Friendship Foundation of American Vietnamese

Travel Tips for Volunteers


The Vietnamese are fervent believers in traditional medicine. This runs the gamut from bear gall to some very useful herbs. Although you should avoid the medicinal use of rare animal parts, don't dismiss all of traditional medicine. It is an ancient and highly revered art which Western medicine is only now beginning to understand.

Travel Tips

In remoter areas an entire village may share a single needle/syringe (the needle gets awfully blunt). So be careful when and if you need any injections.

Vietnamese believe much more in injections than they do in pills. You will see many simple remedies that we usually take in pill form available only as an injectable.

There is no such thing as prescription-only medicine. If it's available at the pharmacy, you can buy it. This can include many items which you might need a doctor's prescription elsewhere. Another concern is the relative strength or weakness of a dose of medicine.

You will often see Vietnamese with round red bruises on their foreheads, chests and backs. This is a form of traditional medicine. They burn a piece of alcohol-soaked cotton inside a cup (to drive out the air) and then immediately turn it upside-down over the skin. The skin and flesh is sucked into the cup, creating an angry-looking bruise. I've even seen these cups applied to two-month-old babies.

Another traditional remedy is to scrape an injured or hurting area with coins or other metallic objects. Sometimes a green liquid with a very strong smell has been applied to that area. If you see children with red marks on their necks or arms, this is probably the reason. Seemingly this process can help. Some say it is because this process encourages the flow of blood especially into the outer blood vessels.


Rule #1: Forget grammar. Forget structure. Learn words and string them together. This is how children learn. People are much more interested in what you have to say than in hearing you say it perfectly. Use shorthand - i.e., "tomorrow" for future tense and "yesterday" for past tense. Of course, in Vietnam, you must use the correct tone wit the words. Otherwise, the wrong tone may cause laughter or embarrassment because you will have said something quite different from what you wanted.

Rule #2: Two people will invariably end up speaking the language that offers the least resistance. That means you MUST arrive speaking more of the native language than the average native speaks of yours.

Rule #3: If you are speaking a tonal language, learn the tones. I didn't and no one had the foggiest idea what I was trying to say...

Rule #4: Learn the most respectful greeting words and use them on everybody. The children will giggle but you won't offend anyone.

Rule #5: Speak. Speak some more. Forget being ashamed. In almost every country in the world the people will be thrilled that you are trying to learn their language.

Rule #6: People ask me what kind of research I do to make my trips go more smoothly. Mostly I learn the language. Once you speak the language well enough to get by, you have a tool that will solve almost any problem and open every door.

Rule #7: If you are learning a tonal language and play a musical instrument, consider "playing" the tone behind the word as you say it. Pick a tune that you'll remember for each tone. Westerners don't associate words with tones. Your mind will pick up the tonal variation much more quickly if it is presented as music (rather like a snippet of song with words attached)


Drive on the right? Signal your turns? Obey the speed limit? That stuff is for sissies. The Vietnamese abide by only one rule...

The Law of Tonnage: Whoever has the tonnage makes the law. So if you are on a motorbike, give way to trucks and terrorize chickens. Or buy a bus horn...

Actually there are rules for the road and highway. For example, when crossing the street, never pause, just keep the same pace, and watch out for oncoming vehicles. Usually the Vietnamese drivers, especially on motor bikes, will calculate where you are headed and how fast, so that they can avoid you. If you suddenly change your speed or direction, then you have messed up their calculations.


Rule #1: SMILE. It's like the monster ride at the amusement park. If you're not having fun, get off.

Rule #2: Don't bargain with the first person who approaches you (i.e., when looking for a taxi at the airport.) In general the further you go from the center of action, the cheaper the price. Never bargain if you have no real interest in buying the item. Your bargaining is taken as a sign that you want to buy, it is only a matter of price. Actually, if you have no intention of buying, it is good manners to totally disregard the seller and not even acknowledge their presence with a smile or nod. When the seller sees a total lack of response, they know to save their time and yours by looking for other possible customers, If you give any sign of acknowledgement, even a friendly nod, this will be interpreted as a sales opening, which leads to both a waste of your time and the seller's. You can see the unfairness to the seller who may need to earn money for his twelve children.

Rule #3: Don't be afraid to use walking away as a bargaining tool. You can always come back.

Rule #4: Don't let pride get in the way of coming back (or Rule #3 is useless).

Rule #5: If you really want something and the price isn't coming down, give in gracefully. (It's that pride thing again.)

Rule #6: Don't always assume you're getting ripped off just because you're in a third-world country. Sometimes the price they're asking is the real one. Prices also can vary for many reasons. For example, many establishments may charge their first customer of the day a lower-than-normal price because they want to get the day off to a good start. Also we find that good quality will always cost money. In other words, a cheap price does not always mean a good bargain.

Rule #7: Bargaining is a time/money tradeoff. If you're in a hurry, be prepared to pay for it. Furthermore, never get angry because you may have bought at one price only to find the "same" article cheaper down the street. First, it may not be the same article or you cannot tell various qualities. I once bought tea at a price 50% cheaper at one place, only to find out later that this tea was of a much lesser quality than the former tea. Second, the second seller may have needed some quick money and so price the item lower. Third, you could have turned down the first item and then never seen that item again which you may have really wanted. If you like an item and the price seems all right, then take the risk and buy. Usually prices in Vietnam--whether higher or lower--are not going to leave you starving on the street.

Rule #8: Ask (Vietnamese) fellow shoppers the price of an item before you begin bargaining.

Rule #9: Always carry small bills. Otherwise all that work is likely to be for nothing.

Rule #10: Always bargain in native currency. Conventional wisdom says anyone who has dollars can afford to spend them.

Rule #11: Always be wary of people who always boast about they obtained such low prices, insinuating how good they are at bargaining and conversely how bad you are. Such people also can make for bad international relations, in that you will wonder why native sellers are forever cheating you.

Rule #12: Enjoy the bargaining. The Vietnamese delight in this game and they also want you to enjoy it, although they do want to "win." If you think you have been taken, console yourself with the fact that the local seller may be able to buy some ice cream or "che" (Vietnamese desert) for his or her kids that night. You on the other hand should gain some interesting stories to tell other non-local people.

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