Saturday 8th March 2009
As tourists, you have a limited universe of people with whom you can talk to find out about a country. First there is the language issue, which means you can only talk to those people who happen to speak the language or languages you speak. Secondly, as far as natives are concerned, you are likely to meet only a limited cross section of the population, either people who serve you, who are ferrying you around, or are trying to sell you something or conversely from whom you are trying to buy something . Then, if you are so inclined, there are tour guides. Since we never take tours, we have to rely on the former types. There are, of course, fellow travellers who can give you help as to where to go, what to see, where to stay or eat and how to get there, but rarely give you any insight into the people themselves, the rhythm of life, the heartbeat of the country.
I have always believed that the first door to open in any country is the language, and as humans, there are always the same factors you must display, which can help you prise it open a crack. These include first and foremost, the willingness to try. The second is consideration and manners. And the third is curiosity and application, which is to say that you ask, and remember what you are told. The latter necessarily involves writing down, practice, and study.
Each word you learn is a lever which will incrementally open the door wider to understanding a country.
And the first word you should learn in any language is Thank You. Gracias. Danke. Merci. Grazie. Kamsahamnida. Arigato. Mgoi. Efkeristo. Spacebo. Tak. Obrigado. Shukran. Teshekyur.
Or in Vietnamese. Cam on. (Kahm Uhn).
Bonjour => Xin Chao
Merci => Cam On
Excusez-moi => Xin loi
Au revoir => Tam biet
Combien => Bao nhieu
Trop cher => Dat qua
Tres bon => Ngon qua
My modest improvement in the language was entirely due to three waitresses, the first we met in Hanoi, in a fairly posh restaurant our first night called Club Opera. Using my extremely limited vocabulary, I still ordered in Viet, reading out the items. Instead of laughing, our waitress asked how long I had been in Vietnam. "Five minutes...okay two hours," I said.
Then she laughed, and after throwing in a compliment (learning Vietnamese would take you a month) she began talking. Her English was good (she said she had studied for 10 years). She came from a village 60km away from Hanoi, one of four children. She had come to Hanoi for university, and this was her first job out in the real world. She wanted to work in the hotel/tourist industry and English was the first ticket. I was impressed by her poise. I took a photo of her with Steens and promised to send it to her. Her name was Thuy.
By her reaction, Thuy gave me a crumb of encouragement to keep on trying to speak.
We then went South. We went to a beach resort at Mui Ne (between Phan Thiet and Mui Ne actually) called Coco Beach. It is run by a Franco-German couple (though he was never there) who blazed a trail on the beach in 1995.
They have had 14 years to perfect their craft, and they have done a superb job. There are only 35 huts on stilts (huts being a word which doesn't really do them justice, as they are all polished woods, nice new bathrooms etc.). Everything is top class despite a very reasonable price ($105 a day). In the Caribbean, those numbers would be reversed, and Coco Beach would still win by a fair piece. Steens and I gave it 9.5 out of 10, with no valid reason for the .5 deduction. The beach, by the way, is also superb, wide and hard at low tide, which it was the next day.
At breakfast the next morning, we were served by a bright and friendly young Vietnamese woman. Her name was Dung (pronounced Yung). I started to ask her questions about how to say this or that, and found that my enthusiasm to learn was met by her enthusiasm to teach. Over the next five days, she became our window on Vietnam, and she showed herself to be a remarkable, courageous, open, and gracious person.
She also displayed a forthrightness that was refreshing. With Dung, you get what you see. She doesn't mince words. On the second day, I asked her her name again and was quickly reproached: "I already told you yesterday.", she said. Okay, so pay attention in class. I got her to write down the answers.
Mostly I asked her about restaurant Vietnamese , how to order, ask for the bill, and the names of certains kinds of food. After three days she asked us if we would like to come with her to the market the next day, when she would be working in the beach bar, and would finish at three. Sure, we said. She suggested we order a taxi, and meet her outside the hotel. We figured this was as to not attract attention, we guessed.
At five to three we were waiting by the reception when Dung and all the other waitresses shuffled by in their yellow uniforms. She signalled that she would change, and we then moved out in front of the hotel by the taxi we had ordered.
I tried to get some money out of the ATM which unfortunately was broken. Since the Dong is 17,500 to the $, I had a random collection of big ticket bills with no real concept of what that translated into purchasing power and had no idea if I had enough cash. This could potentially be embarassing.
After five minutes or so Dung emerged in white jeans and a yellow top. In the taxi she told us that her father was a fisherman, but had been injured badly (his arm) when she was seven years old, and from that time onward she had been forced to work to help support her family. For the first five or six years she worked in a factory (didn't say what kind) when she figured out that this was not a long term solution, being very poorly paid. Her next job was in the kitchen of a hotel at which point she decided that to get anywhere, she would have to learn English. Without formal schooling, this involved going back to study at nights. She then worked in the restaurant of the hotel as a waitress, and after several years, she interviewed with and got a job with Francois, the owner of Coco Beach, where she had worked for seven years.
