Culturally Immersed in Vietnam

Singapore – When you live like a local, work with locals, and hang out with locals you can expect to have what I like to call “cultural experiences”. The people of Vietnam were so warm and open – always smiling and laughing and willing to help – that you couldn’t help but be pulled into the country’s and the culture’s embrace. Vietnam will always hold a special place in my heart, not because of the trips I took or the volunteer work I did, but because of the people I met and the cultural experiences and exchanges I had with them. I may not have seen much of Vietnam besides Hanoi, but I wouldn’t trade my time there for anything in the world.

Besides playing football, here are some of those “cultural experiences” that made this such a special place for me:

  • It doesn’t get much more Vietnamese than riding the bus to work in the morning. And, as I’ve mentioned previously, riding the business in Hanoi brings its own set of crazy circumstances and experiences. For instance:
    • One of the funnier moments occurred during our city tour with the local volunteers. I was standing at the front of a crowded bus when the ticket guy leaned against the seat in front of me. He was short enough that when he looked in my direction he was staring directly into my chest. Obviously not expecting to see someone that much larger than him, the guy proceeded to slowly move his gaze up with a look of growing incredulity. As if saying to himself, “Where did this guy come from? He keeps going and going and going.” I realized what was going on and tried to keep a straight face, but everyone on the other side of the bus just started laughing uncontrollably.
    • Always follow the cue of the locals. If they don’t look worried or frazzled there’s nothing to worry about. However, if they start taking pictures of how crowded your bus is, you know you’re not the only who feels like a sardine.
    • Likewise, if the locals are holding on for dear life with both hands and have a scared look in their eyes, you know you’re not the only one thinking this is a crazy bus ride. Especially when the bus driver decides to make up time by:
      • Driving as fast as he can before slamming on the brakes at each stop (while only really slowing down to 5-10 kmh as people jump on and off the bus)
      • Going the wrong way down a boulevard and pulling a u-turn with the ticket guy hanging out the open door waving at oncoming traffic to stop (somehow it worked).
      • Plus, I think I concussed a girl as I got off the bus. She tried to duck under me as the bus was stopping. Unfortunately, it was at the exact time that I took my hand off the overhead bar and was bringing my arm down. The driver slamming on the brakes only added to the downward force of my elbow hitting the girl square in the top of the head. She took a few wobbly steps to the right before correcting and heading left.
    • Rush hour traffic is normally crazy in Hanoi, and it only gets crazier when it rains. However, the morning I saw two way car traffic (with motorbikes thrown in for good measure) start to develop on the sidewalk definitely wins as the craziest traffic jam I saw.
  • Working and being in an office environment in Vietnam was definitely an eye opening experience, especially for someone used to the rat race and pressurized environment that is Corporate America. For instance:
    • Facebook, YouTube and other “fun” websites aren’t blocked. In fact, people are on the internet all the time. It seemed like all anyone cared about was that you got your work done on time and correctly. No one seemed to care how you did it or the perception of how you worked. What a novel concept.
    • Lunch was 1.5 hours, and the office shut down so you had to take a break. There was no such thing as eating at your desk while you worked. In fact, there were many people who would eat during the first half hour and then go back to their desks to take a nap until the end of lunch. Sleeping at work? That’s preposterous, and a fire-able offense, by American standards.
    • Lunch was always a cultural experience for my roommate and I as we learned to eat and use chopsticks alongside the locals (an experience not many others in our house had). The initial comment was that we held our chopsticks “differently”, and they always asked if we wanted a fork or spoon to eat with. Those comments died away after a week or so, but I’m not certain if we got better or they just accepted our, uh, method.
    • Going out for tea after lunch allowed us to order one of the greatest named drinks ever, “sexy body tea”. It was only iced black tea, but the Vietnamese words translated literally to nude person, or sexy body as we came to know it as.
    • Sometimes at the end of the day, if things were slow, we would throw darts. However, the dart board was so hard that it was really a test to see how many, if any, darts each person could get to stick in the board. One time, I thought I would show everyone how strong I was and threw the darts as hard as I could at the board. One ended up in the board, but the other two ended up stuck in the wall and in a chair (that thankfully no one was sitting in at the time). Just needed a little accuracy to go with that strength.
  • My roommate and I were invited to our boss’s house for dinner my last weekend in Hanoi. She lived in a village outside Hanoi, which meant we were going where few foreigners had ventured before.
    • The house itself was more of a commune. There three to four buildings that housed four separate generations: Our manager’s grandmother, her mother-in-law, her and her husband and their daughter, her husband’s sister and her children. We also met her Uncle who lived somewhere close by. It was actually really cool getting to meet and interact with so many people of so many different ages.
    • One thing we’ve learned that comes with being a foreigner in Hanoi is that people will stare. And, boy did people stare at us in the village. I thought we were going to cause an accident as we walked along the river and the main road.
    • Dinner consisted of fish, grilled duck, spring rolls, bamboo, cabbage and soup. Everything homemade and locally sourced. It was an excellent meal – especially the spring rolls.
    • Everyone ate together, but unlike Western customs we didn’t eat at a table. No, we ate while sitting on the floor. It was a pretty cool and obviously authentic experience, although it would have been better if my legs hadn’t kept falling asleep.
    • The only real shock to the night came when the children were given Red Bull as if it were juice. It was a little odd to see something I drink for energy and caffeine (not to mention as a common mixer with vodka) being used as a kids’ drink.
  • The morning of my last Monday in the office an email came out saying a going away party would be thrown that afternoon at lunch for myself, my roommate (who was leaving in two weeks) and a PhD researcher who was going back to the US that night. While the party was thrown at lunch instead of after work, it definitely didn’t diminish any of the fun. Although the food was excellent (especially the mussel soup and nem chua), I didn’t really get to eat much of it because there was also wine. And, once the wine started flowing, it seemed to flow faster than I could eat. At least 10 glasses (I honestly lost track after two), many shouts of tram phan tram (essentially bottoms up – aka chug your glass), and two hours later I was left wondering what had just happened. My roommate, another co-worker and I went out for coffee afterwards to try and sober up, but who were we kidding? At 3 PM I was back at my desk staring blankly at the screen trying to comprehend what people were saying on Facebook Chat. Now, that’s an office party.
  • As I was leaving work on my second to last full day, I walked out with one of the senior researchers. He turned to me and asked if I had been able to try any local alcohol. I responded, “Not yet”. To which he said, “You will tomorrow”. The next day, the researcher came into our room and handed me a wine bottle saying it was local alcohol made from corn in the central highlands. All it took was one smell to determine it wasn’t wine. No, this was 100% moonshine. That night, some of the roommates and I decided to give the stuff the try, and, by God the stuff was rocket fuel. One shot before dinner and we all felt a little tipsy. After dinner, I tried mixing it with Red Bull (didn’t cover the taste very well, but I was bouncing off the wall for a good 30 minutes) and then Coke (didn’t completely cover the taste, but it was better). After three shots of the stuff, I passed out at 9 PM trying to read a book. So much for bringing home the party.
  • One of the most special aspects of my time in Vietnam were the friendships that I developed with some of my co-workers and the local volunteers. At work, we had the ice tea group that sat together everyday at lunch and then went out for iced tea afterwards. There were also friends who would meet us out at local Western bars and restaurants (or we would join them in local Vietnamese coffee and tea shops). You sometimes wonder if you’re making an impact, or if they’re just being nice but when I started being called “big brother” I knew the answer and that I’d be leaving a little piece of my heart behind when I left Vietnam.

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