Friday, 29 April 2011

Tây-Tây-Tây-Tây Take or leave us

By virtue of repetition, one of the first words you learn in Vietnam is “Tây”. It means “Westerner”, but the literal meaning has been extended to apply to pretty much any foreigner. You hear it as you approach any street vendor – “Tây! Tây! Tây! Tây! Tây!” – usually as one vendor alerts another to your approach like that of an incoming missile. An incoming missile made of dollar signs. As you walk through a market you’ll hear shouts of “Tây oi!” from every stall-holder, trying to attract your attention so they can then seal the deal by waggling a cauliflower in your face. Grandparents with toddlers will physically turn the child’s head and point at you, and instructively say “Tây!” as you pass by, like they would say “Look, a tree!” or “Look, a bird!”. If it’s Nathan they’re pointing at, the child will then usually burst into tears due to his hideous visage. This is no exaggeration: Vietnamese babies and toddlers find Nathan terrifying. Once, in a restaurant, a small child pressed herself against a wall, turned deathly pale and refused to walk past our table, her gaze fixed on Nathan’s monstrously bald pate and hairy face.

Sometimes when you park your bicycle, you won’t get a number chalked onto your seat like everyone else, you get this:

You, and whatever other Tâys you’re with. No need to distinguish amongst you: you’ll all get a “T”.

When I had new passport photos taken, the shop filled in the “Mr/Ms_______” section on the little receipt with “Ms Tây”. When I came to collect my photos, they were filed away under “T”.

So I was overcome with excitement when back in Sydney recently I found this wallet in a boutique store, made from an old Vietnamese feed sack:

What are the chances! A wallet! That says Tây! Which basically translates as “walking wallet”! I snapped it up at a price of only one million times the cost of a Vietnamese feed sack, excited about single-handedly bringing irony to the Vietnamese people.

The funny – and, I admit, massively disappointing – thing is that absolutely no-one here (other than Tâys, who freaking love it), gives two hoots about my wallet. I flash it hopefully at the cash register, and I see the shop assistant noting it with a blank face: “Yes, a Tây wallet. Indeed she is. That is why she has a Tây wallet.”

Because as far as the Vietnamese are concerned, “Tây” is just an accurate description. It’s not loaded, it’s not offensive, it’s not funny, it’s just true. You get a “T” on your bicycle, not because you don’t deserve a number like everyone else, but because you don’t need one. You look different. They’ll remember you. And all the Tâys get a “T” because they’re hardly going to steal each other’s bicycles, are they? It’s a practical and convenient way of sorting. And since half of the population of Vietnam have the surname Nguyen, they’re more than familiar with problems of sorting.

I don’t mean to say that there’s no racism here. By jingo, there is. But where mere mention of the words “racial profiling” in the West causes people to start frothing at the mouth, here I’m not going to lose sleep over being labelled a Tây. In fact, I’ll embrace it, flaunt my wallet with pride and sing the Tây theme song wherever I go:

Because after all, we ain't ever gonna be Vietnamese.

Monday, 18 April 2011

How to speak Vietnamese like a native

It was pretty exciting to read in the news that “banh mi”, the Vietnamese sandwich, has been added to the Oxford English Dictionary (although the prestige associated with this event was considerably undermined by the fact that “muffin top” also made the grade).

Of course, it would have been more exciting if the Hanoi banh mi were actually as delicious as the definition made them sound. Unlike in Saigon, or indeed, in Vietnamese bakeries anywhere else in the world, the banh mi in Hanoi (or bánh mỳ as they’re actually called here) consist not of a crunchy explosion of sweet pickles and herbs, but of a smear of grey pâté and, if you’re lucky, one smidgen (technical culinary term) of carrot. They do not, for example, look like this Wikipedia image:

Bitterness aside, I found this news exciting nevertheless as there surely can’t be too many other words that Vietnam has gifted to English. Straining my brain very hard, I can think only of “pho”, and “Viet Cong”. Vietnamese is instead one of those languages that has usually received the linguistic gifts, mostly from Chinese way back in the day (I don’t think Vietnam has been in the habit of receiving gifts of any sort from China for quite a while since then). 

There’s also, unsurprisingly, a whole load of vocabulary borrowed from French, which, as happens to most loan words in most languages, has been given some local flavour.

As I mentioned in a previous post about learning Vietnamese, the essential characteristics of a Vietnamese word are little two- or three-letter syllables, with accents and tones, strung together to make compound words. So, for example, your aforementioned Hanoi “bánh mỳ” comes with grey “ba tê” and a smidgen of “cà rốt”. Instead of “fromage”, you get “pho mát” (and then, naturellement, you get Laughing Cow cheese). For “gateau”, you get “ga tô”, which might be flavoured “sô cô la” (“chocolat”) or “va ni” (“vanille”). “Cravate” is “ca vát “, “gare” is “ga”, “beurre” is “bơ”, “valise” is “va li”, "café" is "cà phê", “buffet” is “búp phê”, “sauce” is “xốt “, "salade" is "xà lách", “film” becomes “phim” and “savon” becomes “xà bong”. This also gives you a pretty good indication of what the French brought to Vietnam (cake-eating dandies).

I get a great deal of entertainment out of these loan words. They allow any non-Vietnamese speaker (such as “moi”) to have a whack at the local dialect in what basically sounds like a comically authentic Vietnamese accent (I similarly enjoy pronouncing English loan words in French like I’m Pepe Le Pew: I mean, is “rosbif” not the greatest word ever?). It’s quite disappointing that Vietnamese has bucked the global trend and thus far resisted most gifts that English might have offered it, really limiting my comedy accent stylings. Although I am grateful for “ti vi”.

