LIFE IN VIETNAM WHEN YOU’RE NOT VIETNAMESE

Lovely people, divine food, magnificent nature. On the other hand, in Vietnam they eat dogs, sleep wherever and drive under weird rules

When an opportunity to visit Vietnam occurs, you’ll be quick to understand how mesmerizing this country is, no matter the contrasts and ways in which their lifestyle differs from European rules. In reality, you will quickly understand why has Vietnam been one of the top destinations on all travel lists. But how does this Asian country breathe on the inside? Thanks to Vanja Roller, an independent consultant from the aviation field and a contemporary nomad who as he claims, works where projects take him and lives in hotels all over the world, you’ll learn some useful tips before embarking on a long journey into a different world.

It’s been five years since my partner Katarina and I first agreed that time had come for us to visit Asia. Beforehand, we merely touched (some trips individually and some together) the Asian continent on the East coast of Istanbul, in Jordan, on the Maldives and in Sri Lanka, but we never experienced true Asia. That’s how, in the beginning of 2014, we went on our first bigger trip to Asia, Singapore, Cambodia and Thailand. With half a century behind me I never suspected Southeast Asia to become my new home. And so in a few years, there were a couple of trips, some private and some business, but never Vietnam. Somehow we were reluctant, because it became too “touristy”. And then in the summer of 2017 I got an invitation for a business project in Vietnam. Why not! And so it has begun.

The first project lasted for about three months and it was my first encounter with this lovely country and its people, which continued in 2018 and promises to continue further in the future. Here, you won’t find much information on what to see, what to visit or similar information that can be found in travel guides, online or in tourist agents itineraries. My intention is to show what a Vietnamese lifestyle looks like in the eyes of a European person (or whichever part of the western world compared to Asia).

The climate is one of the most common arguments for foreigners not wanting to live in Vietnam

Vietnam is one of the countries in which I could stay and live for some time. Even with all of its inconveniences like the climate, pollution and traffic, partially the infrastructure, the country is beautiful, the people are approachable and social, open towards foreigners, especially in the South and the food is exquisite… there are so many more pros than cons.

My first trip to Vietnam was in August. The weather was warm with regular afternoon showers. In the meantime I experienced most climate changes besides for the winter in the north, which awaits me this year. The climate is one of the most common arguments for foreigners not wanting to live in Vietnam. The truth is that here, besides for the mountain ranges in the north, there is no real winter that we are used to, it’s warm most of the year, sometimes hot and very, very humid. Hanoi is unbearably hot from May to August. Temperatures don’t go above 40 °C, the norm is 35 °C, but it always feels like 10 °C more. The fall is very pleasant, the humidity is gone, temperatures during the day are up to 30 °C, and fall to 20 °C in the evenings and at night. For the Vietnamese even 20 °C is cold, so they start wearing coats and winter jackets while I’m still walking around in T-shirts. Next to the climate, the second inconvenience is pollution. It’s not as much of a problem outside of cities but in Hanoi and HCMC, due to the many scooters, the air is much polluted. Still very far from some Chinese places, but still much more than in Europe therefore there are many people driving scooters or walking around town with a face mask.

What they can transport on scooters is unbelievable, from large packages, animals, agricultural products or entire families of four, five people on one scooter

And so, in the summer of 2017 I first arrived to Vietnam. The classic routine: airport, hotel and off to the city. We leave the taxi and get shocked. How to cross the street? Today it seems somewhat funny to me, the newly arrived foreigners waiting at the sidewalk for someone to stop and let them cross. In my case experiences from trips to other parts of the world helped: when in doubt, just watch the locals and act like them. Therefore step onto the road, slowly start walking and you’ll cross, Vietnamese people usually drive very slowly. As weird and unusual as it seems to newbies, just go and with a bit of slalom you’ll find yourself on the other side. Traffic is the weak point of most large Asian cities, with some exceptions in highly developed countries. Poor or almost non-existent public transport, many cars and scooters, life on the street, it is all part of a micro cosmos. In fact, Vietnam is right behind Indonesia and China as the third county in the world in regards to the number of registered scooters. There are some speculations about banning scooters in the center of Hanoi (like Myanmar’s Yangon), but all in it’s time. Scooters are an epitome of life here, movement. What they transport on scooters is unbelievable, from large packages, animals, agricultural products or entire families of four, five people on one scooter. Without the adequate infrastructure and the high cost of automobiles, scooters are the only means for most people to maintain so called normal lifestyle.

