People ask me all the time…
“Nick, if you love America so much…then why did you move to Vietnam? Isn’t it a third-world shithole?”
“I heard they eat dogs!”
“Aren’t you afraid of dying in a gutter from malaria?”
“Vietnam! They’re communists! Better not make eye contact with the police, or they’ll put your freedom-loving ass to work in a factory making New York Yankees hats!”
While all of these concerns are certainly true (my stint in the hat factory was mercifully short), they’re really just the tip of the iceberg.
Buckle up. I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about Vietnamese culture. It’s time to set the record straight.
Let’s be honest—a country’s level of development is dependent on its Walmart Index, or its number of Walmart supercenters per capita.
For example, the US ranks extremely high on the Walmart Index with a staggering 2 stores per person.
Sadly, Vietnam has zero Walmarts per person, which works out to roughly zero Walmarts in the entire country.
Despite making great strides over the past four decades, the Vietnamese are hopelessly behind the times when it comes to this key metric.
Instead of Walmart, the clueless traveler is forced to shop at filthy, traditional Vietnamese markets like Metro. You’ll spend hours walking through the maze-like aisles, endlessly heckled by hawkers selling exotic, overpriced goods like canned tuna, blenders and snack cakes.
Once you manage to ditch the overzealous merchants, you may find yourself in Metro’s alcohol section. Here the intrepid globetrotter will find an abundance of liquor native to all regions of Vietnam. My personal favorites are Jack Daniels (from Tennessee province), Jagermeister (from Da Nang city in central Vietnam) and Absolut vodka (from Hanoi in the frozen north).
These traditional markets are absolute hell for the uninitiated, and I counted just 6 kinds of toilet paper on my last visit.
Now you’re loaded up with trinkets, and it’s time to head back to base. Your options are:
- Hitch a ride with a farmer on his cart, pulled by water buffalo;
- Or, ride a motorcycle like a damn peasant.
Clearly, the only option we can seriously consider is the motorcycle. It’s too friggin’ hot to walk around Saigon between the hours of 3 AM and 10 PM, and water buffalo stink like the Saigon River during the dry season.
I use the word “motorcycle” very liberally—if it’s not a Harley, it’s not a motorcycle. But driving a Harley through the streets of Saigon is like shooting a cannonball through a garden hose.
So we’re going to stick to our Honda Waves and Yamaha Nouvos—basically a small step up from a tricycle. You’ll probably be embarrassed if anyone sees you riding one of these things. Back home, high-schoolers ride crotch rockets, but here your tourist ass is shoved onto a little clown bike that can barely make it over the raised paint on a crosswalk.
Of course, the other problem with riding a “motorcycle” in Saigon is that the Hondas and Yamahas are most likely Chinese fakes. So you’ll be spending half of your stay in the city at a gas station or a mechanic.
You heard that right—in this corner of the globe, people don’t just toss out their shit when it stops working.
True story…my bike needed an oil change last week. I drove it to a mechanic to ask if he’d like to give me a couple bucks for it. Something got lost in translation, because he ended up changing my oil. Now I’m stuck with an old beater for another week, desperately hoping something goes wrong so I can get a new model.
Back home I was used to leaving my car in a corn field every time the gas tank ran dry. Culture shock, for sure.
If you’re anything like me, nothing gets your creative juices flowing like a gallon of corn syrup with a dash of coffee.
You’ve probably heard that Vietnam has a huge coffee culture. But this is a massive lie. I’ve only seen two Starbucks locations in the entire city of Saigon. Coffee culture, my ass.
Sure, there are literally thousands of other coffeehouses dotted around the city. But these are impostors. Accepting reality, I am writing this post from Dong Xanh Coffee in Binh Thanh District. Not a single scone to be seen. And you have to ask for whipped cream.
But the worst part about drinking “coffee” at Not-Starbucks is the price. How can you choke down coffee that only costs a buck-fifty per cup? What is it really? Swamp water?
And good luck trying to get any work done. Waiters in Saigon’s cafes are notoriously friendly. Sometimes I just want to take pictures of my drinks, and these guys are up in my grill playing 21 questions.
“Is your coffee OK? Would you like more tea? Is the music too loud?”
The experience can be jarring for someone used to sipping their drink in silence. Luckily, most coffee joints offer takeaway. If you made the mistake of entering Not-Starbucks and you’re too embarrassed to leave without ordering, simply order a coffee to-go and gun it down the street to Seattle’s Finest.
Saigon has three seasons—the wet season, the shoulder season and the dry season.
These are deceptive terms invented by the Vietnamese government. In America these same seasons would be referred to as “Hellish Wet Summer,” “Somewhat Bearable Summer” (if you are cold-blooded), and “Dusty Dry Purgatory.”
Hellish Wet Summer starts some time in May and ends in November or December. If you’re visiting Saigon at this time…you must have made a mistake. It happens.
You can expect the streets to resemble the canals of Venice for about 3 hours every day. When it’s not raining, the sun comes out and makes you wish it was raining.
The shoulder season lasts from December to January. It’s a big tease. You relax a little. “Vietnam isn’t that bad.” Then it’s the dry season.
The dry season is like the wet season, except the only torrential downpour you’ll see is the one coming from your sweat glands. Don’t worry, though. The lack of rain means there is dust o’ plenty in the streets to wick away all that extra moisture from your shirt. And pants. And face.
Naturally, different regions of Vietnam have their own little slice of Hell when it comes to climate—all of which are good enough reasons not to visit.
Vietnamese people speak Vietnamese. Yeah, it sort of uses the Roman alphabet. Kind of. But don’t be fooled. You’d have more success asking your dog to stop eating broken glass than asking a Vietnamese person for directions.
“Wait, I don’t understand! Don’t they speak English like everyone else?”
Sadly, no. If I haven’t lost you yet, surely your jaw has hit the floor now.
As we all know, the point of visiting another country is to have an awesome time. How can you do that if the average citizen of that country can’t even talk to you?
Vietnam has a long way to go before I’d consider it a first-rate tourist destination like the Bahamas or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
We now return to our original question of “Is Vietnam a third-world shithole?”
As I’ve clearly demonstrated, Vietnamese culture is vastly different from our way of life. From their barbaric markets to impostor coffee and an arrogant lack of English, I can understand why this country might be at the bottom of your travel itinerary…right after North Korea and the surface of the Sun.
And it should be. The only reason I’m still here is because I don’t know how to say “where is the airport?” in Vietnamese.
What about you? Have I convinced you to visit Vietnam?