Travel Advice, Vietnam

How to be a Good First Time Traveler

17 Comments 24 October 2013

Cao Daii Saigon

Evie and I at the Cao Dai Temple in Saigon

If you want to know how to be a great first time international traveler – just ask my 17 year old niece Evie. She surprised me on so many different levels on our trip that she left me bursting with pride and reminded me of how important it is to see the world with fresh eyes. This young woman who had never left the country before chose to go halfway around the world to a completely different culture. Most 17 year olds would have missed their family, friends, phone, and comforts of home – but those things never came up. Instead – she lived in the moment, went along with every crazy thing I wanted to do and she led me into crazy things with her!

This was a trip of firsts for Evie:

First time abroad
First passport stamp
First time in salt water
First massage
First rambutan
First time kayaking
First ride on a motorbike
First time away from her family for this length of time
First time to experience jet lag

I observed Evie and picked out a few traits that in my opinion made her an excellent first time traveler. Everyone with an empty passport should strive for these things.

Try The Food Put in Front of You

Street food Vietnam

Evie ordering food at street vendors.

Evie excelled at trying new things – especially when it came to food. I’d drag her to little dodgy pho stands, give her a bite of something that she didn’t know what it was, hand her strange looking fruit to taste, and bring her food back from the market and say “Here, try this.” And she did. The more she did, the more I wanted to feed her more stuff! She even bolstered my confidence in many situations too especially when it came us eating hot vit lon (duck embryo). Some of the things she liked, some she loved, and some she tried but wasn’t going to have another bite. The point is – she tried. Everyone in other cultures appreciates it when you at least try the local food – you don’t have to like it all.

Embrace Local

Motorbike tour hue

Riding motorbikes in Hue

Forget shopping and regular sight seeing. Try to really get to see a country through the locals doing every day things. Our best experiences were the more local experiences we did with our Intrepid tour as well as the things we found ourselves. Evie actually wanted to go to Catholic Mass in Vietnam so she convinced me to go to a local experience that I never would have considered before. If you want to see how a culture worships, then why not go to mass and see how it’s conducted there. We both found it fascinating. We also went to a local water park in Saigon and both found it incredible to watch the family culture and compare/contrast to what we’d find in the US. We ate at local street vendors, rode motorbikes, and went to dinner at local homes. When we came home it was these every day local experiences that she gushed about to her friends, not the shopping or the sites.

Don’t Judge

worship in Vietnam

Visiting a temple in Hue

Even though Evie witnessed many different things in Vietnam in relation to our own culture, she never once said something was stupid or wrong. Babies on motorbikes, different religions and methods of worship, different ways of living and living conditions, cleanliness of restaurants, and questionable safety conditions all were hot topics we discussed. They were all great discussions – the type that I had hoped to get into when I travel with my nieces. She accepted people do things differently in different parts of the world. She was curious and asked “why” a lot – but that’s what you need to do when in new cultures – try to understand, not judge.

Be Open to Possibilities

Saigon music

Singing Adele songs with the band in Saigon

python vietnam

The python incident – a bit terrified.

In the same vein as trying the food put in front of you – say yes to a lot of experiences. Evie and I had a expression “You Only are in Vietnam Once” – YOVO – and it seemed to be what drove Evie to saying yes to everything. Evie ended up singing Adele songs with a Pilipino cover band late one night in Saigon bar, she went on motorbikes, bicycles, boats, and did anything else she was asked to do. Only once did I see her lose her composure – when she said yes to having a python wrapped around her body. She was nervous to begin with, but she did it. However this was the first time I thought she might cry!

Laugh and Smile Often


Having a BBQ in Hoi An

rambutan eyes

Fun with fruit

The best way to communicate with others in foreign countries is to smile – and she did plenty of that. I’m pretty sure that out of all of the people I’ve traveled with in 7 years, she made me laugh the most. And she quickly won the hearts of the local people around her. She also made an effort to learn a few words and numbers in Vietnamese which is always a great thing to make the most of your interactions.


Always full of fun

Evie actually wrote a story about her first experience traveling outside of the US for the Intrpeid Travel website. I am a seriously proud, proud aunt! Here’s a little excerpt.

