Cultural dissonances


A brief summary of the Vietnam trip (in terms of what struck me–mostly very shallow. The mindset stuff is going to take more time to process):

-Traffic: definitely… different. Circulation is mostly made up of scooters (those cost twenty times less than a car, and consume less fuel), since public transport isn’t very developped or reliable. The scooters are very much family transports, with two adults and a bunch of children on them (I was told you could pile up more people than two adults and two children, but have not personally seen it). It’s also illuminating to see how they manage to fit stuff onto the back or front of a scooter: what would take the trunk of a car is carefully balanced on the back of the scooters and tied into place. I saw several contraptions, some of them making me wonder what would happen if they stopped a little too abruptly. The record holder is a small scooter near the Cham ruins of Mỹ Sơn, which had one driver and one passenger; and the passenger was holding a glass panel four or five times as large as the scooter, with no protection whatsoever… (though even our driver agreed that was stupid)
The key rule of circulation seemed to be “don’t stop, whatever happens”. This makes life as a pedestrian fairly challenging: the key is to cross the street very slowly, and not attempt to run–because the scooters will see you way ahead of time and work out their way around you. It does take a fair amount of trust if you’re on a big street (like, say, near the Hoàn Kiếm Lake in Hanoi) and see this wall of scooters coming towards you… As far as I could tell, there are few other rules–at any rate, I saw manoeuvres that would have given fits to a Western policeman, especially in Hanoi.

-Rhythm of life: people get a really early start over there (as in most hot countries, I guess). In the immortal (and rather traumatising words) of my grandmother when I arrived at her place in Saigon: “we can afford to have a late start tomorrow morning–I think 6am should be good”.
Hotels served breakfast from 6am onwards (and having tested it, you have more than a few lonely tourists taking breakfast at this early hour), and you have people out on the streets going to work, exercising, etc. at what we Westerners think of ungodly hours. We took a cab at 5:00am in the morning, and everything was already open. The counterpart of this is that the Vietnamese go to bed fairly early, around 9:00pm or so. I’ve tested it, and you definitely get up at 4:00am-5:00am with no problem if you do this.

-Food: it was both very much familiar, since I’ve been consuming Vietnamese food since my childhood–and different, partly because we definitely don’t have the right ingredients in Paris. One thing I hadn’t twigged on was the notion of breakfast: a lot of people start the day with a soup or some other salty food, nothing like cereal or bread (my grandma’s an exception, but she’s lived in France for a while). Most hotels offered phở (typical soup with rice noodles and beef or chicken) or some variation, in addition to more Western fare (one even had sushi, which I tried just for the heck of it). I found that I actually enjoyed having the soup in the morning, which was pleasantly warm and not-too-heavy food. Plus, I love phở, which helps.
Meals consist of giving you a small bowl on a plate, a spoon, a pair of chopsticks and a very small dish with salt/nuoc mam/lime. You then pick and choose among the five dishes on the table (my mother explained it to me but I forgot. I think there’s one salty one, one of rice, one of vegetables, and two I can’t possibly figure out…), put the condiments in, and eat everything in your own bowl.
I became acquainted or re-acquainted with a great variety of fruit, and I confirm that I still can’t touch a durian with a ten-foot pole. (Durian is a smelly fruit that is banned on public transport in several South East Asian countries, with a pretty strong taste. I’m told it’s like custard, and I suspect you need to be born in Vietnam to actually enjoy it. The closest thing to it I ate was jackfruit, which is already pretty near my discomfort zone).

-Guidebooks: we had the Lonely Planet, which was OK except for the non-existing restaurants it indicated (places close pretty fast). We also had a French guide, the sole virtue of which was entertainment value. I read the section on Vietnamese culture and had a good laugh (better to laugh than to cry). Samples included “the Tet is also called Vietnamese New Year, and in China Chinese New Year”, which is a waste of paper and inaccurate (weirdly enough, the Vietnamese don’t go around saying “let’s celebrate Vietnamese New Year”…)–and “the most common fruits are the apple, the orange and the pineapple. Exotic fruit such as rambutans, dragon fruit and mangoes are also available but more expensive.” (I’d be curious to know where in the blazes they found oranges and apples, because I seldom saw any, except in the north. Also, their “exotic” fruit happen to be very much native to the area, and no way they’re more expensive than apples…). Needless to say, this all made me very suspicious of anything else the guide had to say…

-Most surreal moment of the trip: hard to pick, but I’d say sharing a flight with a big group of monks. For starters, they came to the airport on scooters, which is a fairly incongruous image. And it’s very, very weird and very much an eye-opener to see that not only don’t they have suitcases, but they also have no cabin luggage whatsoever–their possessions were the equivalent of a small handbag, and that was it. Does make one think…


  1. Thanks for posting your travel (and family) experiences and pictures. I’d love to visit Vietnam someday.

  2. Let me guess — Guide Routard? 🙂
    Sounds like a great trip; I’m jealous.

  3. Durian is quite smelly… except when it’s frozen! Look for durian ice cream at your local asian food store.

    My theory about durians is that a durian insensitivity gene exists. Usually people flee a room where a durian has been hidden, long before I detect the slightest smell of it. Since I have never been to South East Asia, I believe some sensors in my nose are missing!

  4. I’ve always loved Vietnamese food, at least the America form of it. I’m not sure if I’ve ever had the real thing. And I think soup in the morning sounds delightful. What a great post. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Doug and D. Antone: you’re welcome! The real thing is a little different from the European/American version. I think the ingredients are just not as fresh.
    Jeff: yup, bingo :=) It was a great trip, and I’m glad I went. Now to figure out a way to drag the BF…
    Patrice: I take the point, but I’m still not sure I want to venture into durian ice cream territory. I suspect it’s not only a problem of smell, as I’ve tried jackfruit, which was sold to me as a milder version of durian, and which I found quite sickly already (I never was a big fan of custard). But you’re lucky to have the nose sensors missing; I took the European side of the ancestry on this one…

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