The Art of Being Vietnamese

In a short while, we will be subjected to 2012 “lists”.  Top Ten Celebrity Gossip of the Year.  Most Popular Boy’s Name.  Worst Dressed Politician.

All of the above, and more.

Inspired by a meeting with an elderly Vietnamese monk last month, here, in the spirit of such things (ie for fun, rather than for anything more meaningful) are my “Top Things Learnt about the Vietnamese in 2012”.

Anyone is welcome to add more to these or, indeed, share with me their own SE Asian (or elsewhere…who cares!) versions – I expect to add to this myself in the future, however I only had a short window at Singapore airport earlier to reel these off…

1. Face protection – “one life, one face” is up there as a life motto for most Vietnamese.  No matter what the scenario, saving face in all situations is paramount.

Granted, face saving is not specific to Vietnam, however they do it so well over here!

You may have just driven your scooter carelessly into a parked car, but there will be a justifiable reason in your own mind as to why you are not to blame, and you would certainly never admit to it being your fault when challenged.

Your taxi driver explains his metre isn’t working, as you climb into his cab, and instead, offers you an inflated fixed price for your journey.  You complain, open the door to leave whereby, miraculously, his metre sparks back to life.  Gesticulations then erupt for the next ten minutes, as he tries to point out how he can’t understand why the metre has suddenly started to work again.  He even pretends to be pleased and grateful to you that, somehow, it was all thanks to you that the thing has fixed itself.

2. Lung clearance – as someone else might blow their nose, comb their hair, or file their nails in public, for many Vietnamese it is perfectly acceptable to inhale deeply the mucus that you have lodged up your nose, creating a gruff, cacophonous reverberation (that most people would reserve for their own ears) followed by an even more amplified outburst, as said mucus is speedily evacuated from the lungs and onto the floor.

This, it would seem, is all standard practice here, no matter what your age.  Although, it is noticeable that the more seasoned Vietnamese not only seem more adept at this fine art, but also enjoy making great theatre out of their doing so.  The monk we met in the Mekong recently shook my hand as we entered the pagoda, smiled warmly as I removed my shoes, and then conducted his oral ablutions, literally, over my shoulder.

3. Unique taste buds – there is no question that Vietnamese cuisine ranks up there as one of my favourite things and, at its best and most authentic, a force with which to be reckoned.  What accompanies the bowls of delicious pho noodles or the exquisite banh xeo pancakes, is also a proud and tenacious pickiness, on behalf of the locals, in terms of how to approach the individual eating of their country’s staple dishes.

One of my favourite pho shops in Saigon - the Breakfast of Champions!
One of my favourite pho shops in Saigon – the Breakfast of Champions!

Here in Saigon, for example, northern Vietnamese cast down discerning looks at how sweet their unruly southern siblings’ taste buds are – a point of difference I have failed to recognise from sampling both north and south versions of pho.  Apparently, for the local palate, it is like eating a completely different food all together.

The Vietnamese are very set in their ways when it comes to food.  Very particular about how certain sauces must at all times be used on certain accompanying dishes.  You will typically get a different sauce per dish, and instructions as to which goes where.  Of course, fish sauce rules the hearts and minds of all Vietnamese.  Fish sauce is found on every restaurant table, and goes with every meal.  When the Vietnamese travel outside of the country, they take bottles of the stuff with them.

The same could be said for Vietnamese coffee.  I have many times written about my love of Vietnamese coffee, and I think much of the appeal for me has to do with the strength of the blend, as well as the distinct flavour.  For many Vietnamese, no other coffee really stacks up.

4. Waste not, want not – didn’t I read that in the UK we throw a third of our food away?  Over here, every morsel is put to use.  In the markets, butchers will displays pigs’ ears and rooster feet, cuts of beef that you hadn’t previously known existed and, only last week, when ordering what I thought was plain old chicken, I was served up a whole char-grilled baby quail, completely intact, on an ice-berg lettuce.

Expanding on the perishables, the Vietnamese will also hold onto household items for as long as is humanly possible, extracting every conceivable use from them.  Brooms will be painstakingly maintained, with hardly a bristle left on them, dishcloths wrung for the thousandth time.