If you at home would also like to try speaking Vietnamese like a native, then I offer you this map of Ôx tơ rây lia, as photographed in the bathroom of a local restaurant for your enjoyment:

Monday, 11 April 2011

On yer bike

I remember when we first arrived in Hanoi seasoned expats telling us that whatever our intentions may be, we would soon, and inevitably, be getting around on a motorbike, just like them. I can report with vindication that 18 months later, Nathan and I do not own, nor have ever even driven, a motorbike. This is a result of one part self-righteousness and one-part inability to actually drive, but we couldn’t be happier with our situation, which is that we cycle everywhere we go. In fact, cycling is probably my number one favourite thing about living here (tied with yoghurt coffee… If I cycle to go get some yoghurt coffee then I consider the day an instant success). 

Unlike Sydney, where my cycling commute involved hideous padded bicycle shorts and an hour and 20 minute slog up hills the size of Mount Fansipan, Hanoi has absolutely the perfect dimensions for cycling. You can get almost anywhere on the Hanoi city map in around half an hour, at a speed best described as tootling. The biggest hills you’ll encounter are the exit ramps of a car park, which is lucky, because your bike probably doesn’t have gears (but it does have little flip-out stands for your backseat passenger to rest their feet on, an example of the kind of priorities in design that I thoroughly approve of).

And also unlike in Sydney, where motorists make a sport of running down cyclists just to prove the road isn’t there to share, cycling in Hanoi is actually a relatively safer transport choice. For starters, the traffic is going at about 20 kilometres an hour, and you’re going even less (see tootling, above), so in the case of a prang you merely execute an embarrassing low-impact topple. I have been rear-ended by a motorbike a couple of times, and on each occasion my bottom just boinged off the seat about two centimetres into the air, quite daintily if I do say so myself (disclaimer: this would not happen if you got rear-ended by a Hanoi bus, which I would not recommend trying. Or searching on YouTube). Compare this to a city like Sydney where the traffic might look less chaotic, but where you’re cycling in a narrow shoulder alongside cars doing 100 km/hour, and being clipped by the side mirror can trigger a neck-breaking face-plant.

In Hanoi, a cyclist is never forced onto any narrow shoulders anyway; the road is as much yours as it is anyone’s. If you want to cycle the wrong way up a one-way street three-abreast, and holding hands with the cyclist next to you, then go wild. If you encounter an obstacle, then cycle on the footpath, or just get off and carry your bicycle out of the way. And don’t worry about traffic police: as a cyclist you’re above the law as you’re obviously too poor to pay a decent bribe.

In Sydney I used to carry around a patch kit with me, which was all for show really, because I would have had no idea how to repair a puncture if I ever got one. Here, for a few thousand dong, you get a nice man by the side of the road to help you. 

The nice man will fix any problems you might have with your iron steed, from punctures to strange clunking noises when you pedal (to indicate that you are suffering from this problem, simply point to your bike and go “Clunk! Clunk! Clunk!”). From my experience, he’ll fix almost all of your problems by whacking your bike with a spanner a bit and then sending you happily on your way.

In Sydney, when I needed air in my tyres, I would faff around with the petrol station air pump, nagged by a feeling that using a pump for car tyres on bicycle tyres is one of those Things You’re Not Supposed To Do and that makes you look like a girl who doesn’t know anything about air pressure. In Hanoi, you can just pull over at any kerb, and another nice man does it for you, without inducing any insecurities at all. 

And in probably the greatest example of fairness that Vietnam has to offer, cyclists only get charged half the price that motorbike drivers do for the pumped air. If there’s one thing I love more than self-righteousness, it’s thriftiness!

The biggest complaint about bicycles here is that they’re too hot and sweaty. Well look, yes, in summer you do arrive at your destination in liquid form, but let’s be honest, you’re going to sweat in summer anyway, and really, what’s the difference between perspiring ten litres of sweat and twenty? You basically spend several months with your hair plastered against your forehead and a bad case of chafing no matter what your form of transport, so you may as well go the whole hog. And cyclists get their revenge in winter anyway, when they pedal to create their own personal heating system, while motorbike riders suffer frostbitten noses.

But the best thing about being a cycling foreigner in Hanoi is that the locals love it. They don’t want to run you down; they want to point and wave! They love that you’re wearing a helmet even though you don’t legally have to (oh those crazy foreigners always with their crazy helmets!), they love it when you stick your arm out to signal turning and hit an unsuspecting passing driver right in the head, they love it when you ring your completely pointless little bell and in the din of horns everyone ignores it, and they especially love it when you look like this:

I mean, come on, how could you not!

And so to any fresh-off-the-plane expats out there considering your Hanoi transport options, go right now to the Asama bike shop at 53C Ba Trieu, spend a hundred bucks, hop on your sweet new ride and don’t look back.  Except to wave at your admiring fans.

Monday, 4 April 2011


It's very cheap, and easy, to get a sign made in Vietnam. As a result, they're everywhere, promoting everything. Basically, in Vietnam, if you have a sign, then you're in business.

But as with most things in life, the best signs are the humble homemade ones, advertising family-run food stalls, xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers, air for your motorbike or bicycle tyres, and community notices. They're in chalk, they're on polystyrene lids, they're nailed to trees, and they are, for me, one of the most defining characteristics of the Hanoi street-scape. 

If you wanted to build a set that looked like a Hanoi street, you'd start by writing "xe om" on a bit of cardboard box and nailing it to a pole. Then you'd put a dead rat on the road.

Even if I can't always understand the words, they still stand for something so important to me, and so often lacking in many more sterile, faceless cities: they're signs of life, of a real, live person who has taken up a pen to make their own mark in their town. 

I'm loving your work, Hanoi. You may not be flash, but you're keeping it real.