In Vietnam: It’s not all Bia and Noodles

* Bia hơi, is a type of very, very cheap draft beer popular in Vietnam.

Actually I’m in Cambodia now, which provides me with a bit of geographical and emotional distance from which to view my time in Vietnam. Whilst pretty much all of my posts about Vietnam have tended to sing its praises, it’s not without its faults. So in order to provide that much called for thing, “balance”, here’s a fairly superficial list of the less endearing characteristics of Vietnam:

  1. Plastic.  It’s everywhere. Everything is put into small or large plastic bags. Plastic bottles are everywhere. Rubbish is dropped indiscriminately. Beautiful beaches are despoiled with plastic waste. There is very little environmental consciousness. Even some of the expats who should know better just drop their litter in the street.
  2. Traffic. It’s hair-raising. Indicators are rarely used, and can’t be relied upon. Horns are sounded repeatedly and continuously. Car drivers, other than taxi drivers, seem to be the most incompetent. Taxi drivers sometimes drive like madmen. I’ve probably witnessed a crash of some kind, on average, every 2 weeks, always involving one or more motorbikes, sometimes underneath a car.
  3. Smoking. There are no non-smoking areas in cafes, restaurants, pubs. Expats are worse than the locals. It’s rare that you get to sit in a cafe without someone nearby lighting up. An American guy yesterday lit up his pipe right next to me. The next day I saw him standing at a food counter, ordering his food, puffing great clouds of smoke.
  4. Karaoke. The Vietnamese love their karaoke. A karaoke party can spring up, with a deafening sound system, in your next door neighbour’s living room. If you’re lucky it’s only for one night. If you’re unlucky, you’ve got a karaoke club next door to you. The songs are belted out at full volume, out of tune, with exaggerated emotion, mostly by drunken men who think they are the Vietnamese equivalent to Elvis. And then they are belted out again, and again …..
  5. Tourists. Yes, it’s hypocritical for a foreigner to complain about tourists. In some places, like Nha Trang and Phu Quoc, it seems that Vladimir Putin has colonised the place. The locals tend to become surly and resentful in response to the tourists’ behaviour. A tour guide told me that money laundering is, allegedly, the main driver. I’ll say no more, for fear of being jabbed with a poison tipped umbrella.
  6. Ageism. I am sick to death of being asked how old I am. It’s nearly always one of the first questions you’ll be asked by a Vietnamese person. They’ll say they need to know in order to address you correctly. There are different forms of address according to whether you are older, the same age or younger than the other person. But I put it down to straight nosiness. You don’t need to know someone’s exact age when it’s obvious they are significantly older than you. Some schools openly refuse to employ teachers over, say, 45. I’ve even seen adverts which say things like “Native English Speaker wanted. Must be young, American and good-looking”. Whenever I walked into a teenage class for the first time, the disdain on the faces of some students was often plain to see.
  7. Expats. Hypocrisy again, I know. Join one of the Facebook expat groups which exist for every city in Vietnam, supposedly to provide a supportive means of information sharing, and you’ll be shocked by the frequency of juvenile, abusive posts, often in response to a perfectly sensible question. I’m told that exclusively female groups are not like that.
  8. Rats. There are lots of them, especially around cafes and restaurants, probably because of the piles of rubbish nearby. In the first restaurant I walked into in Ho Chi Minh City, a vegetarian one by the way, I saw a huge rat running along behind the food trays. I walked straight out again. But if you only went to places where there are no rats around, you’d be hard pressed to find a place to eat. Walk along the back lanes at night and you’ll hear or see a constant scurrying of rats.
  9. Cockroaches. See “8. Rats”. Same problem.
  10. The language. It’s so effing hard to learn. I tried. I’m not good at languages anyway, but Vietnamese must be one of the hardest. There are rising tones, falling tones, short tones, long tones, rising falling tones, falling rising tones and upward inflection tones (I think).
  11. Construction. Vietnam is a fast developing nation. Buildings, large and small, are going up everywhere. If you find a quiet place to live, a quiet hotel, a quiet coffee shop, you can be pretty certain it won’t be quiet for long. The sound of hammer drills, cement trucks, the general hubbub of a construction site will almost certainly find you.
  12. Isolation. It can be lonely at times, especially for an older, single male. I was lucky to have the company of a trio of young American teachers for periods of time. But when they weren’t around, it could sometimes feel, well, like you were on your own in a foreign country, and you didn’t understand what was happening around you. I became friendly with a number of lovely locals in Da Nang. Coffee shops and bars and restaurants were invariably welcoming. But the language barrier certainly limited the closeness of any friendship with locals.
  13. Nature. The lack of it. It’s not easy to get into unspoilt nature from Vietnamese cities. They sprawl. I was lucky to live near a beach. The daily walks and runs on the beach kept me sane.
  14. Nosepicking. I won’t go into details.

No, it’s not paradise, but it’s one hell of a country in which to spend some time, or it is now at least. Hopefully it will retain its charm despite its meteoric rate of growth.


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018