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Travel Vietnam

They don’t drink tap water & other things I noticed in Vietnam

When I went to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, I snapped a photo of a street that looked a lot like any of the regular streets in Manila. When I posted it on Facebook, my friends thought it was funny and questioned if I was indeed, in another country. What they didn’t know is that despite some similarities, there are many things that Vietnamese people do differently from the Filipinos.


In 2014, I finally had my first stamp on my passport. It was my first time to fly abroad and I was beyond excited. I was supposed to go with 3 of my officemates, but all of them backed out from the trip. I went through the whole stages of grief for what they did.

  • Denial: Nah, they’d change their minds in the coming days
  • Anger: How dare they do this to me! F*ck them!!! This friendship is over!
  • Bargaining: I’m going to beg. I’ll ask them in a nice way and maybe it’ll change their mind.
  • Depression: Okay, they still don’t want to go. This is really painful. I’m not gonna talk to them.
  • Acceptance: So what if they don’t want to go? I can go on my own. I’m gonna do it.

Yes, I went through it. I wish I am kidding.

Despite the shock, my will never wavered for one bit. I will push through the trip come hell or high water. Naturally, I was both excited and nervous. This is it, I am going to another country. I will be physically out of my country, I will speak with people who have their own language, beliefs, tradition, and law. This is way beyond my comfort zone. But more than anything else, I was excited to know how the Vietnamese people are different from the Filipinos. Will I find their ways odd? Am I going to be culture shocked? Will I find some things offending or improper? All these questions were soon answered.

The coffee culture

I thought Filipinos have strong feelings for coffee; I was wrong. Apparently, we don’t love it with as much passion as the Vietnamese people do. There is literally cafe on every corner of the street in Ho Chi Minh and most of them place small chairs or stools (in Tagalog, bangkito) in front of their establishments where the locals like to hang out to enjoy their coffee.


Quoc Huy Tran

They like their coffee black with condensed milk and they like it iced. There are even street vendors who are selling Vietnamese iced coffee. Never in my life have I seen coffee being sold on the street, at least not this way. In my country, you may buy hot coffee from sidewalk vendors who are also selling candies, chips, and cigarettes. The coffee comes from the sachet of 3-in-1 coffee mixed with hot water. In Vietnam, there are street vendors who sell nothing but iced coffee, served on a plastic cup with straw. And it’s good, like the Vietnamese can claim they have the best tasting coffee and I will not contest it.

The bar patrons face the street

Along Bui Vien—a.k.a. the backpacker street in Saigon—the streets are lined with bars and restaurants. The seats outside are all facing the street. That’s right, so there you go walking down the street and you got the bar or resto customers for an audience. It was the most awkward walk that I’ve done in my life. I’ve never done the walk of shame, but I think I pretty much gained an idea. But it was only weird the first time. After a while you sorta get used to it and it will bother you less and less.

Vietnamese look like Chinese

I used to think that Vietnamese people physically resemble Filipinos, after all, many Filipinos are often cast in this long-running Broadway musical, Miss Saigon. My classmates in college even told me that I looked Vietnamese. But when I went to Vietnam and saw that they are light-skinned and have chinky eyes, I realized that physically, they look more like the Chinese.

Cilantro, the national vegetable

If I’d seen a fat Vietnamese I don’t remember it because I noticed that most of them are of lean or slim built. A fact that I can only attribute from the food that they eat; mostly vegetables. And unlike the Filipinos who like greasy food, the Vietnamese prefer steamed or raw food.
paul morris

Their most favorite vegetable would be cilantro, a must-have ingredient in Vietnam cuisine. You know how some vegetables practically taste nothing when cooked? Well not this green stuff. It has an intense aroma and very distinct taste that I find to be too strong for comfort. And they put it absolutely everywhere; on their national noodle dish, Pho, on their sandwich Banh Mi, on their salad rolls, I mean in every dish you could think of. Like if they could put it in their coffee they would. Because cilantro is not just a vegetable but a way of life, you’d get a whiff of cilantro the moment you step in a restaurant. [Read: Forced Healthy Eating in Vietnam]

They don’t drink tap water

I usually ask the waiter for tap water in any restaurants in the Philippines. I just think that bottled water is a waste of money, and it’s not like I get sick from drinking tap water anyway. In Ho Chi Minh, you can’t do that. They always rely on distilled bottled water. In fact, in the house of my Couchsurfing host, I saw crates of bottled water covering an entire wall. So why don’t they drink tap water? Well according to a local, their water is contaminated and untreated especially in the rural areas.

