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may 03

Dear First-Time Vietnam Visitor

A 36-year old ex-pat with the pen name "Our Man in Hanoi" offers advice to budget travelers.

The first thing you have to realize is that nothing is what it seems.

No one has sex outside of marriage here apparently. Yet the teenage abortion rate is horrifically high. Everyone seemingly has a mobile phone and a motorbike but the average wage is a dollar a day.

Befriend a local and they will spend their last few cents on a meal for you. They will refuse to take anything towards the cost (and you probably shouldn't offer) and they will be genuinely honored to eat with you. You can make a friend for life in seconds. At the same time, if someone collapses in the street, people will walk by. Or worse, stop to stare but do nothing.

As a foreigner the police will leave you alone. They know you bring money into this country. But that works both ways too. They may not help you when you need them either.

Everywhere is manic with activity yet strangely serene. Eventually your ears will filter out the noise and you'll fall in step with the traffic. You'll wonder why it seemed so scary when you first arrived.

I understand that when you think of Vietnam the chances are your first thought is of the American War (that's what it's called in these parts -- and what else would they call it, if you think about it for a second). By all means go to the museums, the tunnels and the rest if that is your thing. But Vietnam is much much more than that.

Seventy percent of the population were born after the war. And the American war was a blip in amongst centuries of other wars. In my experience Vietnamese tend to look forward rather than back: understand the horrors of that war. Put it in context and move on. Vietnam has.

Don't get too tied down with that communism thing. Vietnam is communist in name only. In terms of the likes of education and health care the capitalist country you left is likely to provide more for its people. As for freedom, well don't expect criticism of the government in the newspapers, but you don't suffer a nanny state here either.

And yes.. the opening up to commerce has helped Vietnam prosper. But don't forget this is on the back of a rare 30 years of peace. I would guess that this is the most significant factor in the upswing.

Don't worry about your personal safety. Or at least don't panic about it. Vietnam is probably the safest place you will visit. But don't be stupid. Hanoi isn't too bad but by all account bag snatching is on the rise in Saigon. Just keep things close to you. Honestly money belts are not needed. Stick you wallet in your pocket, like you do at home.

People will rip you off sometimes. They need the money. But that doesn't mean that people will ALWAYS rip you off. Sometimes the price they say is THE price. There is no need for haggling. Other times you can haggle and haggle to get a couple of cents knocked off. Why bother?

Find out what things cost. Don't accept the rip off price but accept the reasonable price. And while we're at it, westerners don't always pay more than locals (transport aside). That's a myth.

And yes people are poor here. Ignore the TV shops, the motorbikes, the cars etc. It's for a (growing) select few. Most people still live in a one room home and sleep on the floor. Remember that.

Learn a couple of words of Vietnamese. Hello and thank-you will do it. It'll make people smile at the very least. Smiling is important here. Smile when you're haggling, smile when you're arguing, smile when you're asking for your money back. People will appreciate it and actually it's a nicer way to live. If you're being over charged make an "oh my god" face, but do it half smiling. They'll realize they've been sussed but they'll smile back in an "I've been caught?" way and most likely offer you the real price.

Relax...they can smell nervous tourists and it's like a red rag to a bull. At least pretend you know what you're doing without being arrogant.

Learn to enjoy it even when things go wrong. They will go wrong. Vietnam is slapstick and bizarre and that is why so many of us love it. Vietnamese people know their country is bizarre. Get stuck in a traffic jam in a taxi and the driver will turn to you laughing, shrug and say: "Vietnam." As if that is the reason for the madness.

Remember, each cock-up is another experience and another good traveler's tale. Learn to laugh at the problems and live with it.

Oh and they will call you fat. They will ask how much you weigh, how old you are, how much you earn, how much your camera cost. Compared to them you probably are fat -- and answer the questions truthfully -- who cares?

As Michael Caine says in The Quiet American: "They say, whatever you are looking for, you can find here."

It's true. On every level from beautiful beaches to amazing cities. From boiled dog to bangers and mash. From street food to the Sheraton. How much you submerge yourself in Vietnam is up to you. Eat at street stalls if you enjoy the experience but you don't have to. Don't feel guilty if you only eat in top restaurants. Your dollars will still pay for a wage here. Likewise don't think you understand Vietnam and its people just because you've sat on plastic stools and eaten noodle soup.

And there is a seedy underside, and there are drugs, and there is corruption and prostitution. But where doesn't have these?

There is no where else like Vietnam. People who have been here longer than me, have told me that only five years ago it was all bicycles on the road. Now it's mostly motorbikes but more and more cars are starting to appear. Vietnam is changing. And although I wish I had seen it then, now is also fascinating. The change is here but McDonalds and Starbucks haven't arrived yet. Nothing is ruined. Not yet.

You should realize that people either love or hate Vietnam. It is that type of place. But if you at least try to love it then it is more likely to work for you. Come here already smiling and with an open mind and it will be ok. Start to lose your temper over the traffic, the service, the roads or the food and it will only get worse. Nothing works here if you stop smiling.

My final piece of advice is: play the idiot.

Play the big western lump. Catch their eye when they're laughing at you (you are funny) and laugh with them. Pull a face at the kids.

Leave your ego and impatience behind and it'll work out just fine.

Comment on this story below. Then check out what our other finalists wrote: A young man goes to Belgium on a quest for the world's most elusive beer. A young mother learns how to find spa bargains. And a food-lover offers her list of the best places for budget travelers to eat in eight cool places.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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