Vietnam is certainly different. I thought when I moved to Thailand that I had seen it all, then I moved to Cambodia and a whole new ‘all’ arrived. Since I have lived in Vietnam I realise that if I lived to be 500 I still wouldn’t have scraped the surface. Every day something happens that has me either laughing or blowing my cheeks in exasperation. I must admit my Asian experience has worked wonders for my patience. Things that used to really drive me nuts a few years ago, quite often simply leave me smiling.
At the weekend I went into a bar with a friend to watch the F1, I asked for a caphe da as it was a bit early in a long day for me to start drinking beer. The girl went away to prepare it and I was joined by my friend who asked for a caphe sua da. After about 20 minutes, we asked where our drinks were, she said they were on their way. A further 10 minutes passed and my friend’s sua da arrived. After another 10 minutes I asked where my caphe da was and was told that they had sold out. A few years back, I’d have lost it, I just laughed. Fortunately as we were laughing another girl arrived with fresh stocks.
The language is another thing. It is baffling to me how they cannot understand when we try, but get the pronunciation a little bit wrong. I understand that tone is important to them. But if I walk up to a street stall selling nothing but Banh Mi and ask for a Banh Mi what the hell do they think I want? I go in the same café about 4 times every week and I always have Pho Tai, I love it. It’s the same staff but at least twice a week they won’t understand what I want. I don’t get annoyed, I am just genuinely interested. If I worked in a chip shop in England and someone from a foreign country came in and asked for Fashion Chaps, I would for one, understand and secondly, realise that I was being addressed by a Kiwi.
Then there is of course the motorbikes. I will simply never get tired of laughing at strange loads. There appears to be absolutely nothing that cannot fit onto a 125cc motorbike. families of 5 or 6, wardrobes, refrigerators, washing machines, 200 chickens, 400 eggs, 3 dead pigs, dogs or ALL of the above. Is it just me or is it still funny for everyone else? I saw a guy at the weekend carrying about a dozen huge thick steel pipe sections. They were only about a foot long, but judging by the thickness they must have weighed 100 pounds each, and he had a dozen of them! It has its serious side of course and I hate seeing children with no helmets, in fact very young children at all, but some of the other stuff is amazing.
Then there is the way in which the Vietnamese deal with the monsoon rains. To them of course it’s nothing. However, coming from a country where the trains stop running if a leaf falls onto the tracks, or the “wrong kind of snow” falls, it is impressive to see a foot of rain fall in an hour and nothing changes except everyone gets wet. The road might be a foot deep in water but those 3 dead pigs are getting there on time. And the drainage system here is impressive as well. We get the odd flood in England and huge sections of the countryside are cut off from each other. Towns in Essex earlier this year were cut off for weeks. Canvey Island became a real island for the first time since it was imaginatively named. Here in Saigon, it floods, it drains, it dries and nobody gives a toss. In England when it floods, houses are “ruined” insurance claims go through the roof and people have to live in caravans for weeks waiting for the restoration work to be done. In Vietnam, houses get wet, then they get dry and people get on with it.
In the summer months, Saigon goes for months without any rain, In Manchester where I come from, it rains about 90% of the time. But woe betide, them going a week without it. Whole families have to share a bath, the council bans hosepipe use and there is a threat of bush fires. When I was a kid the old railway embankments would catch fire and panic would ensue, as people feared for their houses. The heat here is incredible; higher than anything I’ve ever witnessed. But I cannot remember any Vietnamese saying “Oh, It’s too hot! I like it hot, but this is too hot!” They very sensibly have a wee sleep in the hottest part of the day and carry on. When shrubbery does catch fire, they put it out.
One thing that never fails to put a smile on my face is the reaction from young people as I ride round the city on my motorbike. Children smile and wave all the time, strangers say “hello” and “how are you” every day. It is not uncommon for young girls on bicycles to smile sweetly and say hello. That this is unusual is something of a shame. Coming from the West where girls are taught from a very early age to be frightened of strange men, it is so refreshing to see that they have kept this part of innocent adolescence. I don’t think the crime rate against young girls is any higher here than it is in the West, so just what are we doing to our children?
The young boys get pleasure from the simplest of things. In Thailand they play a game called Sepak Takraw, which is the equivalent of volley ball but only the feet, knees, chest and head can be used, to keep the woven rattan ball in the air. The athleticism of these young boys and men is unbelievable and is only matched by the dexterity of Vietnamese boys playing Da Cau. This is shuttlecock using only the feet to keep the ‘Jianzi” in the air. That they can manage this with great accuracy is amazing, that they can do it wearing flip-flops beggars belief.
I’m not blinkered and I know it isn’t all sweetness and light. However I do feel that the lack of stress here compared to the West makes these trials and tribulations a lot less important. If your meal is slow in coming, so what? If you get wet on your motor bike so what? You’ll be dry in an hour. There are some very real frustrations of course, but maybe that is for another article. For now I’ll keep on laughing and keep on loving it.