Vietnam experience: Tourist vs traveler

Zipping around Vietnam is fun. Sure there are problems and dangers but what do you expect?

Tourists cheer on a boat traveling in northern Vietnam.

Zipping around Vietnam is fun. Sure there are problems and dangers but what do you expect? 

I’ll admit the idea for this story isn’t new. What are you, a tourist or a traveler? Do you rage at every inconvenience or take it all in your stride? My mum knew this well having travelled half the world. As she often said, “This is what happens when you travel.” 

She first mentioned this when we were holed up in Cambodia at a travel agent getting ripped-off for tickets to Vietnam. I was enraged, fuming and complaining as loudly as I dared while mum calmly handed over the money. The difference is a question of attitude: instant gratification, it’s too much hard work or going with the flow.

Looking back, I first discovered Vietnam while travelling with a friend who freaked out at what he perceived to be a million inconveniences whereas I saw a million experiences to be adventured. He was holed up in the hotel most of the time while I risked my life in a cyclo tour of Hanoi. I should have realized then the difference but it took my mum’s wise words to finally ram the point home to me.

You should try this ride when visiting Vietnam. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Even when I first came here, I tried to learn some local lingo and at least had a map and half a plan. I suspect tourists just trust that the tour operator has it all nicely mapped out. No surprises, no unexpected delays, foul-ups or U-turns. 

There’s nothing wrong with this if you are not planning to interact with the local culture or people – fine, take your selfies and go home. But you’re missing a golden opportunity for some real adventures. 

Arguing with the shopkeeper next to your hotel and leaving in a huff because they don’t speak good English isn’t in the same league as trying to get directions outside the tourist districts! 

The great thing is the urban centers of Vietnam are getting better at service and English so it’s mostly all good. Still, asking for “one of those round hat thingies” isn’t that classy.

I’m constantly surprised by the number of people planning to come to Vietnam who haven’t done any homework or research yet believe that people will give them all the advice in the world.  Sorry, folks – you’ll have to ‘man-up’ a bit.

Travelers usually understand there’s no real hurry. Do you really need to see the temples when it might be more exciting to walk and see what people do in the city block around your hotel – you might be truly surprised…

Travelers don’t have a tight schedule or a list of ‘must-see’ places. I once walked thirteen kilometers across Tokyo in a leisurely stroll – took the whole day – one of the most fascinating walks ever. It doesn’t have to be ambitious, just make sure you can find your way back and enjoy ‘being in the now’.

One other thing that doesn’t make you a tourist is having no cultural expectations about language or people. Travelers know communication will be a wild mix of body language, hand waggling, picture drawing and frantic tip-tapping on the smartphone. 

A scenic sight in Ninh Binh Province. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Unsurprisingly, people are generally sincere, friendly and downright funny. Just as curious about us as we are about them and their world, taking the time to find out some of this can be more memorable than that selfie of you standing in front of something incomprehensible.

Next week, I’m heading out of Hoi An to take a look around the country. Nothing grand or extensive, a few weeks to absorb the colors, sounds, places and atmosphere of things I might never see again. 

Although I’m something of a digital nomad dragging along my techie gadgets, I generally travel very lightly, buying clothes along the way and not worrying much about looking fashionable on a dusty road in the rice fields on a hot summer day. I’ll leave that for the day of my acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature which I expect to get any day now.

So I’m going to travel like a traveler, floating around like Forrest Gump’s feather and working on that speech.

Or you could say: Đi một ngày đàng, học một sàng khôn (Travel broadens the mind).

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