By Eva Dianová, Teacher in Bien Hoa
What is the thing that you like most about Vietnamese culture so far?
Definitely the people. This is a no-brainer for me! Everyone is so kind and helpful all the time. I remember when I started riding a motorbike in Vietnam, and let me tell you, I wasn’t a natural talent at all. Crowded streets used to be very stressful for me. An old policeman stopped the whole traffic only because of me, so I could safely get to the other side of the road. At that moment, I felt like a celebrity. Also, let’s not forget about the food, which is absolutely exceptional – noodles, soups or rice, you name it!
Have you been in any awkward situations where you have done something culturally inappropriate?
Off the top of my head, I cannot remember any awkward moments. I am very cautious and respectful when it comes to other cultures. I can only think of one funny experience – when I was teaching seven years old about the weather. I kept asking them which of the four seasons is their favourite until I realised there are only two seasons in Vietnam – rainy and dry seasons, especially in my city, it is always hot. However, if you plan on visiting Vietnam, remember that wearing revealing clothes or keeping your shoes on when you enter a home may not be well accepted.
I am a bit of a geek, so before coming here, I prepared myself for a little culture shock and read some articles. But there is one thing I was not quite prepared for. It’s the phlegmatic and relaxed attitude regarding services like restaurants and wellness. I got used to the fact that the waiter usually mixes up the order when ordering food. Once, I waited two hours for my food! I ordered kimchi noodles, and the waitress told me it would take some time because they needed to prepare kimchi. Strange, but it didn’t surprise me after three months in Vietnam. After one hour, I asked about my food, and she told me they didn’t have kimchi at all. So I ordered something else and patiently waited for my order for another hour! Luckily, it was on my day off.
Are there many similarities between Vietnamese culture and the culture of the country you come from?
There is a huge Vietnamese community in the Czech Republic, so Vietnamese culture is familiar to me. For instance, we also take our shoes off when we enter a home. Other things that bond us are the culture of drinking and eating on special occasions and hospitality.
The other common thing I cannot unsee as a teacher is the fear of making mistakes in the classroom. To lose face or, in other words, suffer a loss of respect is a huge part of Asian culture. Students often rather not say anything to protect themself from making errors. In my country, I had a similar experience which is a shame because we cannot learn and improve without making mistakes. Moreover, even the best of us are not flawless! 🙂
Not at all. I have a very accepting mindset, and when I experience any kind of cultural shock or I find myself judging people, I remind myself that I decided to come here and I didn’t come to change the culture. Of course, Asia is very different from Europe, so you must let go of some behaviour that wouldn’t be considered polite or acceptable in my country. But I think that’s what helps us think out of the box.
What’s the the one thing you would tell someone about Vietnamese culture who is coming for the first time?
It’s simple to fall in love with Vietnamese culture. People, food, traditions, superstitions, and way of living are simple and admirable. But most of the bigger cities are bustling and very loud. Thousands of motorbikes, people honking, shouting and singing karaoke, of course! Vietnamese follow the rule: the louder, the better (and more fun). Especially now, during the Tet holiday, I fall asleep and wake up to excited but out-of-tune singing.
Have you been speaking any Vietnamese?
Very little. In my opinion, Vietnamese is an incredibly difficult language, especially with all the tones that completely change the meaning. I only know a few elementary phrases, which I use from time to time. Overall, most Vietnamese people cannot speak English. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that because I am a stranger in a different country, I should learn more to ease my life.
Are you finding it easy or difficult to get by without being fluent, and why?
Not at all. Fortunately, we live in a digital era. Mobile internet is very affordable in Vietnam, and I must admit google translate saves me a lot. Sometimes, my inability to communicate in their native language leads me to amusing situations. For example, did you know that beef and avocado sound almost the same in Vietnamese? Me neither. How unfortunate for my vegetarian friend when we ordered food together!