A rewarding travel experience is not so much about sightseeing, eating good food, as it is about meeting people who make you feel welcomed and with whom you connect on a human level.
I really enjoy reading people’s travel blogs about Viet Nam, and particularly admire those who go out of their way to have some kind of authentic local experience. We’re not talking extremes here, like drinking snake alcohol or anything, just things like observing where locals seem to be eating and trying those places out, and giving their time to keen students of English for a chat.
I cringe at those who book their flights and ask the interwebs questions like, “I’ve got 15 days in June to travel the entire country. Here’s my draft itinerary. What do you think?”, or those who come armed with travel reviews and recommendations, have the most famous Indian food in HCMC, then feel so crook for the rest of their trip, they can only stomach burgers. Good one!
Whilst there are some cool places to see in Viet Nam, some people just can’t be pleased. I’ve read a few blogs of late where people have expressed their disappointment with Hoi An for being too touristy!
Instead of treating travel like a conquest, with hotels to be stayed at, scenes to be photographed, souvenirs to be bought and selfies to be posted, how about taking it as an opportunity to discover something you didn’t know. You can do this best by engaging with the locals – no language skills required. Here’s who I recommend you meet:
The Smiling Retailer
There’s a lot of great shopping to be had in Viet Nam – embroidered art works, tailor-made clothes, lacquerware.. Shopping isn’t what you think though. It’s not like at home where you browse around, picking up things, putting them down again, perusing the prices and moving on. If you enter a shop or show interest in a stall, the shop keeper wants to do business with you. So, instead of failing here like so many before you with the shop keeper dissing you in front of your face in Vietnamese, getting shouted at or chased down the street, get in the mindset that you’re going to not only buy something cool, but you’re going to make the retailer smile. Use your charm. Show that you like their products. If the retailer speaks your language, have a nice chat, compliment them.. Sure, do a little bargaining, but not with the attitude you’re going to beat them down and get the local price. Be nice. Be human. Enjoy the experience. Walk away with smiles.
The Humble Chef
Trying ‘foreign’ food can be a bit of a challenge for some people. It’s not surprising really when they’ve just been dosed up for their trip with several vaccines, have stocks of bottled water in their hotel for brushing their teeth, and are freaking out at the thought of getting ill. Sometimes you just have to take risks. Food is a huge part of culture, and you can’t say you’ve really experienced a country unless you’ve eaten local cuisine. You don’t have to like it. All I suggest is that you seek out a person on the street making something that smells delicious or looks amazing, and ask for some. Observe how they make it, imagine how hard they work and what skills they have, show your appreciation, and open up your senses to a new taste and texture.
The Braver You
Of course, there are many more interesting people to meet. Seek them out. If you’re interested in art, find an artist to chat with or observe them at work. If you’re keen to understand more about the war, don’t just visit the museums, try to meet someone who went through the war. If language is a barrier, perhaps chat with your hotel receptionist, and see if they can find a person for you to chat with. Whatever you’re interested in, you’ll be able to meet a like-minded person, or someone who can give you a deeper insight into what it means to be Vietnamese.
Regardless of where you’ve traveled in Viet Nam, how long you stayed, how many photos you took, or how much you bought, unless you go home with a sense of connection with Vietnamese culture, you won’t really have met this next person – the braver you. This person has met some amazing people – locals, just going about their daily lives, doing ordinary or amazing things. They smiled, they seemed shy, and to be honest you were a little unsure too. They stick in your mind, and are a part of your travel memories, just as much as scoring those fancy chopsticks, getting fitted for a new shirt, perspiring in the heat, and soaking up the views.