by Ruth Sinai
My first home in Hà Nội was a “serviced apartment”, meaning fully furnished and equipped, and included cleaning services. Several weeks after moving in, I happened to be home when Mai arrived, and she gestured me over to the washing machine. From her gesticulations I then understood two things: one, she had been asking me to buy laundry detergent, but I hadn’t understood; two, she must have figured we foreigners do things differently and had been doing my wash without detergent. It looked clean to me. Maybe we should all do the planet a favour and dump the detergent?
Tens of thousands of foreigners live in Hà Nội - diplomats, representatives of international organizations, academic researchers, people drawn by the lure of the East or put off by the economics of the West. Their lifestyles vary, accordingly. Some set up in the area known as Tây Hồ, West Lake, which caters to expats with schools, shops, restaurants, gyms. Others opt for life in the heart of the teeming city.
But as much as it would appear that life here is similar to other countries – after all, smartphones are ubiquitous, HBO and CNN are available on television, there’s rarely an inch of the town not covered by some sort of free wi-fi, and famous Western brand names (often fakes) are available in shops – that’s as far as the Mc-culture similarities go.
Everything is different. Life in Hà Nội is wonderful, frustrating, chaotic, noisy, challenging, intriguing, welcoming, friendly, crowded.
What’s with the ơi?
One of the first sounds to register on an expat’s eardrums is the syllable ơi. It’s shouted out everywhere to get people’s attention, usually attached to a pronoun indicative of a person’s age or station in life.
Chị seems to be for women older than you (anh for older men), and em for younger people or those providing a service (like a waiter you would summon by yelling "em ơi!")
“As you can imagine,” one expat blogger wrote, “trying to guess if someone is older or younger than you can lead to awkward situations.”
Awkward situations abound. Getting any kind of information can be bad for your health. Ask people, official or otherwise, about obtaining a visa, getting a driver’s licence, exchanging money, directions, and you get differing answers which are correct - and incorrect.
Expats have been told that they cannot get a work permit if they don’t work full time, that they can get one if they work part time, that they cannot get a one-year visa even though President Obama promised on a trip to Hà Nội this year that Americans would get one-year visas, that you don’t need a driver’s licence for a motorcycle because policemen will not mess with foreigners. All of the above is true – as is the contrary.
It’s the accent
Learning Vietnamese is hard for those not gifted with perfect hearing. Being tonal, syllables or words can sound the same but have a completely different meaning if uttered in different tones.
After practicing repeatedly to say my address, I would get in a cab – an incredibly cheap mode of transportation – and recite the address, only to be met with the driver’s uncomprehending stare. After several attempts, I would pull out my phone and show him the address on the map. “Oh, you mean Triệu Việt Vương,” they would sigh in enlightened relief. Yes, I would think, isn’t this what I’ve been saying for the past three minutes?
Even those who have mastered the language can be pulled into an information vortex.
An acquaintance needed to go to the South Korean embassy in Hà Nội. The address he found on Google was a corner shop. He asked there about the Korean embassy and was given the address of the Lotte building. At Lotte a receptionist directed him to the fifth floor of a department store. A woman working there gave him another address in another district. He arrived there only to find the embassy shut for the day.
The confusion is not just the lot of the expat.
“Please be compassionate”, my hairdresser typed on his iPhone when trying to tell me something via Google translate. After several attempts, we gave up. The next time I went in, I found an English-speaking client. Turned out that what my sweet hairdresser had been trying to ask was whether he was hurting me when combing my hair.
Ingenuity is often the name of the game. Expats generally buy used motorbikes.
“Invariably, they break down and the solutions are often ’elegant’. The punctured inner tube of a tyre is patched up with tape, smashed wing mirrors are removed entirely and working fuel/speed gauges are a luxury,” a colleague recounted.
And speaking of luxury, everyone’s a millionaire. One million đồng equals about US$50. Wallets are stuffed with bills that are sometimes indistinguishable from each other, necessitating a diligent counting of the zeros. More than once I have handed over a 100,000 đồng note instead of a 10,000 one – and vice versa. Usually I was put straight by the recipient.
Then there are the sizes. The first (and last) time I went into a clothing store, I was met with giggles. I had, of course, noticed that women in Hà Nội are gorgeously thin, but I have shirts bought in the US that were made in Việt Nam. Ah, yes, explained an English-speaker who took pity on me. “We make shirt for fat American only for export,” he said.
There wasn’t an ounce of malice in his comment, only a type of engaging innocence.
There is no mistaking the strong family bonds, even in the big city. Groups of families and friends sit eating together on the low stools that fill up every inch of the sidewalk not taken up by parked motorbikes. A whiff of sewage? The delicious food smells often compensate.
One cannot miss the construction on virtually every street. When will it end, ask would-be apartment renters. A week or two, they’re assured. Three months later they’re still awakened by the drilling next door at 7am.
Just accept, was the Buddhist-type advice given to me when I complained. VNS