This is Bong. I met her on a food tour of Hoi An here in Vietnam, and we hit it off right away. She loves food as much as I do, and we bonded over shared interests including pho, spring rolls, and tasting pretty much any new food passed our way.
After a few hours of getting to know each other while bouncing between food stalls, Bong asked me if I wanted to come home to her parent’s house the next day. They lived over an hour away in the countryside and she’d always wanted to bring a friend home to meet them. I was surprised at the generous offer, and I jumped at the chance to see a part of the country few tourists see and hang out with a new friend.
What followed was a full day of nothing but the most benevolent hospitality I’ve ever seen. Bong’s family was so welcoming, happy to share their home and food with me despite not being able to speak my language. We visited the local market, where ladies swarmed me with hugs and offers to marry their sons. I played with her niece and nephew, bonded with the family dog, and enjoyed a home-cooked lunch of shrimp, quail egg and noodle soup. I met her grandparents, whose kind smiles made me feel like part of the family.
Speeding back to Hoi An through the impossibly green rice fields as the sun was setting, I realized it’d been one of my favorite travel days ever.
A lot of travelers miss out on experiences like this, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s tempting to hang with other travelers and English-speakers, especially in places where there is a strong tourism infrastructure like Vietnam. The hostel bar seems like a safe bet when faced with a country where few people speak your language.
Yet stepping out of your comfort zone to get to know the locals can lead to a richer experience of a place, giving you the opportunity to see what daily life is like and make connections with people of different backgrounds. You can’t plan for these experiences, obviously, but they are worth putting in the effort when you have the chance. Making friends with locals is one of my favorite parts of travel, and here’s why.
#1: Making new friends is always good.
When has it ever been a bad idea to make new friends? Connecting with other people over shared interests is one of the most powerful needs we have as humans. Even as an introvert (yes, I am one) I can’t spend more than a few days on my own without craving a conversation with someone else. Getting to know new people keeps me from getting lonely, which can happen when traveling alone. Locals are the best people strike up a conversation with because there is so much to talk about. The repetitive hostel conversations about where you’ve traveled and for how long can get boring after awhile.
#2: You’ll see more of a place than you would otherwise.
If I hadn’t met Bong, I would never have spent an hour rolling through vast rice fields on the back of a motorbike, watching local farmers leading around their water buffalos. In her hometown, it was fascinating seeing the local women spread out their daily vegetables and meat selection in the market, which sees hardly any tourists. Locals will be able to show you places and introduce you to people that few travelers get to see.
#3: You’ll get access to fun local events.
The day after going home with Bong, she took me to an end-of-year party at the cooking school where she works. The staff were celebrating the upcoming Tet holiday, the biggest holiday in Vietnam. We feasted on more delicious home-cooked food and I met more of her fun friends, learning about how they celebrate the beginning of the lunar new year. Only locals know about events like these, and it’s worth speaking to them to find out what might be going on around town that isn’t advertised in a guidebook.
#4: Locals. Know. Food.
It goes without saying that local people will have a thorough knowledge of where the best food is in town, and asking them what their favorites are can lead to the tastiest of discoveries! Bong took me to a yummy local pho stand and showed me how to properly roll the barbecued pork into rice paper (with some veggies and a large rice noodle) in the Hoi An market.
And my taste buds lucked out even more, because Bong worked at a cooking school, so she was a talented cook as well! At her dinner party, I tried local specialties I would never have known about before meeting her. If you want to try as many local foods as possible, stick with a local.
#5: You get an instant collection of new friends.
Getting close to one local opens up a door to even more friendships. Through Bong, I ended up meeting a half dozen more Hoi An locals, who welcomed me into their clan with open arms. At the dinner party, they let me play DJ and choose the music, and we danced and laughed for hours. I’ve since connected with them on Facebook, and I know when I come back to Hoi An (and I will!) I’ll be able to meet up with them for more fun.
#6: You feel like part of a family again, if only for a little bit.
Despite all the great people you meet while traveling, there isn’t anything like being with family. When Bong took me home to meet her parents, it was nice to feel like I was part of a family for an afternoon. Her mother kept piling noodles into my bowl and urging me to eat, and drawing pictures with her niece while her father fed the chickens felt like a casual Sunday at home with my own family. Even though they were essentially strangers, it was a warmth and comfort I hadn’t felt since I started traveling full-time.
#7: You’ll see how the locals really live.
The best way to gain insight into the daily lives of the locals is to hang out with one for a few days. I ran errands with Bong, watched her cook, and sat in traffic on her motorbike. She explained to me what her parent’s daily routine was like on their farm, took me to see her high school and showed me how to choose vegetables in the market. I took every opportunity to ask her questions, which she always answered enthusiastically.
I soaked up every little detail, and shared with her details from my own life. We cherished our similarities – we were both girls that left our small towns to make it in the city, to start – and giggled about our differences. I left Hoi An not only with a new friend, but also a thorough understanding of what life is like for a woman my age on the other side of the world.
#8: Friendships with locals foster cultural understanding and world peace.
I know I sound a bit worthy on this last one, but hear me out, because it’s the most important thing! When you put in the effort to get to know people from a culture different from yours, both of you enjoy the benefit of a broader perspective of the world. You are able to appreciate your differences and build a connection despite them.
I think if more of us went out of our way to understand people different from ourselves, there would be a lot less conflict in this world. Kindness and friendship can build bridges when more and more people are drawing lines in the sand over petty differences. We are all people, after all, with the same emotions, fears, dreams, families and the ability to understand each other, if we’d just try.
In the end, I didn’t do any of the things I’d planned for Hoi An, like riding a bike to the beach or wandering the old town at night. But what I did have was an incredibly memorable three days experiencing what life is like for the locals here, and I made some amazing new friends in the process.
I can’t wait to come back and visit Bong again. There’s plenty more pho, spring rolls and barbecued pork sticks with our names on them!
Do you try to make friends with locals when you travel? Have you ever had an outstanding experience in a place because of it? Tell us in the comments below!