Are you new to Vietnam or are you planning to join us here for a period of time? Here we compiled a selection of 30 more or less unique experiences you will have in the country. Some of them will leave you speechless, others are amusing, a few might be annoying, but all of them together make up the utterly amazing and inspiring cultural experience that is called Vietnam.
Without further ado, let’s dive into our 30 things to experience in Vietnam:
Test Your Patience with Visa on Arrival
Vietnam is notorious for one of the most frustrating and unorganized visa-on-arrival processes in Southeast Asia. First time tourists tend to nervously shift about the visa counter like frightened cattle as confusing instructions are barked and questions are usually ignored by staff. On return visits, foreigners get the unprecedented edge of adeptly navigating the confused group to expedite the process for themselves, a 1000-yard stare cutting through the haze of lost looks and angry grumbles. Upon a third return, a monk-like state of calm takes over.
Rush hour on one of the major traffic arteries can turn your view of the world and fluent traffic upside down. Traffic rules? Phaw!
Motorbikes flow around each other like streams of water, those who turn left intertwining with the oncoming traffic and separating again like winding serpents. Buses lumber through the torrents of the rush hour like armored war-elephants amidst light cavalry. How to cross a street in this madness? Just dive in, but remember: The bus is the king of the road and we are on the lower end of the food chain on the streets of Vietnam.
In preparation for public holidays, especially Lunar New Year, Tet in Vietnamese, you will find yourself in the middle of the only time of year when Vietnamese people begin to show signs of stress. People work double shifts to make up for the days when they visit their families, uniformed entities knock on various doors to collect what they think is due, and robbers snatch more phones and handbags that at any other time of the year. The markets are buzzing with buyers and sellers of gift baskets, while housewifes set up huge cooking pots for preparing the traditional sticky rice cakes for Tet.
During Tet holidays, many urban dwellers leave the major cities to visit their families on the countryside. You can walk through entire wards without seeing a sign of life. Well, that’s slightly exaggerated, but compared to the usual bustle it’s really calm and empty. While the tourist areas are less affected by this temporary exodus, in other districts so many shops close down, that usually bustling streets turn into abandoned ghost-alleys.
A clusterf*ck of a backpacker area, Bui Vien is a hate-it-or-embrace-it romp through all-hour bars, street food vendors, “massage” services, cheap hotels, $5 US extra-strength cocktail jars, drug peddlers, pharmacies, convenience stores, flyer girls, hagglers, hustlers, drunks and fire-breathing children. It’s fun for an occasional cheap beer and street watching session, or a stopover at the few decent Greek, Indian, Mexican or American restaurants along the strip. But most expats tend to slowly grow irritated at the neverending din of one of the most famous backpacker enclaves in Southeast Asia. If you have never been, visit Bui Vien for an evening to soak in the madness.
Even if this point might cause an outcry from animal rights activists worldwide, I used to live in an alley with cock fight enthusiasts as neighbors. They take better care of their roosters than of their own families. The rooster fights as such, however, are remarkably unspectacular. The roosters are strong and healthy, quite noisy at times, but the bets that are placed among the spectators are not high enough to apply doping techniques. Or even risk the health of the animal in just one fight, like it is common on the Philippines.
During the days of the lunar new year festival, the rules change. Unwritten. People believe that gambling, be it for small money, bigger stakes or just matches, will attract luck for the new year. This is the only time of the year the police does not interfere with people gambling in the alleys. Wherever you walk, people are playing cards, dice or board games. Beer flows among the Vietnamese men in significant amounts and spectators frequently give wanted or unwanted tips to gamblers.
National Flash Mob
Sometimes you may witness pedestrians, even people on motorbikes, frozen in place beside the street as if struck by some futuristic temporal flux rays. They look serious, some even somber and don’t move an inch. At first you might wonder if it’s some weird flash mob that gathered on the street, while you pass them in amazement and watch out for the cameras. But soon you realize the truth: In fact they froze, because the National Anthem was blaring out of a creaky speaker.
Certain occurrences at local shops supposedly cause bad luck for the business. The proprietor may take measures to avoid that unfortunate situation and gift fake money to the spirits by means of burning it in front of the shop. The same happens during new and full moons: The fake bills you burn turn into real cash in the netherworld that can be used by the ancestors, which in turn help their descendants in daily matters of business and family.
If you are new to Vietnam, you might find the one or another $100.- bill next to the road. Don’t bother picking it up, it’s fake and used for burning.
The abundance of plastic bags and other trash that gets carelessly shoved into the drains of streets during dry season may clog the drainage system, so with rainy season’s first heavy monsoon of the year, some streets get thoroughly flooded. That doesn’t stop motorbike riders testing how deep the water really is. Children take the cooling rain and deep puddles as an opportunity to splash around in the water.
Take a seat at an adjacent streetside cafe and enjoy the show.
