It's been 8 months since I arrived in Vietnam. A month of travel, a month spent looking for a job, then six months with my new school. So how's life been? Aside from the obvious disruption of the past few months, my introduction to Vietnamese culture and the lifestyle has been surprisingly smooth. So without further adieu, here's my take on my plunge into Vietnamese life.
They’re A Friendly Bunch
By and large, the Vietnamese are some of the friendliest people you’ll meet. Greetings on the street are common (always a “Hello”, never a local “Xin chao”). It’s nigh on impossible to pass a group of schoolkids without at least one of them wanting to practice their English.
Sure, occasionally you’ll be waved away from a shop or get a strange sideways glance. This, though, is the exception rather than the rule.
I still remember my first night teaching in Bac Giang. As I approached the front door of the school, a security guard scurried towards me, no doubt needing to check the credentials of the unfamiliar foreigner. Nope, he just wanted to talk. With a broad grin, he then questioned me in English that was surprisingly good for someone in their 50s- “What is your name? Where are you from? How old are you? Do you have family?”
I soon learned that the Vietnamese are a direct sort - if they want to know something, they’ll ask it. It’s not rude, they’re showing respect by wanting to know more about you.
Tieng Viet – the Local Lingo
After putting it off for months, I finally dove into the world of learning another language. Very well-travelled but very monolingual (aside from the local hello/goodbye.thank you/numbers) I decided I really had no excuses since I’d be here for at least a year.
So what have I discovered so far? As with most languages, there’s a good and a bad.
Firstly, there are no unfamiliar characters to learn here – they use a familiar Latin script like English. No irregular verbs – the bane of every English learner. And there’s no gendered nouns.
But this is where the fun starts. There are 11 vowels – the familiar A, E, I, O and U, with 6 more variations on those using diacritic marks. And then there are the infamous tones – 6 up here in Hanoi, 5 in the south, 4 in the centre. Listen to a native Vietnamese speak and you'd be forgiven that tones don't exist. Given the speed they talk. But try to practice your hard-learned phrases and they're down on you like a well-meaning and incredibly-soft ton of bricks.
So try working out how to top up your SIM when the mobile app doesn't have an English option!
The Food Is to Die For
Vietnamese is, quite rightly, a popular cuisine. Phở, the soup found on every street corner, is probably the national dish – a subtle but flavour-filled broth with thin slices of beef, rice noodles and herbs. Not far behind is the banh mi, with the legacy of the French baguette holding Vietnamese delights like grilled pork, pork pate and pickled vegetables. Vegetarians are well-catered for with the banh mi trung, the meat being replaced with an omelette. There’s also plenty of more modern varieties, such as bacon, BBQ pork, and chicken and avocado.
I quickly grew to love Bún chả, pieces of grilled pork belly and mince in a sweetish broth, served with a side of vermicelli and lettuce/herbs.
Bún bò is another noodle dish I've grown to love. Regional varieties abound, my favourite being the Bún bò Nam Bộ, garnished with peanuts.
Motorbikes Can Be Used for Anything
The humble motorcycle is the backbone of Vietnam. In the West, the family vehicle is usually a 4-door car – here in Vietnam, the motorbike suffices (it's not uncommon to see Mum, Dad and three young kids onboard a humble 110c).
It's not just their ubiquity. Thanks to the Vietnamese ingenuity, the number of uses of a bike is endless. Check out the following:
I’ve even seen one being used to transport a sick child – Dad driving, son wedged in the middle and Mum at the back, firmly grasping the still-attached hospital drip.
Traffic Rules Are A ‘Guideline’
It doesn’t take long here to realise that the Vietnamese see traffic laws as fluid, rather than hard and fast. Red light? Doesn’t matter, I need to get somewhere. Slow car in front and oncoming traffic? Doesn’t matter, I need to get somewhere.
It’s interesting to contrast present-day Vietnam with what I saw in my previous visit. Back in 2007, extremely high import tariffs meant cars were a rarity – bikes were everywhere, moving together like a swarm of angry yet predictable bees. Nowadays, a growing middle class, combined with the aforementioned tariffs having been reduced, means car are a regular sight, although still outnumbered by bikes. Unfortunately, this has meant a greater disruption in traffic as bikes flow around cars in slower traffic, while cars honk their way clear in clearer conditions.