After I survived my first traffic difficulties the next question was how to get to work. Rent-a-car? Forget it, there isn’t one. Rent-a-scooter – possible but don’t forget, I’m too old for such adventures. Let’s go and try to find a driver that speaks some English. There isn’t one. Those who speak a little bit of English will find a better paying job, for example, in some hotel or as a tour guide or something similar. After a couple of days different taxi companies and drivers we met a local taxi driver, living near the airport, and who was always in front of the hangar on time. Luckily, my colleague from work lives with a Vietnamese woman, so we had an interpreter and made a deal for him to drive us to work. In over a year he has never been more than one minute late, he drives safely, well and is flexible. Many Vietnamese are in fact poor drivers. And when I say poor, I mean really bad, they can’t stay in a lane and wobble between lanes, they don’t’ know how to shift gears; as a rule they drive using third or fourth gear, 20 km per hour. Just keep that in mind when you curse someone in traffic.

Otherwise, the city is full of taxi companies which work just like any other one would around the globe. If they can, they will cheat you. A year ago there was Uber, and then Grab bought it. It’s more reliable, cheaper, better. Wherever we go privately we take a Grab, but you still have to be prepared for all sorts of drivers. Getting a drivers license in Vietnam isn’t a hard task, a good portion of them would have never passed our drivers test. Besides, Grab offers all sorts of options, a smaller car, a larger car, a Grab-scooter…

Moving on. We took care of transportation, what’s next? Communication of course. In the hotel and at work there’s good Wi-Fi, but what about the rest? That’s where Vietnam excels. Temporary SIM cards with the possibility of extended periods of use can be bought anywhere. You don’t need anything besides for cash, and not too much of it (many other countries require a passport, statements and a bunch of other paperwork). Here it’s simple, the network is excellent and 4G is everywhere. The Vietnamese are crazy about mobile phones and communication. Their preferred method of communication is Viber, so everyone has Viber. Next in line by popularity is Facebook, so almost everyone is on it. The addiction to Internet is unbelievable here. They are online, watch clips or play games while driving a scooter, working out at the gym, at the hairdressers, while walking on the road, always, 24 hours a day, non stop. Pure addiction.

 

Lunch break is two hours long, Vietnamese people eat food for half an hour and then go to sleep

I just arrived to my favorite part of the Vietnamese lifestyle tale. All that you have read so far can be interesting, but isn’t something that will “knock you off your feet”. And so I arrive to work on day one, when at 11:30 my colleagues tell me, it’s time for a lunch break. Alright, lunch, I tell myself, there’s nothing wrong there. And there isn’t with lunch itself, but it lasts until 1:30, therefore for two hours. You would thing that they eat for two hours. That’s not how it goes. They eat for half an hour and then go to sleep. Offices, hangars, workshops, everything becomes a ghost town. Everyone sleeps. The smaller percentage of those not sleeping are surfing online or online gaming, still most do sleep. And that can’t be changed easily, it stayed since ancient times when they used to wake up early and go to the field. Today they work in offices and factories, don’t wake up so early, but the need for a noon nap remained. When at work we don’t go out for lunch, we bring something light with us, we don’t sleep, we work the whole time and get stared at a bit. But that falls in that cultural difference you have to get used to if you want to work at a foreign country where other customs rule. It’s most important to show respect for the other side and there won’t be any problems.

