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 colleagues, 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 to go 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.
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 a 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 small 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.
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.
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 into 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.