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Culture Shock

by Going Slowly


It is 8AM. We are in the middle of packing our panniers and ferrying them to the lobby, when two women march through the door of our room. One of them, carrying a cleaning bucket and looking annoyed, waves a hand in Tara's face, fanning her nose with a "see-ya" shooing motion.

Well good morning to you too, lady.

We can't really communicate with her, so we just ignore the gesture and continue packing. When the bikes are ready to go, we wheel out the front door of the hotel, and immediately, a rush of noise hits us like a tidal wave. Just like last night, the road and sidewalks are overflowing with activity.

The process of carving through the mess towards the other side of the street will require trusting approximately one hundred people not to hit us. When in doubt, do what the locals do! Mimicking nearby pedestrians, we completely disregard the flow of traffic, steadily walking into it as if we have the right of way.

Like an awkwardly choreographed dance, the tangled mass of vehicles self-corrects for its new obstacle with a flurry of beeping, braking and swerving. In one moment, there are twenty scooters driving straight for us, in the next, each of them are zipping around us with inches to spare.


As soon as we start cycling, I start to feel irritable. The constant honking, the scooters and bicycles riding straight at me in my "lane", the exhaust billowing in my face… it just isn't enjoyable. We haven't even gone anywhere, and already I want to go back to bed and hide from it all. As if on cue, Tyler realizes something is up, and stops us.

"Let's have it!", he says.


I know full well what is going on. Thus far, mainland Vietnam is the least inviting place we've visited since Tunisia. It is going to take some getting used to. I'm feeling okay about it, but only because I severed any connection I had with my thoughts before we left the hotel.

My method of dealing with culture shock (and a host of other difficult situations) is to envision myself slamming a giant blast door in the face of a million tiny complaints. Then, having retreated to a safe mental space, I am free to watch the bile my brain produces with bemusement. At the moment, a thousand whiny voices are pinging off the door, trying to get in.


I don't want to talk. I am preoccupied, battling with my negative thoughts, fighting to stay positive, and more importantly, focusing on staying safe in the whirlwind of vehicles around me. I'm also trying to refrain from forming opinions about this country right now, for I know we've only been on the mainland a few days. I'm in no position to pass judgement.

Of course, not talking isn't helping any, so I spill my guts to Tyler. I miss Cambodia. I miss all of its friendly smiles, I miss its peaceful countryside, the quiet roads, the adorable kids, and the lack of traffic. The last place I want to be as our trip nears its end is right here, on this tangled, chaotic street.

I'm busy trying to fight this downward spiral of emotions (and losing), when Tyler says something that magically snaps me out of it. "Culture shock," he says. "It's normal. We'll adapt." Suddenly, half the battle is won. This amorphous, unnamed negativity now has a name. It's culture shock.

Oh yeah. I forgot about that.

Armed with a little perspective, my emotions fall into check. Though I'm not particularly enjoying the noise, or the constant barrage of stuff in my face, I know I will get used to it eventually. By the time we ride off in search of a ferry to cross one of the the Mekong delta's many branches, I'm feeling fine.

At the port, we wheel into a line and purchase a pair of tickets from a friendly lady for about twenty cents. When the ferry has docked, a gate opens and we follow a stream of vehicles rushing onto the deck, like water through a dam.

Vietnamese Ferry Ticket Seller

We're now packed in a metal boat with loads of kids in navy and white sailor-like uniforms, sporting dapper red handkerchiefs around their necks, carrying backpacks full of books. The bulk of the other passengers are men and women in suits and ties, carrying briefcases atop their scooters, presumably headed to work.

Vietnamese Ferry Captain

Meanwhile, we make quite the spectacle with our giant bikes, and Tyler is getting plenty of giggles about his rice hat.

Tyler on Vietnamese Ferry

As we chug across the water, alternating between staring out the window and looking around the boat, I notice as a lady lifts her toddler in the air, holding the girl at an arms length with her knees against her chest. The woman makes a *psssss psssss pssss* sound until her daughter starts peeing on the deck of the ferry.

