Vietnam: I don’t think I’m in Kansas Anymore

Hanoi, Vietnam – Within about 5 minutes of stepping outside the airport in Hanoi, I realized I was in a place much different than anywhere I had ever been before. There were no signs in English, or any other languages besides Vietnamese. There were no other languages spoken except Vietnamese. Although not as bad as China, the smell of smog and pollution instantly assaulted my nostrils and lungs. There was absolutely no escaping the fact that, for better or for worse, I was in Vietnam.

It took much less than 5 minutes (like maybe 5 seconds) after arriving at the volunteer house for this fact to sink in even more and for me to realize I was going to be a fish out of water. The house was in central Hanoi, but it was in a typical Vietnamese neighborhood. Which means no foreigners, no English and no McDonald’s, but plenty of motorbikes, pho street food stands, and stares.

Walking around the neighborhood those first few days, definitely provided plenty of what I will call cultural experiences. For example:

  • My roommate and I were trying to figure out where the local market was on the map by gesturing quite broadly and vigorously and asking a motorbike taxi driver, “Is THIS (motioning at the market), THIS (pointing at a point on the map)!” No matter what we asked, the guy kept motioning down the street and to the left. So, either we were making complete fools of ourselves, or everything of consequence was down the street and to the left. My money’s on we made complete fools of ourselves
  • On day two, a group of us tried to order coffee at the local café. We succeeded in that we got coffee, but we had no idea what to do with it once it arrived. One person took the cup of condensed milk and dumped half of it in her coffee as if it were creamer (it turned the coffee into a sweet, sugary mess with just the slightest hint of coffee taste), another person took his water and dumped it into the coffee to both cool it and create more coffee in the cup, and I kept opening the percolator and staring at the coffee grounds as if I was waiting for a beanstalk to grow out of it (I really had no idea what I was supposed to do).

Here are some other reasons I knew I definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore:

  • Speaking American English has left me at a severe disadvantage when comes to learning how to speak Vietnamese. You know those accent marks we conveniently ignore (and have pretty much stopped showing altogether) in words and names like cafe or Gonzalez? Yeah, turns out those are pretty important in other languages. So important that the same word can be pronounced six different ways in Vietnamese and have six completely different meanings depending on the accent mark. So, you might think you’re going into a restaurant to order spring rolls, but instead you’re ordering a man. Thanks America.
  • The Vietnamese lessons we were given by the volunteer organization helped to a certain extent. While most of the eight hours were spent making similar exchanges to this:
    • Teacher: You pronounce the word like this. Not like this, but like this. (Apparently going through the different ways to pronounce the letters)
    • Me: Blank stare
    • Teacher: Like this, not like this
    • Me: Blank stare
    • Teacher (becoming frustrated): Like THIS, not like THIS
    • Me: Sigh. Shake head slightly. Blank stare
  • I did somehow manage to learn how to order beer, coffee, and tea, count to 10, say hello and goodbye, and several different sayings that essentially mean chug your beer (funny how I always seem to nail the drinking phrases no matter the language)
  • Riding the local bus in Hanoi can be a frustrating experience. There’s no schedule (there’s so much traffic in Hanoi that there’s no point). They’re always packed, especially at rush hour. You can’t talk to anyone while on one, unless you’re on the phone. The bus rarely comes to a full stop at the bus stop, which means I’ve become an expert at jumping on and off moving vehicles. They have unspoken rules about where you’re supposed to stand (always move towards the back of the bus to allow people to get on at each stop) and who can demand your seat (old people, pregnant ladies, the disabled, and parents with small children). And, the bus is constantly starting and stopping (sometimes very suddenly) so that you’re constantly having to catch yourself from flying through the windshield. Fun times, I swear…
  • Food update: We have a cook both at work and at the house, which means I have a home cooked Vietnamese meal every day for lunch and dinner. It also means I have no earthly idea what I’m eating most of the time, except that whatever it is, it’s extremely good every time. When I do know what I’m eating, my favorites so far have been:

Boiled and roasted peanuts, catfish, pho bo (rice noodles with beef), spring rolls, ca phe sua da (Vietnamese ice coffee with condensed milk, tastes kind of like a mocha), tra da (iced tea), and squid

  • My only complaint is that there isn’t much variety to the meals. I feel like I eat some combination of pork, spinach, rice, spring rolls, and fish sauce every time I sit down to eat, and I’m a little tired of it (it’s still very good food, it’s just gotten a little old). However, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the fruit – everything is so fresh, sweet, and juicy it’s amazing. I think I could eat an entire watermelon or pineapple every day.
  • I’ve come to the conclusion that tofu and I will never be able to get along. Probably a good thing I’m not a vegetarian.
  • Like Cambodia, crossing the street in Hanoi can be a walk on the wild side. However, I’ve learned there are actual rules to the Frogger game: Anything with four or more wheels pretty much doesn’t stop for pedestrians, while anything with two wheels will avoid you as long as you are crossing at a slow but steady pace. Of course, knowing the rules doesn’t make crossing six lanes of high volume rush hour traffic any less nerve wracking.
  • I’m too damn big for this country. I present the following examples as evidence:
    • I have to sleep at a slight angle to fit in my bed. Usually, I end up with my feet hanging off the side, so I’m not certain if the angle tactic does anything or not, but I like to think it does.
    • While walking home from a museum tour on the second day, I didn’t see a street sign in time. My resulting inability to dodge, duck, dip, dive or dodge caused me to run into said sign and split open the top of my head
    • While riding the bus, people hang on to me and lean on me while standing instead of using the provided handles to keep from falling over.
    • People like to put up tarps to cover their street food stands and keep the patrons dry, which is great. Except, the people putting up these tarps also string them up at the exact height where running into the rope will decapitate me. Which means I’m constantly dodging, ducking, dipping, diving and dodging.
  • My culture shock was not contained to only the outside world, as I also experienced it at home. You see, out of 14 people living there, I was one of only two guys. Not that that’s a bad thing, but I’m not used to essentially having 12 sisters hanging around the same house as me (or having 12 sisters period). There is also no air conditioning, and we didn’t have a trustworthy internet connection or a TV the first week in the house. Luckily there was plenty of cold beer in the fridge, cards, and excellent conversation/company to help pass the time.
  • The facts of life in Hanoi: It’s hot. It’s humid. I sweat a lot. To cope, all my drinks are now cold, all my showers are ice cold, and I sleep with a fan blowing on me all night. I also now worship the rain as it normally comes with a nice breeze, clouds, and, although temporary, lower temperatures.
  • Before continuing, I have something I need to get off my chest: There’s a rooster somewhere in the neighborhood, and if I ever find it I will shoot it. Sorry, I like animals, but this thing starts crowing at 4:30 AM and won’t stop (seriously, I’ve heard it at 8 or 9 PM, well after dark). Our first week in the house, I think my roommate and I, instead of saying “Good morning”, simply looked at each other and said, “F***ing rooster.” In addition to the rooster, a cat got stuck in a tree across the street and made ungodly noises until the neighbor got out a ladder and pulled it down (of course, that was after he stood on his balcony with a stick and tried to shove the damn thing out). There’s kids yelling and screaming while playing in the street from 6AM to 10 PM some days. And, while we live on a small side street, there’s motorbikes and autos racing by and blaring their horns at all hours. Oh well, I can sleep when I’m dead, right?




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