Some of the best things to see when you visit Ho Chi Minh City are directly related to the daily habits of local people. And in fact, these hilarious and bizarre habits are often a big part of people's decision to turn expat and stay here - we fall in love with the complete nonsensical clockwork of this city.
So many of the people here simply don’t make sense. From their love of toothpicks and interesting lack of phone call etiquette, to the famously Vietnamese understanding of a bathroom, the Saigonese are a vibrant mix of the weird and the wonderful. And though I very much respect and like them, I can’t help but giggle.
Bicycle seats are not for using
Every time I see this I literally have to stop walking. Living in Saigon, you spend a surprising amount of time stopping what you’re doing just to appreciate something that makes absolutely no sense, and this is no exception. When someone drifts past you on a bicycle at the rate of a leisurely tortoise, ignoring the seat, perching their buttox on the rack behind it and hunching their back impossibly as they thrust their knees up to their ears, your first thought is “um” and your second is “why?” And your third? God knows, but I’d put money on a giggle.
Beer is not beer without ice
Every Westerner who visits Saigon and has a beer on famous backpacker strip Bui Vien, will undoubtedly face the odd local habit of polluting their beer with ice. Ok, I say “pollute” but to be honest I have now adjusted and prefer the whole ice thing. Logically speaking, however, it is a serious offense to the beer! It does slow the rate of drunkenness though, which is pleasant.
Beer is not alcohol
Beer is not alcohol. It is a nice, fuzzy sort of thing that makes your insides feel quite nice and your head feel like it’s floating. Alcohol is that clear stuff you buy in a glass bottle and drink in shots, or wine, that awful blood-red poison. Right?
Now, I know that this is not universal among the Saigonese but I have had to explain to so so so many of my local friends the fact that beer is in fact alcohol, that spirits are spirits and wine is wine. There seems to be this kind of cultural tradition that only the alcoholics drink spirits, while it is a socially accepted norm to get nicely tottied on beer. Granny likes beer, she drinks it every night with her grand-daughter and second cousin... times are changing, but this old perception is still around.
Welcome to my bathroom - laundry - storeroom - toilet - miscellaneous other
In my house and in most of my local friends’ houses there is no such thing as just a toilet. Instead, every water-related activity that could possibly go on in a house is squished into one room, and what was once a nice clean bathroom becomes the monster of all chores. In my house we even wash our dishes in the bathroom because it holds our only tap.
Showering is no longer pleasant and tends to splash water all over everything that is not separated from you by a solid wall. Going to the toilet is never relaxing as the seat is almost always wet from the last person who showered, and the toilet paper is usually a sodden mess since that person forgot to move it before covering the room in water. Buckets of soaking clothes dot the floor, and lines of dripping shirts and undies slap you in the face as you try to navigate your way to the basin. And as you wash your hands and squint at yourself in the water-splattered mirror, you wonder why shower-curtains and laundry rooms never made it to Vietnam...
If it looks odd and feels bouncy, it must be delicious
This logic is applied to the selection of meat for sale and consumption. When I go to the local market for pork, beef or chicken, I am faced with a lot of white blubbery stuff, weird internal tubes and ligaments, squishy stomachs, whole heads and the occasional lump of moderately normal looking meat with a healthy rind of pure, white fat.
I’m sorry, but what happened to the chicken breast? Did this chicken have no breast? I asked my boyfriend (a Vietnamese gentleman with a love for chicken gizzard) why he didn’t like the plain, lean meat I cooked, and he said that it was boring without fat or other things I would consider tasteless blubber. I give up.
My boyfriend (as mentioned previously, a Vietnamese gentleman) likes to get my attention with an owl hoot, and since he started doing it I’ve noticed a surprising number of local people with a similar technique. Forget the usual “excuse me” or “hey”, even “oi!” - in Saigon there is an unspoken challenge to grab attention with whatever strange noise you can. My boyfriend favours a punching, melodious “HOOO”, but the xe om I walk past every morning likes to make smooching noises, and I once heard a man “meaow” at passers by, offering them sunglasses. I guess it works… you certainly don’t go unnoticed!
Spitting is to men as breathing is to… everyone
There is a very strange acceptance of saliva in this city. When you’re walking you’ve got to watch your toes. When strolling the streets keep your eyes peeled and your ears sharp, and with every grating ‘hawk’ you hear be ready to dodge the spit that will fly right afterwards! Who knows, it may fly into you. I was driving behind a man on a moped the other day and he spat as he turned a corner. Needless to say I ducked...and that globule of foamy yuckiness sailed over my head and into the traffic behind.
