What I Wish I Knew (Vietnam Edition)

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Vietnam: what I wish I knew.

Let’s be honest, if you find me abroad and ask me where I’m from, I don’t say America. I say I’m from Texas.

It’s more specific, and almost always recognizable. Plus it steers the second question toward something about about guns, cowboys, or sometimes The Cowboys. This one’s dedicated to y’all (as it’s written from a Texan’s perspective), however, this microblog applies to any native English speaker traveling to Vietnam!

I’ve been in Vietnam for a little over two months now, so I’d like to share a few tips I’ve picked up along the way. Yeah, they might be some easy things that anyone who’s spent time in Vietnam will know, but hey: we haven’t all been to Vietnam before, have we?

Anyway, here’s what I wish I knew when I first landed in Nam:


If you smile, strangers will hand you their baby!

Smile. We’re starting out easy, and to be honest, you should be doing this one regardless of where you are. Either way, a smile goes a long way with the people of Vietnam.

Speak with your hands. When words fail, body language will prevail. Talk with your hands and be animated, which (a lot of times) is more effective anyway. Use your hands to point at things and to explain who/what/when/where/why and you’ll be amazed at how far this will get you. Think of it as a never-ending game of Charades.


Google Translate: she’s got your back.

Download Google Translate. Charades will inevitably fail from time to time, so let me introduce you to your new bottom-bitch: Google Translate. Now she doesn’t always get it right the first time around, but she’ll always be there for you no matter what. Download the App plus the offline dictionaries before you go (this helps in case you don’t have Wifi or data). The App can do all sorts of dope stuff like:

  • Speech translation: talk to your phone in either language, Google will recognize and translate (so you don’t have to worry about downloading new keyboards).

  • Handwriting translation: use your finger to write out what you want to translate (so you can pass notes to each other in different languages, again without switching keyboards).

  • Camera translation: take a picture of any written text, then use your finger to highlight the words you want to translate, and Google will do it for you (this one comes in clutch when the menu doesn’t have any pictures).


Put that wad back in your pocket where it belongs!

Always Haggle. Unless you’re somewhere where they have to scan a barcode, everything is negotiable. BUT: never show interest in what you want. If you do, they’ll smell your desire, and they’ll fight you tooth & nail to squeeze as much money out of you as possible. Meanwhile, the next person who’s indifferent gets the same item for half the price you paid! Try walking around different shops and asking prices of similar items to get an idea for how much they’re going to ask for. A lot of different shops will have the exact same things (plus if you know how much other shops charge, you can try and start a bidding war). Figure out what you’re willing to spend, and set your mind on less. Now separate that amount from the rest of your cash. It’s hard to negotiate them down when you’re picking through a big wad of cash. If you have cash in your hand, they want it in theirs instead.


I could have sworn she said 15,000…

The Calculator App. This one is simple, but effective. It assists with the previous point about haggling: whip out your phone and use the Calculator App when discussing numbers. Numbers are a universal language, but language sure isn’t (I can’t count how many times I’ve verbally mixed up 15 and 50). It’s like writing a number down and sliding it across the table. It might go back and forth, but at least you know you’re on the same page.


(72.0 means 72,000 VND)

Always run the meter in the cab. Taxi drivers (especially in touristy areas) know approximately what a fare will cost for a certain drive. They’ll try to get you to agree on a price beforehand, which is more than you’d pay with the meter. At least if you run the meter, you can see for yourself. The only caveat to this I’ve seen is long trips to airports. Hailing a cab in Hanoi and going 40 minutes to the airport cost us about double than if we had arranged a ride with our hotel beforehand.


Lastly, here are a few simple phrases to get you started. I probably butcher them on a daily basis, but !

  • Hello - Xin Chao ( pronounced: sin jow )

  • Goodbye - Tam Biet ( pronounced: daam bee-uht )

  • Thank you - Cam on ( pronounced: cam oon )

  • Cheers! - Dzo! ( pronounced: yo! )

TL;DR - When in Vietnam: talk with your hands, use Google Translate, and haggle on everything.

- Embry