88. Grist for the Vietnam Newcomer

Assorted advice and observations for first-timers venturing to this Southeast Asian country.

A teeming metropolis of 13 million citizens, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) can be intimidating to first-time visitors. (JGA photo)

Now that Covid fears have mostly been alleviated, I’m getting a steady stream of visitors — old friends from the USA — who have promised visits. None of them have visited Vietnam previously. Most of them have never set foot in Asia.

It occurs to me to offer my friends an inventory of essential knowledge they should have before they step off the airplane. So, friends, lend an ear (or an eye). We’ll start by talking about traffic.

  • Pedestrians never have the right of way. Marked crosswalks mean little or nothing. In crossing a street, even with the traffic light and at a corner, you may get a little attention by raising your hand in a stop signal toward oncoming vehicles. It’s best you step boldly (but not brazenly) off the curb and set a slow but steady pace across the pavement. Motorbikes may not slow for you, but they will swerve.
Normal, early evening traffic in downtown Saigon. Crossing a street by foot is always an adventure. (JGA photo)
  • Don’t try to drive yourself, especially in the big city. You’ll understand the moment you experience your first rush hour … today. Taxis are everywhere and are very reasonably priced. Depending upon time of day, you should pay less than 200,000 Viet Nam Dong (about US $9) for the 8-kilometer (5-mile) run to most District 1 hotels from the Saigon airport. If you’re traveling solo, once settled, you can hail a motorbike taxi, which is how I typically get around: It’s about one-third to one-half the cost of a car. If you plan to stay for long, đownload the app for Grab or Gojek taxi services (or both).
  • Physical assaults are very rare but the theft of cellphones is rampant — even more than wallets. There’s a thriving black market in second-hand phones, as they are very expensive when new. Lose your phone, you probably lose your camera along with your means of communication. Keep it close, and be aware that most thefts are committed by pairs of motorbike riders.
The driver of a motorbike taxi takes a break between calls in the Ben Nghe district. (JGA photo)
  • Get used to the local currency. The basic exchange rate is presently about 23,000 Viet Nam Dong to one U.S. dollar. ATM machines spew out 500,000-dong bills like Las Vegas slot machines. If you think of these sky-blue images of Ho Chi Minh as $20 bills (OK, they’re actually about $21.75), you’ll be well on your way to managing your expenditures.
  • English is widely spoken in tourist areas, but perhaps not as widely understood. Vietnamese students’ listening skills are not well developed. Words are often left unfinished. No can mean yes, yes can mean no. In the countryside, English speakers are many fewer in number. It helps to learn a few phrases such as xin chào (hello), cảm ơn (thank you) and một hai ba yo (1, 2, 3, cheers!)
Taxis await passengers on Le Thanh Ton street in central Saigon. (JGA photo)
  • That said, common courtesies are not frequently expressed — again, outside of areas enriched by tourism. Thank yous are often not articulated with more than a grunt. Please? Forget it. Indeed, the apparent lack of awareness can be stunning. You may be walking down a sidewalk, have someone look directly at you, then pull their motorcycle out in front of you as you’re about to pass. It’s the culture. Don’t take it personally.
  • Vietnamese food and drink can be very good, but there’s not a lot of variety by Western gourmet standards. Typical meals can be classified as either rice (accompanied by meats and vegetables) or noodles. Noodles means soup — phở, bún bò Huế, bún riêu and many other varieties, mostly priced under US$2 a bowl. The baguette sandwich called bánh mì (literally, “bread”) is a popular midday meal for less than US$1. Vietnamese chicken and pork are excellent, but the seafood (hải sản) truly shines. Sea snails, in all shapes and sizes, are especially popular at myriad marine-oriented eateries. But check your bill for overcharging.
Street food is good, ubiquitous and cheap throughout Vietnam. (JGA photo)

Evenings, beer is the beverage of choice. Tiger, Saigon and 333 are among the leading local lagers (about US$1 a can or bottle), and numerous outstanding craft brews are now being locally manufactured. Wine is still largely unknown, but spirits are cheap and good, especially Hanoi vodka (made with Russian guidance). By day, look for coconut water and outstanding fruit juices.

  • Vietnamese coffee is outstanding. It is strong and, to some Western tastes, bitter. Other than Brazil, no country exports more coffee than Vietnam. Coffee shops (“cafes”), not pubs, are the social gathering points for young Vietnamese. And while Westerners may argue the merits of a merlot versus cabernet or syrah, here the question is: Robusta or Arabica beans? Egg coffee, cheese coffee or weasel coffee?
The Pasteur Street Brewing tap room is symbolic of a growth in draft beer consumption in Vietnam. (JGA photo)

And a few comments on Vietnamese society:

  • Family is paramount. This is true throughout Asia, but in Vietnam, it seems even moreso. Young Westerners may rebel against parental authority, but in this country, family honor is at stake. There is tremendous pressure on young adult children, especially women, to marry and quickly bear offspring … and to devote their working years to making money to support their parents. Divorce means losing face, so couples may go their separate ways but remain legally married and leave the child-raising to their own grateful parents.
  • The politically communist (but economically progressive) government encourages a lack of critical thinking among the general population. The press, from newspapers to television, is under government control, and independent journalists who report misdoings and name names are quickly muzzled. Petty corruption, also known as “black money,” is simply a way of doing business. Citizens learn to follow orders and not ask questions, lest the consequences for them (and their families) be dire.
On broad Nguyen Hue boulevard in Ho Chi Minh City, choreographed dancers offer a rare glimpse of artistic expression. (JGA photo)

This is reflected in an educational system that does not encourage imagination or creativity. What young people don’t see in their own culture, they find in others, especially Korean music, film and fashion.

  • There is a distinctly laissez-faire attitude toward what Westerners might consider morality. The country is not liberal, but Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in particular is very libertine. Wander Bui Vien street any night of the week, and you’ll encounter sex, drugs and gas balloons openly flaunted. Anything goes behind the closed doors of the Pasteur Street or Thai Van Lung hostess bars. Ironically, although a man can piss in public (when you’ve gotta go …), kissing and other displays of affection are discouraged.

These are just a few observations … my newly arrived friends will soon make many additional discoveries of their own!

Night clubs on the Bui Vien walking street are the most notorious in Saigon. (JGA photo)
Vietnam Airlines brings tourists to this country from an extended international network. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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