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The Quirks And Customs Of Southern Vietnam

First Times Are Aplenty In Southern Vietnam

I just spent four weeks in Vietnam’s southern region, my first time ever in the country. I’ve visited some 80 countries over the years; I’ve been around. Yet, Vietnam offered up several firsts for me and various surprises and customs I’ve never seen elsewhere.

Vietnam does things differently.

Start with hotels. Desk clerks hang on to passports at check-in—first time I’ve seen the practice. On this trip I was traveling with a friend who’d been to Vietnam before. He assured me all Vietnamese hotels keep passports. One result: easy check-in. Hand over your passport, the desk clerk gives you the key. That’s it, no forms to fill out, no registration to sign, no request for a credit card swipe. Hotels keep the passports in file folders under the counter, easily accessible to anyone, including thieves. I figure thieves, if any, choose other targets in Vietnam.

I wonder whether hotels keep passports to comply with Vietnamese law or to avoid having guests leave without paying. Both, I guess. Perhaps hotels have lobbied the government to mandate the practice.

On expressways in Vietnam, trucks and other slow traffic generally keep to the left. Vietnamese traffic flows on the right, as in the United States and Canada. But rather than stick to the right (the custom elsewhere), in Vietnam, trucks slowly cruise in what we sometimes call the fast lane. So the bus I was on, and faster traffic generally, passed on the right. I can see good reasons for the custom. While I never saw anyone actually living in the right lane, I did see trucks and tractors parked there, broken bicycles left there, construction materials piled up, trucks loading and unloading, and people eating there. So, the right lane presents danger, and any trucks cruising over there would have to swerve to the left to avoid hitting campers. So they drive on the left, a practice I’ve never seen anywhere else. Drivers wanting to pass must first check that the right lane is clear.

Women and girls wear long-sleeved sweatshirts, often with heavy jackets over them. Local temperatures reach over 100°. Yet these women work all day inside oven-hot buildings wearing sweatshirts and jackets. I was told these women fear the sun will make their skin dark. Could be, I suppose, but these women work at market stalls inside buildings. The sun theory seems hard to accept when there’s no sun whatsoever.

In one case, I was sitting in a beachfront bar on a particularly hot day. A middle-aged Vietnamese couple arrived to have a drink. The woman wore what looked like a heavy shirt and sweatshirt and a down jacket zipped up to her chin. She sat and enjoyed her drink with her arms wrapped around herself.

Again, I’ve spent so much time in tropical heat, but I’ve never seen women bundle up like in Vietnam.

We traveled mainly by train and took taxis from train stations to our hotels. Except, taxis at train stations refused to take us. We saw taxis. We saw taxi stands. But when we showed drivers our center-city destinations they waved us over to someone else. The next taxi driver did the same, and the next, and the next, to different parts of the station. The last driver would send us back to the starting point.

We finally realized we weren’t wanted—another first for me. We learned we had to walk a few steps out of the train stations and flag taxis in the street.

On several occasions in smaller towns, older servers refused tips. They even refused to keep the change, no matter how small. Bizarre… another first.

Besides trains, we took buses between cities, and most of the buses offered free Wi-Fi. I’ve seen Wi-Fi on Boltbus in the United States and Canada, but the service never worked as well as in Vietnam. On one trip, I watched a Dodger baseball game live on my iPad Mini during a five-hour trip.

I rode cheap local buses, and nearly all offered good air-conditioning. Paying 25 cents for a bus ride, you’d expect very little, but in Vietnam, the air-conditioning worked well nearly every time.

I consider Vietnam’s big-city traffic as another first. You’ve heard about Vietnam’s chaotic roadways, but what surprised me is that local drivers display such calm aplomb. You know of road rage; Vietnam presents the opposite. Drivers routinely weave through pedestrians and trucks while going the wrong way on one-way streets. They routinely ignore red lights and crosswalks, honking to clear pedestrians out of the way, while they dart through at speed. They cut corners and drive over sidewalks, if they can find space. And they make all these maneuvers with calm, mild-mannered confidence. Males and females, including elderly women and thin young girls, drive like Evel Knievel, but with the attitude of Mother Teresa.

In four weeks I never saw an accident. Remarkable.

Finally, large bottles of Tiger beer sell for a buck. Tiger originated in Malaysia and Singapore and sells at premium prices, US$4 or US$5, in those countries. But in Vietnam they sell the stuff for a buck… another first.

On this trip, I traveled with friends, one who lives in Singapore, the other in Thailand. The guy from Thailand was visiting Vietnam for the second time and decided he might like to live there. He particularly liked Da Nang, with its vibrant city center along a river and a white-sand beach a mile or so away. He liked the ease of getting around without a car, of food offerings from sushi to tacos, pizza and pasta to fine French cuisine. He liked the low cost of living. Perhaps one-dollar Tiger beer tipped him over the edge. I think he’ll move there.

Consider visiting Vietnam’s southern region yourself. As a first impression, I think it would make a super place for expat living. I’m heading up into the north now and hope to report soon again from there.

Paul Terhorst

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