Our family recently returned from a brief stay in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and a couple of weeks in central and southern Vietnam. Foreign travel, particularly to dissimilar cultures, is richly rewarding. We generally choose to be self-directed, believing that the effort involved in selecting an itinerary, transport, and lodging make it more likely to stray from the well-beaten path blazed by global tourism. This time we had the benefit of planning and traveling with a Vietnamese family, which made it easier to identify and pursue a more local experience.
International travel (while still more work than a week at a resort!) has gotten much easier as technology provides new tools for navigating day-to-day needs.
Making connections: This was the first time I’ve traveled to another continent and had to do nothing to stay connected by phone. My phone simply worked, simplifying coordination among eight adults. I could make and receive calls without swapping SIM cards, buying another phone or using a complicated international calling service. Voice calls were 25 cents a minute, but text and 2G data were free. I assume that other vendors have similar services; mine is T-Mobile.
I learned to put my phone on “do not disturb” when sleeping. Vietnam and Cambodia are literally on the other side of the world, 12 time zones distant. A 3 p.m. call from Rochester rings at 3 a.m. in Ho Chi Minh City.
WhatsApp (including voice calls) was also available without those ridiculous data roaming charges. Wi-Fi, too, is widely available. Access in Vietnam seemed comparable to what we experience in the U.S.
Cash register dings in đồng: The bad old days of travel involved carrying wads of cash and trading for the local currency (called đồng in Vietnam), typically getting charged a fee for the privilege and being subject to whatever exchange rate is offered. Some of you may still use travelers checks.
ATM machines have made this unnecessary. Rural areas may still be a problem, but access to local currency in cities has never been easier. There were a dozen ATMs within a few blocks of our first hotel in Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by the locals). Use your bank card and withdraw as much as you need (but not more) in the local currency.
Bank policies vary. Mine does not charge a currency conversion fee and uses the market exchange rate. As our bank lacks an ATM network of its own, it also reimburses ATM fees, a nice benefit when traveling. Without that advantage, the ATM fees can mount, of course.
Paying for your morning cà phê sữa đá: Figuring out how much you owe one of the ubiquitous carts selling fabulous Vietnamese coffee can be confusing. FYI, “sữa đá” means that your cà phê is iced and served with sweetened condensed milk.
A U.S. dollar buys you 23,000 đồng, the Vietnamese currency. As a 1,000 đồng is only worth about four cents, prices often drop the final three digits. A million đồng is worth about $43. But there’s an app for that!
As Vietnam doesn’t issue coins, you can easily end up with a wad of bills. Occasionally you’ll even see a 200 đồng note, worth a bit less than a penny. Street vendors (ready for a lovely bánh mì sandwich in the morning) are accustomed to clueless tourists. Often they’d reach into their cash drawer and demonstrate the price with their own bills. When I looked too befuddled, some would politely point to the right bills in my wad.
Dollars often work, too. We never bothered to acquire the local currency in Cambodia, nor do our resident friends. Cambodia has not gone as far as Ecuador and simply adopted greenbacks, but dollars are widely accepted and are often preferred.
One caution: In many nations, damaged U.S. currency is considered worthless. I took $200 in twenties out of an ATM owned by the Travelex Currency Exchange in the JFK departures area just before boarding our flight. I learned to my dismay that nearly every bill had a slight tear, rendering them useless until I returned. I’m betting that someone was buying up damaged twenties at a discount in another country, then trading them with Travelex, which promptly placed them into their ATM.
How do I say, “You must be a model”? Some guy posted this question on a website for tourists, apparently hoping that his crude pickup line would work with pretty Vietnamese women. He need only have consulted Google Translate to find “bạn phải là người mẫu.” We didn’t offer to help.
I was looking for a vendor who would sell me one of the knives used by street vendors to cut coconuts or sugar cane. “Knife to cut sugar cane” was rendered “dao cắt mía” by Google Translate and I was pointed to right shop.
That said, we ran into many instances in which Google Translate seemed to simply sow confusion. Along with its competitors, it will improve.
Pronunciation is a particular challenge in Vietnamese. Having studied French in school, I can struggle to communicate in the Romance languages. Vietnamese is a tonal language, however. It uses the Latin alphabet that has been adapted to the complex pronunciation variations. Vowels can be modified by the addition one or two of nine “diacritics.” These don’t simply change how the word is pronounced—different tones convey a different meaning.
For example, Saigon is divided into districts called quận. With different markings on the “a” the word is not only pronounced differently but actually has a different meaning. While quận means “district,” quán means “bar.” I asked our Vietnamese friend to pronounce each word—but I couldn’t distinguish the difference, try as I might.
Water, water everywhere: Like many places outside the U.S., you’re advised to not drink water directly from the tap. While mildly inconvenient, every corner store sells large bottles of filtered water for pennies. Although I cringe at the plastic waste, the cost is nominal.
Power to the tourist: Getting a taxi in emerging nations has long been a problem for tourists. As cabs often lack a meter, the hapless tourist struggles to know when a fair price is on offer or when you’ve been driven by the least-efficient route possible. The ride-hailing business has transformed local transportation. The Uber or Lyft of Southeast Asia is Singapore-based Grab. Speedy and efficient, Grab is inexpensive and offers the option of hailing a car or a scooter; just as in the U.S., you know the price of the ride, the license plate of the car or scooter and you needn’t use cash.
And don’t forget the power of GPS. Google Maps can help navigate, particularly if you download the city’s map for offline use when you lack a good cell signal.
Most major cities offer hotels flying familiar flags like Hyatt, Starwood or Marriott. Like an old shoe, they look the same in Saigon as they do in Cleveland. Or you can take a chance on a new experience and book through Airbnb. Lodging is ridiculously cheap in Vietnam. Traveling as a group of 8, we booked five rooms in a lovely guesthouse in Hội An for $155 per night—total, not each. Not only inexpensive, our lodging was delightfully varied.
Chanel, Coach, Brooks Brothers, Pizza Hut: For those in your party who really didn’t want to leave home, most cities have at least one upscale mall that wouldn’t seem out of place in Des Moines or Albuquerque. There’s a grocery in the Saigon Centre that makes Whole Foods seem rather middle class. McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, Starbucks all have a toehold in Vietnam.
Why do you travel? If, for you, the purpose of travel is to escape the challenge of daily living, this kind of trip may not be for you. For those of us who like to experience a different culture, novel food, weird currencies, new languages, unique lodging and unfamiliar vistas, the simple mechanics of foreign travel have been revolutionized by GPS navigation, ride hailing, ATMs, Airbnb, language translation apps, Wi-Fi, seamless phone service and other gifts of current technology. Take the plunge and explore someplace new!
Kent Gardner is Rochester Beacon opinion editor.