1. It’s Cheap
The Vietnamese Dong, yes go ahead and laugh, has a currency exchange rate with the US Dollar so good that it’ll make you laugh. Usually the change rate hovers around $1 gets you 20,000 Vietnamese Dong. Yes, twenty thousand. In the total four months I spent living abroad in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), I don’t think I spent more than $700. The US Dollar is just so valuable over there. A good night out at a bar could cost you just $2, a 45-minute cab ride just $7, a used motorbike will ring you up $200. I went out to eat almost three times a day, every day and would spend sometimes no more than $25. A fully custom-made, tailored suit from the bustling Ben Thanh market will set you back $30 while a trip on the city’s bus system just a few cents. The only things you’ll need to take into consideration are the international flights to-and-from Vietnam. That’ll cost you a few paychecks. But trust me, it’s absolutely worth it.
2. The People Are Super Friendly
Before I went to ‘Nam, I was appalled at how many people in the good ole’ US of A were still just abiding by negative stereotypes about Vietnam and it’s people. “Why would you go to that piece of shit country?” “You’re going to get killed over there, they hate Americans.” “You’re going to Vietnam? I don’t want to talk to you.” Guess what folks, the “war,” a war we shouldn’t have even been involved with in the first place, ended nearly forty years ago. Even today, I still have adults immaturely criticize me for spending time in Vietnam. Don’t let them burn you down, be proud that you had the chance to see how great this country is. I would guess that 95% of the Vietnamese I interacted with and met didn’t give me any grief or harassment for being an American. These people smile, they’re always smiling and laughing. While some may not be as fortunate to have as much as we do back in America, they have a beaming sense of optimism. From getting lost on which bus to take to my NGO where I volunteered at to even just figuring out how to check myself into a hospital, they’re all arms open welcoming. They want to know about you and your life. They won’t make fun of you for being a lanky, 6’2 tall Westerner with a giant camera around your neck. They’ll encourage you as you try to learn the impossibly difficult Vietnamese language. From quick run-ins at coffee shops, conversations on the street and formal debates in an academic setting (at my host university), the Vietnamese make you feel at home. Not to mention, I felt safer walking around Vietnam than I did in most big cities in the United States. A forty minute long, drunk stumble with your friends, back to the guesthouse at 3 A.M. could be done without looking over your shoulder. I would also highly recommend if you’re staying here for a long time, find an NGO or non-profit to volunteer with. That’ll give you the chance to immerse yourself deeply with the people and make a difference in someone’s life. There’s also a fun, close-knit ex-pat community in parts of Vietnam too you can mingle with.
3. The Food Is Delicious
I’ll admit it fully; I’m not the most adventurous eater. But I did do my best to gouge down on whatever tasty food appeared in front of me. The food in Vietnam is amazingly cheap, so take advantage of it. From simple banh mi that I’d buy on my way to class in the morning from the street vendor, to bowl after bowl of spicy pho, the food was fresh, honest and delicious. There’s pretty much a complete absences of fast food in Vietnam, apart from a sole Pizza Hut and Popeye’s. Lotteria, a Japanese knock-off of McDonalds, was depressing and plastic. It was an adventure in itself of wandering around the city each night, meandering through narrow alleyways trying to find some place new to eat. My favorite dish of choice was bun cha, a mouth-gasm of grilled pork, noodle and rice. The weirdest thing I ever ate? Deep-fried frog, not just legs, an entire frog. I also witnessed first-hand that you can eat dog. If you’re feeling like stepping things up a notch, there are plenty of nicer sit-down restaurants serving anything from French pastries to hot Indian food. You won’t have to break the wallet either for those joints.
4. Environmental Diversity Shines at Its Finest
Vietnam is a truly fascinating country, there’s no better way to put it. You really get a chance to pick your journey: wander through the urban, concrete jungle that is Saigon and Hanoi, or break away to quiet costal towns like Hoi An and Da Nang. Indulge in the rich history of Vietnam as you explore temples and pagodas along the Perfume River near Hue. Spend a weekend in the lush, Mekong Delta. Step foot in Lang Co and make your way up the epic Hai Van Pass, two beautiful places that truly will give you the chills and make your jaw drop. Sail to Ha Long Bay where the water is emerald green. Watch stunning sunsets as you walk through the small, mountainous town of Da Lat. Get lost, break out of your comfort zone, try new things and live amongst the people. Each and every part of Vietnam has something unique and different to offer. Before heading overseas, pick yourself up a Lonely Planet guide. You’ll be glad you did. You’re going to see things that really open your eyes up and give you a new perspective on life. Don’t be scared or nervous: just go.
One last bit of advice: write.
Keep a travel blog. With strict restrictions on social media and unstable Internet connection for Skype, it will be difficult to keep in contact with those back home. I actively updated my own travel blog, in an effort to let loved ones know how I’m doing, but to also try and educate others about this incredible place called Vietnam. When I got home months later, I printed it out into a hardcover book. It may be the most prized possession I own.