by Paul Whymark, Greenheart Travel English Teacher in Vietnam
This is my second attempt at providing some insights from my travel venture, and note the guidance advice suggested talking about a typical day or the first day of arrival. Now nearly on my sixth week, having tried to find time to sit down and create this edition about two weeks ago, the early things about anxiety of flying out and arrival seem kind of irrelevant. They also seem a long time ago in a distant haze of a swirling myriad of stimuli.
Much of these stimuli that seemed almost overwhelming back then, now seem really quite ordinary now in just a few weeks. Take crossing the road for example, which I now do without a second thought, but originally wondered if I would ever cross even just once! This sounds really basic, but if you are put in the situation it will at first not seem as obvious as it does to anyone not as yet having had to cross the road this way. The equivalent of two sides of a 4-5 lane motorway with endless ‘Moto- bike’ (scooter, Honda C90 style, moped and fared two wheelers), mixed with the odd large trucks and few more smaller truck, the not uncommon bus, and a range of other vehicle expressions difficult to encapsulate in a single paragraph. All of which come towards you at what ever place on the road you decide to cross. It is a good idea to have some strategy and position ones self not to near junctions but maybe right on them, or some where in between. This still means the traffic won’t be in the accelerating phase quite so much.
The ‘rules’ are always standing back and give way to Trucks and serious Lorries – they will not stop and you will get hurt or worse. Buses sort of like wise but about 10% chance of some grace, smaller van/ lorries about the same, cars 50 /50, and then look the ‘Moto- bike’ rider in the eye and make it clear which side of their projected trajectory your travel is aimed. Now walk slowly and steadily no sudden movements and they will swerve this way or that and avoid you. They may come close and at slow speeds, and have seen the odd brushing of parties, but at higher speeds there seems to be good chance you will miss.
Maybe the traffic and road crossing is a really good insight into the under pinning culture and social constructs that operate in Vietnam. Most of the traffic even including the bigger pieces of metal seems to actually be traveling relatively slowly most of the time. (Probably in part because of the sheer quantity, creates a pooling effect across the city.) This speed restraint and manor of looking to avoid people rather than assuming a ‘right of way’ (including occasionally which side of the road to travel) means that the Vietnamese are in continual ‘dialogue’ with each other and also in a way which looks out for the other in a mutual and reciprocated manor. Yes there is a bit of tussle here and there and the odd jousting but it is generally a fair exchange, and not always the most mighty that takes from the less mighty. Horns sound continually and are phased on the buses for 10’s of seconds and seem to go on for a long time, but no one is put out by them as they are in the west. They are some what more muted in tone and sound and maybe used in a more random way, so maybe it feels less of a personalized attack?
The attitude is ‘I hear you – you are there – OK I will move here where no one can get hurt’. Contrast this with UK and today it seems one never knows if a horn beeping will lead to a road rage murder. But maybe that is the clue that the horn here is not an insult or an assertion of the others worthlessness and undeserving place, but a shared acknowledgment of presence in a shared space.
The culture is in general of one of kindness towards fellow citizens, in ways which we could learn a lot from in the west. One thing I had wondered before setting off was how would they view an English person and would they confuse me with the Americans, especially with Greenheart being a US organization and consequently would there be any form of hostility towards me? No not at all, not anywhere with Greenheart directly or indirectly. It points to the underpinning humanity of the people how accepting and completely without hostility towards westerners they are. Indeed the response is very receptive and they take great pleasure in the company of English speaking ‘westerners’ (as the Vietnamese say). Many have American or British logos, flags, and motives on clothing, helmets, bags etc worn with Kudos. Sometimes these have curious associations; only yesterday I saw a Union jack flag T shirt with a famous Italian leaning building in Pisa! But mostly they know the UK for things like Manchester United Football Club and their star players, consequently will want to talk to you about them. An English student did ask if I had seen the Queen, and had to tell them, “only like you on TV”.
Traveling on the bus is revealing of the culture and out look with some interesting etiquette rules such as seats are given up for foreigners. This can be almost embarrassing as those giving up their seats may be in more need of one than you. I have found it’s a judgment call and sometimes taking the seat is kinder than not. However it‘s not hard to decline, as seats are given up for senior citizens, the unwell, and anyone who looks like they need a seat. No one gets to politically correct in Vietnam with offering your seat, if they don’t want one it’s just a decline and no big deal or offense taken.
Maybe I am now no longer quite such a novelty on the bus. The conductors and inspectors (that is another multifaceted topic) recognize me and treat you more like a local after a while. The trip to work for me is quite a long one and always takes over an hour door to door. On a bad day it is an hour and a half, this is when the bus has got stuck in log jammed traffic.
Generally there is standing on the bus with others all clinging onto the handles hanging from the ceiling. I find this is often preferable to sitting down anyway as the A.C. works better and at times the bus can be so packed, feelings of slight hyper ventilation can occur. However I have got used to the bus trip and the one at night (work finishes and arrival at the bus stop is about around 21:15 – 21:30 hrs) is often a better one and not more than an hour as the rush hour traffic is all over. Where as because I don’t start work until the afternoon have to leave over an extra hour early so that the traffic doesn’t balk the journey time, it starts to get busy at 15:00 hours.
After midnight the sounds of horns and engines fades, but by 05.00 hrs they start thudding and bubbling away again and by 07:30 hrs it’s all go again. The bustle of the city is only one aspect of Vietnam but it has a rhythm and energy to it that is quite relate-able maybe because it is mostly at a ‘human’ level brought about from the 3 & ½ million ‘Moto-bikes’ (as the Vietnamese call them) zooming around Hanoi.
The noise does act as a bit of an alarm setting, but the day is built around getting up early and having an after lunch power nap. Though my lesson planning and preparation still seems to leave little time for a nap most days, but it is a quieter time again, after which is my journey to work all over again, and further contemplation on the ‘journey of life’.