In our office, the tablecloth used in the kitchen has been repeatedly darn back together, and had overly gaping holes reinforced with patchworks of misshapen material, to avoid the actual buying of a new tablecloth.  The fact that some colleagues use the same tablecloth to meticulously wipe their mouths after lunch each day is, perhaps, just a further extension of making a valid saving on using napkins – disposable ones or otherwise.  Bravo to that!

And let’s not draw the line here just at household items.  The global demand for oil may be inching ever closer to implausibly high levels, but over here you cannot point the finger of blame at the Vietnamese for greedy consumption.  Cars are becoming more popular, but the trusty bike remains king of the roads.

And no way would a local make any more journeys then is absolutely required.

Exhibit A - photo credit
Exhibit A – photo credit

A lesson to us all perhaps.

5. Expect the unexpected – yes, a mere five “points” into proceedings, and I have abandoned any attempt to pull together a methodical (and satisfyingly rounded off ’10’) list of entertaining – but by no means useful – “Things”.

Time to club together various observations under one helpfully vague statement.

(If truth be told, I started out the initial train of thought for this post mainly so as to put down, for my own future record, the wonderful memory of shoulder ducking from flying monk offerings…the whole List concept not, perhaps, that well thought through.)

However, there is a shard of legitimacy in this fifth headline of never-quite-knowing-what-might-happen-in-certain-situations-in-which-find-yourself over here, in this quite unpredictable and often seemingly illogical country…

From the more obvious daily roulette wheel that every motorbike commuter finds themselves in when navigating Saigon’s streets, to the random interpretations the locals will derive from your questions or instructions (whether you are speaking English or attempting Vietnamese), and the resulting antics which unfold, all the way through to the abject frustration undertaken when trying to register any form of documentation.  The combined hours we’ve spent on acquiring birth cerificates, driving licences, work permits, visas, and ID checks, are too many to comtemplate cataloguing.

Many foreign businesses try and fail here (largely as a result of the second and third points made in the preceeding paragraph) and 2012 – for me – stands as a year where Saigon continues to see huge infrastructure investments being made, and swathes of new retailers opening up shop, whilst simultaneously witnessing many foreign companies (construction, engineering, real estate to name a few) getting cold feet, and moving their investments out of the country.

Just when I feel connected to the ebb and flow of life here, something will happen to completely undermine this, and remind me of the cultural differences which exist between Vietnam and, in many ways, the rest of the world.  All of which serve to enhance, so blatantly, the different axis around which my life rotates, compared to the average Saigonese.

Sometimes this is comforting and reinforcing, other times this leaves you – and I can’t put my finger on why – quite deflated.

For sure, Vietnam has a habit of throwing you curve balls.  Which is one of the particular reasons why living here can be so enchanting.

You never know what will unfold, but you always know you will learn something from it, and usually (albeit retrospectively) it will end up making you smile.

Feel free to send me your two cent’s worth along this theme – to help get me to 10 – or, if you’d rather, post your own pontifications on the quirkiness of somewhere else in the world close to your heart!


7 thoughts on “The Art of Being Vietnamese

  1. Joopenelly and elly. De groot December 11, 2012 / 5:35 am

    hi Tim . I like your story a lot.
    I think I have to read it again, because I hear English on the tv , about ????????? CARS of course. 2 men against 1 women.
    Hope you have a good Christmas in Saigon TAKE care and love to Lou and the girls XXXX Elly and the men.

  2. Niresh December 11, 2012 / 1:46 pm


    This is very well written! Absolutely enjoyed it! Look forward to reading 6-10! 🙂

    • saigonsays December 11, 2012 / 2:45 pm

      Thanks Niresh! Hope weather not too chilly over your way this week? Tim

  3. Allexa December 11, 2012 / 2:07 pm

    Wow, I am going to have to come see this for myself!

    • saigonsays December 11, 2012 / 2:45 pm

      You are. I need more people to help make the list slightly more effective!

    • saigonsays March 18, 2013 / 6:30 pm

      chi Dung
      thanks for you nice message – i have enjoyed writing about life in Saigon, and elsewhere, over the past 1.5 years.
      am putting this blog on hold at the moment, and have started something new instead – here:
      will check your blog out later too!
      best wishes

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