This extended to her daughter, who she warned in advance was "very small" and slow to learn, with part of her head which had not closed properly (the fontanelle, we assumed). Her mother and father watched over her daughter, when she was not at her husband's house, who as a farmer lived out in the country. She stayed in her parent's house, along with one of her two brothers, and went out to her husband's when she didn't have to work.
We thus expected the worst. We went into Phan Thiet, a medium sized city (40,000, I guessed...205,ooo actually, so what do I know?) which is one of Vietnam's most important fishing ports, evidenced by the large number of boats anchored in the river. After winding around the town, we went down some narrow street which ran down to the water (the South China Sea) which we could see in the distance across a derelict tract of land.
In the street were a bunch of craftsman building one of the little round boats which could hold max three people (in my mind I christened them the rub-a-dubs, after rub a dub dub three men.......you know the rest). These boat have a round bottom, no keel or rudder, and (I assume) are used only close to shore. I had seen one the first morning at sunrise (see sunrise picture above).
She then took us on a little tour of the street around the corner. Her brother was squatting eating a bowl of noodles at a roadside restaurant. Next to them were the boat builders. After getting their permission , I snapped some photos. There were two main craftsmen and a bunch of hangers on. The leader, a very friendly and fit fellow, demonstrated how he sliced the thick bamboo poles into malleable strips while I videoed him. The other main protaganist peeled and worked the bamboo where it could be woven to cover the frame, bending it with his feet. A finished product lay drying in the sun.
I asked Dung how a woven boat could keep the water out (the boat was kind of like a glorified basket). She mentioned that the weaving was very tight, and that the boat was caulked (she didn't use that word) with a mixture of soil and resin and oil, which dried in the sun, shrinking and sealing the holes. Hmm. I thought.
This supermarket was like a huge study card exhibit for learning Vietnamese, with every item marked with a card and a magic marker. I took lots of pictures. There were some splendid and unique foods, such as silkworms and fish stomachs.
My entirely wrong image of the Vietnamese market we were going to see, the third world showplace of daily life, was supplanted by a carbon copy of the West, large scale capitalism waving buy me! buy me! in front of people who were striving to make ends meet.
At the end of the day, you can knock a few zeros off a banknote, but it all boils down to money, money, no matter where you are.
We then decamped to the parking garage at the bottom of the building, where Dung found to her horror that she had mislaid her parking ticket. No big deal, I thought, we can just pay the full penalty. No, she said, it's not the money, and entered into a rapid discussion with her brother, whom she dispatched up to where we had been to see if he could find it. He returned empty-handed. She then said to me, you go with my brother to meet my husband, and I will catch you up with Christina.
On went the helmet, and off we went into the dark, a night had fallen (at this latitude, it is as though you turn off a light switch).
There was quite a bit more traffic as we darted in and out. Turning across oncoming lanes was like crossing a street in Hanoi. There is never a good moment to do it, so you just go and hope for the best. It is a wonder that the streets are not littered with bodies or broken motos.
We eventually arrived at the river, where Dung's husband stood waiting. His last name is Nguyen (the Vietnamese equivalent of Smith) but I never got his first name. Neither he nor Dung's brother spoke a word of English, or at least they were willing to admit or use. My nascent Vietnamese was worse than useless.
We were directed to a table inside, where Nguyen and I sat down while Dung's brother said something and then dashed off.
There ensued a half-hour interlude of hand gestures, three bottles of beer each, and I am afraid to say little else. Language is everything. I managed to extract the fact that Nguyen liked Arsenal and beer and that despite what Dung said, he smoked like a chimney. Most of my attempts at small talk without the talk failed miserably. The table next to us had four men downing beers along with some kind of liquor in a clear bottle with a long thin neck. Thinking this might be a way of breaking the communication logjam, I signalled to the liquor and asked (by shrugging shoulders) what it might be called. Nguyen immediately thought I wanted a bottle....No, no with a tippling motion and crossed arms, I clarified that that was NOT my intention. It became clear that matters were not going to progress, so we lapsed into an amiable silence, sipping our beers.
After the second beer, I began to get a little worried. Where the hell were Steens, Dung, daughter and brother? The market had not been that far away. I had visions of an accident, a night in a hospital making useless hand gestures. I pointed to Nguyen's phone and said Dung's name, turning my palms up in the classic what? sign. He dialled his wife. The conversation was very short. I then pointed to my watch. He held his hands far apart and then brought one in 2/3s of the way. He then pointed to his watch and held up 10 fingers.
Okay. A third of the way to go and 10 minutes. Still, what speed have they been going? Crawling? I tried to indicate slowness by walking my fingers across the table at a snail's pace and pointing to my watch. Nguyen smiled. Women! He didn't need to say it.
Eventually, the whole entourage arrive on masse....safely, about a half-hour since we had left them.