I’m British. I’m married to a Vietnamese man. For the first few years of our marriage, we lived in Britain – where my poor husband had to deal with an intensely curious public whose only real knowledge of his country came from American war films. Recently, however, my husband, our two children, and I moved back to Vietnam. I’ve been to Vietnam before, of course, to visit my in-laws and see where my husband grew up, but actually living here has been quite an eye opener! My children have immediately become Vietnamese, apparently – but I (to my husband’s great amusement) am frequently confused. Here, for your delight, is my bewildered outsider’s perspective on this wonderful nation.
This is the one that I’m finding it hardest to adjust to. In the UK, we smile to indicate happiness, friendliness, or a particularly British sort of frozen politeness. In Vietnam, a smile can mean all of these things – but it can also indicate apology, skepticism, submission, and more. By the time I’ve tried to think through what my smile could possibly indicate before curving lips upwards, the moment had passed. I’m sure I’ll get used to this, but, in the meantime, I’ll stick to frowning (my husband is used to that...).
British people like to think of ourselves as polite to a fault, but the Vietnamese take it to a whole new level. I honestly don’t think I’ve heard the word ‘no’ once since I got here. Whatever I ask, whatever I want, the answer is always a polite, courteous ‘yes’. And, confusingly, ‘yes’ sometimes means ‘no’, though I often can’t work out when that is. I think the whole ‘yes’ thing has a lot to do with the exquisite politeness I’ve found in Vietnam. Tact and diplomacy are an absolute way of life here, and politeness is such an art that I frequently feel like a great, rude elephant bumbling around and braying through my trunk. Consideration for others is also key in this country – so much so that it seems Vietnamese often go out of their way to live life in a way which is as good for others as it is for themselves. This seems to apply to everything – from choosing renewable energy suppliers, to holding doors, to (apparently) agreeing with everything that comes out of my loud, obnoxious Western mouth. While I love this, and have the greatest respect for all of the politeness, it does make me feel horrendously rude!
There are so many different kinds of greeting in this country! I have no idea whether I’m supposed to fold my hands and bow, shake hands, bow from the waist, nod my head, or just clap my hands! Luckily, perceiving that I am an ignorant British person, many people will shake hands with me, Western-style, and make allowances for my failure to greet them in the proper fashion. However, I’ve not seen any other women shake hands, so I’m sure I’m doing it wrong.
Oh. My. God. I absolutely cannot get my head around the sheer insanity of traffic here. It’s mind-boggling. How my husband and kids dart confidently and safely across roads is beyond me – more than once my poor, long-suffering husband has had to come back and escort me across the street as I dither and twitch on the pavement.
Having said all of this, there still seems to be a strange number of similarities between Vietnam and Britain. They’re both small, rainy countries full of polite people, where the trains never run on time. It’s a home away from home!