Scooters are limitless
According to Saigonese logic, scooters are infinite entities onto which any number of human bodies can, and should, be piled. This applies to motorbikes too, and taxis if you’ve got the man-force. In Saigon, it is almost ridiculous how many people you sometimes see crammed onto one single motorbike seat, clinging onto each other and swaying impossibly as the driver tries to move forward with his bubble of human life. One thing that always amazes me is how well behaved children are in this situation - if it had been me when I was younger I’d have been trying my absolute hardest to be very, very acrobatic.
Roads are just a suggestion
You could drive your motorbike on the road if you want, but it’s just a guideline really. Pavements are just as acceptable, miscellaneous spaces are there to be filled and if you see a tiny alleyway that looks like it might lead into someone’s house, it is there to be driven into. And it is this kind of thinking that makes living in Saigon such a circus! A great, unpredictable, illogical circus.
But I might burn my toes…
When outside, many Vietnamese (especially women) cover every single inch of their body from a sun that may or may not be capable of tainting their creamy white skin. I personally lament my pastiness every time I look in a mirror, but for the Vietnamese being whiter than snow is an ideal and a dream. Um… swap?
Man or gut?
“Hello I’m Huy and I am a beer-gut”
The thing about men with beer bellies in Saigon is that they tend to let them run free. They lift their shirts up over the top of the gut and allow it to protrude in an almost autonomous manner. Their beer bellies have personalities. They’re like pets, like people even - when you see a man with a beer belly who is giving it the respect it commands, you don’t even see the man you just come face to face with a large flapping stomach. And you say hello…
”Hello Huy, nice to meet you.”
Squat till you drop
Perhaps my favourite of all stances adopted by people in this city is the squat. You can squat anywhere - on the street, on the bed, on a table, on a car - anywhere you like. And you can squat anytime - in a meeting, when you’re nibbling a banh mi, when you’re bored with walking, at the pub - anywhere.
This stance comes in many shades, the main one being a simple knee bend with bum almost to the floor and arms flopped nonchalantly across the flat tops of the knee. To achieve the Saigonese squat you’ve got to be able to bop up and down at any moment (requires considerable flexibility and leg strength), and you’ve got to maintain a completely straight face at all times. If possible chew on something, and flick one eyebrow periodically as if to say “yeh I’m squatting. You jelly?”
Would you like some plastic?
In the supermarket they have a serious obsession with wrapping things. I bring them a diet coke, some carrots and a bottle of water and they insist on bagging them all separately, before putting all bagged goods into another bigger bag, and tying it shut. Erm, one would have been ok? And my water has a handle so...do I really need that extra bag? It all works out for me because I use my plastic bags as bin liners but the principle still stands - what a waste of plastic.
If in doubt, don a pantsuit
Is your wardrobe uninspiring? Did you forget to wash your nice jeans? Do you suddenly have no idea what to wear? Never fear, just slap on your pantsuit. This seems to be the default for many Saigonese women - matching pajama suits of a loose synthetic material, usually in the brightest and most offensive pattern available. To be honest I would rather like one of my own.
Why is it that when someone sets up an electronics shop in HCMC, every other electronics merchant within a 20 mile radius comes and sets up shop right next door? I just don’t get it. There are so many streets in this city that are entirely dedicated to the exact same trade, service or product. But surely this isn’t great for business? Surely you’re narrowing your market and increasing your competition by catering to the same crowd of customers as your neighbour? I would have thought that the logical solution would be to set up shop as far away from anyone else with the same or similar business to you… right?
The infamous Saigon body-lingo
When you ask a Saigonese for some information and they don’t understand you or have no idea how to help, they will generally react in one of two ways. The first is delightfully passive - they just stand there, nod their head and grin at you beseechingly, clearly thinking “I really hope you don’t realise that I’m lost here”. The second is rather less nice and it has made me extremely irritated in the past, but in retrospect it’s just as funny as the first - they simply wave their hands and raise their eyebrows, drawing their hairline back as they pucker their lips slightly and shrug as if to say “I dunno”.
To conclude, Saigon is a weird place. I want to clarify once more that I wrote this as a lighthearted comment on the way many people in this city live their daily lives. I’m definitely not saying that every Saigonese person has these 17 habits, but enough of them do believe me… and when you spot one, you will be very entertained.