Why Vietnam Drives Me Crazy

activities - Vietnam: June 22, 2016

The Vietnamese are a diverse group, and they have many traits that we could all aspire to – which is why I wrote Why I Love Vietnamese. But alongside those traits are a few that, for their inconvenience, immorality or cultural strangeness, irritate me as not only a foreigner but also a long-term resident in this country. Here are 22 things that I don’t like about the Vietnamese and the way this country functions. Not everyone might agree with them. I’m open to being convinced otherwise.

1. Trash goes on the street

Trash on HCMC's street

Pollution and trash in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City is common, as long as it is not in front of someone’s door. Most Vietnamese do not tolerate trash in their vicinity however, and when people throw it on the streets here it’s not, for example, the same as when trash is thrown in India. Largely because the trash is not left there! People are actually employed to clean the nearby pavements, and tenants or shop owners will often sweep outside their property every morning. Nevertheless, throwing soft drinks cans outside the window while driving is considered normal, as is dumping a plastic bag full of waste on the street side. Most Westerners like myself cannot deal with this, but it’s good to remember that, at the end of the day, the streets of Saigon are actually fairly clean. Let’s see it as another system of waste disposal.

2. Allow 10 extra hours for all official processes

If you need official paperwork done in Vietnam, take a day off work to apply, prepare yourself mentally, and if needed bring several bars of chocolate and your favourite cuddly toy to relieve your stress when absolutely nothing goes right. You may wait in line for hours with a number in your hand in a hot, crowded room before reaching the administration desk. When you can finally communicate, too often you hear that something is missing. Please come back tomorrow. Then, the next day you come and the same scenario goes on and on, until you figure out that a small but nice gift is necessary to grease the wheel – something to keep in mind for the next office run.

3. The streets become rivers

Saigon flooding

Floods are very common here during the monsoon. The streets of Ho Chi Minh City, for example, are simply not made to handle masses of water at once and they very often become waterways when a storm or heavy rain hits. As a resident, you may very well find yourself driving home slowly from work, your knees up to your chest to protect what is left of your brand new leather shoes and your motorbike spluttering as the water level rises... only to suddenly feel the engine stop, teeter for a second, and plunge your poor leather shoes knee-deep into Saigon’s flood to keep your motorbike steady. It’s at times like these when you’ve got to laugh at how ridiculous life in Ho Chi Minh City can be, and invest in a pair of cheap plastic sandals.

4. “On time” means “Come at some point”

Being on time is a relative notion for many Vietnamese, and it is common for some service providers to show up one to four hours late, if they show up at all. Imagine how it feels when you have no water/gas/electricity at home and have taken the next morning off work to get it fixed, but the service provider you’ve scheduled to meet does not show up. Sometimes I wonder how anybody here makes any money! Perhaps the answer is to become your own expert plumber, phone serviceman or Wi-Fi technician, or simply to relax and accept that when you say 12 p.m. in Vietnam what you really mean is “some time after noon and possibly tomorrow”. There is definitely a certain freedom in not being bound by a schedule.

5. The language is impossible

Vietnamese language

If you try to speak Vietnamese, you will certainly fail at first because, let’s be honest, the language is just so darn hard. That being said, I suppose this kind of initial failure is normal for anyone who wants to learn a new language. The difference is that in Vietnam many people continue failing no matter how hard they try! When you fail at learning a new language in most other countries, the local people are sympathetic with your difficulties. Here, the Vietnamese will burst out loud with laughter or look at you like you’re insane. We foreigners tend to be incapable of pronouncing the six tones of the Vietnamese language properly. If you are a decent singer you may be able to catch on faster than others.

6. “It’s that way” means “I have no idea”

Asking for directions here is fun, because it is all about figuring out if the directions you’re then given are valid or not. People will sometimes give you some sort of answer, will usually smile as they do so, and in some rare cases the route they send you off on could even be correct! Why is this? Probably because the city street names across this country are for the most part all the same, and the numbering systems somehow... illogical. Language barriers can be another big issue. Many locals will just smile, nod and point while they haven’t even understood where you want to go. Perhaps your most reliable guide to Saigon would be Google Maps, but even on Maps there is still the issue of the city’s street numbering system. So maybe we should all just expect to get lost!

