There are contradictions galore in contemporary Vietnamese culture. “You can’t kiss in the street, but you can piss in the street,” one longtime resident noted.
These are a few observations after nearly two years of residence in Vietnam. Most of them you won’t read in travel narratives.
Nap time. Days begin early, about 5:30 a.m. or before. Many people are at their places of work by 7 a.m. And they’re still working at 5 p.m. A long day? Yes, but built into it is a midday rest period, typically between about 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 or 2 p.m. Government offices, banks and other large businesses, public and private schools lock their doors to allow their employees and staff shelter from the storm of their workaday lives.
At schools where I have taught both morning and afternoon classes, for instance, unoccupied classrooms become communal bunk rooms during this “down time,” with adult bodies sprawled on floors and heads tucked upon folded-up jackets. (The floor isn’t much harder than the average Vietnamese-made mattress.) Outside, meanwhile, markets and other small businesses remain open, but owners and workers are still catching winks on cots or hammocks positioned to keep one eye on the shop entrances. And frankly, anywhere is a good place to nap — even on your motorbike, as long as you turn the ignition off before you close your eyes.
How old are you? Don’t be surprised when one of the first questions you are asked, after your name and nationality, is your age. It’s not just that experience and wisdom command respect; it’s also built into the language. Different pronouns are used to address not only men and women, but also those younger and older.
As my age is greater than most, I am called Uncle (“Bác Johnny”) or, more frequently, Grandfather (“Ông”). I refer to my students or those younger than me as em (boys) or cô (girls). I call my close friends anh (men) or chi (women). I show deference to a gỉrlfriend’s mother by calling her bà. A first acquaintance wouldn’t want to err by calling me ông if they were, in fact, older than me. Quickly asking one’s age establishes a pecking order.
Two wheels. Everybody owns a motorbike. Or four. And they are parked not in a garage, which few homes have, but in the sân, an enclosed entry area that English speakers might call a courtyard. More valuable cycles will be wheeled into the home’s living room each night so as not to attract the attention of thieves.
It makes sense, then, that gates and doors are designed to be just the right width — about 88 centimeters, a little less than three feet — to accommodate the handlebars of a motorbike.
A walk in the park. When you say that something is a walk in the park, you make reference to perhaps the most popular recreational pastime in Vietnam. In the early-morning and twilight hours in particular, scores of men and women of all ages may be seen sauntering solo, or in small conversational groups, around park blocks. They get their exercise where they don’t have to dodge urban traffic. Many others fill gyms and other fitness centers to capacity.
But they don’t walk to the park. They drive their motorbikes, even if it’s only a couple of blocks. It’s ironic to me, as someone who loves to walk, that I am met with a blank expression or even a frown of astonishment when I express a desire to “take a walk” around my neighborhood. Even when there’s a beautiful park three blocks from someone’s home, they won’t consider hoofing it there.
No PDAs. Public displays of affection are considered inappropriate. Public urination (by men, at least) is not. This was one of the very first things I discovered when I moved to Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) nearly two years ago. “You can’t kiss in the street,” my longtime expatriate friend told me, “but you can piss in the street.” Motorcyclists would pull their bikes over to pee on a traffic island or the side of a building in full view of passers-by. Fishermen didn’t think twice about whizzing into a canal as street traffic whizzed past.
Yet to give a friend of the opposite sex a hug, or a peck on the cheek at the end of an evening out, is improper, particularly if anyone else might observe this gauche behavior. Even holding hands is discouraged. While this is slowly changing in Saigon and tourist destinations like beach cities, it remain heavily observed in “hometowns” and provincial centers throughout the country.
Sexual freedom. By contrast, out of the public eye, sex is very matter-of-fact. First-date hookups are commonplace. The marquees of budget hotels offer rooms in one- and two-hour blocks. Many young (twenties) marriages serve the purpose of pleasing parents with grandchildren, but often within a few years husbands begin patronizing massage parlors for sex, and wives discreetly take lovers … with each others’ tacit acceptance. It’s important that no one lose face. Divorces are not uncommon, but neither are they inevitable.
Family units are very tight. Three or even four generations may live together and assist in raising children. There’s no need for babysitters: That’s what moms and sisters are for. One expat friend of mine has enjoyed the extended company of a string of beautiful single mothers. Even though they leave children at home, their families provide parenting during their (sometimes weeks-long) absences. Who knows? With a little luck, they might find a rich foreigner husband.
Mental floss. Need a good shrink? You are not in luck. Vietnam is a good two generations behind the West when it comes to counseling services. No one wants to bring their personal problems to a stranger. Ask your ông. He’s been here 50 years longer than you. If he doesn’t know the answer, there probably isn’t one. Marital problems? Deal with it. Or leave.
I dated one woman whom I suspect had been a victim of childhood sexual abuse. In the West, a person who is ready to talk about it will seek out a trained psychologist, someone they’ll never have to meet in “real life.” In Vietnam, well, it’s a family problem, right? So let’s keep it in the family. Which means it will never get talked about.
The eyes have it. Manicured eyebrows are perhaps even more common than manicured nails. Most Vietnamese women have perfectly waxed and shaped eyebrows. They are sculpted, braided, feathered, microbladed, embroidered, powdered and often tattooed. No one wants a Frida Kahlo unibrow, and good eyebrow artists are well-paid professionals.
Leading beauty academies give special instruction in shaping eyebrows to match the proportions of the face. “To have a perfect eyebrow, each eyebrow stroke must be carefully and meticulously cared for to every millimeter, must be highlighted in the right place,” the Miss Tram school instructs.
Ear cleaning is a thing. This is especially so for men. At many better barber shops (hớt tóc), grooming includes head and shoulder massages, sensual shampoos, facial treatments and precision shaves. But for many patrons, the climax — figuratively and perhaps literally speaking — is an ear cleaning.
Men do the scissoring of clients’ hair in the barber’s chair but “ear pickers” are inevitably women. Their tool kits could do Sweeney Todd proud. There are skewers, scrapers, tweezers, baby cotton balls, miniature razors, and tiny shovels on long steel spikes. Wearing head lamps, these women focus on digging out wax and dirt, taking a half-hour or longer while maintaining a flirtatious banter with their patrons. And some patrons say it can be an ear-gasmic experience. Expert pickers (and regular customers) speak of a place near the eardrum that tingles when stimulated in just the right way — and which may, in fact, elicit a sexual response. At least in Ho Chi Minh City, some hớt tócs have traded directly on that reputation.
Trashy tunes. Several mornings a week, the sound of an ice-cream truck filters through my neighborhood. It is preceded by that same sort of repetitive Looney Tunes that always signaled the arrival of Creamsicles and other frozen delights when I was growing up. Only here, the truck isn’t dropping off. It’s picking up … garbage.
We don’t have trash cans where I live. And we sadly don’t know the meaning of recycling. Food waste, glass, paper, tin cans, it doesn’t matter: It’s all tied into plastic supermarket bags and tossed into the driveway or to the side of the street. The garbage trucks collect it on a semi-regular basis. Or not.