As of this morning at 9:30, I have officially been living in Vietnam for six months and as the title of this post indicates, it certainly doesn’t feel that long. I’ve done a lot in this half-year but I don’t feel like I left Canada all that long ago. One thing that does make me realise how far I’ve come is this list I started when I first arrived that I so aptly entitled Musings on Vietnamese Culture. Most of this is now so much a part of my daily routine that I hardly recognise the differences anymore – except for the lack of queueing which I’ll never become accustomed to.
1. There are no rules of the road. If you wish to cross as a pedestrian or a motorbike, just look the oncoming traffic in the eye and move at a steady pace.
2. The streets are filthy. And I don’t mean littered. I mean the actual pavement is so sordid that if you happen to wipe your finger across the black-with-grime asphalt, it will make you rethink those drunken university nights when your feet were so sore from wearing towering heels that you actually thought it was acceptable to walk home barefoot. (Nope, this girl never did that…)
3. It’s so hot during the day that you need a shower after walking around for more than 10 minutes.
4. There are no outlets in most bathrooms. (I lied. There are no outlets in my bathroom. I made a sweeping generalisation with this particular item on the list. Sorry.)
5. You need to sweep the floor of your flat almost daily because it gets covered in black silt (AKA pollution).
6. Dogs are rarely trained and should not be touched (fleas). (By rarely, I think I meant never.)
7. Don’t bother wearing a purse. The chances of it getting stolen (or worse, you getting shanked when someone tries to cut it off you) are too high.
8. There are no guns, however. The greatest crime you have to beware of is purse-snatching but if you are aware of your surroundings, always wear the right bag (backpacks or shoulder bags with one hand on the satchel part), and never look flashy, you’ll be very safe.
9. There is no such thing as queuing here – not for the grocery store, pharmacy or even bathroom stalls. First-come, first-served is a foreign concept.
10. Geckos are the Vietnamese equivalent of spiders. We have a few as wild pets in our flat. And we photo-document them as if they were our children.
11. Bedrooms never have enough storage space but kitchens have more than enough. There’s also never any built-in cabinetry in bathrooms to store things.
12. Ovens are a luxury and usually bought as a separate countertop appliance. They resemble a slightly larger toaster oven.
13. The Vietnamese put sugar in/on everything – including milk (unless otherwise specified).
14. There’s a strange dichotomy of super skinny poor kids and incredibly fat kids gorged on snacks, sugar and MSG. Needless to say, there are very few Western-sized kids, unless you consider the fatties “Western-sized.” Ouch…
15. There is no semblance of order during recess and kids are allowed to run wild, screaming and yelling in the hallways. It’s a wonder no one’s cracked their skulls open as kids skip down the concrete stairs hand-in-hand just begging gravity to drop one of them pulling his/her buddy down into a bloody pile of bodies.
16. Air conditioning is only really used in bedrooms and to make a room more comfortable, not North American standards of comfortable though. The sweat factor takes about two weeks of adjustment. (I clearly wrote this while I was still struggling with the heat-adjustment. Any amount of A/C is a blessing here.)
17. There are no sidewalks. Ever. This is not a walking city. Nothing is easy to navigate on foot. I can see why people get on motorbikes just as soon as they feel comfortable. (And that’s exactly what we did!)
18. No one has spatial awareness! Everyone stands in the most inconvenient places EVER! And holding a door for someone is a courtesy extended only by employees of the establishment into which you’re entering or by another foreigner.
19. Schools/businesses do not remain open one moment longer than their posted hours. My class ends at 9:30 most evenings and security expects you to be out the door by 9:30 so I have to end my class early in order not to be locked out of the staff room.
20. It’s a distinct privilege that Bagheera and I were both hired on with Vee You Ess when we were. Vee You Ess is definitely one of the very best schools in Vietnam for its treatment of teachers (and support staff) and its pay scale.
21. Vietnamese students’ pronunciation is almost unintelligible. It’s embarrassing sometimes because they will say a word over and over hoping that I’ll understand and all of their classmates do. I’m the only one left still guessing. (Due to this realisation early on, I spend a great deal of time with my students drilling the heck out of pronunciation with old school mimicking exercises – I say, students repeat, and then students produce the word themselves. Very little variation. But it means I’ve got some students who can call me “Teacher” rather than “Teachah” and I’ll chalk that up as a win.)
