The Joy of Culture Shock

No, the title of this article is not sarcastic.

Culture shock is something nearly everyone deals with in travel.  Myself, I’ve run into cases when I least expected it to happen like on arrival to Dublin a couple years back, and even upon returning back to North America after a year abroad.  But over the past couple years I’ve become a bit dulled to changing cultures and the shock that’s involved with such an abrupt change of pace.

As I arrive in Hanoi, however, I am hit with that sense of culture shock once again.  And the crazy part, I think I have actually been missing it.

Scooter in Hanoi

Temple of Literature, Hanoi

I’ve been a big proponent of overland travel for a number of reasons.  Aside from the cost, generally lowered environmental impact, and chance to mix with locals, overland travel often provides a slow transition to travelling between destinations.  For example, travelling overland from Morocco to South Africa, I would say I shifted “cultures” constantly.  But moving so slowly allows you to deal with the shifts in dynamics at a more reasonable rate rather than just having them tossed at you all at once.  Air travel, on the other hand, leaves you with no doubt that you’ve been sprung with a complete overhaul of the way the world works.

Bamboo for sale, hanoi

It hits you as soon as you walk out of the plane into the tunnel, you’re physically plunged into the change in temperature and humidity.  It’s like walking through a portal and then into a wall of “new”.  It happens when you leave the airport and see the cars, and buses.  In the cities, the pace of life is different, the language is different, the food, currency and everything in between is different.  And well in common sociological thought, the abrupt culture shock one feels in these moments is considered a negative, I love it in here Hanoi.  For the first time, I really enjoy that sense of being completely and utterly lost in all sense of my being.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Calligraphy in Hanoi

Crossing the road from my hotel to try to find a bank machine, I find myself the Moses to a Red Sea of scooters.  The road is chaotic, yet perfectly flowing like a river, currents and all.  On the edges of the road, women in conical hats hold bamboo poles with balancing baskets of produce on each end.  A young boy sits by a fire stove where water is being set a boil.

Within an hour of landing in Hanoi, Vietnam I found myself sat at a table.  I ask for a menu and received a beer instead.  Soon, I find myself staring at a pot of boiling water and a number of ingredients to the side of it.  The Vietnamese hot pot is no joke; it’s also an art.  Of course, it is nearly a crime to dip the tofu in before everything else has already been dipped, cooked, and consumed.  A table of men sit across from me shouting, smoking, and laughing as if they don’t have a care left in the world.

Baloons for sale, Hanoi

Valentine's Day Vietnam

There’s a certain energy to culture shock that even after years of travel it’s hard to understand.  And the more you fight it, the harder it becomes to deal with.  Instead, ones who embrace the change, the confusion, and the complete reversal of everything your body knows revel in the misdirection.

It’s amazing to me how my perspectives in travel have changed over five years on the road.  I used to be wary of culture shock.  It used to scare me, it made me feel weak and lacking control.  Today, I chase it.  Culture shock makes me feel like I’m travelling again rather than just living my life abroad.  It makes me feel as if I am still learning, exploring, and growing as a human being.  Culture shock reminds me that no matte how many miles I put on or countries I travel to, there will always be room to grow.  And for me, that’s the greatest feeling in the world.

Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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  1. Hey Brendan, couldn’t agree more!

    I’ve been on the same continent for the past five months now, and since all Latin American countries share certain cultural features the shock travelling from one country to another hasn’t been so strong. And I kind of miss it. I want to be surprised, want to explore something entirely new and grow as you put it.

    That said, there is a world of difference between Peru and Chile for instance and I’m going to Argentina on Saturday, which promises to be something completely new again.

    I guess I’d have to go to Asia for the real shock though 🙂

    “The road is chaotic, yet perfectly flowing like a river, currents and all.” – I can so relate to that.

    Keep up the good work,

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    • Thanks for reading Zsolt. I was in South America for two years and at first I could really only tell the difference in countries by the accents, and the food. However, after being there so long, each country felt REALLY different. I started noticing the little things in the culture. It was fun. I guess there’s something to be said about staying a while and really learning the cultural/social side of life too.

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  2. The idea of being able to hop from one to a completely different culture in a short flight is so weird, isn’t it? It feels like cheating, and I agree with you, overland travel is a much better way to avoid the shock. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like I missed culture shock, but I can imagine what that would be like!

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    • So strange, Sam. I’ve had my eyes opened in this regard. On my Africa trip I kept having to pinch myself to remind myself how far I’d gone. On a flight, it’s obvious the second you step off that plane.

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  3. I can relate to all of it. We are currently in Vietnam right now as well, and the sea of motorbikes is surreal. Tonight I sat down at dinner, never got a menu, just got delivered 2 sandwich’s and 2 coffees and then a bill of course. Oh Vietnam!

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    • Hannah, I know this is off topic, but if you’re Hanoi, go get yourself Bun Cha, and do it now!! Best food on the planet when done right.

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  4. Hi Brenden, besides being interesting your post is highly informative as well. For instance, I didn’t have an idea about the dipping of the tofu part. Like you, I too have kinda accustomed myself in to the culture shock while traveling. You know one of the first shocks I received as an outsider (i.e. traveler) was when I got a chance to witness an Indian marriage at one of the smaller towns of the country. The town was called Asansol and I saw that the bride’s mother was using her hair to wipe off the water sprinkled on her daughter’s foot!

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  5. Getting excited about reading more. Great blog post.Really looking forward to read more. Great.

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  6. Great photos Brendan. I am a fan now. Cultural shocks are more stronger if you are traveling across entire regions like from Europe to South East Asia, they feel more stronger if there is a different in climate too, like from -4C you land in a 32C city. Also, time of the day is important too, from the photographs I am guessing you arrived at Hanoi in the morning, if you would land at 11pm, then it will be a different story. The biggest cultural shock (of course after the first one when I traveled from Pakistan to United Kingdom), was after the flight from Barcelona to Berlin. That was a Saturday night and subway stations were dirty and there were marks of spilled beer all over the stairs and you know German architecture is flat too, I never expected it. However, after couple of days I was going into the spirit of Berlin, after visiting wall of Berlin I knew what’s it all about and then I started enjoying liberal side which would actually translate again into a dirty Berlin on weekends. Happens, always! Great post!

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  7. great post! I love the culture shock… tis the reason I travel!

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