Three biggest culture shocks in Vietnam

I’m not trying to argue this is a complete list. There are other things I find shocking and many more aspects of Vietnamese culture that are just plain interesting. But these culture shocks are the ones that stuck out to me immediately during my first couple weeks in Vietnam.

While the elements of Vietnamese culture listed below were initially “shocking” for me, I think it’s really imporant to note that does not make them weird or wrong. These are not criticisms but a list of differences that I believe will be useful so travelers can prepare themselves.

I have now been in Vietnam for over a month and I know that I have grown accustomed to all of these quickly and you can too!

My partner, Ethan, and I teach English at an academy in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. Sometimes the kids are learning the same stuff in English that we are trying to learn in Vietnamese.

Vietnamese language

Vietnamese is not the kind of language you can study for a few hours on the plane then use in your day-to-day situations. Like Chinese, Vietnamese is a tonal language. English (and Spanish, German, Italian, French, Arabic etc.) are phonetic languages. In Vietnamese, changing the tone of a word gives it a different meaning.

“Ma” with different tone markers changes the meaning to six different words: ghost, mother, which, tomb, horse, rice seedling.

Obviously, the listener can determine which word you are trying to say through context as well, but it’s a real challenge.

I won’t go too deeply into how the language works. If you’re interested, you can go do a site like VietnamesePod101 to learn the basics yourself.

How much Vietnamese do tourists need to know?

If you only have a little time to study Vietnamese before you go, here are the top three pieces of the language I recommend learning:

  • Hello/goodbye
  • Gratitude words and apologies
  • Basic food words + food restrictions/allergies
  • Numbers, including the words for thousand and million so you can ask how much things cost

I’m in a basic Vietnamese course right now and… it’s not easy. When I leave class, my mouth and throat hurt from all the very foreign sounds I’m trying to say correctly. But remember, it’s not necessarily that Vietnamese is difficult. It’s just very different from English.

You won’t need to learn even basic Vietnamese as a tourist, though. Just be patient, learn to point and use motions to signal to locals. For better or worse, they are used to foreigners who don’t know any Vietnamese, so they will have different tactics for determining what you need.

Many street food vendors, for example, will get out some actual VND bills to show you how much it costs instead of relying on you knowing your Vietnamese numbers. It works, it’s just not as efficient as just learning numbers 1-10 on your own. If you can ask “hai hai, khong?” meaning “two-two, no?” to determine if something costs 22,00 or 32,000 VND, it’s not exactly pretty but it works. And the sellers will appreciate it.

This is my actual video from my first cab ride in Vietnam. I’d read about it, but I couldn’t believe the motorbike traffic! Now it’s just part of my daily life.

Motorbike culture

The insane number of motorbikes swirling around my cab from the airport were my very first impression of Vietnam. Motorbikes are everywhere throughout the country, but the motorbike traffic is especially thick in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), the biggest city in Southern Vietnam. Almost everybody rides one, even little kids with their parents and dogs with their owners. Motorbikes are used for all kinds of daily needs including going to the store to pick up and bring home large items. At first, this is quite shocking but I quickly realized this was out of necessity. Cars and big trucks have a difficult time navigating the densely populated city, but motorbikes usually fly right on by.

Eventually, you really do get used to it. When I first arrived, I never thought I would drive a motorbike myself. Then, three weeks later, I was. It’s truly the only affordable, practical way of traveling around the city.

There’s more contributing to the culture shock than just the fact that so many people ride bikes, though. It’s also the unsaid rules of the road that come with them, especially the very unique way people drive in Ho Chi Minh City.

Unofficial Vietnamese motorbike rules

Here are just a few I’ve observed and internalized in the big city:

  • Cars/trucks drive on the left and motorbikes drive on the right. Mostly. Bold motorbike drivers weave in between the cars, jockeying for position.
  • Motorbike drivers will resort to riding on the sidewalk when the road is too congested. They will even honk at pedestrians who are in the way.
  • Roundabouts/traffic circles are terrifying. There is a whole system of organized chaos I can hardly put into words. If you rent a bike, go slowly but surely through roundabouts. Pausing in the middle just makes things more difficult.
  • Stop lights do not mean stop. Many people will breeze right through a red light, especially if traffic is light in the other direction.
  • Likewise, people will drive down the wrong side of the road because it’s simpler than crossing it to get to a particular restaurant or store.
  • The craziest thing about all of this is that it actually works. Somehow, after observing enough times, you learn to go with the flow of traffic and it all works out. Of course, an expensive helmet (around 500,000 VND) is critical. Bike rental places will give you helmets that are hardly more than a sheet of plastic.
When you travel in Vietnam, almost all of your purchases will be in the thousands and some will be in the millions. You’ll get used to these super high numbers more quickly than you might think, though.

Crazy inflated Vietnamese currency

The Vietnamese currency (Vietnamese dong) comes in huge notes. When you pull money from the ATM, you will likely receive a bunch of crisp 500,000d bills, equivalent to about $21 USD. If your total is 142,000d‘, the clerk will likely say you owe “one hundred forty-two” and leave out the thousand part altogether. You will almost exclusively be working with bills in the thousands. I’ve seen a 500d bill (worth just $0.02 USD) just once. Apparently, 200s exist, but they aren’t really in circulation because they are essentially worth nothing.

Of course, it doesn’t take too long to get used to the high numbers. What tripped me up most often as a new temporary resident was the colors. Both the 500 and the 20 notes are a similar shade of blue. Even worse, the 100 and the 10 are both green (the 10 is yellow-green) AND start with the number 1. It’s really easy to under or overpay. Carefully count your zeros!

My best tip is to download a currency conversion app on your phone to check prices on the go and be sure you really understand how much you’re spending. Plus, it’s just plain fun to know when you’re spending just $0.50 on a good bowl of street noodles.

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For Westerners in Vietnam, the culture shock can be real. But if you prepare yourself, you will have no problem adapting to new challenges and having the time of your life.

5 thoughts on “Three biggest culture shocks in Vietnam

  1. We travel to Vietnam next month so this was a helpful insight. We are particularly nervous for the motorbikes eek! I also had a little giggle at the language with the “ma” we have a similar issue with our Scottish word Fit. It can mean foot, what and the English fit. So the question “fit fit fits” can mean what foot fits”

  2. Some days, it’s wonderful and I feel like I have everything figured out. Some days, I feel frustrated to the point where I almost want to go home. It’s definitely not easy being an expat here but I keep learning how to make my experience better—especially when it comes to learning the language. Every little bit helps so much.

  3. Good luck! Yes, every language definitely has its quirks! Do you plan on riding a motorbike? If not, you should be just fine! Be careful when walking across the streets, but people will really just go around you!

  4. I loved Vietnam however out of all countries the bikes really scared me! Especially in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh.

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