My experience flying in to Vietnam, and my first (ever) experience dealing with culture shock.
During my trip visiting Hong Kong, studying abroad in Thailand, & city hopping in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, I had collected a plethora of unforgettable experiences. I had been exposed to so many climates, cultures, cuisines, and characters. I had learned about myself and about the world around me. The vast majority of my memories are positive, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Every destination was spectacular. However, when anyone asks me which location was my favorite, I don’t think twice before answering: Vietnam.
Vietnam was my absolute, undebateable, favorite. The lush green hills, the fields dotted with water buffalos and workers wearing conical straw hats… it was all so picturesque.
I never had a single meal in Vietnam that wasn’t anything less than perfection.
People were extremely kind, despite my expectations about negative views of Americans. I felt safe. I stumbled across quirky activities and hole-in-the-wall temples. The nightlife was amazing. Everything was affordable. I met some of my favorite backpackers. The coffee was to die for (even better than Thai tea. Shhhh, don’t tell).
Of all the locations I visited while in Southeast Asia, Vietnam is the one I am most likely to return to. No matter how much time we spent in Vietnam, it always felt like there was still more to explore, always more to discover. Thailand was awesome, but I feel as if I have already completed that chapter of my travel journal.
We arrived in Vietnam after taking a plane out from Luang Prabang, Laos. We wanted to save some money by taking a train, but Laos is actually one of the only countries in the world that lacks an official railway system.
Compared to travel in the United States, flying from place to place in Southeast Asia was actually relatively easy. Because of extensive security measures being taken in the US, the process to get in and out of the country is a major pain. LAX can be a nightmare, and you really do have to arrive at least three hours ahead of time to ensure that you’ll get through all the steps before making your flight.
With airports in Southeast Asia, we hardly ever had any issues. At one point, we almost missed our flight in Hong Kong due to an unanounced gate change, but other than that it was pretty easy. We just zipped through security from one country to the next. I think one of us accidentally brought nail clippers onboard one time.
When we arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam, however, it was a different story.
We had already applied for our visas and received our acceptance letters. All we needed to do was collect and pay for our visas upon arrival.
Easier said than done.
It turns out, the only way to pay for your visa is in cash. But simultanously, the only place to withdraw cash was BEYOND the visa checkpoint.
So you need your visa to get cash but you need cash to get your visa.
As I mentioned earlier, the people in Vietnam were extremely friendly. The desk clerk at the airport was the exception. Extremely rude, condescending, and kept telling us “someone will be here to escort you to the ATM in 1 hour” no matter how much time had passed.
At this leg of the trip, we were exhausted, we were starting to get on each others’ nerves, and tensions were high. We were in an unfamiliar place, and we were unsure as to what was going to happen next. We were having trouble communicating, and we were being treated in a way that didn’t match up with our cultural perception of politeness.
To calm ourselves down, we decided to stop talking to each other. We were only stressing each other out, or annoying each other. We sat down in a circle on the cold linoleum tile floor, hugging our luggage close. We started to play crazy eights with a worn deck of cards, which was a good idea to calm us down and pass the time.
Almost immediately after we began to get into the game’s rhythm, something extremely bizarre happened.
We gained an audience.
One by one, Vietnamese people began to surround us. They hovered directly above us, oblivious to what we perceived as personal space. A little girl (6 or 7?) got RIGHT up next to us, squatted down as if she was in our circle. Vietnamese men stood above us, crossed arms and quizical expressions. As soon as five or so men gathered, a crowd soon followed. I felt like I was suddenly in the middle of some underground gambling ring.
We wordlessly looked at one another, unsure whether to burst into laughter or stop playing altogether. I was worried that perhaps there was some weird law we were unfamiliar with. This fear was heightened when a security guard came up, watched what we were doing for a moment, and ran over to another security guard. However, they simply laughed with one another!
The slew of emotions that tumultuously rumbled through my gut was hard to interpret. I wasn’t sure if I should feel unsafe, amused, scared, or embarrassed.
Looking back, this was one of the most hilarious things to happen to us during our travels, but in the moment it was pretty uncomfortable.
Finally, we discovered that we were permitted to pay for our visas with a combination of Thai baht and US dollars, instead of having to wait another infinite hour for an ATM. We got our luggage, hopped on our hostel shuttle bus, and headed into Hanoi.