The yellow liquid trickles and runs across the metal, collecting in a narrow pool where the floor meets the wall. After the girl is finished, the mom pulls up her underwear, hoists the girl back onto their scooter, and starts the engine. We've landed on the other side of the narrow river, and it's time to disembark.

Tara's Bike on a Vietnamese Ferry


Deposited across the waterway, we begin our day of cycling, eager to take a smaller road than we did yesterday, anticipating a quieter ride. But, instead of finding peace on a narrow dirt track, the same dizzying amount of activity buzzes around us – it's just crammed into a narrower space.

Soon, we seek refuge from the road at what we think is a small cafe. A few adults sit in the shade, watching schoolboys play soccer, and we go over to join them, ordering a couple of iced coffees. When we learn that they don't serve drinks, we attempt to chat with a friendly guy who gives us free water.

While we drink, the man excitedly gathers the students around us, presumably to meet the foreigners. We try to engage them, but no matter what we attempt to say using our guidebook and phrasebook, no matter how many different inflections and tones and accents we use, nobody understands us.

Never in two years on the road have we had so much trouble communicating!


After a few hours in the saddle, we arrive at our destination of Sa Dec, with grey clouds poised above, threatening a drenching rain. We nearly settle on a dingy, overpriced hotel, but instead continue on, wheeling to safety under the awning of the only other we can find, just as fat drops begin to fall from the sky.

We've hit the jackpot: this guest-house is cheap, clean, and run by a very friendly family. As we haul our belongings upstairs with the help of the hotel staff, we're relieved to be done for the day. Hopefully we'll get over our culture shock soon and warm up to these surroundings.

In the meantime, we're thankful for clean sheets and cool showers, and the promise of a hot meal from the restaurant across the street.

Cycling in the Rain
In Years Past and Future
2009 - Notes from the Cafe


I hope you went to the highlands!
Posted by James on February 9th, 2011 at 6:14 PM
It's so helpful to know *why* you're feeling a certain way. Even if that does nothing to solve the problem, having a reason for it always seems to make it better!
Posted by Jackie on February 9th, 2011 at 8:12 PM
Really enjoyed this guys. Tyler love the -how you deal with culture shock- analogy. We will be rooting for you for the next few days If you ever have any doubts, you made the right route decision. Our ride was nothing but really horrible dirt roads and lots of dust. Had a horrible evening ride and I think you guys might be the only ones that will really appreciate it, so will tell you later. Good luck tomorrow!
Posted by Natasha on February 11th, 2011 at 5:01 PM
James - Yep, we visited the central highlands!

Jackie - Yes it does! It makes it more manageable somehow. :-)

Natasha - So glad you guys made it safely, but it sucks that it was so awful for you. And thank you for your encouragement about our route choice. When the climbing got tough, we kept reminding ourselves that you two were cheering us on. Seriously! Can't wait to see you soon!
Posted by Tara on February 15th, 2011 at 7:55 AM
Do you remember the name of the guesthouse in Sa Dec? :)
Posted by Patrick on November 25th, 2012 at 12:42 AM
Hi Patrick! I don't remember what the guest house was called, but I searched around online and found this place . It looks just like the hotel we stayed at, so I wouldn't be surprised if it's the one.

Good luck!
Posted by Tara Alan on November 26th, 2012 at 12:00 PM
Patrick - Woops! The link to Thao Ngan Hotel is working now. :-)
Posted by Tara Alan on November 26th, 2012 at 10:58 PM
Thanks Tara,

The info came too late for me. i finally stayed at the Hong Thuy hotel right on the market, it was great. :)

Posted by Patrick on November 27th, 2012 at 7:52 AM
Glad to hear it worked out!
Posted by Tara on November 27th, 2012 at 1:24 PM