One of things I’ve noticed after travelling briefly around Southeast Asia is how rich and vibrant the culture is in each of these chaotic and unique countries. Although each country has it’s own complexities, I realised that there are some inherent similarities — from the cuisine all the way to the crazy traffic. Don’t get me wrong, I am not denying each of the Southeast Asian countries of their individuality, because they are definitely all unique in their own ways. I would just describe it as a case of “same same, but different” — a phrase I learnt while from the Vietnamese locals while I was on my AIESEC exchange.
Out of all of Southeast Asia, I spent the most time in Vietnam and when I look back, some of my most fondest memories are from my time there. If I had to pinpoint a reason why, I would say that spending almost 2 months in Vietnam meant that I could go beyond just being a tourist, allowing me to live like a local. It was these moments which helped me learn the most about the country in its purest and most raw form.
Here is a short and non exhaustive* list of how to live like a local in Vietnam.
*Disclaimer: This list is to the best of my ability given my short time in Vietnam and in no way encapsulates every aspect of Vietnamese culture.
1. Eat at a traditional food stall
You’ll most likely find the most scrumptious food for half the price at a street stall rather than going to restaurant chain. Food is plentiful and you’ll see so many small mobile carts selling meals on the spot. The food is cheap, quick and rich in flavour. Just imagine all the phở, bún bò huế and bánh mì … now that’s what fast food should be like.
2. Close your eyes and cross the road
Okay, maybe not literally but by now you’ve probably heard about how chaotic the roads are in Vietnam —because what even are road rules? Merely crossing the road is a feat in itself, an act that takes great courage and bravery. After the initial struggle of waiting for the perfect moment to cross (which never happens by the way unless you wanna stay put for the entire day), or waiting for someone else to cross so I could tag along, I finally became comfortable enough to cross the road on my own.
3. Be part of the crazy traffic
If you don’t have a crazy motorbike ride, did you really go to Vietnam? Motorbikes are super easy and accessible to rent (or buy) in Vietnam, but not so easy to drive amidst the crazy traffic. However, motorbiking is an essential part of every day life in Vietnam. Being so small and swift, it is the most convenient way to commute given their train system is still in construction. Since it is the main mode of transport, you do see some interesting things being carried on the back of motorbikes— most notably, a mattress (I wish I managed to get a photo).
4. Haggle at a market
I heard from one of my friends in Vietnam that she pretended to be a tourist and went into a souvenir store and the store owner tried to charge her 3 times the actual price. Since cost of living is significantly lower in Vietnam, charging double or triple the price still ends up being a reasonable price in the eyes of us tourists. We’re essentially easy targets … but not if you know how to haggle! Explore local food and souvenir markets and practice your haggling skills when buying souvenirs.
5. Climb onto a highway to catch a sleeper bus
So… I’m not too sure about the legitimacy of this one or if locals actually do this on a frequent basis, but it was one of the more interesting things I did that probably wouldn't have occurred if I was being a tourist. During my stay at a small rural town, we decided to go on a small trip to Sa Pa (which is amazingly beautiful) via a sleeper bus. Since we were in a small town, the highway on which the bus drives along happened to be built above the town. In order to catch the bus, we had to scale rocks and climb up onto the highway and hail down the bus. Didn’t even know that was a legitimate way to catch a bus but I guess bus stops are too mainstream.
Vietnam has definitely been one of the most interesting places I have visited - a place of rich history, kind people, delicious food and astonishing sights. Honestly, there is so much more to Vietnam than this short list I’ve compiled and I hope that all of you can experience it for yourself one day!