I have lived in several different countries and been surrounded by friends and people with multi-national backgrounds. I am grateful for the international exposure since young age and believe that this is what formed me as who I am now and allowed me to be open-minded to accept cultural differences and variety.
From my personal experiences and observations, I realised that there are both differences and similarities across various cultures. Similarities between two different countries often pleasantly surprised me. And some differences came as more challenging to digest and understand logically than others at times.
I perceive these challenges as the perfect opportunities to get out of my comfort zone and widen the spectrum of my sight of the world. Adapting in a new cultural environment can be quite intimidating at first, but then soon I reached a point when I feel truly within and the sense of belonging to the local community. That has brought me immense joy and feeling of comfort like I discovered a new ‘home’. That’s the true beauty of blending in like a local.
Vietnam is my 7th country to live in and I moved here about 9 months ago. I am currently learning Vietnamese with the sole purpose of becoming a real local. I am enjoying my journey and life here trying to balance between being a tourist and a local so that I can get an insight from two different perspectives.
I know that there are many other people out there who have the same passion and interest in dissolving in like a local just like me. And I’d like to share with you few tips on how you could do so to make your trip extra special and feel more emotionally connected in Vietnam. All of the tips are based on my personal experiences and observations.
Learn the Local Language
This is probably the best tactic to start. When I plan a trip to somewhere, I love reading through different travel guides (books and blogs) to get an overall idea of cities, itineraries and cultural insights. More often than not, there’s always a section of useful and essential travel phrases in local language. I used to skim read that part and not really bother learning them.
But what I realised while learning and improving my Vietnamese is that even the tiniest effort to opening up a conversation in their language can break the ice instantly. It’s as simple as saying “hello” and “thank you” in Vietnamese when you go to a shop, restaurant or wherever.
The best part is that Vietnamese people will be so happy that you gave it a try and few more phrases can even give them an impression that you must have lived in Vietnam for quite a while. It is something I experienced myself almost always when I practised few words and phrases and they always asked how many years I’ve lived here and have the friendliest attitude towards me.
We wouldn’t have people reacting as such when we speak English as it is almost expected of anyone to speak at least few words. But in Vietnam, it isn’t the case and in fact, it is the complete opposite.
Talk to Random Locals
Talking to random people especially to someone who does not speak the same language as you can be very intimidating to many people and it is to me too. But some of my friends have no fear in starting a conversation with a complete stranger and aren’t afraid of making mistakes when practising a new language.
What they do is grab one of those tiny plastic chairs at a street tea shop and say hello to people around. Of course, they don’t understand a single word at the beginning, but as they kept on trying, they started to catch some words. Then eventually, they’re able to speak and communicate with locals without ever going to a school or class to study.
I know that this tactic isn’t for everyone, but all it takes is that one second to to ask yourself “why not give it a try?” and taking the action. I’ve done exactly the same and I’d be back home super excited to tell my boyfriend about that short conversation I had with a random person and how it made my day!
Find Information and Tips from Locals
Hanoi and many other cities in Vietnam are highly touristy and well-known for many travellers from all around the world. Thus, there’s a ton of information and top picks from different blogs, people, Youtubers and so on. I love obtaining recommendations from previous travellers, but I always see the untapped market that is well-known to locals, but not to outsiders. And I am very eager to find those places that are famous to locals.
One of the easiest way to find these hidden spots is to check local Instagram accounts and I’ve covered the top accounts that I follow in an article, so go check them out here.
One other way is to post and engage with locals and expats living in the city on Facebook pages. I see many people asking for suggestions and meet ups on Hanoi Massive Community that has almost 95K members and many people are actively sharing recommendations and insights.
Get Lost & Think Outside the “typical touristy” box
I do like to visit the touristy spots and ‘must-do’ lists if they interest me, but I much prefer to explore in my own way. I like to set myself free from using a map showing the shortest route to somewhere, so I just walk around and take any street that I feel attracted to.
I like being spontaneous and going with the flow to find a local restaurant or cafe on the way. It’s partly because having no expectations can often bring pleasant surprises and wandering around can be one of the best ways to discover hidden gems and have an adventure.
Observe and Copy
This is a fun tip that I find pretty useful. It is to observe how the Vietnamese people talk, behave and communicate and copy. I’m not talking about being pretentious or copying what seems impolite or aggressive, but I’m talking about enjoying the process of observation and digesting that in to understand what seems common and acceptable in this culture.
For instance, there are quite a few different ways Vietnamese call one another and it can be very complicated for foreigners to understand. When you’re calling a lady who looks few years older than you, you can call them “chi oi” and an older man can be addressed as “anh oi”. You’ll hear this every-single-day while in Vietnam. If you can learn this and use it, it’s the first step into merging in like a local.
As I mentioned in the introduction, I believe that having an open mind is the key to many things especially when accepting differences. Honestly speaking, I do have some stereotypes in my head that I have to constantly and consciously kill over time. Putting in this effort repeatedly got me one step closer to appreciating and respecting the local culture and eventually helped me broaden my comfort zone in a foreign country.
Soften your edges a bit and just receive Vietnam as it is. Behind some shocking and discomforting differences you might see at first sight, you’ll see the true beauty and value of its people and culture.
Put a Smile
Here’s a very easy one that can be applied anywhere across the globe. It’s a nice and warm smile on your face. I believe that approaching someone with a smile can instantaneously soften one’s guard and you’ll be rewarded with more intimacy with that person. I mean, who doesn’t like someone who has a nice smile on?
I know this works because one of my neighbours is an old man who is super grumpy and angry at all times. I’ve seen him making scenes with whoever bothered him. Of course, my instinct was to avoid him, but then one day we made eye contact while I was parking my motorbike and I involuntarily smiled at him (maybe I had a great day) and I saw him smile for the first time! Though he smiled awkwardly and very briefly, I could see the warm heart inside him and I must say that it was a magical moment to me.
I hope that you’ll have a wonderful and memorable time in Vietnam and that this beautiful country and charming Vietnamese people will remain in your heart for long!