5 Things I’ve learnt in Vietnam so far

Minus travelling, we had four full days in Ho Chi Minh so far, which doesn’t sound like a lot. But being immersed into a totally foreign place means the experience of even one day is so much more than what it would be back home, there’s nothing familiar about it, and so you take it all in.

There’s a whole load of things that I’ve seen and learnt already, so I’ve picked the ones that I feel best summarise our trip up to this point.

1. There is a stronger sense of community

Of course you get good people and bad people wherever you go in the world, we all have personalities and some are more inclined towards one over the other. But in the U.K., particularly the South, we often have a barrier up as we go around public places and amongst people we don’t know. That barrier begins with a face that simply says ‘stay the f*** away’. I’m guilty of it too, I used to be worse a few years back, until people I’d become friends with told me that for months they thought I was horrible, purely because of the look on my face and the angry vibe I was giving out. It doesn’t mean we’re not actually kind or good people, because most are I think, but it just seems to be the attitude we’ve adopted.

In Vietnam, people don’t seem to have that defence up, that barrier we use, maybe, to stop being vulnerable in any way. Here, people just seem to be very real. Which I think makes it a lot easier to be caring and nice towards each other, because you’re much more open to seeing that we are all quite similar beings with the same ideas of living happy lives.

For instance, back home I’ve dropped stuff when I’m totally overloaded with holding Stormey and too many bags. Then as I scurry round trying to gather things, whilst also clinging onto little S, I’ve had people walk right past and clearly move their gaze to the other side of the street, in avoidance of helping me, even just for as little as 30 seconds of their time. When moments like that happen, I don’t just feel a little embarrassed because I’ve been avoided as if there’s something wrong with me, but I also feel pretty disheartened that this is the way we are to each other.

I struggle to choose one particular moment on this trip so far which best demonstrates how helpful and kind people have been, because there have been so many of them. From someone who didn’t even speak English (or work at the airport), managing to tell me that I was waiting at the wrong baggage collection area, to someone else telling me that Stormey had put her a hair tie in her mouth. Numerous acts that could be seen as almost insignificant, but they have made my life easier and more positive than it would have been otherwise.

Thankfully I have experienced friendly and helpful gestures in the UK, they are however, much harder to come by. I decided a few years ago that I needed to stand up and do my bit when opportunities presented themselves. Most recently, I helped an elder lady in Boots get a shopping basket. They were all jammed together and she wasn’t able to loosen one on her own. I stepped up, and not only did that make things easier and less potentially embarrassing for her, but I also felt great to have been able to help.

‘No such thing as a selfless act’. So what?! Someone in need of help gets it, and someone else gets to justifiably feel good because they made the effort to do a good deed. I’m more than happy to live in that world. Plus if it creates the kind of community feeling and human connection that I’ve experienced in Vietnam so far, I think it would benefit us all.

2. Vietnamese people love kids

Stormey isn’t necessarily the best example, as she gets extra attention because of her uncommon light skin and curly blonde hair, but they love kids here. Not just women either, but the men too. I’ve had guys my age and younger making a huge fuss of little S, it’s really lovely.

Following on from the point above too, people are super helpful with her. I had to put her down to quickly grab our mammoth suitcase off the baggage belt at the airport, and in that time speedy little S started trying to climb onto the conveyor belt! Thankfully, a Vietnamese guy was right by, he hesitated for a moment, I think unsure of how I might react. But seeing that she could get hurt, he reached out and took her off. I was so grateful.

When we went to Corfu last year, I loved being able to stay in a bar or restaurant for a few hours after dinner. Stormey could be awake and playing, or I could get her to sleep in her stroller, and it was more than acceptable. It’s the same here, children are much more involved in all aspects of life. Whereas back home, we are asked to leave even our favourite, regularly visited pub by 8.30pm, due to licensing laws. I do understand the reasons behind it, most alcohol selling venues in the U.K. get a bit boisterous as the evening goes on. But it sucks that we have to miss out on a part of normal social life because of it, particularly as a younger parent who has few friends with kids.

3. The French left their mark

I knew that going on a trip like this, with a 6 hour time difference to the Uk, would throw Stormey out of sorts. But I underestimated just how badly affected she would be. Normally she eats pretty well, and she certainly has a massively varied diet. Some of her favourite foods are olives, red cabbage and garlic (not together, although she would probably love that). But she’s developed an extreme fussiness over food, not even willing to eat porridge, which she eats very happily five days a week usually.

