Vietnam is a fascinating country to live in. It’s warm, laid-back, beautiful but it can also be frustrating and overwhelming. It takes patience, strength and resourcefulness to figure out how to interact with the locals and how to fit in the dense Saigonese jungle.
Like so many other booming metropolis with busy traffic and a high population, Ho Chi Minh City has a way of making those who live there feel like they’re just a bubble in a boiling pot of expats, crazy motorbike drivers, English teachers, backpackers, and locals.
All newcomers must learn to rely on their own skills to adapt to a new culture. It takes ingenuity and sharpness to stay afloat, avoid the common scams and maneuver around the bumps in the road that come with starting fresh in a new country. This is true, I think for just about any country in the world, whether you just moved from Europe to the Americas or from Africa to Asia, but I find it all the more relevant when one moves to a developing country – or Middle-Income Country.
It seems to me that there’s always two sides to a coin, and that for each positive aspect of living in Vietnam there’s a negative counterpart. Vietnam is all about extremes; extreme partying, extreme weather, extreme language, extreme landscapes, extreme kindness and extremely delicious food.
I can already hear the snarky comments like “We didn’t choose to live here, but you can leave if you don’t like it”, the clever “Go home if you don’t like it here” or “What are you still doing here?” I have often asked myself that very question in times of uncertainty and lack of self-confidence that followed my moving abroad. While many tourists come to Vietnam for the tropical weather, the cheap lifestyle and the rooftop parties, I came here to start a new life and stay for a while.
Becoming an expat and a guest in a foreign country means cultivating a form of social and cultural awareness. In Vietnam it meant embracing the local culture, the social norms, learning a few words of Vietnamese, and understanding the rules of etiquette – even if some manners felt really bizarre to me. In my experience, making the effort to speak the language – even just a few words – instead of taking for granted the infamous white privilege goes a long way and definitely helps bridge a friendly relationship with the Vietnamese.
I arrived in Vietnam alive with excitement, curiosity, and a thirst for discoveries. The first 6 months I relentlessly traveled around the North, the South and the center of Vietnam. I tried all sorts of food with an inquisitive appetite, I frantically investigated the different districts of Saigon, and I tried to learn some Vietnamese, even though most of the time I struggled to be understood.
Now it’s been over a year and a newfound wanderlust wants to take me back to less chaotic countries. My original curiosity for Vietnam has shifted to annoyance and irritation and most things that I found adorable, amusing or intriguing at first now challenge my patience on a regular basis.
Some days when the going gets tough, the spitting, the driving, the lack of common sense, the jazz hands, the honking, the scams, the loud everything (voices, karaoke, music), the giggling, the smartphone addiction and the language barrier reach a whole new level of exasperation. That’s usually when I find myself wanting to go home to the familiar.
“Vietnam is Awesome”
Some other days, however, I still find wonder in the extreme kindness and the smiles I see at random in the streets of Saigon, in the countryside or in my village, Thủ Dầu Một. I also find a renewed patience, and an interest in the little things. After all, the war ended only 42 years ago and all things considered, Vietnam has done an amazing job at getting back on its feet from such a devastating period. And that’s when I look back at my life here and you know what? It ain’t that bad.
Living in Vietnam means interacting with locals on a daily basis and adapting to the local culture as much as possible, even if it means changing our habits and opening up to new ways of thinking. While I try to cultivate and display as much cultural awareness as I can, sometimes I can’t help but get very frustrated because some things just don’t make any fucking sense! In some countries, there’s a language barrier. Sometimes, there’s a cultural barrier, or even a religious barrier but in Vietnam, there’s also a logic barrier. Probably as a result of the first three combined, Vietnam is a country where common sense and logic co-exist in a sort of unique parallel dimension that is alien and baffling to most foreigners.
In an attempt to see the good and the bad in every situation, I’ve come to realize that there’s very often a duality in the annoying things in Vietnam that we, educated foreigners from first world countries, are quick to criticize. Here’s a list of what really grinds my gears on a “Seriously, Vietnam?” kinda day and what continues to amaze me and puts me in a “Vietnam is Awesome” mood the rest of the time.
Driving everybody crazy
Let’s start with a big one – driving. Where do I even begin?
In Europe, parking and speeding tickets are very annoying, costly little things that can be more or less serious. Driving without a valid insurance is risky and can be illegal in some countries, and driving without a valid driver’s license is definitely illegal and a big deal that can cost you a pretty penny, not to mention a night in jail. And then there’s everything else that you’ll have to pay for – gas, winter tires, a broken side mirror, a change of oil, a flat tire, a trip to the DMV etc.
Bottom line is, in Europe and the US, owning and driving a vehicle is a commitment. But it’s also pleasant, quite safe – most of the time – and there are international traffic laws that most people respect. Sometimes, there’s even a sort of courtesy between drivers – no, seriously!
