly.
Another thing, in restaurants in Vietnam (especially in Northern Vietnam), people will shout out, “em ơi!” across the entire restaurant to get the server’s attention. Again, they are not being angry or rude, that’s just the culture; that’s the way that they’ve done it for countless generations. In my opinion, it’s more efficient and frank than that awkward put-your-hand-up-and-raise-your-eyebrows-and-make-an-autistic-facial-expression thing that they do in Western countries.
Cultural Differences Are Opportunities to Grow
There are some pretty major differences between Vietnam and a Western country, but it’s important to remember that that’s the way that Vietnamese people have been doing things for millennia (or decades when referring to motorbikes and traffic). It’s not any more right or wrong than how things are done in a Western country. There are 1000’s of ways to live a life in this world; there is no one inherent best way to live a life.
The way I see it, if everyone and everything were exactly the same, then the world would be a very uninteresting, unremarkable place, not even worth experiencing.
It’s important to approach Vietnam (or any foreign country) with an open mind. Nothing is more insufferable than a condescending Westerner who thinks they’re on some kind of a neo-colonial crusade to “teach people the proper way to do things”.
The amazing thing about Vietnam is how it is so different from a Western country. Embracing cultural differences is what will make someone a more well-rounded, knowledgeable, open-minded, dynamic individual. Rather than barriers, try to see cultural differences as gratifying challenges and opportunities to grow.
If everything in the world were identical then life wouldn’t be an adventure.
James | MosaicWriting.com