Welcome to the TripLingo blog! This is our place to share behind-the-scenes glimpses into what we do, who we are, and what we’re about. To kick it off, we wanted to talk about the story behind TripLingo, from the founder’s light bulb moment to the formation of the team and beyond. This is Part 1 of a 3-Part story about the birth of Triplingo. Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3!
I moved to Vietnam just in time for the Tet holiday in January 2009. I made plans with my employer to move there a mere 2 weeks before, and I literally had no idea what I was getting myself into. But I was anxious to live abroad, and the time and opportunity were right.
I’d barely been in the country a week before I decided I wanted to learn some of the language. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to ask where the bathroom is with just your hands, but trust me its kind of embarrassing. Not only that, sometimes my taxi fares seemed a little on the steep side. Locals would quickly give up trying to communicate with me, which was frustrating. Worst of all, I could barely communicate with anyone about anything, and I had no sense for the culture I was now living in.
Over the next few weeks, I scoured the internet, guidebooks, and AppStores for ways to pick up some of the local language. Nothing even approached a satisfactory grade. It was as if noone that had created these resources even had a Passport, much less used it. Not only that, they were often prohibitively expensive, had poor content, were unwieldy, or tried to teach me phrases that I would never ever use.
Without any satisfactory solutions, I found two local teachers. Every day during my lunch break, I would meet them at a local cafe and practice one on one for an hour. From day 1 of my studies, I started seeing results. My work colleagues appreciated the effort I was putting in and the interest I showed in their culture. Taxi drivers suddenly became friendly and my fares started magically shrinking. At every turn, locals got more than a chuckle out of my pronunciation. Getting around town became much easier.
Most importantly- I was able to start connecting with people and the culture. We may not be able to discuss Socrates with each other, and we didn’t necessarily share the same interests, but I found myself in countless situations where I was able to share a few words, an idea, or a laugh with people.
The idea that knowing a bit of the local language can turn frustrating events into memorable experiences was really driven home to me one day in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. I was walking around and was approached by a fruit seller. Pretty standard.
Usually when a fruit seller approaches a tourist, the tourist sees them coming and goes into what I call “No mode.” They shake their head at the fruit seller, they say “No” over and over, and end up either erupting in frustration or simply ignore the person. It’s not pleasant for either party. I know it sucks for the tourist- you’re traveling to enjoy the culture, not clash with it. I can only imagine how the fruit seller feels as well, being spoken down to and ignored by someone.
Back to my story: this time, when the fruit seller approached, I smiled and said “No rồi” (pronounced ‘naw zoi’) — “I’m full already”. A huge grin came over her face, she laughed, and then said something back which I didn’t understand . It didn’t matter. In just two short syllables I’d avoided an awkward situation, engaged positively with the local culture, and had a memorable experience myself.
Later that year, I started hosting monthly dinners in Vietnam. Expats and Vietnamese alike attended, and the only rule was that you could ONLY speak Vietnamese. I created phrase cheat sheets to help people along, and was amazed at the turnout from Hanoi’s relatively small expat community. The gears had started turning, and over the next few months, I began to lay the groundwork for TripLingo. Since I hadn’t been able to find a suitable solution, there was only one thing left to do: make it myself.
But as I’ll describe in Part 2, “making it myself” wasn’t going to be so simple.