In Vietnam, there is NONE of that – which can be good and bad at the same time. It is also illegal to drive without a valid license but no one cares and very few Vietnamese have one. Those who went through the trouble of taking the practical test (like me) know that it’s an absolute joke consisting of doing a figure of eight a couple of times and that’s about it. The only rule that matters in Vietnam is this: if the vehicle you’re sharing the road with is bigger than you, scatter! Motorbikes bully bicycles and pedestrians, cars bully motorbikes, trucks bully cars and buses bully everyone. They’re the scariest shit with their nonstop, irritating, loud honking, speeding on highways like mad metal monsters out of hell. There are no parking or speeding tickets, no traffic laws to respect, no insurance is mandatory, and parking is always a struggle. Repairing a motorbike is the easiest, cheapest, quickest thing in the world as there are garages everywhere and everyone’s a bit of a mechanic in Vietnam.
There is no courtesy or respect whatsoever on the road – like headlight flashing – and no logic or common sense. One thing that constantly baffles me on the road is how very little common sense most Vietnamese have. As a result here’s a mix of what you’ll have to deal with if you decide to ride a motorbike in Vietnam: driving in the wrong lane, at night and with no lights on, 4 people on a motorbike, babies without helmets, overtakes from anywhere, lots of cutting off, running red lights, zero yielding the right-of-way to ANYONE, other drivers stopping at random in the middle of the road, or coming at full speed from a side street and not giving a single look around as they do… The Vietnamese are the most impatient drivers I know, and they also drive very selfishly, not paying attention to anything going on around them. In case of an accident, however, they’re always ready to help get you and your motorbike up and out of the way. Big UP for that.
Generosity and kindness
A worker syphoned gas out of his own bike to help me out after I’d run out of gas and categorically refused any money. A family offered to host my mom and I for the night when we were lost in the mountains, and they cooked for us. An Uber driver drove 1h back to my village to return the iPhone I’d forgotten. A local boy randomly handed me a lost Oz passport so I could return it to its owner. The waitress laid out my rain poncho to dry, then folded it and prepared it for me before I left. The guard came running and helped me up after my motorbike stalled and fell on top of me in the parking ramp. A group of Vietnamese women refused our money to put the motorbike on a ferry in Cat Ba because they wanted us “to have an amazing experience in Vietnam”.
Sounds familiar? That’s because the level of spontaneity, big-heartedness and hospitality with the Vietnamese is second to none. Most Vietnamese I have met over the past year have proven time and again the extent of their generosity and kindness. From the old peasant woman in the countryside to the staff of a big hotel in the city center, and from the taxi driver to the waitress of the bar in my street, they are very quick to help us out, invite us in, give us their seat, and generally go the extra mile to please us. I often wondered if it came with being a foreigner or if the Vietnamese were that helpful and generous with each other. I think a part of it comes from their natural curiosity, their solidarity as a people and possibly their pride at being of help to a foreigner.
The scams and rip offs are, however, almost as many and as varied as the smiles we receive from the same lovely people. The creativity, the audacity and the lack of shame displayed by some fake taxi drivers, bag snatchers, hotel managers or tour organizers are limitless.
Manners and civility
Similarly, many Vietnamese traditionally show respect in hand gestures, a bow of the head, handing money or objects with the right hand while placing the left hand under the right elbow. They also usually receive something with both hands as a mark of respect – and gratitude. When they laugh, some of my students often place their hand in front of their mouth and they take their shoes off almost every time before entering someone’s house, sometimes even a store.
On the other hand, I don’t remember any Vietnamese ever holding the door for me if I happened to enter a building right after them. But what gets me the most is the way they rush into the elevator as soon as the doors open, sometimes resulting in foreigners getting stuck at the back of said elevator. I have no patience for that typical Vietnamese lack of patience.
Many Vietnamese have very bad table manners, throwing food and garbage under the table, chewing, sneezing and sniffing loudly. As in many other Asian countries, a majority of Vietnamese men do the infamous throat noises that we, Westerners, find absolutely disgusting, sometimes followed by a slimy, flying spit on the pavement. Very loud voices, lots of screaming at each other, long fingernails, nose picking and long, hard stares are just some of the delicious manners one must get used to in Vietnam, not to mention the constant whispering to each other in Vietnamese while looking at us foreigners – and laughing.
Lack of organization
Orga-what? Taking a driving test, queueing at the post office, waiting at the bus stop, there is very little organisation in Vietnam. The notion of queues seems completely nonexistent, as well as the notion of personal space. As a result, many people have no problem skipping the line, pushing and elbowing their way to the counter at the post office, for example.
On the other hand, the Vietnamese are very easy-going, resourceful and accommodating people. Flat tire? No appointment? They will be able to arrange something in a heartbeat and make everyone happy where in the West rigid procedures and appointments would make everyone miserable.
Nap time Vs Field time
Most Vietnamese are very hard working. In big cities you’ll see them riding a motorbike packed with construction material, carrying dragon fruit and mangosteen in bamboo baskets over their shoulders, or piling up bags of grain on a rickety bicycle. In the countryside they lead their water buffalos to the field, they harvest jackfruit and durian, sell them on the side of the road, go to the market and do all sorts of hard outdoor physical labor.
When they’re not busy working – and sometimes when they are – you’ll find the Vietnamese sleeping on their motorbike, in a hammock, in their car, behind their desk, or behind the counter. They take their nap time very seriously! Whoever tries to wake up a xe ôm driver around midday is severely underestimating their love of sleep.