The motorcycle culture

Crossing the streets in Vietnam takes some ninja skills. You see, they love riding scooters or motorcycles, men, women, young, old, women on short shorts and heels, everyone drives a motorbike. And they come from different directions that it took me a full day to learn how to cross the street properly. When I mentioned this to a local, he gave me a tip. [Read:Braving the Streets of Ho Chi Minh]

“Just go on walking and do not hesitate. The motorbikes won’t run you down, they will be the ones to avoid you.”

I followed his advice and it worked.


frank mckenna

In the Philippines, you only need to put up your hand to signal driving vehicles to slow down if you want to cross the street. In Vietnam, they couldn’t care less and would go on driving. The first time it happened to me, I thought the truck driver would run me down; thank heavens he didn’t. This happened on a street with no crosswalks. Again, in this situation, just walk slowly.

 


Despite the many similarities with the Philippines, Vietnam has a unique identity that is both intriguing and amusing. I now remember it with fondness even when my visit has been marred by the scamming incidents that I experienced. Vietnam gave me the necessary education that the world is big and there are so much more to see and learn if one is willing to venture to the unknown. And I am willing to give it another chance, to better understand its culture and its people should I find an opportunity.

What about you, have you been to Vietnam? Tell us what you find unique in this country in the comment below.

 

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24 Comments

  • Reply
    Janine Thomas
    September 12, 2017 at 8:27 AM

    You do need ninja skills when it comes to the motor bikes. I was scared silly when it came to crossing the roads, but I love Vietnam!

  • Reply
    Swayam Tiwari
    September 9, 2017 at 2:48 PM

    The traffic situation in Vietnam is a lot similar to Delhi. I have not been to Vietnam, though. Whenever I am escorting my guests on a crowded Delhi road, I always make a chain of them, this slows down the rush of traffic. You are right, no one in his real senses will crush the travellers but it is best to keep on walking with a watchful eye on the incoming traffic.

    By the way, the word, chinky, is considered racist in India.

  • Reply
    Mikee Pascual
    August 26, 2017 at 2:52 PM

    I haven’t been to Vietnam but I felt like I was able to transport myself to it through your experiences and observations. Though I stopped my coffee consumption, it amazed me how intense their coffee culture is knowing that they sell it in almost every corner of the country. I loved drinking iced coffee to be specific, and I guess I wouldn’t be able to help myself from getting a cup when I visit Vietnam!

    I also liked how similar yet different it is to the Philippines. Places can get really alike at some points, but no matter how similar they may look, the feeling and energy each place give will always be different.

  • Reply
    Ambuj Saxena
    August 26, 2017 at 7:27 AM

    Thank you for sharing an insightful post. You are a true traveler and not a tourist! It’s amazing to read what you observed like coffee being sold on the streets. It doesn’t happen like that in India too, though in India, there is a lot more craze for tea. I guess the advice on how to cross the road wont apply everywhere in the world not in India for sure. My parents are 60+ and they are dead scared to cross the road on their own. They cant walk without a worry! But it’s interesting that you noted something different. Since you have a keen eye for detail, you should come to India and see how India is different from rest of the countries!

  • Reply
    Johna
    August 24, 2017 at 10:46 AM

    Interesting! So much to learn hehe. Ive been looking for tickets here. Whats the best thing to do here?

  • Reply
    Bianca
    August 24, 2017 at 9:27 AM

    I love the insights! I also loved my trip to Vietnam, and agree with all your points!

  • Reply
    Darlene | PS+W
    August 23, 2017 at 9:23 AM

    This makes me even more excited to go to Vietnam! Although I don’t dink coffee anymore, I still would like to taste their coffee. And beer. hehe. And I don’t mind cilantro one bit. And vegetables too! These are really good tidbits to know about Vietnam.

  • Reply
    Harini
    August 23, 2017 at 5:30 AM

    It’s amazing to see the stark contrast between the two places.It reminds of my own country where every city is like a different country

  • Reply
    Jane / Lomaunelmia ja unelmalomia
    August 22, 2017 at 9:36 PM

    I haven’t been to Vietnam yet, but it’s on my bucket list. I live in Finland, northern Europe and I have been to Asia only twice, first in India and then in Malaysia and Thailand. But did you mean that you were out of your home country only as an adult, for the first time, or did I get you wrong? I was 6 when we went to Sweden and Norway and 9 when we went to London. And that was in 1970’s, nowadays the kids travel much further from Finland. My cousin was 6 when he was on a tour around the world for the first time and 9 on the second time. I really envy him, although he doesn’t remember anything from those tours really.

