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Reverse culture shock in Vietnam

Sunday, October 25, 2020, 16:16 GMT+7
Reverse culture shock in Vietnam
This file image shows people riding motorbikes on a road in Da Lat, Vietnam. Photo: Tuoi Tre

This year sure has been a pain in the neck for most, but now and then a memorable moment pops up that makes us see things in a different light.

When local authorities decreed earlier in the year that tourist hotels would be temporarily closed, many were forced to find new accommodation on short notice, myself included. 

Panic! 

Moving at the very best times is like getting sick, we just want it to be over and done with while incurring the least amount of pain. I found a studio in a long stay villa outside the city center of Da Lat, packed up the few things I regularly use plus a ton of crap that I never touch yet drag all over the world, and away I went.

Just like that, from one minute to the next, I was plucked from my local immersion program then plopped down in the midst of a group of foreigners.

It was a dose of reverse culture shock after leading a local Vietnamese lifestyle for so long, and in some ways the expat scenario was weirder than adapting to local Vietnamese ways had been in the first place. 

Fifteen minutes in a taxi was like an airplane trip halfway around the world, finishing disoriented in a far-off land, surrounded by the unfamiliar.

The villa was in an upscale neighbourhood, so there was a notable absence of motorbikes whizzing by, vendors, construction projects staged in the middle of the road, and the general hubbub we expect and love in Vietnam.

Slick house

Slick house

Frighteningly, there were hardly any cafés – a perplexing predicament, since the coffee culture in Vietnam is the lifeblood of the country. 

What on earth could the neighbourhood locals possibly be doing if not slouched over a coffee? 

I shuddered at the thought of the alternatives, then realized that several neighbourhood cafés were disguised as the ‘front parlour’ variety, gradually morphed over time from a family living room and front yard into a little café. 

Such businesses often begin innocently, with people sitting around enjoying home life, then it happens: a family member suggests adding a couple of tables and chairs out front, and – presto – a café is born, but without an air of commercial activity nor any advertising, thus easily passed over by those walking around.

Friends and neighbours pop in for a brew and a chin wag and everyone has a blast. This scenario turns out to be a circuitous barter deal because over time the same banknotes are circulated around and around the neighbourhood.

“Hey, that’s the same icky VND10,000 note I gave you the other day! It stinks, I think a dog peed on it, I don’t want it back!”

Despite the lack of animation in the area, the villa offered majestic views, a spacious yard, large suites, and plenty of space for socializing; truly it was the real deal. 

The food scene was void of local influence, with pizzas whirring around in microwaves, the scent of freshly baked sweet buns wafting throughout, and I saw beans on toast for the first time in years.

I was jolted off stride when I discovered that ‘tuong ot’ (chili sauce) and ‘nuoc mam’ (fish sauce) were mysteriously missing in the pantry, replaced by Western tomato ketchup and vinegar, both of which turned out to be a treat after a long absence.

Room with a view

Room with a view

When the cupboards were bare, the gang buzzed off on motorbikes or in taxis to the cavernous Western-style supermarket to buy food and household items, then returned home, locked the gate, and carried on living in the womb – cosy, comfortable, and protected.

People asked where they could purchase Vegemite (the aroma is too funky for me), sauerkraut (I don’t have the faintest idea), and Western-style deli pickles, and I mumbled vague and evasive answers each time.

I explained that local substitutes are often a good match and can save a fortune, such as using ‘do chua’ (pickled carrots and radish) instead of Western pickled cucumbers, but all I got were blank looks in return.

It then dawned on me that many of the villa residents had come to Vietnam on a reconnaissance mission or brief vacation, and decided to check out Da Lat for a few days or a week. 

Suddenly the music stopped, the proverbial chairs were removed, the borders were shut tight, and nobody was going anywhere anytime soon.

Indeed, for all we know we may never go abroad again, or at least could end up staying here far longer than imagined. That’s not what the visitors signed up for when they thought they’d be here for a week or two, which became a month or two, only to now be “anyone’s guess.”

The initial prevailing sentiment from the new arrivals was one of pleasant surprise: “This is a beautiful city, the weather rocks, and the pandemic is under control.” 

Over time that evolved into “Wow, this place is great, we’d like to stay here for a while,” followed by a hint of where they think the future may lie: “We still have a lot of stuff in the neighbouring country we were living in.”

Finally, that morphed into a solemn declaration: “We may stay forever.”

It wasn’t all rosy as complaints surfaced about the frequent drizzles and showers from those accustomed to more arid climates: “We’re starting to get sick of the rain” and “When does the rain stop?”

None of us in the know dared reply but we were all thinking: “If you think this is rain, just wait a month or so!”

Some newbies experienced various bumps in the road while adapting to daily life. Success was not always assured, be it on forays into the local commercial scene, interactions with Vietnamese residents, or random daily bumps and scrapes:

“You’ll never guess what she did next! She packed up my fish with the head still on! OMG, how gross!” 

Yummy fish with heads on

Yummy fish with heads on

“I think I finally found out which side of the road they drive on here!”

“No kidding! Which side is it?”

“Holy cow! The mosquitoes are the size of butterflies around here!”

One delightful upside was I could blurt out whatever was in my head in my native language and it was perfectly understood by all, at least most of the time. What a joy after years of pidgin English, my horrid Vietnamese, and Google Translate! 

There were linguistic peaks and valleys, most notably when local Vietnamese acquaintances would pop in and, understandably, confusion was rife due to the variety of dialects spoken around the table:

“It was amazing! The joey popped out of the roo’s pouch and hopped away!” 

Or, “That geezer is a real plonker, even worse when he’s sozzled.”

The Vietnamese guests, gracious as always, smiled, feigning comprehension while actually not understanding much.

The area around the villa was quiet as a church except for the occasional slurred renditions of folk tunes at a nearby karaoke party or a dog in heat. 

The long-term residents were sympathetic to the complaints of the newbies, explaining that karaoke and barking dogs come with the territory in every developing country, and we should all be thankful they roll up the sidewalks at 10:00 pm in these parts.

Socializing was hilarious because the stranded peppered us long-term residents with endless questions about things we had long ago taken for granted, so coming up with clear explanations was a daunting task:

“Why are there no traffic signals?” (How the hell would I know? I guess the French brought roundabouts with them, so they became standard here. Stop lights slow things down, and we know all too well that slowing things down in this country is never a good idea.)

“Is it safe to buy the meat on display in street markets?” (I’ve never hesitated, but don’t take that as a reference. My policy is “if it’s not moving, cook it.”)

Here’s an absolute dandy: “Why are people with horrible voices singing karaoke so loudly?” (Got an answer for that one? I don’t either, but I imagine it’s the beer that fuels much of the singing.)

I’ll fondly look back on the secluded villa era as a pleasant change of pace, a break from reality and daily life in Vietnam, an opportunity for reflection, like a sabbatical taken in the mountains or a vacation on some remote island.

As it turned out, the villa era came to an abrupt end, and what came next was a great surprise.

More to follow on this cultural odyssey!

Rick Ellis / Tuoi Tre News Contributor

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