You’re More Likely to Shit Your Pants in Vietnam… and other Not-So-Nice Things You Should Know Before Living in Vietnam
There are many reasons I love living in Vietnam. As we come close to the end of our first year in the country, I can’t help but think of something I was told by a man who has spent almost ten years living here.
Everyone loves the first year — it’s exciting, everything is new. By the second year, the excitement has worn off and you start to hate it. If you make it to the third year, your anger turns to content.
Knowing this theory, I have been preparing myself for the wave of irritability that is set to come my way. The warning siren has sounded. The tsunami is about to hit. But I feel like I’m prepared for it. I’ve been camped out on higher ground for a while now, observing, taking notes. If I can get over this list of things, I think my second year of living in Vietnam will be okay.
- The Socialist Republic of Incompetence
- Phlegm and other things that cause you to make a face like a child that just tried whiskey.
- Being sick (in a non-skateboarder way).
- You’re more likely to be bleed or break in Vietnam
- You’re more likely to shit your pants in Vietnam
- “Jesus Christ that’s a huge ______________” (insert name of creepy critter)
- You’ll probably see a gruesome scene
Your more likely to see a Javan rhino in Vietnam than a speck of common sense. Communism breeds single-minded points-of-views. Never assume anything, or expect anyone to successfully make an assumption in Vietnam.
Once, I went to the post office to mail one sheet of paper. I had it folded in an envelope with the address all written out. When I tried to communicate that I wanted a stamp, they gave me another envelope that was much larger. They asked me to write the address on it. I did. They had me fill in another sheet of paper with the address and my Vietnamese address. I did that too. Then they stuck the letter into the unnecessarily large envelope, weighed it, and asked me for about $8. I was baffled. I threw a mini hissy-fit and refused to pay. I tried again to explain that I just wanted a stamp — pointing to the top-right corner and making a square. They looked confused. I checked the building again. It was still a post office. I left with my letter and asked the somewhat embarrassing question to some friends, “Do stamps exist here?”. They do, and I successfully bought one for my letter after going back the next day and dealing with someone else.
Ordering food at a restaurant in Vietnam is like disarming a bomb. You have to be extremely careful and every move must be precise. When pointing at something on the menu, they’ll assume you are putting your finger on the item you want and not under it so it can be read. The best strategy is to point at the item from the side and to show how many of the items you want after every point. Even then, we get the wrong order or an item is forgotten about 25% of the time. That’s not an exaggeration — and that number is pretty good. We worked hard to get it that low. When we first arrived it was about a 50% success rate. A suggestion to waiters and waitresses in Vietnam: WRITE DOWN THE FREAKING ORDER!!
You can throw out any common courtesy when in Vietnam. If you arrive at someone’s house early in the morning and you want them to know you’re there, don’t get off your bike and ring the doorbell. Blast your horn and wake up the entire neighbourhood. If you are at the grocery store, or at a movie, and you’re waiting in line — you’re doing it wrong. Charge to the front. Push people out of the way. Wave the item you want to buy in the face of the employee.
Of course, not everyone living in Vietnam is like this, but when it happens it can be quite frustrating.
Solution: You have to just let it go. Try not to get stressed out. Laugh about it. Don’t wrap your hands around someone’s throat and squeeze until their body becomes lifeless, and then dance around their corpse pointing and laughing. Resist that urge.
The familiar sounds of a restaurant in Vietnam: a sizzling wok, cheers of ‘Mot, hai, ba, vo!’, a man hocking up phlegm. Even in classy restaurants located on upper floors of financial towers, you will see men spitting on the floor. When I go to a cơm tấm restaurant (the best place to get a cheap and quick bite to eat in Vietnam), I carefully survey the rows of tables, analyzing every patron. If it’s possible, I always try to find a table to myself. Too many times I’ve sat down across from someone who tears into their food, throwing the bones on the table or at my feet, slurping down their soup, and picking their teeth with a toothpick as they smack their gums. It’s like watching a muppet eat a meal. By the time they’re done, the table around them looks like a warzone with bones, crumpled up tissues, and bits of flossed out food everywhere.
Here’s a question for you, how do you feel about public urination? Not a fan? Well, I probably see one man per day peeing in public. Sometimes I turn a corner and get a peek at way too much. The worst culprits though, are the children, or I guess the parents of the children. They have no problem pulling their kid’s pants down and holding them over a potted plant so they can squirt some piss out. I’ve seen it happen many times in restaurants. Once, it was literally next to the washroom door.
That’s not gross enough for you? How about the changing of baby diapers on tables in fast food restaurants, the picking of noses, the rarely seen but never-forgotten single-nostril-shoot-out (instead of blowing their nose in a tissue, one nostril is plugged and snot is shot from the other onto the ground). Ok, that’s enough. I’m tapping out there.
Solution: Choose your seat in a restaurant wisely. Good things to face include: walls… that is all. As is usually the case, when it comes to grossness men are much worse than women. Learn the term, “mang về” (take away) and eat your meals at home.
I am rarely sick — maybe once a year I get a minor cold, but in Vietnam your immune system is put to the test. In one year, I’ve felt sick about 4 times. I could blame Sara for bringing home viruses from the cesspool of children at the school she teaches at, or maybe it’s because I travel a lot more now. But one thing’s for sure, the air quality in Vietnam is crap. Surely, that’s one of the reasons my head flows with mucus like a chocolate fountain at a wedding reception.
