Vietnam is full of surprises. There is normally something round every corner that momentarily knocks you off your stride. But equally there seems to be just as many certainties that you can rely on. Here are some of mine:
VTV 1 news – Every night without fail you will see a bunch of old guys with bad haircuts sitting round a table talking. If you want to see evidence of why not to go for a wig or a comb over this is the place to look. Occasionally, for a bit of variety, it is mature ladies with big hair.
(Recently I fell about laughing when the TV news interviewed this guy while he was wearing a full face crash helmet. His only concession was to lift the visor. There was no sign of his motorbike and it didn’t appear to be an item about roads or road safety. Maybe it was haircuts that have gone wrong.)
Eating – It is useful to learn the phrase “no rồi” (naw zoy) to stop people endlessly and good naturedly filling your bowl with food. This means full up. It can also be deployed against street cake sellers.
Rice wine – Take one shot to be polite then make an excuse about having to get up early or it being a school night. Otherwise it will get messy and require a taxi home.
Motorbikes – At some point you will come close to being knocked over on the pavement/sidewalk by a motorbike as they try to beat the rush hour traffic. While waiting for the bus a motorcyclist will come along that grey strip, which is nominally reserved for pedestrians, and expect you to get out their way. If there is one thing that grinds my gears it is xe máy driving on the pavement. The pavement belongs to me. It was their choice to travel by xe máy so stay on the road. Don’t attempt to knock thirty seconds off your commute by endangering my life and limb on the pavement.
Emergency vehicles – It doesn’t matter whether it is an ambulance or a fire engine with sirens and lights going at full chatter, don’t expect the traffic to get out of the way in a hurry. The only exception to this rule seems to be when it is the cảnh sát on blues and twos.
Being asked your age – Due to the age-based forms of address in Vietnamese, you will be asked your age within 30 seconds of meeting a Vietnamese person. This is purely force of habit and slightly peculiar, particularly as in most cases the language being used will be English. Roll with it. (My girlfriend claims I am obsessed with Oasis. I said maybe.)
Thuốc lá – You will inevitably be offered a toot on one of those long tobacco pipes. It is strong stuff and probably best avoided if you already have a few bia hoi on board. So I am told…
Cell phones – It is said that any civilised society is only three missed meals away from anarchy. In Vietnam it could well be one day without cell phone coverage and Wi-Fi. Mobile phones, like anywhere else I guess, are permanently glued to hands. (You will never know how demented you look while smiling at your handset.)
On the buses – Got that feeling you are on the wrong bus? Got that feeling you are on the right bus but going in the wrong direction? All you need to do is go and stare intently at the destination board. A passenger with good English will come to your rescue for sure.
People selling stuff – You have to admire their sheer tenacity and persistence. I could never be anything but disheartened by the constant knock-backs. Yet street vendors, xe om etc. never seem ready to throw in the towel as you politely decline them for what is probably the thousandth time that day. Necessity is what must drive them on.
For my part, I happen to know I am rubbish at sales. I once had a job in Currys – PC World, the UK equivalent of Media Mart, and in the space of seven weeks managed to sell one computer. To be fair, I generally hid out in white goods and sold fridges, freezers, washing machines, tumble driers, dish washers and the like until I was rumbled. I had some good banter with the customers but I was clearly not cut out for retail and all the shenanigans that goes on under the surface.
We arrived at a mutual decision that the organisation could survive without my help even though it was the run up to Christmas. I celebrated by going to Amsterdam for the weekend.