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:
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