They say the best things in life are free! Piercing the seal of a coffee jar, finding money in a pair of old jeans or watching a friend take a tumble. Immense pleasures in the simplest form. Life’s full of these moments, but often we take them for granted. In October I moved to Vietnam to teach English and as I’ve slowly settled into life here I’ve watched with horrific clarity the disappearing of my previously unappreciated simple pleasures. It turns out you really don’t know what you’ve got till its gone!
1) Music on the Move
I Can’t! I’ll Die! I’ll be sentencing myself to death by mechanical entanglement. When walking anywhere in Vietnam your ears are more important than your eyes. The cascading sound of horns are ever present on the streets of Ho Chi Minh; and so your ears tell you much more about what is around you than your eyes. When you hear the sound of a horn it means something is wrong! It also means you have precisely 1.3 seconds to figure out what is wrong and fix it before something entirely terrible happens. I’ve been bitterly tempted to take a casual stroll down Nguyen Thi Minh Khai listening to The Beatles during my lunch hour. But the fear of being mounted by a passing scooter has all but ruined this simple pastime.
2) Crossing The Road Knowing With Some Sense Of Certainty That I Wont Die…
Even without the distraction of an I-pod there’s no guarantee I’ll make it across the road alive. The hazards are endless! There are rarely stop lights. A free for all ensues – survival of the fittest where the biggest bike and best driver wins. As a pedestrian, I take my chances. The technique, I find, is to walk at a slow yet continuous pace. Try not to stop, certainly don’t go too fast, and constantly look both ways! Just because bikes are supposed to be heading at you from the left doesn’t necessarily mean they will. If a biker finds a quicker way by riding the wrong way down the road, assume that they’ll take it. Even at red lights, bikes won’t feel obligated to stop. If they can merge slyly with moving traffic, they will. I’m always on my toes!
3) Sitting Comfortably
I don’t fit! I was not designed to live in Asia. Long legs are just not welcome. At quaint street side restaurants I sit on plastic stools three inches from the floor. My knees don’t even nearly fit under the flimsy plastic tables. I look like Gulliver balancing both my food and my chin uncomfortably on my quacking knees!
4) Having Pride In My Footwear
I used to stride with pride in my black leather Winkle Pickers. The type of shoe that makes your feet look a good two inches longer than they actually are. Now as I walk through the park at lunchtime, I’m constantly comparing my level of ‘shoe-shiney-ness’ with local businessmen. It’s a kick in the teeth when you see your own disappointed reflection glaring back at you from their impeccable loafers. This is compounded by the sheer brashness of the Vietnamese shoe shiners who sneer unapologetically at my shoes as they try to guilt me into a quick polish. They tut and they point- shaking their head in genuine disappointment. My stride becomes a scuttle as I turn tail to escape the gleaming shoed businessmen and their polish toting friends.
5) Walking Completely Upright
I’ve lost the most basic of evolutionary privileges. For thousands of years man has been striving to conquer the art of walking upright. We started with the dragging of knuckles, but slowly over the years we improved. To the point where I’d say we’ve probably cracked it! But now, after my move to Vietnam, I am seriously backtracking. Reversing down the path of evolution. I can no longer walk proudly with my chest puffed out showing off my evolutionary prowess. Basically I’m too tall. I walk through a crowded market place ogling at the beautiful mountains of fruit when suddenly I’m close-lined by, well, a clothes line. The canopies covering the stalls are so low that I have to stoop considerably just to look at what they have on offer. I’m forced to walk inconspicuously down the center of the ‘aisles’ where the canopies don’t reach. Any passer by would see the floating head of a bearded westerner nonchalantly cruising through the market. Doorways are that bit smaller as well! I feel like Gandalf entering Bilbo’s house every time I walk through an entrance. It’s got to the point were I’m starting to accept my stoop. Soon I’ll have a job in a bell tower, the kids will cry and run away as they pass me – the infamous Hunchback of Ho Chi Minh City.
6) Hot Drinks
It’s not that I can’t have hot drinks, it’s that now, they are much less appealing. But I miss them! Nothing is more soothing to the soul than hibernating on the couch with a steaming hot chocolate on a crisp winters evening. Nothing calms the mind like hot tea after a long afternoon at the office. But most precious is that kick up the arse that a hot coffee gives you on those frosty mornings in December. Nothing thaws the insides with such ease. For me those days are long gone! I wake up sweating and dehydrated from the stifling night-time air. Late in the afternoon I’m gasping for water, parched from the midday sun. Cold water is all that I desire to stop my insides from slowly baking. By the time the evening rolls around there is nothing less appealing than curling up with, or near, anything even remotely warm. Those days are gone! If it doesn’t come with ice, I’m not interested!