Solution: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger..?
In my North American life, I’ve had butterfly stitches (thanks Sis), broken my hand, and had a handful of minor sports injuries… oh, and I once fell down the stairs while holding a cat and needed to get a tetanus shot. Other than that, I’ve kept it together. Eight months into living in Vietnam, I cut my leg on a piece of metal. I ended up needing stitches. It was pretty gruesome. I didn’t cry or anything though. Honestly. The reason my leg got cut: Vietnam. Well, that’s not exactly fair. Incompetence is probably a better answer, but in Vietnam you’re allowed to be stupid more than you are in the western world. I wanted a smoker, so I decided to build one. I used a sheet of tempered steel for the grate. The edges were very sharp and they stuck out much farther than they needed to. I thought, “I should trim that up… Naw, I’ll just be very careful around it”. And then I forgot to be careful around it. I know, it’s my own fault. I can’t blame a country for my carelessness. But in Vietnam, I find myself in situations that I wouldn’t end up in, or wouldn’t even be allowed to be in if I was back in cushy Canada. First off, I would have probably just bought a smoker, or at least would have been able to buy the proper materials to build a safe one. Besides that, I have carried large unstable objects on a scooter in Vietnam. I’ve jumped onto moving buses. I’ve driven through knee deep waters (until the bike stopped working, then I pushed a bike through knee deep waters). I’ve witnessed fires on electric lines, and dump trucks falling through sidewalks. Vietnam is like the X-men Danger Room. You will be put in potentially dangerous situations that, in a western country, would probably be avoided. It’ll take a bit more carefulness and intelligence to stay safe.
Solution: Don’t lower your safety expectations. You might feel lame, but it’s better than a trip to the hospital.
I’m not SAYING that I’ve shit my pants since living in Vietnam, but it’s likely that your western stomach will need to adjust to the Asian things going in it. I think it’s mostly the water. Even if you aren’t ever drinking it, things are washed in it, noodles are boiled in it, coffee and tea is made with it. You’re probably not going to get sick from it, but you might get a wittle tummy-ache, and your regularity may be a bit irregular.
Solution: Make sure there’s a bathroom close by at all times. Charcoal pills are useful for calming your stomach down and absorbing some of that irritability.
With a tropical climate comes an assortment of insects, arachnids, arthropods, reptiles, and rodents. We keep a clean house, but that doesn’t stop the occasional huntsman spider, or cockroach from stopping by for a visit. That’s when I go into kill mode.
“Sara, get me one of your shoes and two paper towels.”
Every once-in-a-while a millipede or centipede will show up unannounced. At first, I wasn’t a fan, but when I took the time to get to know them… they’re alright. And if I want them to leave I can always poke them so they curl up in a defensive ball, then just pick them up and throw them outside.
If you have a fear of lizards, you’re better off moving somewhere cold. We probably have ten geckos living in our house. They eat mosquitoes, so they’re welcome to stay.
My battle with ants is an epic story, and could be the basis for a Game of Thrones book. Occasionally, they’ll invade, making a trail from our front door into our kitchen, and three times a day I’ll have to spend ten minutes mass murdering.
Beyond the walls of our home, we’ve seen scorpions, frogs, toads, giant snails, bats, and a variety of flying insects. Ophidiophobics can take solace in the fact that I’ve yet to see a snake in Vietnam. That doesn’t mean they’re not around, but they’re not common in cities or towns. Personally, I think rats are the worst. I’d take flying snake-spiders over rats. Unfortunately, Vietnam is a little ratty, which means it’s a little rat-y. We haven’t had one in our house… yet, but I probably see one rat per week. Usually, they’re in the streets, popping out of the sewer or running across alleys. I think there’s been three occasions where I’ve seen one in a restaurant, and once one dashed out from under a table in the vegetable section of a grocery store. Damn those little bastards.
Solution: Keep your house clean, a shoe handy, and buy a bottle of bug spray.
Everyone who has been in Vietnam for a while has a story about a traffic accident they witnessed or drove by. The stories often involve descriptions of blood, and injured or lifeless bodies. In the year I’ve been here, I’ve driven past many accidents. Luckily, I’ve been able to avoid seeing anything too gruesome. Sara can be thanked for that. With my eyes on the road, she is often the one to spot the circle of people around a scene of downed bikes and victims. “Just don’t look, just don’t look,” she’ll sing in warning. I’ve witnessed one accident as it happened. It was fairly minor and involved a young girl being knocked off her scooter and brought to tears. She was fine — just a little shaken up. Comparatively, in my 13 years of driving in Canada I think I’ve only witnessed one accident. Because scooters are by far the most used form of transportation, the accidents are more plentiful and more punishing.
Solution: Just don’t look, just don’t look.
Above all, remember that you are a guest in the country. Vietnam didn’t start existing when you got there. It was shaped into what it is today over centuries. If you feel yourself getting frustrated, ask yourself, “Why am I here? What does Vietnam offer me that I can’t get anywhere else?” Maybe it’s the food, or financial freedom, perhaps it’s a girl. At any rate, if it’s not worth the struggles, you can always leave.