22. Regular-sized bath towels do not exist here. Unless you do as Rhino did and stay at a nice hotel and “indefinitely borrow” their Western-sized towels for yourself. Brilliant actually!
23. Whenever a Vietnamese person doesn’t understand what you’re saying they’ll put their hand up and rotate it back and forth shaking their heads with a look of confusion on their face. (Frustratingly, some students have also adopted this gesture as a sign of “I don’t want to do what you’re asking me to do” which inevitably results in my retort: “No, I know you understand what I’m asking so don’t wave your hand in my face like an idiot and get down to work.”)
24. Nothing is done efficiently here. It’s mostly due to their form of government and everyone having a “role” to play in order to keep everyone employed.
25. Portion sizes are what normal portions should always look like. This helps with keeping meals in check but made for a painfully hungry first week.
26. Rarely anyone is seen exercising for fun. There are gyms but no one runs outside for the most part. (I still get crazy looks when I run along the river. The only people exercising along the river are the hilarious old ladies doing arm circles and hip rotations at slow-mo speeds.)
27. The heat means most places shut down for an hour or two over the lunch hour for siestas.
28. The Vietnamese want so desperately to be viewed as “white” that they will walk around in pants, hoodies, Madonna gloves and even thick, opaque nylons so as not to allow the sun to touch their skin. Almost all of their soaps and creams have a bleaching agent in them so it’s necessary to look closely at labels. They’d be appalled to see what Western women do to their skin (tanning beds, spray tans, and tanning creams) in the name of beauty.
29. Phở can be eaten for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner.
30. The markets are the cheapest places for fresh fruits, veggies and other items such as eggs, meat, seafood, even pots, pans, cooking utensils, junky items, towels…
31. Children do not wear helmets on motorbikes. There are a few theories for this: it ruins their chi; it affects the growth of their skulls and therefore brains; helmets don’t come in child sizes
32. Somehow the Vietnamese have managed to make milk shelf-stable which is seriously concerning to me.
33. They drink iced green tea (no sugar) like water and it’s so refreshing! It’s called trà đa. You can also get a whole coconut for less than $1.50 at most restaurants (which Bagheera and I do) or for less than $0.50 from a street vendor.
34. The sun still goes down at the same time it would back home which makes it tough to figure out what time it is at any given moment because I expect long summer days to go with this weather. (I’ve gotten better at guessing the time of day now that I’ve been here longer but rainy season – which we are in right now – is like our winter and the sun sets by 18:00.)
35. Nutrition facts do not exist on foods unless they’re imported.
36. Pharmacies sell everything you need and most of the time you don’t need a prescription for things that would usually require a doctor’s visit back home.
37. Siestas are embraced here! Vee You Ess campuses close on the weekends from noon until 14:00 with classes starting up again at 14:45.
38. One would think that getting to class for 7:40 on a Saturday morning would be a breeze because it’s a weekend and there would be no traffic but au contraire, my friend! It’s a workday for most folks (or a day of English lessons for children) and the traffic is still wild. Sunday mornings are much more manageable though. Most middle-class Vietnamese work 6 days a week and they get Sundays off.
38. People will touch you on the street just to see if you’re real. It’s kind of sweet. I don’t have a problem being touched. But I can’t speak for all of my expat friends.
40. Life is simple here. There is far less sense of urgency – which can be perceived as a good thing or a bad thing depending on how productive you’re trying to be.
There’s a great deal that is different, probably more things than are like Canada. But a smile is still a smile. A friendly gesture is still recognised regardless of the language one speaks. And as cliché as it sounds, we’re all humans. I’m told by Vietnamese everyday how fortunate I am that I was born in Canada and therefore I take that privilege as a great responsibility. In the words of the great JC: “To whom much has been given, much will be expected.”
I have a lot to offer but I also have a lot to learn. I try to keep that in perspective each day that I discover something new about this place or its people.