Vietnam is a single party socialistic republic; readers born and raised in Yugoslavia know what that means. But, there’s a huge difference, Vietnam has a market economy. Vietnam is a large country, has a population of around 95 million (15thin the world) with a growing and promising economy (anyone interested can easily find more information online, the article on Wikipedia is pretty good). What’s important to know is that Vietnam was under China’s rule for over a thousand years (long ago), and under France for almost a hundred years (not so long ago). Even though an average European may notice similarities with China, it is my advice not to mention it in front of Vietnamese people since they may take offense (any similarity with our region is accidental). That’s how the economy is blooming in this socialistic republic. The Vietnamese have a great sense of entrepreneurship. They will develop a business out of anything. Almost every house or apartment with some sort of exit towards the street has been turned into a business: street food, small restaurant, store, bicycle or scooter mechanic, hair salon, whatever comes to mind really. Behind the business space, and sometimes as a part of it is the occupants’ living room, sometimes even a bedroom. What matters is that something works. Due to that (but not only that) Vietnam has been developing at a rapid pace. Out of all, my personal favorites are street hair salons, where you can get a cut or a shave literally on the street. Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to photograph the night version when the barber wears a miner’s helmet lamp on his head.

One of the most common businesses is catering, more specifically food. Everything is full of all sorts of restaurants, street ones with small plastic chairs, a bit better ones with tables and then fine dining restaurants. Vietnamese food is fantastic. It’s not without flaw, but is truly excellent; it’s everywhere and for our standards cheap. Meaning that backpackers will look for a hostel where they can sleep for 4$, eat for 2$ and get a beer somewhere. My colleague from India find’s dinner at an Indian restaurant (an excellent one) for 20$ extremely expensive. An excellent Vietnamese restaurant inside a hotel, with exquisite service, what would be called fine dining in the “West”, a three course meal for 40$ is affordable to me, but isn’t to many others. Therefore, please, keep in mind some basic starting points, I’m writing this from the perspective of an EU resident, who travels all over the world and from time to time can afford the luxury of dining in Europe’s fine restaurants.

When I leave for work smells and cooking steam spread everywhere. Vietnamese people eat since early morning, their favorites are various soups, and they have a dozen names. The famous one is Phở, soup consisting of stock, meat, rice noodles, vegetables and spices. It’s the most famous Vietnamese dish originating from Hanoi. The second most popular is Búnchả. It’s grilled pork in dressing and with noodles, vegetables and spices. That’s the dish that Bourdain and Obama ate together in Hanoi. But there’s so much more. Not just restaurants but also delivery. The front of our hangar is crawling with delivery boys on scooters each morning at lunch time.

In Vietnam they eat dogs. Not the ones that are pets, but those breed for food

The Vietnamese eat everything. Or almost everything, just like their northern neighbors. One of the more special experiences from my first project was lunch with the Vietnamese team. The lunar calendar is the main calendar here and everything runs by it. That’s how our Vietnamese colleagues invited us to lunch, by firstly saying, let’s wait for two weeks until the moon is in a favorable position, otherwise it could be bad for our project. That’s how, when the moon was in a correct position, we went out for lunch. The main course was dog. Yes you read it correctly, a dog, the four legged kind. I’m aware of the fact that many of you will stop reading now but it’s a life fact – they eat dogs in Vietnam. Not the ones that are pets, but ones that are breed for food, the same as we do with piglets, chickens and other animals. Was it delicious? Honestly not. Would I do it again? I probably wouldn’t, but I had to show respect towards the host that time. In the end, the project was a success and we still maintain an excellent work relationship.

