What I learnt about culture when teaching English in Vietnam

Dear Vietnam: Your ways are one in a million

So, there are many things I’ve become accustomed to since teaching English in Vietnam.

I’ve grown used to the street I live on, where cuts of meat are sold on tables outside- no refrigeration or clean surfaces needed.

I no longer react to the pungent smell of fried tofu, thuôc laò smoke and lemongrass that often wafts up to my room. I’ve even grown used to the constant stares I receive on a daily basis; being a tall, female foreigner is quite peculiar in these parts.

However, even though I’ve been here for just over 3 months, there are still three things in particular that I simply cannot acclimatize to:

• Number 1:

The three hour official ‘nap time’ that occurs in the middle of the day. To be honest I think it’s a rather genius idea that should be adopted worldwide.

person having a nap in a car

• Number 2:

The sheer amount of scooters and the Vietnamese’s ability to transport pretty much anything on them. Actually, the transport system in general still blows my mind. I know I’ve mentioned this a few times before, but I still find it astounding.

Overloaded bicycle in Vietnam

And finally:

• Number 3:

The obsession with the late Ho Chi Mihn and the not so subtle way his legend carries on. He lead armies, won wars and granted the Vietnamese their independence and democracy. So yes I get it. As a South African, I never thought I would find someone more celebrated than Nelson Mandela. But then I came to Vietnam.

Ho Chi Mihn

So Number 1: Siesta time.

This occurs roughly between the hours of 11:00- 14:00. Most businesses are closed and streets are somewhat quieter. Let me put this into perspective: during these hours, even the sport of badminton is seized.

That’s the equivalent of saying “during these hours, even Pokemon relax and cannot be found”. That is how seriously a midday nap is taken this side of the world.

I think what I find the most fascinating are people’s abilities to sleep anywhere. No bed, pillow, chunky duvet or lullaby needed. A makeshift hammock, table or floor will do. During siesta time people are sprawled out anywhere and everywhere, catching some peaceful Z’s.

Hammock hanging between branches of a tree

Even we interns have started following the midday nap practice during our lunch breaks.

I think the most bizarre experience I had was when I paid a visit to our company’s office during these ‘snooze hours’.

The usual humming office had its lights turned off and all its employees were on the floor, casually sleeping next to their desks and computers. Each had brought their own small pillow and blanket from home to make the daily event a little more comfortable.

My eyes widened as I thought “surely this doesn’t happen in the corporate world too?!”, but alas, it does.

I climbed and quietly hopped over bodies until I finally reached an employee who decided to forego the daily slumber and could help me with my inquiry.

It’s something that doesn’t do much, but be a slight inconvenience at times, however it’s an event that, as an adult, I still struggle to fully grasp.

I, of course, have nothing against it, it gives me the extra oomph I need for my afternoon lessons.

I simply laugh at the fact that I’m currently living in a country with customs that still sometimes make me lift my eyebrows in disbelief.

I always thought that a midday nap was only acceptable if you were a toddler or retired, but here it’s acceptable even in your most spritely years.

Woman riding a bike in Vietnam

Number 2: The roads and their travellers.

Like I said, I have mentioned the traffic and its confusing, chaotic nature many times before, but it’s something that everyone still finds rather fascinating.

There are basically no rules on the road in Vietnam.

Yes, you wait for a red light and go when it’s green, but that’s about it.

Even though road lines are painted creating lanes, they aren’t adhered to.

Why have 3 cars in 3 lanes, when you can fit 4 or 5 in a row?

Why on earth would you slow down at a at a four-way stop?

No, you keep driving, stop oncoming traffic, edge you way past other vehicles, slowly squeeze through the tightest spaces, get stuck in a grid-lock and sometimes drive on the sidewalk.

Let me try and describe this in a different way. Image an aerial view of a group of ants:

•  They’re relaxed and content whilst enjoying some rays outside. Then a drop of water falls right into the middle of their gathering- panic. They frantically run in all directions, bashing into one another as chaos reigns.

That is what Hanoi traffic looks like and how it operates.

Scooter carrying shopping

What’s more captivating is what certain scooter drivers are able to transport amidst this pandemonium.

How they manage to stay on the road without toppling over or to the side is extremely impressive!

I’ve seen masses of pottery, beer, toilet paper, rice and even chickens being carried on a scooter.

I think the most surprising has to be the sheer amount of people that can fit on a scooter and how their safety is most definitely an afterthought.

You often see Dad controlling the scooter. Mom then sits behind him and wedged in between is a toddler, not old enough to keep their own balance, but big enough to fit snuggly between their parents so as not to fall off.

Secured on Mom’s back is a baby that’s been put in a specially made harness, created and distributed throughout Vietnam for this purpose.

Finally, the oldest child of 5 or 6 stands on the base of the scooter between Dad’s legs, grabbing the review mirrors for support.

And that ladies and gentlemen is how a family of 5 get around Hanoi.

Lastly, Number 3: Ho Chi Mihn and his legacy.

In my opinion, the man is not thought of a mere moral, but a demigod.

Ho Chi Mihn's Bust

Apparently, according to a tour guide I met, on his death bed he asked to be cremated however, that wasn’t granted and he now rests in a rather impressive looking mausoleum.

Thousands of people trek to his final resting place throughout the year and wait in line for hours just to get a glimpse of their former Prime Minister.

At EVERY school there is a framed picture of him in each classroom, his bust is on display in each teacher’s room and there is a huge tribute to him in the schools’ entrance ways.

The man is celebrated everywhere!

In a way, I find it quite lovely and it adds to the profound sense of patriotism the Vietnamese have.

Ho Chi Mihn's Masoleum

So after all this time, that is what still puzzles, beguiles and captivates me. I don’t think I’ll ever fully wrap my head around these things, despite my efforts.

Oh Vietnam, you are one for the books, Lauren x 

If , like Lauren, you want to be fascinated by Vietnam’s rich culture, then teaching English in Vietnam may well be a great option for you. Through teaching you’ll be part of the local community and with our Paid Vietnam TEFL internship you’ll have a guaranteed job and accommodation waiting for you.

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  1. Veliswa

    It sounds like a really interesting place with a really unique culture

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