Wai Wai Wi Ai
The tendency of Vietnamese people to drop the ending syllable of words when talking English and other foreign languages is an amusing classic. At first you might be confused when you hear an expat ordering Wai Wai Wi Ai at a Saigonese restaurant. When the waitress turned up with a glass of white wine with ice, you get it. Expat English teachers can sing you a song about dropped syllables, but westerners actually adopting this for fun - that’s just splendid!
Ao Dai Traditional Dress
Although most Vietnamese wear Western clothes, the traditional Ao Dai dress is still popular as a celebratory or workplace outfit. A beautiful pants and top combination for women, the Ao Dai is elegant and unique, and a lovely reminder of Vietnam’s culture.
Be prepared to wake-up at 4 a.m. to the sounds of wailing funeral horns, which then often continue throughout the next day. Funerals in Vietnam are long, serious affairs where the deceased’s family dedicate sleep, food, money, time and energy to remembering their life and celebrating their achievements. Funerals involve large colorful tents at the entrance to the deceased’s house, tables of serious men drinking beer, feasts, visits from friends and family, music and traditional funerary rituals. Be respectful, but also feel free to watch this fascinating side of Vietnamese life, and be sure to ask a local to explain it to you.
Snacks in Baskets
There are ladies here who carry baskets on their backs, and inside those baskets are foods from your wildest dreams. Keep an eye out for the women with two massive buckets on the ends of a large pole which they support on their shoulders. Squat next to a basket lady and sample some of the waffles and crackers she is selling. If you’re feeling adventurous ask for bánh tráng trộn - a bag of torn rice paper, nuts, dried beef, herbs, spices and quail eggs which serves as a sort of Vietnamese trail-mix.
If you’ve spent any time in a Vietnamese city you will have noticed those bicycles which have a voice of their own. The rider rides around on them, looking furtive, while a speaker from his bicycle blurts out ‘bánh mì đây!’ or “bắp xào đây!”. Inside the basket on the back of their bike is hot bread, a delicious corn mix, sticky rice, fruit, etc! It all depends on what the bike says…
This one is peculiar to Ho Chi Minh City, but local parks throughout the country have their own unique blend of people and culture. Visit a park to understand the lives of those who live nearby. Ho Chi Minh City’s 23/9 Park in District 1 is a great example. Hundreds of people pass through here every day - tourists with their cameras and sunglasses, expats walking their dogs, local students looking to practise English and older women in hilarious sports gear dancing in a large organized exercise class. People from all over the place use the park’s free exercise equipment, and donut sellers, illegal fishermen, couples, singles, etc dot the park benches.
Many countries have night buses, but the buses in Vietnam are strange. Uniform throughout Southeast Asia, these buses have tiny individual seats with little pockets for your legs. The walkways are like squeezing yourself down a tube and you will spend your night-ride in the fetal position, but the sheer hilarity of sitting in a pocket on a bus that glows with bright neon lights and sounds like a strangled duck will make it worth it.
Have a drink with some local people. Trust me it’s an interesting process - they drink differently. It is customary for people in Vietnam to drink together, saying ‘yo!’ (‘cheers’) every time they take a sip, and taking that sip together. People also often drink beer with ice, and it is quite usual to eat snails, giant flat crackers or BBQ chicken legs with your beverage. None of those boring crisps or beernuts here, no sir.
Vietnam is, of course, famous for its delicious and varied types of noodle soup. Pho is the most famous soup, but this is just one kind of noodle. Other noodles include hủ tiếu, mì and bún, and you can eat them dry, with liquid, vegetarian, meaty, with seafood, with mountains of vegetables, etc. You name it, Vietnam probably has it.
Try some of these options:
- Mì (instant noodles)
- Bún riêu (large tube noodles with tofu, congealed blood and seafood)
- Phở (large flat noodles, with chicken, beef, or a variety of other options)
- Hủ tiếu khô (dry noodles with chicken, beef or a variety of other options)
- Hủ tiếu nước (wet noodles with chicken, beef or a variety of other options)
Also note that ‘gà’ is chicken, ‘thịt bò’ is beef and ‘thịt heo’ is pork.
Bribe a Cop
Corruption and quotas plague most police forces on a global scale. From the petty arrests in New York City to the shady police stops in Saigon, almost no major city comes without its share of seedy authority figures. Bribes are a normality in Vietnam, and it’s common practice to negotiate for an affordable bribe once you are stopped for a real (or blatantly made up) offence. If you drive, you’ll probably be pulled over once or twice. Have some money ready and brace yourself for standardized corruption.
Date a Vietnamese Guy/Girl
More so than any book, article or YouTube video, locals are your #1 resource for immersing yourself in Vietnamese culture. Take it a step further and date a local guy or girl and not only will your Vietnamese language skills steadily improve, but your understanding and empathy for the (at-first) strange culture will reach a nice equilibrium. And for those having a hard time, any attempt to speak the difficult-to-pronounce language is admirable, making your efforts all the more noticeable. Just try and avoid the “they’re out for money” mentality; this turns otherwise open-minded foreigners jaded and cynical.