To make it extra challenging, we eat a vegan diet. But with Stormey turning away so much of her usual, yummy and healthy food, I’m being more flexible about what she’s having. Normally she’d only have crisps as a treat on the weekends, but she’s basically having them everyday here. I don’t like it, but I’d much rather that than worry about her losing weight or being hangry (a trait which runs strong on my side of the family).

Thankfully she’s still eating most of her usual fruits, passion fruit, strawberries, apples, we have managed to find olives too! So I’m not letting myself worry about it. We’re both enjoying pineapple in particular, which is a whole new level of tasty here! They also cut it beautifully and often serve it on a stick, which is pretty cool. I do ask them to hold the pink powder though, which the locals enjoy shaken onto a lot of their fruit, it’s a mixture of salt, other flavourings and often prawn.

The French left Vietnam in 1954, after 100 years of colonial rule. But they left behind their signature of great coffee alongside beautiful bread and pastry. The Vietnamese have taken these things and made it their own. ‘Ca phe’ here comes in many varieties, often wth super sweet condensed milk, or sometimes even fruit or yoghurt. As a coffee lover and someone who doesn’t sleep overly well, I’m very happy. Stormey benefits from the pastry, favouring almond croissants. Thankfully these things are helping to keep us both going, especially in that first two/three days, when you’re physically trying to adjust to the new time zone and different environment.

4. Rules of the road are completely different

Travelling in the taxi from the airport to my brothers home in District (Quan) 7, I’m mesmerised by the seemingly chaotic flow of bikes, cars and people. Horns are heard constantly and I think I’m bout to witness a collision at any moment. But my brother explains that the use of the horn is not aggressive, as it usually is back home. In fact, here it is used for its intended purpose, to make others aware of your presence. A few light taps of it will tell another vehicle that you are there, and they will move over in response.

My brother goes on to explain how to cross the road. ‘Do not step in front of buses or trucks, they will not stop. Cars may do so, but if they flash their head lights, that means they won’t stop (opposite to home). Bikes will go around you, providing you make it easy for them to predict your movement by staying at a medium and most importantly, consistent pace. Also, don’t make eye contact with them, it makes them unsure of what you’re going to do. Just look straight ahead.’

I’ll be honest, I was too scared to cross any proper roads in the first two days, which meant I didn’t do all that much. But on the third day, my brother took us into the centre for a casual walking tour, which totally improved my confidence. It’s still intimidating at times, but I just follow the instructions and try to cross when there is a quieter patch of traffic.

5. The money conversion can make you a millionaire

When we return from our travels, I’m planning to get a large van on finance, so that I can convert it into a home for me and Stormey. After doing calculations, speaking with the council about housing, and unsuccessfully trying to find properties to rent, I’ve realised vanlife will be our best option.

The wait for a more affordable council house is 3-5 years. After doing the maths on private rentals, I worked out that even with working full time, we would have no money left after rent, bills and food to have any decent quality of life, let alone build any savings which would allow us to get into a better position in the future, or go travelling again.

So it would be easy for me to feel pretty sorry for myself, being on the ‘poorer’ end of society. However, Vietnam gives me a very different perspective on things.

I went to the cashpoint to get out money for our 11 days in Hoi an. I took out £100, which is a lot of money to me. The ATM gives me 3.000.000 Vietnamese dong (it is a great name for their currency, they pronounce it as ‘dum’, but we can say ‘dong’ because it’s more fun). So in my hand I have three million dong, which is also about half of the average yearly household income, and I’ve got it out to get us by for 11 days or so.

I’ve watched some Vietnamese guys fishing in the Mekong River, and saw one pull a catfish out. That will have gone on to be dinner for him and his family later that day. He was so happy, understandable when you think of what he probably earns, and that the same fish would have cost him about 23.000 dong to buy in a shop or market.

I may not be in a great financial position back home, but it’s even harder for people here. I love that my brother and sister-in-law, although they aren’t rolling in money, earn enough to always tip, and are passionate about doing so, as a way of distributing the money to those on lesser wages than themselves. It’s only about 60p or so each time, but to people here, that’s almost the cost of a fish, and it goes a long way.

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