Midday slumber

Though far from being the only country in the world to have a lunchtime nap, the inventiveness of Vietnamese people in sleeping pretty much anywhere is incredible.

By SAM PATERSON on December 12,2019 02:39 PM

Midday slumber

As I stepped into the little family-run store a wave of panic swept over me. There on the floor, motionless, was a little old lady. Fearing the worst, it was to my complete relief that the next moment I realized she was merely sound asleep. Scenes like this are common in Vietnam, as come lunchtime, up and down the land, the population settles down for a quick nap. Though common elsewhere around the world, “ngu trua” (a lunchtime nap) happens in a way that is uniquely Vietnamese.

Pictures of Vietnamese people taking a midday nap in unusual places have become an internet sensation. From the shop to the office, the school to the street, anyone and everyone makes creative use of their environment to ensure a good kip. The culture of “ngu trua”, unlike the siesta, where people head home to bed, means taking a nap wherever you are. In the office this means sleeping at, on, or even under your desk. At schools, students literally lie down on top of the desks they study at for the rest of the day.

This is nothing compared to those who work outside. Countless times I’ve walked past a market where vendors are slumped over their baskets and bicycles of goods, conical hat pulled down over their eyes. Taxi drivers sleep with feet pointing out the car window, while motorbike taxi drivers demonstrate the same amazing balance required to drive a motorbike while sleeping on top of one. Perhaps the most ingenious is the “xe lam”, Vietnam’s answer to the tuk-tuk: many come furnished with a hammock hung in the back. It seems anything that can be sat on, laid upon, or leaned against can be used as a bed in Vietnam.

If the natural environment isn’t enough to ensure a good sleep, people will bring extra tools to aid their rest. Any typical Vietnamese office is replete with travel pillows, eye masks, and ear plugs, and some people even use a bamboo mat as a mattress. The importance of the bamboo mat should not be understated: look around wherever you are, and you’ll likely spot one. They’re so popular that street vendors go up and down neighborhoods selling them, when, of course, they’re not taking a nap on one at lunchtime.

The reasons for Vietnam’s lunchtime nap are rooted deep in its history. As an agricultural country, many of the population were, and still are, farmers. As my friend Duong explained, “farmers wake up very early … and of course around midday it’s very hot outside … so they have a nap.” With a long working day, they need a rest to reenergize and refresh.

In the modern age, the working day for many is still long. Students can start school as early as 7am and usually finish around 5pm. This sets up a pattern for working life. Being self-employed often means a very long working day (think 14+ hours) and necessitates taking a nap. Even foreign workers, like my friend Rebecca, have joined the trend. “I only started taking one after I came to Vietnam,” she said, adding she has one “because everyone else does.” With banks, shops, and museums closing for lunch, she is not wrong.

Given that “ngu trua” is a key part of daily life, you’d think waking someone up would be totally unacceptable. In fact, in many situations, the opposite is true. Sleeping where you work is not only convenient but also means you continue to be present in case a potential customer comes by. For the taxi drivers and market vendors that line the streets and laneways taking a nap, it’s perfectly okay to wake them up. As my friend Jin said, “just look at where they’re sleeping, and use your common sense.”

The “ngu trua” culture, according to some Vietnamese, has led to an “etiquette” that you do not call people on the phone from 12.30 to 1.30pm. as this is likely to be when they’re taking a nap.

The inventiveness and unfussiness of Vietnamese people when it comes to “ngu trua” is commendable, but for someone who finds it difficult to sleep, and even more so to wake up, the whole thing leaves me slightly perplexed. If I need to buy something at lunchtime, like with the motionless old lady, I generally make a feeble attempt at calling out to them, and then give-up. I mean, nobody likes to be woken up, do they?

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