SURVIVE IN VIETNAM – Finale
Don’t expect common sense items such as passport, money, or medication. If you ask me which one single thing is needed for your Vietnam expedition, I will reply in a heartbeat, “It’s an open mind.”
Cliché much? It sounds so, I admit. I can almost see some of you pouting and arguing, “That’s the kind of attitude you need when you set foot on ANY strange land!” I agree with you wholeheartedly. But bear with me, I will tell you why I won’t change my answer.
If you follow Survive in Vietnam from the beginning, you must have seen at least one bizarre thing that you never see, do, or eat. But even when I fragrantly violate the 400 word limit in all my articles, I am barely scratching the surface. I cannot stress enough how colossal of a living paradox my country and culture can be. How is it that we have a near to indefinite number of equivalents of “you” (and roughly the same amount for each and every one of the remaining pronouns)? How is it that people don’t mind peeing on the street, but kissing in public is frowned upon? How is it that dogs are pets and food at the same time?
Many travelers worry about the tropical heat, the humidity, the language barriers, etc. only to realize later on that the real struggle is to wrap their heads around those seemingly incomprehensible ways of life. To give you more examples, here are a few questions I was asked when playing the local tour guide role for my foreign friends: “Why do I see some men here leaving their pinky nails long?” “Why do people wear pajamas when they are outside?” “Why do women dress in layers and cover up like ninjas in 400C weather?”
What I humbly ask of you is, upon these unusual encounters, don’t pass immediate judgments. Open your mind and try to understand. If you ask a local like me, I can tell you Vietnamese pronouns are complicated because on the one hand, we value formality, ranks, and orders just like many other Eastern cultures, yet on the other hand, we use kinship pronouns. We address strangers as “brother,” “grandma” or “auntie,” thus in a way establishing instant closeness. Some people say that this “let’s all be family” hospitality stems from our appreciation of friendship, given our turbulent history of one war after another. In fact, there is a Vietnamese concept that I don’t think exist in any another language – “đồng bào.” This word, referring to people of the same nationality, is literally translated “those who share the same womb.”
Vietnam is a developing country. It is chaotic. It is inconvenient. It is every bit as “third world” as you can imagine. But if you get over your initial prejudice, you will see how incredibly beautiful it is. Don’t curse the fact that the sidewalk is occupied by everyone but pedestrians. Sit down with the locals on a slender wooden bench at a café vendor, order a coffee by saying “Anh ơi!” (“Hey my brother!”), and observe how Vietnam happens right in front of your eyes. I guarantee, you have the best seat in the house.