The best words to describe Vietnam? Asian Randomness. These words were frequently coming out of my mouth. I should probably rephrase that as Vietnamese Randomness since most of the randomness encountered could only happen in Vietnam. Things often don’t make sense here but somehow, I really don’t know how, everything works out in the end.
When I say random, I mean the thinking seems to be completely illogical. Why did the woman stuff five of us in the back of a sleeper bus when there were other seats free? Why did the man cancel our cooking course two seconds after we agreed to do it? Why is a woman motorcycling fabric swatches amongst different tailor shops rather than each shop having their own fabric book?
When I say random, I mean non-sequiturs. Our tailor friends would go from one subject to another when they seemingly had no connection. They would also start randomly drawing photos with the oddest explanations behind them.
The Vietnamese are opportunistic entrepreneurs. As soon as it rains, the little shops pull out their coat hangers of rain ponchos, and vendors are walking around selling ponchos and umbrellas. It is impossible to get soaked in Vietnam.This opportunistic entrepreneurship can also be interpreted as scamming which the Vietnamese are notorious for amongst tourists. When you ask for a price, they will usually quote a number 10x the “fair” price. To them, it’s your own fault if you don’t negotiate a lower one. I suppose that’s fair enough but it can be exhausting to bargain for every little thing. Still, the scamming is nothing personal. Here is an example: When I bought my train ticket to Sapa, I asked the travel agent how much commission she was charging. She said $3/ticket which I was comfortable with. When I received the tickets, I saw it was nearly $7/ticket, but I didn’t say anything to her. I was sick from Halong Bay and kept vomiting so I sat in the travel agent’s office while I waited for the time to catch the train. When it arrived, I didn’t feel better so she drove me to the train station for free. This is something which I find oddly strange and charming about the Vietnamese. Even the people who try to scam you will try to help you at the same time. The scamming, while abominable, really is nothing personal. It’s just business as usual.
North vs. South
There is a rivalry between the North and South. They speak different dialects, have slightly different cuisines and definitely have different approaches to life. The stereotypes are that Northern Vietnamese are very serious, while Southern Vietnamese are frivolous. There certainly seems to be an element of truth to these stereotypes. I generally found the people in Hanoi icy and unfriendly. Even when they were just contemplating, they usually had a scowl or serious look on their face.
In Hanoi, if you said “no” to a cyclo or xe om (motorcycle taxi), they would still pester you. In HCMC, they would just shrug their shoulders and go back to talking with their friends. The difference between Hanoi and Mekong dwellers was even more pronounced. It’s hard to believe that they are from the same country..
The real deal
What I loved the most about Vietnam is its authenticity. Even though tourism is a burgeoning industry in which everyone seems to be somehow involved, their culture remains intact. People are who they are and have not changed to accommodate tourists. Except the women at my Hanoi guesthouse, I felt that everyone who was friendly was genuinely so, and people who weren’t friendly felt no need to pretend to be otherwise.
The country is also one of the fastest growing economies but it still far from being modernized, or westernized. Yes, there are motorbikes instead of bikes but the absence of American fast food shops, save KFC, was refreshing. The country has kept the qualities that make it Vietnam. It is a country of food stalls with mini stools, a country heavily influenced by China, a country of stores specializing in one product, a country of complete randomness! Lastly, it is a country of beautiful landscapes, architecture and people.
- The Vietnamese language is extremely guttural and tonal, so it is extremely difficult to pronounce. Conversely, it is hard for them to pronounce English words. I often had difficulty understanding them, since it sounds like they are talking with marbles in their mouth.
- They have a lot of pride and will not admit when they do not understand you. Instead, they will just say yes to everything even when it’s not a close-ended question.
- Clark Gable moustaches are still popular with older men
- The food portions are tiny
- Voice-dubbing is often done by one person. On the bus from Hue to Hoi An, they played Rambo and everyone’s voice, including Sly’s, was done by the same woman
(These are generalizations and does not apply to every person in Vietnam. I use “Vietnamese” quite loosely.)