7. “Yes” means “No, but I don’t want to admit it”

Vietnamese woman waving her hands

Linked to this is the fact that many Vietnamese do not want to lose face in any situation. Many locals will give you false directions rather than tell you that they do not know where you want to go, simply because they want to save appearances. Seriously! In fact, the Vietnamese are willing to go above and beyond expectations to make sure that both sides save face and as a result they will choose to say “yes” even if they mean “no”. “Yes, I know where you want to go”, “Yes, I will do that this afternoon”, “Yes, I know how to fix that for you”, etc. As a result, you may need to adjust your expectations when working with local people. Expect to clarify, re-clarify and then re-clarify again, and always be precise. Be very precise! Vietnamese are anything but incompetent, it’s just that they work in a different way and to be successful when working with them you must adjust to that system and keep an open and patient mind.

8. There is no such thing as private space

Small living room in Saigon

Private space is a foreign concept for most Vietnamese: the more the merrier! Often a family will all live under one roof; rent is made cheaper with six or seven people room-shares; parents of four will cram everyone into one room and rent the rest of their house out; and if you are visiting a friend you will bring all family members in the near vicinity with you. When my phone rings at 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday I am expecting something major! But it’s just my “loving” brother in law calling from the street outside, waiting to invite me for breakfast. Um… no?

9. There is no such thing as fast internet

Internet is everywhere, but it is rarely fast and usually unreliable, so patience is still often a prerequisite when trying to stay connected. Especially sharks keep chewing through our main Internet sea cable, linking Vietnam to Singapore! Strange but true – the sharks seem to have it in for Vietnam. Or at least that is what we are being told. Fortunately the whole internet system in Vietnam is changing and we shall have better speed... soon enough.

10. Language barriers...

Cute Little Kid Gives a Peace Sign in the Old Quarter - Hanoi, Vietnam

Communication with any member of any foreign country is difficult when you do not speak their language. In most countries you’ll use gestures and signs. Here in Vietnam you may choose to point at an object saying you want this one, and simply because they are afraid of misunderstanding, they may wave their hands rapidly right to left or vice versa saying “khong”, which means “no” or “I am not interested in communicating with you”. In these cases there is no solution for you. Just accept it, keep walking, and try again with someone else. Some might also say that, if you live here, you should learn to speak Vietnamese instead of expecting everyone to speak English with you. Well, yeah… touché.

11. Life is always noisy

This is especially true for Saigon, where the city never truly sleeps. If you live here, you will become very used to sudden bursts of noise in the streets, in restaurants, at the cinema, and sometimes even at home! I’m talking motorbike horns, local celebrations, moving food carts, street brawls, etc… but the best one is that lovely karaoke bar a few blocks away from your home that plays loud music all day long and at night as well. Vietnamese love noise; they actually feel uncomfortable when silence reigns. The simplest solution is to invest in a nice pair of ear plugs! Which strangely, is hard to find...

12. US$10 for you but VND10,000 for him

Vietnamese exchanging money

The double standard price policy is gradually diminishing in Vietnam, depending on where you are and whom you deal with, but it is still an issue especially for foreigners. This may seem unfair to most, but the Vietnamese believe that you deserve to be taken advantage of because you’re a foreigner, so potentially rich! – If you’re Vietnamese but look wealthy you may find yourself paying a higher price, too. Learn not to be fooled, be firm but diplomatic, and smile always if you aim to get what you want. But do take it lightly when you are given the double standard and make sure you laugh about it; that is the way to be respected.

13. “A detailed job” means “Just get it done ASAP”

Unfortunately for the many who love things to be done well, attention to detail is not a widespread concept in Vietnam. For example, for construction or renovation work, workers will often begin to do the job before planning it properly, and when it is “completed” you will decide to start over at your own expense because what has been done is not to a quality, long-lasting standard. In this case, perhaps the blame is actually on you. When you engage someone to do a job for you, no matter what field the work is in, make sure you carefully select the right workers, the right speciality, be very specific with your instructions, and be on site to supervise the process as much as possible.

14. Saigon’s rivers are brown, not blue

Saigon River from the roof of the Renaissance Hotel

Saigon’s numerous rivers and canals are so nice to see from afar and from above, but from their banks they are far less beautiful. These waterways are often used as domestic or even professional sewage systems, and are too often sticky and visibly dirty, even smelly at times. These rivers are not healthy for all those who live along their shores and further downstream, but this does not seem to bother local residents too much. The fish that live and propagate in those dark waters are eaten with the same passion as “clean” sea fish! 