    • Reply
      Marjorie Gavan
      August 23, 2017 at 6:30 AM

      Yes, it was my first time to travel abroad.

  • Reply
    Thelittlelai: Beyond limitss
    August 22, 2017 at 10:14 AM

    This is what I really love when traveling to other country. You get to experience and notice their culture and how they live their life everyday. From the food they eat, their way of living, their transportation and even the pace of their life. I love how you have shown their unique culture through your blog post which we can really spot a big difference from other cultures as well, especially our Filipino culture. Yes, most of the Vietnamese and even Chinese really love to eat a raw or steam vegetables which is really healthy, That’s why you rarely see fat people in their country. It’s just so great to read something like this. I admire your persistence to push this travel, despite of your friends who backed out for this trip. I haven’t been to Vietnam and reading this post made me excited to traipse my two little itchy feet in their beautiful country. Thank you so much for sharing this with us Marge.

  • Reply
    neha
    August 22, 2017 at 6:27 AM

    I can see similarities and differences in Vietnam from my own country’s culture from your post. It’s amazing how across countries things appear very similar and how some cultural aspects, people’s behavior and practices vary from region to region. You must be very observant to have absorbed all this information 🙂

  • Reply
    Sandy N Vyjay
    August 22, 2017 at 4:22 AM

    Your posts provides many interesting insights into the Vietnamese way of life. I have never visited Vietnam, but seem to know it having read so may articles about it. I know of the famous Vietnamese Coffee and the many cafes and street side outlets where one can relax with some of this coffee. It is indeed only when one visits a country that one really experiences it to the hilt.

  • Reply
    Sabrina Bos
    August 21, 2017 at 6:20 PM

    Ouch, I really wanted to visit Vietnam but know I read about the Cilantro.. I’m not sure anymore 😉 Kidding! It looks like an amazing country and I loved the pictures accompanying the blog. Safe travels!

  • Reply
    Suruchi
    August 17, 2017 at 9:19 AM

    This is really Interesting and I got to learn so much new too. Even I used to think that Vietnamese resemble Filipinos but you cleared that out. Interesting that they like steamed and raw food. I can relate their Motorcycle culture well because that is at high grade in India.

  • Reply
    Katchutravels
    August 13, 2017 at 12:25 PM

    Margy! Here’s some perspective from India. Any one from the east of India seems to merge with Bhutan, Chinese, Nepal, Thailand and South East Asia As much as you see similarities between vietnamese and Phillipenes

  • Reply
    michymichymoo
    August 10, 2017 at 2:50 PM

    It impresses me that Vietnam has a coffee culture. I wish sa Philippines meron rin, yung brewed coffee talaga na binebenta sa streets ala Vietname. Hehehe

    • Reply
      Marjorie Gavan
      August 10, 2017 at 3:30 PM

      Oo nga eh, but I’m happy that there are more cafes that offer specialty coffee now. I think we just need to invest more on our local coffee, for now I’ve only seen a few that use local beans.

  • Reply
    Swati
    August 10, 2017 at 12:29 PM

    Sounds like fun. Coming from India, I think I have crossing the road down like a pat. So would be interesting to see if I struggle in Vietnam. Also, iced coffee on the streets. Love the idea, have to visit now !

  • Reply
    Gareth Goes Places
    August 10, 2017 at 12:27 PM

    Really interesting post! I’ll have to visit Vietnam sometime!

  • Reply
    mr_jeng
    August 10, 2017 at 8:02 AM

    Wow. so Vietnam gave your first passport stamp and you even went at it solo. That motorcyle culture though seemed a bit I don’t know deliks. But I do agree that Vietnamese coffee is the bomb!

    • Reply
      Marjorie Gavan
      August 10, 2017 at 3:30 PM

      Ah yeah, the motorbikes are a bit scary but it seems like the Vietnamese people have mastered it.

  • Reply
    Married With Passports
    August 10, 2017 at 6:29 AM

    Very interesting read and important too! Thank you.

  • Reply
    Tshering Zangmo
    August 9, 2017 at 4:18 PM

    I would love to visit Vietnam…….:)

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