7 Things Americans Should Expect When Traveling To Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

You’ll discover immediately the stark culture differences between your home country and Vietnam, especially if you’re from the western world. There is one element of the culture you won’t want to experience for yourself in order to find out about. While most of the differences in Vietnam are enjoyable to experience, and will carry with you a memory of positive thoughts on your trip forever, one thing you should totally be aware of BEFORE experiencing it is…

5. Theft is a bigger problem than in the United States.

Keep track of your expensive stuff.
Keep track of your expensive stuff. | Credit: CityPassGuide.

To be fair, I haven’t gotten anything stolen from me personally, but that has a lot to do with the company I’m with and the advice that I actually listened to when told to do so. All of the photos and videos you see on this site from Vietnam are taken with an iPhone 4, which at the time I went was the latest model. High-value electronics like expensive cameras and cell phones are in extremely high-demand in Ho Chi Minh City, and I’ve heard lots of stories of theft being a major problem. My wife tells me people are tricky, sneaky, and aren’t afraid of trying to snatch your possessions in the middle of the day. They might even cut open your pockets or purse to get something. I’ve even been told that they’ll reach out for your stuff while riding by you on a scooter. Again, I’ve never seen this myself, but this is coming directly from family that has lived there most of their lives.
Here are some common tips to help fight against theft:

  • If you have a DSLR, use your camera strap. Seriously, it might be a little uncomfortable in the heat, but it will definitely save your camera if such a theft should ever be attempted.
  • Keep your stuff securely to you, and never on the table next to you. Even with it sitting right next to you on the table, your phone can become somebody else’s quick.
  • If you have to use your phone for any reason, hold it close to you, and ALWAYS with both hands on it. Keep valuables (including your wallet or money) in the FRONT pockets of your pants. if you have a money belt, use it.
  • If you’re wearing a bag, wear it with the strap across your chest, not just over a single shoulder. Also, have the bag sitting on the inside of your body in relation to the street. I’m not kidding about those drive-by scooter thieves.

I’m not saying all people are bad. Far from it. What I am saying, is that the common things in America that you’re used to doing without any risk of theft, such as whipping out your expensive phone to take a group photo, present a potentially unknown risk to you in Vietnam. It makes you a target. Maybe not an easy one, but you still don’t want to be a target to pickpockets. Keep your possessions well, and only take them out in short intervals. There are places in town where it’s best not to show off what you’ve got.

6. They lighten their skin, instead of darken it

Cover your body on bike
The sun can’t tan you if it can’t see you.

For those of you expecting to relax in a tanning salon while in Vietnam, you’ll be disappointed. Tanning places are virtually non-existent in Vietnam, and with good reason. There’s plenty of sunlight for you to soak up already. However, the other reason you may not have known about has to do with the cultural differences in Vietnam. They all want LIGHTER skin, not darker. In fact, even more than that, they believe that the sun will make you sick.
vietnam woman beautiful
lighter skinned Asians are seen as more beautiful by their peers

Ho Chi Minh City features many lightening places, rather than tanning. People can come to get their skin bleached, actually applying methods to turn their skin closer to white. Lighter skin people are considered more beautiful by default, and most Vietnamese want lighter skin (which is something you already have if you’re caucasian). In fact, you’ll find that many of them wear clothing that covers their entire body, despite the intense heat. They cover themselves to prevent the sun from making them dark, even though it causes them to sweat more. The Vietnamese people tan insanely fast (my wife can be outside for 30 minutes and be noticeably darker afterwards). So if you’re planning a trip to Vietnam, it’s best to skip the tanning salons for a while. The local people will think you’re more beautiful for doing so. If you want a tan anyways, just get one while you’re walking around. The sun’ll take care of it naturally anyways.
The lighter skin element of their social culture adds to an already somewhat positive effect for you though, if you’re an American. It creates…

7. The “Celebrity Complex”

Me, in Vietnam
Me, in Vietnam

Many young Vietnamese people love Americans. Our culture has infiltrated theirs almost completely to this point (although they still don’t yet have a McDonalds as if this writing, although there are rumors circulating that it’s coming soon).They listen to our music, watch our movies, buy our designer clothing lines, and interact with most elements of our culture anyways. They simply prefer what we bring to the world, and that can be seen by their reactions to an American-like person near them.
I say “American-like” here, because they often can’t quite tell the difference between an American man or woman, and say, a European one. I’m not trying to be racist or anything when I admit that many western people simply can’t tell the difference between Asian nationalities. We can identify “Asian”, but we can’t differentiate “Chinese” to “Korean” to “Vietnamese” to “Thai” all that easily. The same is true for them. You could be German, or Swedish, or English, or perhaps you’re from Canada. They all look the same for them, for the most part, and as they’ve been infiltrated by American culture the most, you’re certainly going to be associated as an “American-like” person while you’re there, and this is bound to cause a lot of looks towards you.
Might make you feel like this sometimes. | Photo Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Might make you feel like this sometimes. | Photo Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps you won’t notice this as much as I do when I visit, especially if you restrict your travels to Saigon (the ‘tourist’ part of town). Navigate outside District 1 though, and you’ll feel like an outsider quite quickly. Not in a bad way. Just in… a way. Think about the last time you saw somebody walking down the street in the city, and you thought they were somebody you recognized from a movie. You looked again, right? You looked a little longer than you normally would. – This same thing happens to me in Vietnam, except I’m the one they’re looking at. At first, it’s cool, because you feel special. Then it gets old, and you stop looking back at the people who are looking at you. You just let it go, and carry on.
Of course, my being with a Vietnamese family, and with a Vietnamese woman almost certainly had something to do with it too. It’s not every day they see a family walking around town with a white guy towering over them as part of the group. Perhaps, with me, it was less about a foreigner being in the country than it was a local being with a foreigner. Maybe… maybe my wife was the one getting looks. 🙂
Yeah... that's probably what it was. :)
Yeah… that’s probably what it was. 🙂

So that’s it. Hopefully these tips help you out when you’re on your way to Vietnam. I imagine this advice would apply to other countries in southeast Asia as well, although I can’t speak for many of the others. I’d tweak this article slightly for Indonesia (traffic isn’t nearly as bad), but for the most part, it all applies.

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