One of our writers Emma Clair Kelly spent a year in Vietnam teaching English. Thinking of doing something similar? Here’s what to expect from local life…
The Vietnamese people, in general, are a special mix of culture, tradition and superstition however despite the religious, historical and socio-economic backgrounds that exist among the 89 million people of this enigmatic country, they all love to smile and are genuinely interested in tourists. Anyone who visits Vietnam and makes an effort to ingratiate themselves into the culture and way of life they will find themselves warmly welcomed however there are a few things to take note of before throwing yourself into being Vietnamese.
Unlike in the modern west, food is central to the Vietnamese culture, with mealtimes being a fundamental part of family and social life, there’s no such thing as food on the go here. Once, while at work I took myself outside to a street stall to have a ‘banh mi’ (traditional Vietnamese baguette) only to find myself joined by a number of my Vietnamese colleagues. No one eats alone. The locals will also encourage visitors to try new foods – however, avoid durian at all costs. The western stomach can’t handle this odorous fruit and it is an age-old Vietnamese trick to watch a westerner try to stomach it! While eating with chopsticks, and a lot of restaurants and street stalls will not even have knives and forks available, it is important to remember to always place your chopsticks over your bowl, never sticking into it.
The Vietnamese language is almost impossible for a Westerner to learn, it is a complex system of tones and sounds which, is alien to our latin roots. However, all locals will appreciate you learning a few words and will try their best to help you. I once spent an entire taxi trip with the driver teaching me to count to ten and my local shop always enjoyed listening to my faltering Vietnamese while ordering necessities. Although, sometimes it can go horribly wrong – once while ordering a Coca Cola, I was brought a fishing rod! The most important phrase to know? Just call ‘em oi’ in a restaurant to get the waiting staff’s attention. However, don’t get offended if they laugh at your attempts, laughing and smiling in Vietnam is a compliment.
By their nature the Vietnamese are a caring race, so if you are to become part of them, be prepared to pay it forward. During my time there I received no end of kindness from a lady telling me that my handbag was open to a passing man helping us with a flat tyre at 2am and a returned wallet. They will give you advice about cooking rice to hailing a cab or in my case, helping me when I fell in the street.
They are supremely family orientated, those that live in the cities spend hours travelling home for special occasions, hand over large amounts of money to family members during the Tet festival and care for elderly members of the family in their homes. Oftentimes, the grandparents live with a young couple and the woman of the house takes care of the older members of the family. My colleagues couldn’t understand how I could live so far away from my family for so long and were as excited as I was when my parents came to visit.
Respect is the foundation of the Vietnamese society, there are an intricate set of social rules in place in terms of how different members of the family are treated and spoken to. Call an elderly person ‘Anh Oi’ and you will be in serious trouble, this term is reserved for younger people while ‘Chi Oi’ is for more senior family members or older people. The people are quite a deferent and reverent race, often bowing to westerners, officials and monks- in essence, they have old-fashioned manners which, is quite refreshing. So don’t forget to dust off your etiquette before landing!
Religion and superstition
A lot of the population are Buddhist which, also accounts for the kindness of the people. They believe in karma and more often than not, are compelled to do good for fear of bad karma. Following the rules of respect in temples is paramount, this includes talking and dress as well as bowing the obligatory three times before the statue of Buddha with lighted incense. You will find a statue of Buddha in all restaurants, bars, homes and stores. They are also a superstitious race with a myriad of beliefs, including children wearing Buddha beads to encourage good health to men flipping a fish on a plate to ensure the safety of fishermen at sea- apparently, if a woman turns the fish, it means that a fisherman will drown!
The culture of Vietnam revolves around food, music and song. Their idea of a good night out is karaoke and café sua da (iced coffee) or sitting around on the floor eating and singing – for the most part business is conducted on cushions on the ground or small stools. As a teacher I spent my days sitting cross-legged on the floor teaching lessons, shoeless of course. It is essential to remove your shoes before entering a person’s home, temples and some restaurants. This is a mark of respect to the owner. They are also very conscious of tanning – not for health reasons but because the paler you are the richer you are perceived to be. My Vietnamese colleagues, thought I was crazy when I talked about going to the beach and sunbathing! They spent all their time covering up in the sun and used whitening creams the same way westerners use fake tan.
It is impossible to talk about living in Vietnam without talking about driving and negotiating the traffic. There are over 12 million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh city – that is twice the population of Ireland! So needless to say, it’s pretty hectic. Westerners are not allowed to drive cars, so learning to drive a moped is essential to navigating the city. It’s not shocking to see people carrying huge loads on the back of their motorbikes, I have seen a chicken coop strapped to the back, a man carrying a massive pane of glass and more than one dog, sometimes, families of five or six all pile on. The most important thing to remember is to give way to vehicles larger than you – cars, buses and trucks and beep your horn.
Once you leave the airport of Ho Chi Minh city you will be greeted with a barrage of smiles and it’s impossible not to let a little bit of the culture get in on you and when you leave – if you ever do, there’s a part of it that will never leave you.