What was one of the best things about being solo in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam? Discovering we’re all same same, but different.
Here’s a confession, and maybe it’s not surprising, but when traveling abroad, I feel like an ignorant American because I can barely speak a second language (Spanglish is a language, right?). During my trip to Ho Chi Minh City, I was concerned about the language barrier, such as what I’ve experienced in Brazil.
Thankfully, to my surprise most everyone I met spoke English. Many people wanted to practice their English and often while walking along Nguyen Du (a street I walked many times since it connected my District 1 hotel – the Empress – with other tourist sites), men and women stopped me and ask where I was from. When I replied “the United States,” their eyes lit up and they wanted to talk some more. Sometimes, they walked with me, peppering me with questions, curious about who I was, why I was there and why I was traveling solo.
“Are you a solo traveler?”
“Why are you traveling alone?”
“Don’t you have anyone to travel with you?”
Those are a few of the questions I answered.
I learned very little Vietnamese before and during the journey and by very little, I mean about two or three phrases. I learned that the same words pronounced with different enunciation had totally different meaning, such as, “xin chao.” Pronounced, “SZIN chow” means “hello” but “szin CHAO” means “bring me some soup.” Same same but different. At least, that’s what one of my Urban Adventures guides told me.
What fascinated me was how well many people spoke English, whether it was learning by watching English-language televisions and movies, or learning by English-speaking tourists, or taking English lessons. I told them they could check out this page on getting started if they needed a little more help to learn the language. Not one of my guides or people I met have left Vietnam to learn English which I find impressive.
One of my guides had a very distinctive way of speaking and when he later said he loved President Obama and learned to speak English by watching his videos, it clicked as to how he was speaking , like Obama. Another guide told me she was a fan of The Big Bang Theory. Bazinga!
Another guide told me in school they were taught how bad the United States was and how it was the country’s goal to control Vietnam in the ’60s and ’70s. His, and others, opinions of the U.S. changed when they were able to use the Internet to research and learn the U.S.’s involvement on their own. Another guide told me the reason the Internet is pretty much open is because Vietnam wants to do business with the rest of the world and a humanitarian requirement companies have is the Internet and some freedom of speech be allowed.
Many Vietnamese, (guides and random people I met) were open about sharing their personal experiences in regards to the Vietnam War. Some had family members jailed and go through “reprogramming” following the war and the higher up they were in the South Vietnam military meant the longer they were imprisoned. Others were separated from family members and never saw them again. Another lost a sibling to birth defects he was told was caused by Agent Orange. Listening to what they had to say was more interesting than touring museums.
It’s An Election Year, Of Course Politics Came Up
When it comes to U.S. politics – yes, one of the taboo subjects which should probably be avoided but I’m curious about – all the Vietnamese who discussed it, as well as Australians, can’t believe how popular Donald J. Trump is. As one guide told me, he does not like Republican presidents because they usually lead the U.S. into war. Hmm. There’s seems to be some truth to that. Hillary Clinton is a favorite over Bernie Sanders with the explanation being Sanders is a socialist.
Speaking of politics, I was told various things about the Vietnamese government and most consistently, was told it is corrupt.
“Visa fees are $20 to enter Vietnam,” one of my guides told me.
“I paid $80,” I replied, which explains why the Vietnam Embassy website (for the Embassy in D.C.) states contact them for visa fees vs. having the fees published.
Downtown I saw an outdoor court and was told the government often holds trials outside in order to use the defendant as an example and crime deterrent for others.
“We’re not a true communist country,” one guide told me, saying, “There are no government handouts. There is no free health care and no welfare.”
Feeling at Home While Half a World Away
Everywhere I went in Ho Chi Minh City, I was warmly welcomed and treated with respect and kindness. I felt safe, even when I got lost one night.
Despite an 11 hour time difference, thanks to fantastic WiFi at the Empress Hotel, I felt connected to home. Outside the hotel, there were bits of Americanisms to make me feel less homesick.
- Pepsi and Coca Cola advertising were around but Pepsi is the dominate soda.
- Heineken appears to be the most popular import (I’m told Saigon Beer is the most popular domestic brew. It has a nice, light flavor. )
- Fast food restaurants are in District 1 including Carl’s Jr., McDonald’s and Popeye’s. Of course, there’s Starbucks. There’s even a Hard Rock Café.
- Baby formula seemed to dominate small, grocery kiosks. I was told this is because the formula companies have people convinced formula will make their babies grow strong and smart. I wondered if access to baby formula had a correlation to the chubby children I saw.
Communication is More than Words
Not everyone spoke English but I got by with the universal language of smiles and head nods, especially when I greeted the Empress Hotel security guard each day. While visiting a home in the Mekong Delta where a grandmother, daughter and her three granddaughters hand-wove mats, grandma embraced me in a big hug after she taught me how to weave. She gave me a bigger hug as I was leaving after she learned I spent about $10 USD worth of her goods.
Hotel California, an International Favorite
No matter where in the world I travel, I hear Hotel California by the Eagles being played somewhere. During this trip, I hadn’t heard the song until I met Mr. Tung, a motorbike driver tour guide. This was one of the most memorable interactions and his favorite American song is…Hotel California! He spotted me on the street, drove up and asked where I was from. He lit up when he learned I was from the U.S. Enjoy this video of Mr. Tung.
Pockets of Peace
Friends joke I’m an ambassador on a mission to create pockets of peace around the globe and maybe there is some truth in that. A pocket of peace is the act of learning about people on a one-on-one basis and becoming friends with them in order to understand how they see the world. By doing so, there’s less conflict because when you think about it, you’re willing to help a friend rather than a stranger. A trip like this reminds me how the power of travel connects people with different backgrounds and reveals how similar we really are. In a way, we are same same but different.
Travel guides I used during the trip:
- Vietnam: 100 Unusual Travel Tips and a Guide to Living and Working There
- Lonely Planet Vietnam (Travel Guide)
- Survival Vietnamese: How to Communicate without Fuss or Fear – Instantly! (Vietnamese Phrasebook) (Survival Series)
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links to support my traveling habit but opinions are my own.