It’s been two weeks since we first laid our eyes on the frantic, chaotic streets of Hanoi, and the culture shock has already worn off. Maybe it’s because we finally reached the Cat Ba island, a less touristy and more relaxed destination, or we simply got used to the entirely different vibe of this country. Still, even though it might be a bit embarrassing to admit, we went through quite an overwhelming culture shock when we first stepped out of the Hanoi Airport.
Travelling to distant countries is not a novelty for us, but it’s the first time we’ve ever visited South-East Asia. We knew that it was going to be completely different – no matter how many guidebooks you go through and how many travel videos you watch, it’s nothing compared to actually being there. Still, we didn’t expect ourselves to be so surprised and drained by coping with the entirely new reality, and it happened due to a lot of small factors.
Finally, after spending a couple of days trying to get a grasp of the unfamiliar rhythm of the city, we figured out what helped us cope with the culture shock:
- Do your research
As said before – you can’t expect yourself to be prepared, even if you’d read all the guidebooks in the world. Still, you can have a remote idea of where you’re going and what it could be like.
For example, if you’re going to a warm but conservative country (like some parts of Indonesia) and you decide to pack a huge collection of shorts and tank tops, your first impression of the place might be affected by the shocked or unfriendly looks from the local people. It’s great to go somewhere without a clue, but it’s also reasonable to at least find out the basic facts before you get there. (There’s also a possibility that your packing will be flawless, but you’ll leave your best socks sadly drying out somewhere in the hotel’s backyard. This might have happened to us.)
- Get some sleep
It may sound like an old person’s preaching, but sleep is really important when you need to be in a good mood and appreciate something completely new. It’s hard to get it on an overnight flight with a transfer (or two), but these couple of hours of a rest might make a tremendous difference.
When we’re not well-slept, we tend to be way more anxious and irritable, and even a small event can throw us completely out of balance. Also, our ability to focus is pretty low, so we’re prone to forget about important things and we’re more likely to get scammed. Luckily, we didn’t attract any scammers that day (still, it had to happen eventually) but we were quite exhausted and in a pretty bad mood, so our first impression of the city was chaos and pure confusion. Even though we tried to get to like it, we just dozed off the moment we got on our bed, thinking that our trip might turn out to be a complete disaster.
That afternoon, all we wanted was to be like that Dutch girl who faked her entire Asian holiday using photoshopped pictures. We yearned for home and familiarity.
- Give yourself some time
When Kasia’s mom heard about our plans, she replied with a quite discouraging: “Oh, that’s nice. But you’re going to hate it”.
It’s not because she’s an overly pessimistic person – she simply knew that in most cases, even if you happened to land in a breathtakingly beautiful place, you’re too tired and stressed by the travel itself to appreciate it. If your first thought is “oh, crap” followed by “I think I made a huge mistake” then maybe all it takes is a couple of days, sometimes even hours for the first shock to wear off and change into simple curiosity and amusement.
At first, we were terrified by the traffic in Hanoi, but soon it became an entertaining pastime to try and spot how many things (or people) you can stack up a single bike and how many road rules you can break on one intersection. Later on, we started to appreciate this unique flow and all the bizarre sightings that you encounter on the Vietnamese highways and narrow city roads.
- Sit back and observe
One of the first things we did was finding a nice cafe with a good view of the Old Quarter’s streets. If you want to get a grasp of the city, there’s nothing better than a simple observation. You see how locals behave, how the tourists get lost, how close it gets to an accident every 30 seconds – and slowly, it all becomes familiar. On one hand, you’re avoiding the direct immersion into the busy daily life, on the other you learn how it all functions and this makes you feel more courageous and prepared for whatever waits for you around the corner. And it might be a scammy Vietnamese lady that will throw a bunch of bananas on a stick at you and then demand some money for it – but some situations will always be quite… unpredictable. And sometimes, especially when you’re abroad, you need to make a complete fool out of yourself, just for the sake of learning.