7) Blending In
At home in England I can comfortably walk down the street relatively unnoticed. I don’t turn any heads; no one stops, no one stares and no one points. Like most things on this list, this anonymity had gone unnoticed and unappreciated. That is at least until I lost it. Now I am the main act in the circus that is Ho Chi Minh City; I’m the one armed juggler, the lion tamer and the poor guy they saw in half. The combination of being tall, wearing a suit and sporting a devilish ponytail and mustache ensemble make me a walking attraction. Old ladies point and chuckle through their few remaining teeth and young coffee vendors treat me like royalty as they serve me coffee from the back of their bike. I am the alien – I am the Englishman in Ho Chi Minh.
8) Quick Showers
I used to enjoy a quick morning shower, washing away the cobwebs and freshening up for the day ahead. In Vietnam the nights are warm and the air is humid; waking up to a cool shower in the morning is my saving grace. But every shower is a challenge. The problem lies in the despicably inconvenient time that gravity decides to fail and the water decides to stop. I find myself lathered from head to toe in soap looking like a pathetic version of the abominable snowman who’s been caught in a rainstorm. I curse the water, or lack thereof, and plead for mercy with the taps. This is a daily occurrence, it’s making me late for work. But I can hardly use “…because I’m covered in soap” as an excuse to my boss! In this situation it is certainly easy to find merit in the traditional bucket shower!
9) Taxi Ride Conversation
There is nothing more awkward than a silent taxi. The ability to small talk during a taxi ride is appreciated worldwide for good reason. The horrifying alternative is the most deafening of silences. As a consequence small talk is almost a reflex. Taxi drivers have come to expect it. Almost everywhere else I’ve visited drivers are happy to oblige in at least some simple conversation. It spares the pain for both parties. But in Saigon it’s different. There, quite rightly, is little need for drivers to know anything other then very basic English. Consequently the conversation rarely extends past my attempt to pronounce where I’d like to go. It’s unbareable! I find myself sitting uncomfortably, smiling like a Cheshire Cat so as not to seem rude. But the drivers appear immune to this innate urge to break the awkward silence. The worst part is that after anything the driver does, I’m forced by some internal complexion to pleasantly utter ‘Cam On’. ‘Cam On’ means Thank You and is currently one of the only Vietnamese phrases I can be confident of its meaning. The driver could well have just insinuated that he was going to kill me, but anything is better than nothing. Anything is better than unbroken silence.
10) Absorbing a Menu
Deciding what to eat in a restaurant should be the most enjoyable of tasks. You are literally selecting from a list of delicious options, the thing that you most want a qualified chef to cook for you. It doesn’t get any better. It’s another one of the great simple pleasures that life provides. Personally I like to take my time, weigh up my options; fight honorably between initial instinct and lustful desire. But not here! Not in Vietnam. As soon as the menu reaches your eager grasp, the pressure is on. You are under the lights and on the clock. Glancing at the drinks you can feel the glare of your waiter baring down on you. As you peruse the mains his warm breath tickles your neck. You hear the slow ticking of his watch as if it echos from every wall! All the while they are smiling ecstatically, waiting quietly behind you without an ounce of impatience. Their eyes sparkle with a desire to serve, to be there as soon as you need them, and so they stick around. You can’t be angry! They really want to help. But I can’t think. I don’t know what I want. I need time and I need space! Eventually I crack! I pick a dish that I can’t pronounce. It’s all I can think of and I probably don’t even like it! Yet I’m still smiling as I order, I don’t know why! Maybe I’m too polite! The waiter looks confused, but serves my Frog innards with grace and poise. Still smiling!
But it’s a little bit ironic…
Because in a funny way these gripes walk hand in hand with the many reasons why I love Vietnam. Sure people can be in your face at times but they do this out of a deep desire to help. You can’t accept their ferocious generosity and then complain when they are a bit overly attentive. The Vietnamese are proud people and the opportunity to show what they are about, their values and their skills is, to them, a treasured commodity we should embrace!
In Vietnam life is raw – not everything is easy, nothing is handed to you on a plate. I see now that this is actually part of the attraction. My gripes are merely metaphors for life. The chairs may be small, the canopies too low and the roads rather dangerous, but such is life. Not everything fits, not everything works and not everything is the way you’d like it. Life here isn’t a gimmick, it isn’t packaged, it doesn’t come with a pretty bow and sprinkles. It’s honest, testing, fiercely vibrant and above all, real.