Vietnam is a phenomenally loud place–horns are used all the time here, in a defensive fashion, a way of warning those you’re behind that you’re coming and they need to get out of your way.
The people, as I have mentioned before, are far less aggressive than I was led to believe. I haven’t seen a Seven-Eleven, McDonald’s or any other multi-national in Vietnam yet, except for one KFC.
The Vietnamese are a proud and fiercely independent people. They don’t like the Chinese at all and unlike many places in South-East Asia there are zero overseas Chinese here. Plus, their language is, so far as I can tell, devoid of any Mandarin influence. I’ve a damn good ear for cognates and loan words and I’ve not heard many at all. I also flipped through a grammar-cum-dictionary and found little of Chinese influence there either. (Although there is a passing resemblance in some of the structure and tonality with Cantonese, but Cantonese is so different from mainstream Mandarin that I hardly consider them in the same language family. Yes, you linguistics folks out there can slam me all you want, I am an amateur, I confess.) As a side note, I’ve found the tones here in Vietnam much easier to speak than those of Mandarin. As there are six in Vietnamese I find this odd. But they are easier to say than the four ‘ma’s’ of Mandarin. Go figure.
Vietnamese numbers (mot, hai, ba, bon, nam, sau, bay, tam, chin, muoi) unlike those of Japan and Korea, bear little resemblance to Mandarin either. Mandarin-putonghua from one to ten: yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, qi, ba, jiu, shi. Korea from one to ten: il, i, sam, sa, oh, yuk, chil, pal, ku, ship. See the resemblance? If not, eat me! (The Koreans also have a second set of native numbers, but they are less used and infrequent; the Sino-based numbers being much, much more common, especially in commerce. You’d never hear a merchant using native Korean numbers in price negotiations.)
But the language, like all in the region, with the possible exception of Bahasa Malayu, is tonal. And it does seem to bear a passing resemblance to the levels of politeness and formality with slight leanings in a masculine or feminine direction, exceptions that are found in Royal Thai, and Isaan, also known as Lao. Like most East Asian languages there are no plurals (now you know why your waitress at your local Sichuan Diner says such outlandish things: it’s called Engrish.), no tenses (Korean, however, has simple past, present and future), and all questions are answered in the affirmative. For example: “this rice doesn’t have peas in it?” The answer is invariably, “yes.” Contrary to what most people believe, this isn’t about a supra-Asian distaste for saying, “no” and thus saving “face.” It’s actually a quite logically answer to the question, as opposed to how we answer in the West. “This rice doesn’t have peas in it?” The answer is, “no.” How does that make sense? Although it leads to lots of frustrations when ordering food at a Chinese takeout joint back home! Call me a wanna-be anthropologist, as I can now count in Vietnamese, ask for the check, ‘dun ting’; say OMG, ‘cho yoh’; ask for the salt ‘muiou’ like the Spanish muy, with a slight rise in tone; say excellent, ‘huan hao’; and say hello, ‘xin jao.’ Hell, I’m going native aren’t I?
But enough about the nerdy shit, right?
One wonderful thing about traveling in Asia and Europe is the quality and tastiness of the vegetables (my recent stomach episode notwithstanding). Unlike our industrial corn-based food chain in America everything here is organic in the truest sense of the word. All is small farm grown. The tomatoes actually taste like tomatoes, as opposed to cardboard boxes as they do back home. Just the other day I saw carrots so huge, orange and fat that would make an American carrot farmer blush and would give massive wood to Bugs Bunny. I love markets here in Asia, especially the meat and seafood markets. Here you can pick the live animal you want to eat. It’s butchered right before your eyes. You pick the choice cuts, and in seeing the animal die before you, you are brought into communion with its sacrifice. This is right and good, in my opinion. We are too detached from our food in America and it shows.
Fish of all kinds, squirming black eels, darting elegantly painted tiger shrimp, oysters, crabs, lambs, chickens and other meats are all there for the picking. (They don’t eat dogs or cats here in Vietnam as they do in China and Korea.) Everyone, for the most part, is healthy. Everyone works. I’ve seen men with one arm, or a leg missing, working in the food markets, or at kiosks. I’ve seen even fewer beggars here in Vietnam than in Thailand and Laos. It’s all a part of the communal Vietnamese need to ‘get ahead.’ It’s a national obsession. They also happen to be excellent hagglers–giving way only at the end and then only a very little, just to close the deal.
There are a lot of hawkers, however. Oftentimes in other countries I’ve pretended not to speak English when approached by them. I’ll fall back on my Russian and it usually works. But in Da Nang I was approached by one hawker and when I shot back something in Russia he let loose one of the foulest barrages of ‘Mat’ I’ve ever experienced. He said things that would’ve embarrassed my ex-wife, and a sailor’s mouth that one had! I slunk away in shame, not daring to let him in on my duplicity.
So far it is safe to say I like Vietnam much more than any other South-East Asian country I’ve been in yet. There is an energy and purposeful chaos here that I much prefer over the smiles of Thailand and the laziness of Laos. Did I mention the women were gorgeous? Oh, sorry, I forgot. Well, let me tell you: they look good.
Malaysia, at least what I saw of it, was nice, but not overly impressive. But I will be back there at some point (maybe even visit Sarawak) so the jury is still out. And Singapore? Ahh, my Singapore. Wonderful. Clean. Orderly. Modern. Antiseptic. All good and wonderful and there will always be a special place in my heart for that lovely gem of sanity on the Straits, but give me crowds and chaos, curious stares and a little filth over order and fixed prices any day. It’s too easy to live outside the moment otherwise.