Friday, June 17, 2011

5 Things to Know About Vietnam

[Day 7]
[Location: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)]

First off, my apologies for being such an inconsistent blogger. Despite the fact that I am getting at least seven hours of sleep each day here, I am still ready to keel over and crash onto the bed by around 10 pm. Consequently, whatever free time I've been able to enjoy thus far has mainly been spent towards napping and sleeping.

To make up for the lack of updates, and since I enjoy making lists, I now present to you Five Things to Know about Vietnam:

1. Vietnamese Time = "ish"
Alyce, our super awesome and smiley on-site coordinator, informed us on the first day that the Vietnamese culture tends to have a more flexible attitude toward arranged meeting times. That is, if you arrange to meet with someone at 6 pm, your buddy probably won't show up until half an hour later. We actually watched a documentary about a Vietnam/US theater troupe collaboration that touched on this idea. The analogy someone used in the film is that the Vietnamese are like a soccer player who adjusts the play to his opponent; the idea of scripting the game move by move to be ridiculous. Flexibility is key.

Allison and I suspect we must have been secretly born Vietnamese. Unlike many of the other people in our group who have been getting up naturally at 5 or  6 am, we got over the jet lag very quickly. Excluding the first day, we have been getting up at 7:40 am every morning and barely making it to our 8 am Vietnamese class. Obviously, this will have to change once we start getting up at 4 am for our construction projects in Quang Tri this Monday.

2. One Day's Worth of Food in Saigon < 10.00 US Dollars
Other than the discovery that exchanging 100 US dollars made me an instant millionaire in Vietnam, this is probably the most mind-numbing thing for me thus far. Not only is the food here divine, it is amazingly inexpensive. Street food will usually cost no more than two US dollars. For instance, yesterday I spent approximately 50 cents on steamed pork buns for lunch, and that was 25 cents more than I intended only because I accidentally dropped an entire bun on the ground and had to buy another one.

Although I'm not as "culturally-shocked" here as some of my peers might be -- (my Taiwanese heritage has quite a few overlaps with the Vietnamese culture) -- there are still many Vietnamese dishes that blow my mind. Furthermore, I am becoming addicted to the sinh to (fruit smoothies) here, which you can find almost everywhere in all sorts of flavors. It doesn't help that they cost me about 75 cents each for one. You can't even buy a bottle of water in the States for that sort of price.

3. Turn Your Haggle On.
Even if you're a foreigner with limited grasp of the Vietnamese language, you must haggle for your dignity's sake. Unless, of course, you're perfectly fine with being majorly gypped. Your dignity might appreciate some effort though.

It's not as bad as it sounds. In the wise words of Alyce, "If you're a foreigner and you can speak some Vietnamese, you're pretty much a hotshot." The saleswoman will laugh along, probably because you used the wrong tones and said something horribly atrocious instead, but at the end of the day if you're good-humored about the whole business, they will most likely lower the price for you if you ask reasonably. It's probably in exchange for the great source of entertainment you just provided for them. But really, the Vietnamese are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet.

4. Do Not Stop or You Will be Roadkill.
When we visited the US Consulate this afternoon, one of the officers told us that each morning she asks the taxi driver to drop her off on the other side of the street so that she has to cross through Saigon traffic. It wakes her up every time.

The trick is, when the swarm of motorbikes and cars dissipates somewhat before the next wave of vehicles, you start walking across the street like the Emperor marching around in his New Clothes. Even though you probably feel just as naked walking straight into incoming traffic, you must show no sign of fear. Motor bikes yield to you, not the other way around (though cars might be a different story).

And whatever you do, you must not stop. Imagine yourself driving your car back at home when a deer walks onto the road and freezes at the sight of your approaching headlights. Same idea.

5. Hello just might be the hardest word.
Unlike the States where asking one's age is a taboo topic akin to asking one's one weight or salary, in Vietnam it is one of the first questions you ask a new acquaintance. Instead of our English pronouns for you/me that make no distinction for gender or age, simply saying "Hello" to someone in Vietnamese will cause your brain to do all sorts of calisthenics.

Here is a typical example of the thought process. Let's say you go to a restaurant and a waitress greets you. You're about to say Chao... but then you stop. Are you supposed to call her chi ("older sister")? Co (younger aunt)? Bac (around your mom's age)? You take a better look at her, but you can't tell how old she is -- even I will admit that Asians often look younger than they actually are. Should you play it safe and call her chi? But since age is revered in this Confucian society, will she be offended if you refer to her with a younger term?

By then, you've probably given up and just smile and nod dumbly as best you can. Nevertheless, the food will be delicious, and when you're done, you can simply say Cam on (thank you) without necessarily going through the same hassle.

Tomorrow morning at 5 am, we depart for Quang Tri. Internet access may be limited, but considering my blogging patterns thus far, we shall see what sort of impact this may have.

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