Tiny Plastic Chairs
At first sight the tiny plastic chairs littering every street food joint might warrant a snort. At first sitting they might cause a disgruntled mumble. But eventually most foreigners come to tolerate or even embrace the tiny plastic chair setup - it means good, cheap food and iced beer is at hand and waiting.
Speak the Language
Vietnamese is a tonal language. Meaning you won’t have too much trouble slowly learning to read and write it, since it uses Roman characters, but speaking is an entirely different matter. In most countries, a slight mispronunciation is acceptable and sympathized with. In Vietnam, it can cause a misplaced order, a hearty laugh or a dead stare. You may annunciate something five times, never changing your tone, before something clicks and the locals understand what you’re trying to say. Some understand your broken tone perfectly, while other will quickly give up without even trying. Other languages (at least, speaking-wise) will soon seem like a joke when six months in you’re still struggling to pronounce the street you live on.
Discover the World of Alleyways
Vietnam’s alleyways are a world of their own. While tourists may not venture through these maze-like clusters of clandestine streets, those who brave the country’s unseen pathways discover colorful scenes of lax local life, shortcuts to destinations and cozy neighborhood stalls and shops. While dodgy alleys may need a local’s guidance, generally alleys are teeming with life only the Vietnamese tend to see, and are worth the spelunking. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a xe om driver that knows and utilizes his alleyway shortcuts well, squeezing through impossibly thin openings, and dodging roosters, kids and other motorbikes to get to your destination.
Image by Brian Huang
Eat a Durian
We dare you. The initial smell alone causes some to take several steps back. Imagine sweaty gym socks with a sweet tang and you’re getting close. A bite is more like a blended batch of onions with a hint of aforementioned socks, and something sweet somewhere in that mess. Many, many find it nauseating. For a lucky few it becomes one of their favorite snacks. Eating a durian can literally be a once in a lifetime experience, but only because you’ll never want to look - or smell - one again.
Located in District 5 in Ho Chi Minh City, Cholon is Saigon’s Chinatown, a medley of colorful shops and colonial buildings, spices and herbs, and Cantonese cuisine joints. Cholon is home to mainly Taiwanese and Chinese residents. Historic in feel and far from the run-down, cramped chain-shop Chinatowns of many Western cities, Cholon is an atmospheric trek through gorgeous Chinese pagodas, delicious street food, herbal medicine shops and ancient, colorful architecture. It’s a must-visit on a cooler day, when you can walk around the streets, alleys and markets, and sample and buy to your heart’s content.
With modulated microphones echoing your grating voice into something permissible, karaoke joints around Vietnam are a prime way to turn your shower screeches into melodious singing. Vietnam’s karaokes are ubiquitous, cheap as dirt (compared to other karaoke-culture countries, at least), and offer a nice selection of cheesy English pop “classics”. Drink and food prices are fair, but karaoke room cleanliness can be a hit or miss. In general, however, the Vietnamese karaoke scene is definitely something to get into if you’re looking for a cheaper, more private alternative to bars and clubs.
Ca Phe Culture
Coming from Austria with our flourishing coffee culture, I tend to look at the Vietnamese equivalent in amazement. It is so different from ours, and yet so richly developed. Hot coffee with or without condensed milk is native to the North and the Highlands, while in the South we pour it over ice. But North or South, ca phe is a social thing Vietnamese enjoy at all times of the day.
Herbs and Knobbly Vegetables
Vietnam’s vast array of herbs, lettuce-like leaves and other miscellaneous fruits or vegetables make eating here an experience in itself. Many of the Vietnamese herbs are only available locally, and the aroma of Vietnamese mint and other strange leaves are staple to most local dishes. You should also have a nibble of some of the vegetables here! From countless types of courgette to a long, stick-like thing which absorbs anything it is cooked with. A bit like a choko but with the texture of a sponge...
No two supermarkets here are the same. Even if they are part of a chain. And trying to buy western foods in any of them can be a real challenge, so why not embrace the Vietnamese choices? Skip cereal, apples, tomato paste and pasta, and get into some rice paper wraps, weird dried shrimp or some of those strange sweet-but-salty cakes. It may seem odd to pay less for a mango than for a banana, or for a Snickers to cost more than a carton of milk, but such is life in Vietnam. Embrace it!
If we’re honest, it was hard to stop at 30. Vietnam is not a top tourist destination for nothing, and as we wrote this list of things that you can only fully experience here we began to appreciate just how unique and fascinating a country it is. From the impossible bubbly language and rocket fuel coffee, to the questionable legal system, terrifying traffic and that disgusting snotty durian that I never quite got the taste for…
Vietnam is a world of possibility.
30 Things to Experience in Vietnam is a post co-developed by Zoe, Aleksandr and Frank together, while Frank fiercely contradicts the other two writers’ opinion about the fragrant, fantastic and marvelous durian fruit!