This was supposed to be a list of ten things. But I couldn’t think of three more and my attention span was waning, so seven it is!
1) How to use chopsticks.
Before I came here I was about as skilled with chopsticks as Abu Hamza at shadow puppetry. Now I reckon I could probably pick up a small child with my nifty Asian cutlery skills.
2) The less you see of your food being prepared, the better.
Hygiene here isn’t quite up to western standards, you frequently see street vendors coughing, sneezing etc whilst preparing food. You also see slabs of meat hanging around in markets all day, covered in flies with no ice or anything. Also, most toilets in restaurants are at the back, so you have to walk through the kitchens and see the state of where your food is being prepared. The phrase ignorance is bliss is definitely applicable here. You have to eat and seeing as it’s much cheaper to eat out than prepare your own food, just eat what you’re given and try not to think about how many people have manhandled your rice.
3) American is a different language.
I’d say around half of my friends here are from the US, almost every conversation involves some sort of translation issue. My friend didn’t know what banoffee pie was for goodness sake. I’ve started having to ask for ‘white-out’ in the staff room because no one knows what ‘tip-ex’ is. Also, asking an American for a ‘rubber’ won’t get you an ‘eraser’, it will get you a dodgy look.
4) Shouting ‘OI YOU’ isn’t rude.
In Vietnamese culture you address people by their age or place in society, so in lessons students will refer to you simply as ‘teacher’ (teacher… teacher…. teacher….TEACHEERR…. TEAAAACCHER I’VE FINISHED!! ) In addition, to get someone’s attention you use the appropriate pronoun of you (dependent on their gender and age in relation to you) and then you say a word that sounds exactly like ‘oi’. For example, a female who is older than you is called ‘Chi’ so you say ‘chi oi’ to get their attention in a shop. It sounds rude to a western ear but is perfectly acceptable.
5) ALWAYS get off on the left side of the motorbike.
Unless you want a ‘saigon kiss’. A lovely huge red burn from the exhaust pipe that will blister and scar. You frequently see tourists with the tell-tale leg bandage who have fallen afoul of the agreed motorbike disembarkment technique.
6) You should be very careful with your pronunciation.
Example one: I have a kid in my class called Vũ, the squiggly line above the U just means it’s a long, high tone. Now, I called him Vú, which is also a high tone, but very slightly shorter than the other U. Anyway, after much laughter I finally found out the latter version means ‘breasts’. Which, if you say to a class made up mainly of 12 year old boys, is hilarious.
Example two: Another student told me she was feeling sick because ‘she had cough all night’. Except she pronounced the last sound as a ‘K’ instead of a ‘F’. I’ll let you work out why I was slightly shocked to hear this from a 9 year old.
7) Communism doesn’t produce a better health care system, at least not here.
I had to have a hospital health check for my work permit. This involved going to a Vietnamese government hospital, having blood taken, being x rayed, prodded, poked, weighed, interviewed and having my eyes tested. Numerous things about this made me afraid of ever getting sick here. Firstly, there is no soap or toilet roll in the toilets, in a hospital! Secondly, they gave me my eye test with my contact lenses in. I have awful eyesight so still couldn’t read the chart, the optometrist proceeded to put those stupid metal glasses on me and try out different lenses, even though I said I had lenses in. It’s the same as having an eye test with your glasses on and the optician trying to put another pair of glasses on top. Thirdly, the x-rays were conducted in an open waiting room, although there was a sign saying what I assumed was ‘warning x-rays’ there was no radiation protection at all. The whole place was half indoors, half outdoors and although it wasn’t awful, it was chaotic and had the feel of an upmarket refugee camp. Still, you could console yourself with the thought that it’s free. Except it isn’t. You have to pay for every single test, consultation, medicine etc. If you want to go to a posh expat hospital, a basic doctor’s check-up will cost you around $60 without treatment or medicine. Privatised healthcare in a socialist country, nice.