Friday, October 04, 2013

How to Walk the Streets of Vietnam

I survived my first backpacking trip. A big thank you to the numerous tips and tricks we picked up from fellow bloggers who have traveled the same path before we did. And yet, no matter how prepared we were, a few surprises dropped in on us while we tried to navigate our way around the busy streets of Vietnam.

No, I will not teach you the proper way of walking around Vietnam (But sashaying like a ramp model is definitely not recommended!) or reading the traffic signs. (I’m bad at this.) I was a first time backpacker and I wanted to stay true to being one. Although we went with group tours for Mekong Delta and Cu Chi Tunnels, I wanted a more intimate experience with the city by walking on its streets, feeling the concrete pavements under my feet, watching the hundreds of motorcycles roar by, attempting short conversations with locals to ask for directions, and pretty much taking everything in as far as my senses could take me. So, we abandoned the idea of getting on a tour bus to the city and decided to explore it on our own.

After making several wrong turns, getting rejected by drivers who couldn’t understand us, and acting out too many sign languages, here are three tips in making the most out of your city tour:

Map of Hanoi. Gave my Saigon map to another tourist.
Get a map. Most hostels and guesthouses offer this to their guests, but there are those that don’t. We only got a map of where our hostel was located so we were pretty much blind as to where were the places we wanted to visit. In case they don’t have a map, head first to the Central Post Office to get one. Not a bad idea too. The Post Office is beautiful and will transport you to a different world altogether. Once you have the map, look at where the attractions are located and plan your itinerary.

Vietnam attractions in English & Vietnamese languages.
Know the Vietnamese terms for the places you wanted to visit. For example, Reunification Palace is known as Dinh Thống Nhất. You can look up these terms online. Very few Vietnamese people speak English. And apparently, not all people understand the English equivalent no matter how famous the attraction is. I kept on repeating “Reunification Palace” and they kept answering me in Vietnamese. That was one of the most awkward situations I got into. Also, ever heard of the phrase same same but different? This is a famous expression in Vietnam, reflecting one of the complexities of their language. Their vowels have different symbols at the top. Put the wrong symbol, it’s a word with a different meaning. So, be careful that you get the correct symbol of the Vietnamese terms. Otherwise, it will only lead to more confusion and more awkward moments.

Riding the motorcycle in Vietnam is a thrill!

Haggle with the motorcycle drivers. Riding the motorcycle in Vietnam should be on your to-do lists. For the places that are impossible to reach on foot, we rode the motorcycle instead of a taxi. Taxis were reserved for the really far areas. When you approach a motorcycle driver, ask first how much. Some will overcharge. So, haggle. Don’t get into that motorcycle until the driver explicitly agrees. If not, walk away. You’ll know they’re desperate for customers when they ride up to you and agree to the price you asked. Ask your hotel or hostel staff for the reasonable prices from one location to another. We usually spent VND 20,000 per person per ride. As much as possible, give the exact amount. Other tourists have shared horror stories of their drivers speeding away without giving the change.

These tips are all based on our experience during our recent backpacking trip. Above all, your mindset should be to embrace the great moments and even the misadventures. Yeah, you get really pissed off by bad luck or things that don’t go your way, but trust me, you’ll laugh about it later and you’ll come out of it a better traveler.

Enjoy Vietnam! :)

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