As an expat in Vietnam for almost 3 years, I spent most of my time weaving in and out of hordes of motorbikes, cultivating an addiction to tofu, and being taller than everyone else in elevators. While there were days I could sit back and sip out of a fresh coconut, most days involved fumbling through my 2nd-grade Vietnamese skills and running into interesting surprises. Practically every day was a lesson learned, but these are the ones that I wish I would’ve known from the beginning.
1. A smile can mean anything.
As a Westerner, you’re used to a smile meaning happiness; exchanging smiles between two people is a nice feeling. In Vietnam, it can mean any number of things, and often it means that the person is feeling a little awkward, embarrassed, or is just giving you a sign to end the conversation. I learned the hard way that that nice, smiling man giving me directions really had no idea where to point me. At first it was annoying, but eventually you realize that defaulting to happiness – authentic or not – really isn’t the worst problem to have.
2. There is no such thing as value – there’s only what you’ll pay for it.
There would be days when I was craving a nice chocolate chip cookie or a spoonful of vanilla buttercream frosting so badly that I would spend days scouting out imported good shops just to sate my sweet tooth. After a year or so, I found myself willing to pay $8 for a jar of Nutella or $3 for a teeny container of imported yogurt. It felt silly and wasteful, especially considering the bounty of other fruit and yogurt-like products available, but I couldn’t resist. I wanted that taste of home so badly that it taught me nothing has intrinsic value or price – you just have to find the right person who believes it’s worth it (and it totally was).
3. Laws can sometimes be bent, broken, or just plain ignored.
In Vietnam, policemen often stand on the corners of streets, waiting to flag motorists over. Sometimes they’re doing their jobs, other times they’re playing Angry Birds on their cell phones. Seeing how seriously they took the position, I took that as clearance to feel the exact same way. Whenever a policeman would attempt to pull me over with a wave of his white baton, I smiled widely, waved giddily, and just kept on driving. Actual ignorance isn’t bliss, but feigned ignorance can sometimes be!
4. There is a way out of the 9-to-5.
A lot of Americans, in my opinion, get caught up in what seems doable or expected. Essentially that boils down to a 9-to-5, a house, maybe a dog, and a vacation 2 weeks out of the year. Society, our parents, maybe even ourselves, seem to have ingrained in us the inability to look outside this cubicle-sized box. In Vietnam, I was singing for a living. Writing. Doing voiceovers. Modeling. Traveling. It was a completely different world where the status quo felt pliable, where I could do things I never otherwise would have even been able to consider. It took Vietnam slapping me in the face to realize that if you don’t like the world you’re in, you can leave and go find a better one, quite literally.
5. Two words: Starbucks sucks.
Once you’ve had a nice cà phê sữa đá và phin (iced coffee with milk over a filter) dripping delicately in front of you, that 15-minute wait for that burned skinny vanilla latte is going to seem like a flat-out mistake. The Vietnamese are addicted to their coffee and everybody understands why — it’s just that good. I learned the hard way that unless my coffee is brewing freshly at my very own table (as is standard in Vietnam), it’s not worth the time, and definitely not my $4.
6. Being with strangers is sometimes better than being with friends.
I’ll never forget the time I wandered into a mechanic’s shop and wound up three beers later, chatting with his entire family over cơm chiên (fried rice) and chả giò (spring rolls). They didn’t really speak English and my Vietnamese was only okay, but the language barrier kept the silliness and curiosity alive as we took photos of each other and talked about the food on our plates. Sometimes it’s nice not to sit with someone who knows your dark side, your flaws, your worries, and just be with someone as another human being. Their generosity was heart-warming on top of the experience feeling unique — definitely one of the customs the US needs to pick up!
What lessons have you learned while traveling the world? Share them with us in the comments below or find us on social media!
This article was written by Jacqueline Kehoe.