15. Do not drink the water

Have you ever tried drinking tap water here in Vietnam? Please don’t, it tastes like metal, goodness knows what is living inside it (especially given the above-mentioned waterways in this city), and it may make you feel really awful or even dizzy. Unfortunately, despite the occasional promising news, it doesn’t seem likely that this crazy metropolis will invest in a clean, safe water-filtration system any time soon, so you’ll either have to fork out and install your own private system, or just buy mounds of plastic bottles like the rest of us.

16. The police

Vietnam police

I think most of us can read between the lines here. In most countries the role of the policeman is to protect the people, society and to make sure the rules of law is applied. Here in Vietnam this, like many other aspects of society, is very much blurred. A lot of locals and expats alike will tell you that the police here in fact do the opposite! But there’s not much anyone can do about it. In general, your best protection in this society is your network of friends and family, and your ability to give nice tips.

17. Animals are like products

A man carrying a few dogs on his motorbike

In Vietnam, animals are most often treated with no respect at all – like they are commodities. Like they are not alive. Many dogs are kept in cages or tied up near their owner with a short string 24/7. Birds are either eaten or put in cages all day long to sing. Most other animals are simply made good use of, as food or as a tool for work. For example, the buffalo is a real necessity for farming families. Animals just aren’t treated with the same attitude in Vietnam they are treated in the pet-loving West. That being said, at least nothing goes to waste. Unlike in the West where we tend to only eat certain animals and even then only certain parts of those animals, the Vietnamese eat most parts of most animals! From barbecued snails to grilled chicken gizzards and dried squid…

18. The “China” paradox

On the one hand the Vietnamese don’t like China, and on the other hand half the products in their electronic and utilities sector are goods from China. The best example of this is Apple products. The Vietnamese are so keen to own one of Apple’s many sleek gadgets, phones, laptops, etc., but the funny thing is that most Apple phones and products sold in Vietnam are made in China! In general, there is a strong stance among the Vietnamese against China due to unresolved strategic, geographic, cultural, historical and political issues. But then, without China, it would be rather difficult for this country to sustain any growth.

19. The sky throws tantrums

The sky throws tantrums

For a good part of the year, the monsoon is very much alive here in Vietnam. And since no one can afford to drop everything and stay inside for six months, the people who live here simply have to accept that bucketloads of water could drop from the sky at any time, and continue about their daily lives. You can imagine how it feels when you are driving home on your motorbike, having forgotten your raincoat, and are suddenly soaked to the bone with fat drops of water slapping your face. It hurts! Everyone here eventually learns to carry a raincoat with them everywhere during the wet season, and some even bring glasses if they don’t have a protecting shield set on their helmet.

20. Electricity is temperamental

Power cuts have decreased substantially here, but they still happen and especially during the monsoon period. The power lines in this city are insane – they weave around each other in an impossible tangle, and it’s honestly a wonder that anyone could ever manage to work with them. How could anyone begin to fix such a bird’s nest of wire? The technicians here must all be geniuses. From the perspective of someone who has had his own share of power-cuts halfway through writing an unsaved five thousand word essay or has slept all night without AC or a fan... learn to save your work as you go and get used to being hot and sticky!

21. Phone lines are like balls of yarn

Crazy wires

Have you ever tried to knit? The phone and electrical wires that power this city remind me of a bundle of knitting yarn, all tangled together and impossibly twisted. Apart from being dangerous, they are a disturbance. Many are dead lines that do not function, they cannot be removed simply because it is too difficult to identify which one is working and which is not. So when a line is broken technicians tend to just add a new line over the top, adding to the bulge of ugly black plastic that already lines your street and threatens to explode at any second.

22. Child beggars

With poverty being what it is in Vietnam, many rural children, especially from the Mekong Delta, reach the cities with no real education, parents or future. Children beg for money as the only solution remaining. They are mostly found at traffic lights or street corners in the poorer districts. The worst thing is that many of these children are actually exploited by the Cambodian mafia. You’ll see kids as young as five years old or below carrying their one year old brother or sister in their arms to encourage your pity and your generosity. This is hard to digest, and fortunately there are some NGO’s who strive to protect some of them to the best of their abilities. But it’s like fighting a fire with water pistols.