First Passport Stamp: Vietnam
By Evie Ott

“How the heck am I supposed to choose from any country in the world?” This was the question that Evie Ott asked herself for years, from the moment Evie’s aunt told her that she would take her anywhere for a week. Evie’s aunt happens to be Sherry Ott, travel blogger extraordinaire and brains behind The Niece Project, so when Sherry said “anywhere”, Evie knew she really meant it…

“Thinking about all the options was just about enough to give me a headache. Finally I decided on three points of criteria for picking my destination. I wanted to experience culture shock, great food and non-touristy. Though it didn’t quite make my decision evident, it surely helped in the process. I ended up picking Vietnam as my first International destination, and it was the best decision I could have made.
The first point that got checked off my list was the culture shock. I didn’t even have to step outside the airport before I could realize I wasn’t in Kansas anymore – or in my case, Nebraska. I was standing in an airport with minimal security and no air conditioning.
After leaving the airport and stepping out onto the streets, it was a whole other world. Reckless motorbikes sped by us, swerving in and out of lanes down the street. It seemed to me someone always had somewhere to be. Along the sidewalks, street vendors and their plastic tables and chairs hugged the curb. There are restaurants at home with outdoor seating, but there are almost always in fenced off areas far from the streets. In Vietnam, if you scooted out too far, you could fall right into traffic!”

Read the rest of Evie’s story here

What other advice to you have for first time international travelers?

Disclosure:  While in Vietnam I was a guest of Intrepid Travel.  However all of the opinions and thoughts expressed here are my own.  I never accept such a deal if I am required, in any way, to write positively about any company, organization or experience. I will only take such a trip if I am free to write honestly and openly based on the actual experiences that I have.

Your Comments

17 Comments so far

  1. Lindsey says:

    You have a seriously awesome niece. Those are great traits for a first time traveller!

  2. Angelique says:

    Be patient at restaurants! So many Americans are used to fast service and the check being dropped off right after eating. (Oh, and free refills and free bread…but that’s a whole different story.) Most European restaurants (my main background of travel experience) take their time and don’t bring the check unless asked for it. Dinner can take hours and THAT’ OKAY. It’s actually quite wonderful.

  3. Marinela says:

    You can be so proud! Your niece seems to be so much wiser than A LOT of travelers that I have met and that claim to know it all!

    Be a wanderstrudel:

  4. Marsha says:

    Wow that is such a great attitude for a first time traveller especially going to Asia. The python – yeah I don’t think I could have done that but good on her!

  5. Evie is an inspiration! I wish I had been that open-minded the first time I traveled to Asia. There’s no preparing you for the shock of entering a cultural completely different from your own. I considered myself so open-minded but found myself afraid to try certain foods and startled by cultural differences. Thanks for showing us the way, Evie!

  6. Amanda says:

    Well, your niece has had a great role model to look up to! That’s awesome that she proved to be a curious and open first-time traveler.

  7. Evie sounds like quite the impressive young woman. I don’t think most of the adults I know would’ve approached a trip like this with that kind of wonderful attitude!

    I really love what you said about not judging. That’s one of the reasons I took my niece and nephew to France. Now, France isn’t as different from the US as Vietnam is, but I still thought there were opportunities for the kids to see a new culture. They’re quick to say “that’s stupid” these days and I really wanted to be able to show them that just because things aren’t the same as at home doesn’t make them stupid. They’re still a work in progress. :)

  8. Victoria says:

    Aww, what a lovely piece! Sounds like you guys had a great time. Such a lovely thing to be able to do for each other. Hope to see you guys on more adventures soon…

  9. Katie says:

    I love this! Your Niece Project has totally inspired me to have my own. My oldest niece is 10 right now, so we have a few years before our adventure, but we’ve already started talking about different places we could go, looking things up on the Internet, or sharing with her pictures from my own adventures. I can’t wait to travel with her.

  10. Go Evie! It has exciting to be “along for the ride” with you two through these amazing posts! As a person who loves travel and exploring foreign cultures, I couldn’t help being incredibly excited for you as you explored Vietnam! It’s thrilling to know that you are a naturally intrepid young woman! I wish you extraordinary adventures all over the world!

  11. I love seeing stories like these. My passport is empty right now as well, only I am 26. Luckily things are about to change on that very soon and I can only hope to experience a new place with all the wonder and excitement that you have written about here. Thanks for the post and your niece is awesome.

  12. Micleonnri says:

    Getting experience by reading many traveler blog. I hope this knowledge will help me to be a good traveler..

  13. Fida says:

    I am sure your example rubbed of on Evie! What an exceptional young woman she is! I envie you for being able to travel like that with your niece. For some reason, mine are not made for the kind of travel we do.

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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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