CITY DIARY

As quiet as a mouse

Stivi Cooke

Updated : 01/27/2014 10:00 GMT + 7

Editor’s Note: Stivi Cooke is an Australian expat based in Hoi An Ancient Town in central Vietnam. He is working as an English language and hospitality teacher in the town.

Hooray! Soon it will be the Year of the Horse and we all get an opportunity to relax from Vietnam’s usual frantic pace. Time to sweep away the ghosts out of the house, paint the fence and do a lot of cooking! And soak up the peace and quiet… Or am I wrong?

The typical expat life in Vietnam includes insane traffic, strange foods, very strange conversations, disappointments and frustrations that just make you want to drink a lot of beer to forget!

And noise… Endless, overwhelming, deafening, exasperating, mind-boggling noise.

Mind you, that is the situation in a lot of Asia. Bangkok can make you want to put paper in your ears and hide in your hotel room. Jakarta often makes you want to hide in an underground cave with headphones and snack food. Seoul’s mega-highways can bring you running into a soundproofed karaoke bar faster than diarrhea! Yet Vietnam’s noise levels take you into uncharted territory that your ears have never experienced.

When I first arrived in Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in central Vietnam, five years ago to settle down and work, I chose a house far from the center of the town with not many houses nearby. Surrounded by the fruit trees and vegetable gardens, I thought I was cleverer than all my expat friends. My cunning plan was to avoid the karaoke bars blaring out like a jet engine and the tour buses honking as if it was liberation day all over again. Little did I suspect that I had walked into the world’s biggest experimental sound laboratory.

My first impression that my choice may have been not that wise was the chickens. 

All my neighbors had them, millions of them… And the rooster call had amazing power to wake me up at all times of the night. I would turn and roll, bury my head in the pillow and pray to Buddha to let me kill that living thing! I would fantasize about the million ways I would kill and cook them and laugh evilly while I was eating my com ga (chicken rice). It took me all of six months to get so used to it that I could sleep through it, as I had drunk three bottles of rice whisky.

Hammering. What is this strange love affair that Vietnamese men have with hammers? It does not matter what material it is, they have to bang it with the hammer. And the hammers are magic, too. I have never seen a guy carrying one… anywhere. So where do they get these things? Maybe it comes as a gift with the super large packets of toilet paper that every woman over forty years of age carries on her motorbike. 

The strangest part is the timing… Is it part of the traditional way of waking people up? Or telling them it is dinner time? Bang! Get up! Bang, bang! Dinner’s ready!

Actually, I suspect they are all mind readers, just as you get comfy on the sofa with that first glass of red wine on a Sunday and a good book – yep, wham! Bang! Thump!  Wap, wap, wap!  Mind you, they have a better sense of rhythm than the kids practicing for the children’s festival with that one beat, over and over and over… Thankfully, it is winter so building is over for the time being.

Now, in Australia, where I come from, we usually walk over to someone to talk to them. Yelling is frowned upon and sometimes a big no-no. In my lovely Vietnamese street, people less than five meters far from each other will yell, “Hey! Hey! Oi!” It must be a contest to see if you can ignore someone so much that they just have to yell at you.  

This technique is particularly with instructions to your family and friends who are just across from you in the street. It is usually a big yell, followed by a sharp howl and then a series of high-pitched snarls as if talking to a complete fool. You can just imagine the conversation…. “Hey!”… Pause… No reaction… “Hey!”… The person being yelled at looks around as if there was an annoying ghost in the air… “Hey!” “Yeah?” “You’re supposed to water the trees on the other side!” “So?” … Shrug…  “And don’t forget to do the roots as well!”… Our water boy continues doing the wrong side of the fruit tree area…

“Hello? Hello?” It is one of the strangest things I encountered when I first arrived in Vietnam. Everyone said “Hello?” in English on the phone and even more oddly, they never, ever said… “Goodbye!” They too shouted at the top of the lungs as if the person they were calling might be hiding around the corner… 

One of my neighbor’s boys does this often and I can hear him across our fence… After ten “Hellos?” he gets the idea that maybe the other person is dead, or has gone to the market. The funniest thing is when people receive a call but cannot hear the other person, the “Hello?” becomes more angry and frustrated in less than thirty seconds. Maybe it is not such a good idea to let your kids play with the new iPhone you bought…

It is even more fun when you yell from the other side of the fence, “Yes?”

Car horns – like a knife in your ear. Bus horns – like a punch in the face. A street full of horns honking – like fifty people fighting for the microphone at a drunken wedding with the sound system volume being supervised by a deaf grandmother who has never used one before.  Introduce any odd noise into the situation and you will get total confusion around you. I often like to say “Quack! Quack!” or “Em oi!” or my all time favorite:  “Meep!  Meep! Meep!” Hours of fun.

Yet for all that mind-blowing noise, this Tet, at the end of the day, I will sit in my big garden with a cold beer at 11:00 pm in the dark, listen to the gentle wind through the trees, stare up at the big sky and, in awe, at all the stars saying welcome, with not a single sound to disturb the peace that I now enjoy in my beloved wild, funny, friendly Vietnam.

Have a happy Tet, everyone!