Travel SOS: Tips for coping with culture shock

Jess wants to visit Vietnam but her husband is a bit concerned about culture shock.

Jess wants to visit Vietnam but her husband is a bit concerned about culture shock. Leon offers some simple tips to help him overcome his fears.


Q. Jess
Loved your articles about Vietnam when you went last year and now I’m planning a holiday with my husband and I want to go there for a week, and also visit Cambodia and Laos. But my husband hasn’t travelled much and has only ever been to England and reckons he’s worried about being in such a strange place. Do you have any advice for him?

A. Culture shock is not uncommon. I remember how nervous I was about my first overseas holiday, which was to the United States, where you’d expect things to be relatively similar to here, but on a much larger scale.

Well, my trick was to go to a smaller city first (Boston), to acclimatise to the scale of the States. But on my first night in New York, I just wanted to hole up in my hotel for the night because the city was so overwhelming.

People experience culture shock in different ways. Sometimes it’s the size of a city, or the amount of people in it. Sometimes it’s the people themselves who worry travellers, but most often it’s the little things, such as food, getting around and basically, anything unfamiliar.

But that’s what makes travel so rewarding, amazing and fun and, well, just awesome.

Meeting those challenges makes the memories.

It wouldn’t be an adventure without challenges.

The trick to coping with culture shock is to remember that all travellers go through it in some way. It’s normal. Just don’t let it become debilitating.

I always take a few things away that make me feel like I’m home. A good novel on the bedside or in my bag distracts me if I get overwhelmed. I’ve had the same stainless-steel lighter for years and it goes with me everywhere. It’s a good luck charm but it also keeps me grounded. I have other good luck charms, too: a necklace made for me by Northern Paiute tribe in Nevada and a survival bracelet made by a kid while he had leukaemia (he survived, so it has to be lucky!). These things are like an earth rod for me when I travel.

Maybe your husband has something like this he could take along.

Also, the best cure for culture shock is to dive into exploring your destination. The novelty of the new will quickly override any fears. Allow him to vent if he needs to, but also point out all the positive things going on around you. Commit to discovering the culture and you’ll quickly be imbued by it.

While his first reaction to most experiences might be to say ‘no’, encourage him to say ‘yes’ (or do it for him). The sooner you immerse yourself in the culture the quicker he’ll get over his concerns.

Connect with people, talk to the locals, ask the hotel staff about their favourite places, find out where the bartender drinks. Living like a local will make you feel like less of an outsider and you’ll be more receptive to your destination.

Find variations of some of the things you love doing at home and do them at your destination. You may love galleries or museums, so look for those places in Vietnam. Encourage your husband to do the same.

Have projects. In Vietnam, mine was finding a locally brewed Indian Pale Ale and, while I had low expectations of finding one, the mission gave my daily travels a fun purpose and you know what? I found two, one of which was in the unlikeliest of places.

The language barrier may be a hindrance, but I can tell you that in Vietnam, you only need to know a few words, such as hello, thank you, yes and no. Do a bit of study before you go and ask the locals how to say these things.

Also, I must say that Vietnam is a wonderful country and the people are so receptive and super friendly. The place itself has so much to see and do, so you won’t be short of activities. The food is great and the beer is pretty good (and both are cheap).

You couldn’t pick a better place to go.

This advice worked for me and plenty of people I know, but everyone is different. I hope you find at least one pearl that gets you and him over there – it will be well worth it.

Can you offer Jess any advice to help her husband get over culture shock?

If you have a Travel SOS question, send it to [email protected] and we’ll do our best to answer it, or find someone who can.



    To make a comment, please register or login
    16th Feb 2019
    Culture shock? Isn't that why you go?
    If you want real culture shock in America then do as we did: go to LA and then catch the train into the CBD from the airport. You'll be the only white person on the train and the rest of the carriage will be poor black and Hispanic folk. After you get over the fear of being robbed you'll realise how privileged you are to see real people albeit poverty stricken due to the top end of society taking everything. Its an eye opener not to be missed. Oh yes....don't be stupid like me by taking your laptop. Plain dumb and asking for it.

    Our first real culture shock was landing in Tokyo. We caught the train to the CBD where we then had to find our hotel. That was fine but the ultimate culture shock is when you go into the Tokyo rail station. Never and I mean never leave your travel partner because yo may never find them again. I was lucky.

    I would never say don't travel because other cultures are different. What I would say is be relaxed and enjoy the great privilege you have to meet visit other cultures. Most will bend over backwards when you are there and I can still vividly recall Japanese citizens coming up to us to ask if they can help us. Nothing was wanted in return. These people were just totally friendly and other cultures are similar although the Japanese are at the top of our list. We WILL be going back to Japan and the country would be on our move to list if we ever get enough of our own unfriendly and politically destitute country.
    Karl Marx
    16th Feb 2019
    % Simple, leave him at home & enjoy your holiday.
    Experiencing different cultures is so rewarding & mind broadening. Don't think of it as an issue, approach it as an adventure & get excited.
    Does he realise that culture isn't just being in a strange city & not knowing your way around. It's the food, the smell, the people, how they live from day to day. Different transport systems that you never see back home.
    If he's that worried now what's he going to be like when you actually get there, he's being thrown into the deep end right from the start. Vietnam is totally different, 99% won't even know a word of english apart from hello.
    Only advice is to read up on Vietnam & go with eyes wide open.
    It is a beautiful country, & the culture of Vietnam changes from region to region.

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