While attending a course in traditional crafting of a kitchen knife, the local smith explained how he would never reveal the secrets of his craft to his daughter, because she will leave to a different family

After food, traffic, technology and economy, we need to touch the subject of the social state in Vietnam. The average tourist probably isn’t interested in that but when you live somewhere for an extended period of time, you start noticing it and getting interested in it. At its foundation lies the relationship between the province (villages) and the city, modern opposed to the traditional and fundamentally the position of women in the Vietnamese society. Just after arriving to Hanoi, during the first week of my stay, I visited the museum of Vietnamese women (http://www.baotangphunu.org.vn/).  That’s where I gained my first view of the position of women in Vietnam. Interesting, but not completely true. It’s true that much revolves around women (as it does everywhere), but there’s also the other side of the coin. A superficial visitor could create an illusion that everything is being ideally set. In many places you will be able to see women holding “three parts of the house”. But the reality doesn’t always match what one sees at first glance. Whenever I spoke to locals I heard the story of inequality towards women or about traditional customs and behavior. In short, and translated to our language, a son or a child was born as they say in Dalmatia. That is still present here, strong and very real. One woman told me that when a daughter is born the overall attitude in the family is when will she get married already and leave to a different family. On the contrary, the son is the one that continues the “tradition” of the family. While attending a course in traditional crafting of a kitchen knife, the local smith explained how he would never reveal the secrets of his craft to his daughter, because she will leave to a different family. The future daughter in law is more welcome in the family than the daughter is.

Relationships within the family are very conservative, even in cities. Here’s one example, I’m not a statistics expert but I can still showcase real life examples. One friend, the girlfriend of my colleague is Vietnamese. At the beginning of their relationship, whenever they would travel together she would tell her parents that she’s away on a business trip and that they were sleeping in separate rooms. To this day, many years later, if she returns home to Ho Chi Minh City she can’t go out to clubs alone at night, because she isn’t married. So, girls manage somehow. I met a couple (thus learning first hand) who got married in their late teen years and had children just so they could run away from their parents. Many of them separated in their late twenties and started looking for a new life opportunity. Everything changes. Nothing lasts forever, unfortunately some generations and some individuals will pay a high price, but change is unstoppable.

Vietnam is developing at a rapid pace and isn’t a poor country as some could imagine

What’s the life standard like in Vietnam? I won’t lean on statistical data or any professional sources, there are probably many. What I’ll say here is my personal understanding, of what I saw myself or learned from talking to locals. Let’s start from the core principles: the life standard is lower from what we know in Europe (anywhere), but definitely isn’t on the level of everyone working for a handful of rice daily or miserable salaries. OK, I usually live and work in big cities, so my viewpoint isn’t completely correct (whose is?). Vietnam is developing at a rapid pace and isn’t a poor country as some could imagine.

It’s such a friendly country and people are so approachable that you get this wish for spending the rest of your life here

I’ll take one example, because I can’t do any better. By comparing the lifestyle standard of an aircraft engineer or aeromechanic in Croatia Airlines, Air Serbia, Adria Airways or some other company from the region. Therefore, a good portion of them at Vietnam Airlines comes to work on a scooter, a part of them in a car. Government taxes on the starting prices are a couple times bigger than in Europe, therefore for someone to have a car they have to have a good salary. Engineers usually have their own laptops, from all brands; everyone has a smartphone, half of them some version of the iPhone. When I traveled with the crew from Vietnam Airline to Arizona this summer, I was amazed by the amount of time (and money) they spent in outlet malls. Yes, in Vietnam there are still poor people and those who earn little, but the middle and high class are growing as the whole economy is developing. In comparison to other countries, I’d say that they are still behind Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong or China, but are definitely much better standing than Laos Myanmar or Cambodia.

In the end, this was really a shallow scratch at life in Vietnam, if it was written a couple of months later, it would probably be different. What I can’t describe in words is the atmosphere and the people around me. It’s such a welcoming country; the people are so approachable that you get this wish for spending the rest of your life here. If it wasn’t for their bureaucracy, I would have probably already done it. I can’t put it in words, how nice it is here. Life is a sophisticated occurrence, you have to keep track of facts, but not forget about senses. And my sensation of Vietnam is incredible.

 

 

 

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