A Vietnamese behavior
Happy-go-lucky, very easy going, friendly, playful even … Yes, most Vietnamese are all that, in the workplace but also in the street. They’re easy to approach, easy to interact with, often cheerful and good-natured. This jovial attitude however, can become quite annoying in a serious context. The constant giggling, especially when one wants to be taken seriously, or when trying to get out of a complicated situation, can get quite exasperating.
Jazz hands and the language barrier
Many Vietnamese in Ho Chi Minh City, especially young people, have a good level of English and take every chance they get to talk to foreigners. Sometimes their English is very basic but at least, they’re trying! But most of the time, there’s a language barrier resulting in blank looks and jazz hands.
Living in Vietnam demands a mountain of patience when it comes to interacting with the locals. As a guest in this country, I tried to learn a few words, some simple sentences to be able to guide the taxi driver, order a sandwich or understand a price. But nothing gets me more than trying to speak some words of Vietnamese and receiving blank stares in return or the infamous jazz hands. A Vietnamese who shakes their hand(s) at you is probably trying to say “Not now, not available, we don’t have what you want, can’t, not possible, I don’t understand” – and it can be very frustrating. No, my pronunciation is not good, and my accent is probably very wrong but at least I’m trying to speak your language! I don’t know what it is with the Vietnamese language that makes it so hard for them to understand us and to learn English. One day I called reception in a so-called 3 star hotel and asked for pasta carbonara. Guess what they brought me? Passion apple juice.
EDIT: Yesterday I asked for bread and received 2 glasses of red wine. #facepalm
A cultural interest – or lack thereof
The Vietnamese people are curious by nature. Many are interested in other cultures and like to mingle with expats and tourists. Some have a more modern, open-minded and progressive attitude towards the West, especially in big cities and with younger generations. They listen to English music, hang out at American fast food joints, follow the latest fashion in Japan and are not afraid of going out in the sun.
This is only true for a small portion of the Vietnamese population compared to those who remain more traditional and show very little interest for the non-Vietnamese cultures. Most Vietnamese follow local trends, and hang out with fellow Vietnamese. They are clueless about the rest of the world, remain deeply conservative in their attitude and have an obsession for white skin. Because white is beautiful. Right, let’s not even go there. Look out for the extravagant Street Ninjas, those Vietnamese women who wrap themselves up mummy-style to zoom around Saigon on their scooters. You’ll spot them easily at their colorful face masks or balaclavas, hooded sweaters and long gloves in the scorching heat, thus hiding every inch of their skin from the sun but also dangerously reducing their line of vision.
Throughout Vietnam, especially in the hospitality industry, attention to detail and to the customer’s well-being is particularly intensified. You don’t just get a haircut in Vietnam. You get a shampoo and a haircut, but also a head, face, neck and shoulder massage, together with tea and relaxing music. Free fruit is often brought as desert without having to order it, ice tea comes with pretty much every food order, and anything can be delivered to your door with a smile and a bow. Hotel staff are always ready to help; most employees usually open the door for their customers, carry their grocery bags for them and even roll the motorbikes in the lobby for the night.
You probably think that being treated with such kindness and careful attention must be delightful, and most of the time it is, but it can quickly become very annoying. The Vietnamese have the exasperating habit of following the customers around in a store, no doubt to be available should they need anything. They drop their smartphones, jump on their feet and rush to anyone who pushes the door to shadow them everywhere they go, smiling and eager to help. The language barrier, sadly, usually prevents both the customer and the staff to get anything fruitful out of the situation. The waiters in restaurants are often equally clingy – they usually give me the menu, barely take a step back, and fidget behind my shoulder as I quickly try to decide what I want to eat. Ugh just give me 5 minutes, will ya?
Here are some honorable mentions to a few more exasperating things that I have experienced in Vietnam:
- The lack of common sense and initiative
- The lack of consistency in stores, hotels and the forever changing hotel policies
- VIETJET, their infamous lack of professionalism and their constant delays
- The debilitating Smartphone addiction
- The never-ending littering, and lack of respect for the environment
Living in Vietnam isn’t always easy and I must admit, not without a touch of guilt, that I too often let the cultural differences get to me. Having said that, I feel grateful and privileged to live here, to be able to experience this booming culture, this fast-developing economy, and to have met such kindness and generosity from the locals.
Living in Vietnam taught me a lot about myself and my relationships with others. It is the first communist country I lived in, and also the first Asian country I lived in. Vietnam saw a lot of first times in over a year: the first time I rode a motorbike (and my first bike accident), my first time living in a hotel, my first job as an ESL teacher, and the first time I sang in front of a crowd, to name just a few. Vietnam will forever have a special place in my life.
“The straw-coloured hat, the bright green paddy fields, and the black buffalo grazing all around – a world pure and beautiful, hidden and charming. (…) This Vietnam promises everything your modern world has left behind: delicate women, simple living and unspoilt landscapes.” Bill Hayton, Vietnam Rising Dragon 2010.