No one can prepare you for the culture shock that is Asia. Speaking as someone who was born and raised in western society, I can honestly say that Asia is a lot different to what I always imagined. Obviously in the UK we get a glimpse of what other cultures are like through the media and entertainment industries, and it was due to those outlets that I was convinced I had firm grasp on what life would be like in South East Asia. I was wrong. Having just celebrated 2 weeks of a 3 month stint in Vietnam I can tell you this: you need to visit South east Asia. I don’t mean go to some luxury resort on a Thai Island with full English breakfasts where everyone speaks English, I mean go off the beaten track and dive into the unique and immersive experience that you will only find in the East.
After arriving into Vietnams capitol city Hanoi and spending a few days as tourists, we made our way over to the less touristy city of Hai Phong where we were to begin our volunteering job teaching English. Before we left everyone was giving us their worldly advice, as they do, and making sure we were stocked up on Imodium because “everyone gets the runs in Asia”. Now I almost never get sick at home, I’ve always prided myself on having a near perfect immune system and whenever I have a dodgy tummy or a few sniffles I’m usually cured within 24 hours. So far Vietnam has smashed my perfect record. Because when your stomach gives you no choice and you need to ‘go’ and you’re in crazy bus station where no one speaks English and everyone is trying to get you and your 18kg backpack into their taxi, when you eventually find a toilet that is actually just a dirty hole in the ground with no toilet paper to speak of, the culture shock really hits home. 2 weeks in Vietnam and I’ve run out of: Imodium, hand sanitiser, and emergency toilet roll. It’s cool I’ve only got 5 months left in Asia.
After my “experience” at the bus station I was immediately shoved onto the back of a motorbike by a local volunteer from the English centre I was about to start work for, and I thought my life was over. I’ve been to a lot of places with crazy traffic and deathly drivers, but this is a whole new level. I think the difference is the sheer number of motorbikes on the road and the clear lack of absolutely any kind of structure or rules. I still don’t know what side of the road they drive on, and it is not uncommon to be on the motorway with a motorbike coming at you in the opposite direction. Everyone drives a motorbike here, not just a motorbike, a beaten down motorbike that is falling apart that has probably driven the entire length of the country multiple times. Now here is where the culture difference comes in, most Asian people believe in luck. They truly believe in it in a deep and spiritual way, meaning that if you are meant to be in a motorbike crash, you will be. Even if you were driving a brand new bike that worked perfectly, had on all the safety equipment and were driving super carefully, if you were meant to crash you would crash. Unlucky. I haven’t crashed yet, and everyone I know that has has just come away with a few scrapes and a good story (the amount of vehicles means you’re mostly driving under 35 k/h).My motorbike rides in Vietnam have been some of my most memorable experiences so far and I would definitely recommend having a go while you’re here, you will feel more alive than you have ever felt and you will have truly experienced part of a Vietnamese persons way of life.
Everyone knows that rice is a massive part of Asian cuisine, and I love rice (part of the reason I was convinced I wouldn’t get sick) but I didn’t realise just how much rice is eaten here. They eat rice for every meal of the day, and I’m living with Vietnamese people, so I’m eating rice for every meal of the day – everyday. It’s actually not that bad, rice is a great base for a meal, and by changing around the other components of the meal it can be pretty varied. The difficult part (at first) is eating rice with chopsticks. I can hand on heart say that I have not picked up a fork in a fortnight, actually I don’t think I’ve even laid eyes on a fork in that time, and I don’t intend to for the rest of my trip. IMMERSE YOURSELF. I have pretty much mastered the art of chopsticks in what I think is a very short amount of time, and when you master something so small that at first seemed impossible, the feeling you get is amazing. You feel like you can do anything, you feel like you have become part of a world that is bigger than you are – that’s why you go travelling.
There have been many other culture shocks and adaptations I have had to make in my short time in Asia, which I am sure I will get to in the future of this blog, and I hope there are many more surprises to come. Every small challenge or funny or scary thing I experience makes me a better person, excites me, and I am learning about life everyday – real life.
Look out for more posts to come on my Asian adventure.