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In Vietnam, three is not a crowd

In Vietnam, three is not a crowd

Thursday, November 03, 2016, 17:18 GMT+7

How many Vietnamese does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: three – one to change the light, another to tell him he’s changing it the wrong way, and a third laughing his head off.

Funny how easily a crowd forms in Vietnam...

People-watching is one of humanity’s great pastimes. Either observing from a distance in the comfort of a coffee shop or standing right next to the action – people become sucked in, like mosquitoes to a light, when anybody does anything, even if it appears to be the most utterly boring thing in the world.

Builders working on a construction site fascinate me. It’s like a convoluted LEGO set with little ants running around. Magically, the LEGO set transforms over a few weeks into something recognizable, yet still an ultimately boring piece of architecture that I had hoped it wouldn’t be...sigh...

Coffee shop Vietnamese-style chess nearly tops the list of intriguing crowd-pullers. It never ceases to amaze me how such a slow-moving game can draw such frowns of concentration and annoying running commentaries. 

Don’t you hate it when someone points out what you should have done while you’re playing a game... and why aren’t they slaving over a hot shovel, laptop, or service desk counter?

And another thing, why do most Vietnamese spectators stand with one arm across their back holding their other arm while it hangs down straight? Is it a national way of standing?

It seems Vietnamese do that on motorbikes too; this strange ‘leave the left arm behind’ thing. Do they have weak left arms? I’d better not think too much about that question...

Sport; any sport. Just as I’m totally unable to fight the urge to eat Vietnamese fried banana pancakes (I love those things), it seems any game played at any age level attracts a gaggle of people taking sides, yelling support and generally having a whale of a good time. Frequently football and volleyball fans’ motorbikes end up occupying most of a road lane, causing good natured chaos as honking horns battle it out while supporters cry with delight. 

The making of sugar cane juice is a kid’s endless entertainment. Particularly around the southern part of Da Nang (I’m not sure why...) you’ll see kids standing around juice making machines as they churn out the sugar cane for juice. I’ve got to admit I love this display of physics at work too. Sometimes a hot and hard motorbike ride is made just a bit more fun by stopping for a smoke and watching the process. Try it sometime, it’s hypnotic.

Motorbikes are equally bedazzling too. Especially in the countryside there’s a magnetic attraction for males to watch someone struggle to repair or rebuild twenty-year-old motorbikes. Many a time I’ve ridden past a repair shop and noticed a cheerful group of commenters contributing their unwanted advice to a poor lad hunched down on his knees, sweat dripping over an old plate of nuts and bolts at his feet while he attempts to re-assemble the drive train of a ubiquitous Honda cub. I’m surprised that I’ve never seen a mechanic throw the spanner at these repeat offenders and their annoying and largely pointless advice. I recall an artist living in Hoi An a few years ago who used to wander through the city painting and drawing trees, landscapes, and the old town. She had to give up painting in some public areas because the locals would crowd so close to the canvas that she couldn’t concentrate on her artwork. I can’t remember her name, yet her renditions of Vietnam and its scenery were done in beautiful watercolor.

Yet the event that causes the most chaos in Hoi An is Christmas. Surprised? Each year the large church in town puts on a big display of lights, a Christmas tree, and a choir that (weather allowing) sings its heart out. Unfortunately the church is on one of the busiest corners in town and jams up four streets on nights leading up to the holiday. You know you’ve lived in Vietnam a long time when you can actually remember the annual traffic bottlenecks in your neighborhood. I can easily attract a mob watching in puzzlement as I do the outside gardening. I only do this when my gardener mysteriously disappears for a week and the paper moon trees are growing faster than Vietnam’s debt. No one ever helps, just parks their bikes and snickers as I struggle with the garden tools. I fancy myself as a DIY handyman but the reality of my clumsiness and inept handling of the equipment shows that I’m clearly a highly talented artist and writer… and a horrible tradesman.

Still it works both ways – I can stand next to someone doing something odd and pass along comments too. “You’ve missed a bit” is always a good annoyance. My other favorite begins in English with much body language, “You know, you should... (followed by a long pause, then the punchline)...” and just walk off with an enigmatic smile on my face.

After all, I’m just another face in the crowd...

Stivi Cooke

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