Way Of Life

It’s the little differences that make living in vietnam such an eye-opening experience for foreigners.

By Don Wills on July 14,2016 08:03 AM

Way Of Life

Illustrator: Le Can

Vietnamese people are just like us Westerners in many respects. They love and spoil their kids, they’re determined to give their children a leg-up in life, and the parents slog their guts out to buy a house and support the family. But I’ve noticed there are also a number of Vietnamese beliefs and perspectives that are quite different to those held in the West.

Take the matter of treating minor ills and diseases for example. Vietnamese will usually seek treatment from a pharmacist in preference to a doctor. Why this is so is a mystery to me. Most pharmacists go for the shotgun approach when dispensing medicine. Here are three blue pills, five little yellow ones, four orange capsules, and four pink pills. Oh, while I think of it, take this big white pill too. At least one of them might just clear up your ailment.

Now just why so many people prefer to put their medical problems in the hands of a pharmacist rather than a doctor is unclear. It’s not as if doctors are prohibitively expensive. You’ll generally get change from a 500,000 dong note for a doctor’s consultation. Also - and here’s something Westerners are astounded to discover - most doctors will make house calls if requested. (The last recorded instance of a doctor’s house call in the West was in 1974.) But I’ve had a doctor visit my house here several times and only been charged 300,000 dong each time - cheap by anyone’s standards. A doctor’s training will have taken up eight years of his or her life; a pharmacist’s just a fraction of that. And it’s not even guaranteed that you’ll be served by the pharmacist. It could be a neighbour helping out over lunch break or it could be a relative fresh from the village. Never mind, take these three blue pills, five yellow ones …

Another difference in thinking: refrigerators. Leave the fridge door open for three of four minutes while you potter about in the kitchen? No problem; it’ll get cold again soon enough. The fridge’s main function is to cool drinks and make ice; the storage of poultry, meat and fish is a secondary consideration. And if you’ve defrosted something, there’s no harm in refreezing it, three or four times if you fancy.

Oh, and MSG is good for you, by the way.

And if you don’t shout into the telephone the other party won’t hear you.

Here’s one indisputable fact: Vietnam is hot. For a Westerner a stay in Vietnam is an ideal opportunity to work on a healthy suntan. Lovely. But many Vietnamese, women in particular, don’t agree. For them, dark skin spells low class. Dark skin is for farmers and yokels; definitely not for any self-respecting Vietnamese woman. She’ll spend countless hours applying skin-whitening cream and refuse to go outdoors in the heat of the day. Or if she does go outdoors she’ll take an umbrella along. A woman’s status in society, how she’s perceived by her peers, is often the paramount influence in her life. It’s this that prompts her to buy a newer, snazzier, smarter mobile phone every year. It’s this that prompts her to buy new shoes or a new outfit every time she’s at the market. It’s this that ensures she never ventures outside unless looking poised, elegant and immaculately groomed.

Family ties are another fascinating feature of cultural diversity between East and West. Vietnamese have close relationships with their families. And I’m not just referring to the immediate family; I’m talking every aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, cousin, and cousin thrice-removed. Children in the West are raised by their parents; in Vietnam it’s very much a family affair. Children, right up to their early teens, sleep in the same room as their parents, often sharing the family bed. There is no set bedtime for the kids; they drift off when they’re good and ready. The eldest son is expected to guide and support his siblings for life - that’s the Vietnamese way. A young man will seek his family’s approval before proposing to his girlfriend. That would be the furthest thing from a Western man’s mind when he’s ready to pop the question. When Western children reach their late teens or early twenties they’ll probably move out of the family house to live independently; in Vietnam that’s out of the question. And in Vietnam, when grandma gets the first hint of the tremors, she’s not shipped off to a ‘home’ as she would be in the West; she’s drawn even closer into the bosom of the family. Yes, family relationships are something the Vietnamese can teach us Westerners a thing or two about.

Interpersonal relationships are another thing that are perceived differently in the two cultures. To the Westerner’s mind, maintaining eye contact while having a conversation is a sign of attentiveness and truthfulness. To a Vietnamese person’s mind it’s disrespectful. During the getting-to-know-you stage it’s quite normal for a Vietnamese to enquire about one’s age, marital status, number of children and salary. And if the person they’re talking to isn’t married, they want to know why. All are taboo topics of conversation in the West. For a Western man it’s the most natural thing in the world to take the hand of his girlfriend or wife while out walking, or to slip an arm around her shoulders, or even peck her lightly on the cheek. In Vietnam holding hands is OK but anything more than that is a no-no. Displays of affection should be confined to the home, out of the public eye.

Employer/employee relationships in the two cultures are dissimilar too. Western underlings are able to question their superiors about instructions and policies, and in fact they’re expected to do so. But in Vietnam, questioning an authority figure would be viewed as gross insubordination. Western bosses see themselves as part of a team, whereas Vietnamese bosses consider themselves father figures whose word is above the law.

Now I’ve been generalising wildly; something textbooks on writing advise against. I know full well that there are Vietnamese out there who consult a doctor whenever the need arises, who never leave the fridge door open, regularly question their bosses, and whose decision to get married was made independently, and I apologise wholeheartedly to them.

I don’t view the cultural differences between this country and mine critically or negatively in the slightest. I fact, I see them as intriguing facets of a rich and vibrant culture. If every culture was identical, travel would be a bore. Viva la difference!

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