Expats in Vietnam

Expat Weekly Series: You Know You’re In Vietnam When…


You fill your evening drinking while sitting on a tiny plastic chair.

Streets in Vietnam at Night
Streets in Vietnam at Night

In case you’re an Expat and have lived in Vietnam, you will be familiar with what I’m saying. If not, picture yourself sitting in one of the little red or blue plastic chairs arranged on the sidestreets like a curiously large game of musical chairs. You sit and sit tight for a second, before noticing the scent of dried squid cruising by. At that point, your bia hơi shows up. What’s bia hơi? It’s a lager that’s almost as common as water all over Vietnam, brewed daily and served street-side. Each glass of brew should cost around 15-to-25 cents. Before you know it, you’ll wind up spending an hour or two daily on minuscule seats, hitting bia hơi with companions and outsiders the same.

You’re an expert in crossing the street, dodging a horde of motorbikes just like the game of Frogger.

Crossing the streets of Vietnam
Crossing the Streets of Vietnam

According to Vietnam’s Ministry of Transport, there are 37 million registered motorbikes (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 trusted because, frankly, traffic doesn’t stop. If you’d prefer not to risk it, well, enjoy your side of the street.

You promptly learn that ‘public urination’ is not unusual.

It may be striking the first or second time you see somebody pull their jeans down and begin utilizing the bathroom in a public zone (road, square, and so on), yet you’ll rapidly 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.

Locals cringe when you attempt to speak 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 symbol 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 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 enjoy your haircut in the open air of the sidewalk.

Getting a haircut in Vietnam
Getting a haircut in Vietnam

If you’re in Hanoi and need a cheap, quick (and sound) 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 a truckload of futons transported on one motorbike.

Motorbike transporting futons
A Motorbike in Vietnam Transporting a Pile of Futons

If seeing the legion of motorbikes daily wasn’t enough culture shock during your stay in Vietnam, make sure to take a look at what’s being transported on them (and they’re not giant Harley or Ducati bikes, mind you). A couple of pigs (Yes, Live ones!). Several mattresses. Dozens of goldfish in plastic bags. Even the entire families! And every time you see something giant being transported with a motorbike, you’ll shake your head in disbelief, feeling as if you’re watching a Cirque du Soleil balancing act. You’ll even wonder if they thought of joining the Most Talented TV shows.

It’s Karaoke time. Makes sense.

Karaoke is one of Vietnam’s most popular entertainment forms, 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 fantastic, 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.

In case you’re in Vietnam for the first time, the odds are that you don’t know anyone or a lot of connections in the country. Luckily enough, everybody is quite hospitable. Eating a banh mi prepared by your host as everyone in the family hangs in the background? Try not to be surprised if you’re offered (indeed, offered not sold) tea, fruits, and even an offhand Vietnamese language lesson before going on your way and attempting to bargain with the hotel receptionist while booking a Cu Chi Tunnel adventure a minute ago? You may not get the best deal, yet you may wind up being blessed to receive natively brewed rice wine and even a hot pot by the hotel employees. Not a bad deal, all things considered.

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