Usually when travelling to different countries it's mostly for a short work trip or a holiday during which we are more likely to see a “highlight reel” of what the country has to offer. We visit the country's main attractions with one or maybe two “off the beaten path” adventures. We taste some of the local cuisine and only get somewhat emersed in the culture - no matter the effort - we remain tourists.
This week we take a look at another 2023 travel hotspot through a bit of a different lens. We had a chat with Anmaré Steenkamp who lived and worked in Vietnam for 18 months and got to know the country and its people in an entirely different way than those only visiting for a short while.
A NEW HOME
For her year and a half in Vietnam teaching English she lived and worked in a city called Bien Hoa in the south of Vietnam. Bien Hoa is about an hour's drive from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and she tried to make the trip as often as possible, but working over the weekends made travelling a bit difficult. So, most of her time was spent in Bien Hoa.
While weekends were mostly made up of work, she was able to do two tours to the Central and Northern parts of Vietnam. Some of her highlights include a water puppet show in Hanoi, a boat cruise in Ha Long Bay and they mystical mountains of Dalat. “I ended up spending Chinese New Year (Tết) in Hoi An. It was breath-taking to see all the lanterns and the New Year's festivities were extraordinary. It was the first time I travelled on a sleeper train and that was something interesting. It was also fascinating to notice the contrasting weather conditions. It went from scalding hot in the South to cold in the North.”
Sometimes before we travel, we form an idea and expectation of what the experience will be like, but a lot of times our travels surprise us, so we had to ask what surprised her about Vietnam:
“There are a few surprising aspects about Vietnam. Full disclaimer though, I can only speak for the people and places I encountered. I am sure it is not the same throughout the country. There is a clear difference between the North and South.
That being said, the food is divine everywhere in Vietnam. Unfortunately, I only realised that after I lived in other Asian counties after Vietnam.
People's willingness to help you is commendable. They also look after one another. Whole families live together. People retire quite young compared to Western standards, but then grandparents help to raise the children and look after the households.
In the rural areas the people would follow me in the streets to say 'hello' or try to talk to me. Strangers would ask if I had Facebook and were sometimes adamant to send a friend request. This only happened in places where there aren't a lot of tourists.
Then I have to mention the traffic! At first the traffic rules make no sense, there are motorbikes everywhere and it seems like total chaos. After a while you get the hang of navigating through it, though. Traffic tip: never run or jump, just walk at a normal pace through the motorbikes. They won't hit you. Usually.”
EMPARTING SOME WISDOM
Traveling to another country solo is always a daunting experience, so we asked her what advise she would give to other solo females visiting Vietnam:
1. You are braver and more capable than you think.
2. If you are considering going - do it! Say yes to every experience that comes your way, within reason of course. If someone invites you to go somewhere - say yes. Even if you don't feel like it at the time. It is usually rewarding to befriend locals and get a peek in their lives.
3. Try all the food. (Yes, even the crickets and frogs).
4. On the safety side - listen to your gut. If something feels off, then it probably is. Be aware of your surroundings and keep your bag zipped up - it is not extremely dangerous, but there are pick-pockets and in bigger cities they grab people's bags and drive away.
5. Do research before you go, but leave room for spontaneity. The country has a lot to offer and you don't want to waste time while there to decide what to do. However, there are beautiful spots you won't find in a book. Join a local day trip or tour. Don't be afraid to go off the beaten track. You will definitely be rewarded.
And there you have it. A long-term view of Vietnam through a single lens. Like any tour or experience we all view it uniquely and through our personalised lens. Vietnam still has so much to offer and if we had to put our whole conversation to page this blog would be a LONG one.
Vietnam, a country with bustling cities, beaches, rivers and Buddhist pagodas. Where you can visit rice fields, explore the rivers or expanding your taste buds with Vietnamese cuisine, it's a country with rich culture that will surprise you with the beauty of nature and its people.