Shopkeeper in the Khamu Village of Nyoy Hai, Mekong River, Laos.

How to Meet Locals When You Travel — Start By Saying Hello

How to meet locals when you travel — does the world really need another story on the subject? Surely we’ve written enough on the topic? We’ve said before that what we love most about travel is meeting locals and we’ve shared tips on how to meet locals. Is there anything more to be said? How can it be so hard?

Well that’s what we thought. Until a recent encounter at a village on the Mekong River suggested otherwise. It also suggested something else — that it isn’t so hard to meet locals. In fact it’s very simple. That one meeting taught us more than a million tips posts.

We were on a walking tour with a handful of other travellers around the hilly Khamu village of Nyoy Hai on the Mekong, when our guide took us to what was the village’s equivalent of a one-stop shop, a sort of rustic Mekong version of a cross between a mini-mart, liquor store and handicrafts shop.

After spotting some of the more eye-catching items for sale — rows of glass jars and bottles of the infamous Lao whiskey with its centipedes, scorpions, snakes, and turtles — I noticed the warm, welcoming smile of the proprietor in the corner.

I glanced around the shop to see what the rest of the group was up to. Being a travel writer, I’m always conscious that we shouldn’t hog the guides on tours, but the others in the group were either inspecting the curiosities for sale or had already wandered off. None of the others appeared interested in asking the guide further questions, so in a whisper, I consulted Terence about my intentions.

“Sabaidee!” (hello) I said to the woman, and although she responded with a very friendly ‘Sabaidee!”, I recognised a glimmer of surprise on her face.

I asked our guide if he’d translate and through him I introduced Terence and myself, asked the woman her name, and asked if she’d tell us about her shop and the things she sold, and if Terence could take photos.

While Terence took pictures of the whiskey jars, silk scarves, rice baskets, fishing implements and cooking utensils hanging on the walls and filling the shelves, I noticed the woman appeared a little uneasy. I assumed we were taking too much time and taking up too much space in the small shop with its dirt floor, bamboo walls and palm-frond roof.

I guessed she was thinking that we might be discouraging customers or even the travellers in our group from buying mementoes. But our group was halfway up the hill. I became conscious we were holding them up.

Winding up our visit, I thanked the woman for her time, and — notebook and pen in hand — asked our guide if I could get the exact spelling of her name. I recognized that expression on her face again. Smiling, with her eyes on us, she explained herself to our guide.

He laughed and translated: “She says that in all the years she’s had this shop and tourists have been coming here, you’re the first to say hello and nobody has ever asked her name before.”

The woman, listening to our guide’s translation, kept her eyes on us as she smiled and nodded her head. I felt a lump in my throat and I’m certain a tear appeared in the corner of an eye. Terence and I looked at each other.

“Can we take your photo, too?” I asked. The guide translated and she looked simultaneously astonished and touched. She hurried out the back of the shop to do what every woman does when asked for her photo — she smoothed down her clothes, applied some fresh lipstick, and drew on some eyebrows.

Terence didn’t have to ask her to smile.

Her name is Boun Vanh if you’re ever in Nyoy Hai.

Perhaps you can show her this story with her photo? You can use it as an excuse to say hello. It’s worth it to just feel the warmth of her smile.

There are 9 comments

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  1. Amanda @ Not A Ballerina

    Beautiful picture and beautiful story. How awful though that you were the first to care about her. I think it’s a combination of the writer in me and the massive curiosity gene that runs in our family, but I inevitably get chatting with people like this when I travel and still have email/Facebook correspondence with a few of them, even years later.

  2. Lara Dunston

    Thank you, Amanda. I know, it’s terrible, isn’t it? We were absolutely astounded when she said that. Which is why we felt this kind of post was necessary. Although obviously our kind of readers say hello 🙂 Obviously without our guide we couldn’t have communicated much more than a hello, but we were appalled that people wander in there almost every day and simply don’t say a word. Terence and I are wondering if that’s just because people think it’s all too hard, and it’s easier not to interact?

  3. Lara Dunston

    Thanks, Joanna. I guess we’re all intro/extroverted at times, aren’t we? But I guess what really struck me by this encounter was that hundreds (probably thousands) of tourists had been to Boun Vanh’s little shop and simply never took an interest in her, not even just enough to say hello.

    And I appreciate how intimidating and difficult it can be if you don’t share a language – or have a translator as we did (an argument for using a guide occasionally, I guess) – but it’s not hard to learn ‘hello’ in the local language and use it, and make people like Boun Vanh smile.

  4. Briar Jensen

    Wonderful story Lara, (and stunning portrait Terence). I remember reading this post when you first published it, and my apologies for not commenting then. But reading it again today, I was still moved by it.
    As a traveller who learns the basic greetings of hello, goodbye and thank you in the native language and always try to acknowledge a shop or stall owner, it’s embarrassing to think that others do not so much as smile.
    Even when I can’t remember the local word, a smile and simple ‘hello’ still breaks the ice. I understand tourists sometimes get harassed at big city markets, so perhaps some react by keeping to themselves, but away from these locals it’s a completely different story. Like you, I’m appalled to think so many people had passed through her shop and never said hello. So thank you for the story. I do hope Boun Vanh gets to see it one day.

  5. AleRoss

    This is a great way to live a new experience and get the best from it. This post is inspiring and we’ll try to keep in mind your advice during our travels.
    Thanks for sharing ☺

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