Friday, 28 October 2011

Topsy-Turvy World

In the middle of Summer, when I’m cycling down the road wearing a singlet top, skirt and thongs, and am surrounded by motorcyclists wearing hooded jackets that make them look like Kenny from South Park, long pants, and skin-coloured toe-socks, I do wonder who looks the more foolish (answer: them for now, but me, later, when I’m wrinkled and cancerous).

I wondered a similar thing when we were in Cat Tien National Park and found ourselves caught in a spectacular tropical thunderstorm. We Tays ran from the cracking lightning and crashing branches in fear for our lives. We huddled together under a shelter, from where we could enjoy the sight of local people wandering around, or cycling past, as if nothing much was happening.

Welcome to Topsy-Turvy World, where the sun is scarier than lightning (actually, I suppose the sun does kill more people than lightning after all).

Living in Vietnam certainly challenges your idea of universal truths. In fact, it’s a postmodernist’s paradise. If it were still the 1990s, and I was still enrolled in CUL100: Introduction to Cultural Studies, I could write a paper on it, and get a guaranteed High Distinction. 

For example, do you think you’ve got a pretty clear grasp of how to row a boat? Well, you don’t:
This photo was taken in Tam Coc. The serenity of the boat trip was somewhat marred by floating vendors constantly approaching our boat to spruik their wares, and this traditional boat captain of ours shouting to them in Vietnamese "Don't bother, they live in Hanoi", and the vendors then rowing away, dejected.

Not only is it common here to row with your feet (to free up your hands for texting, obviously), they actually move the oars backwards, pushing them through the water rather than pulling them. Why? Well, why not, I suppose. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, which, in Vietnam, is a saying which probably makes more sense.

More discombobulation comes in the form of fruits. In Vietnam it's common to eat many fruits in what we would call their unripe state. Sure, we all know about green mango and green papaya salad, but munching down on a crunchy green peach or a rock-hard guava? 

Not ripe! Don't eat it!

Just watching someone do it makes my mouth scrunch up like a cat’s bottom. There are plenty of Vietnamese tastes that are “acquired” to say the least, so that’s not the befuddling thing. It’s this: I was always led to believe that eating unripe fruit would give you a tummy ache. I’d go as far as saying this is a piece of received wisdom where I come from. But guess what? It doesn’t. It doesn’t at all! We have been fed lies by our mothers! Vietnamese people aren’t keeling over in the streets from unripe fruit! And they eat green bananas! With the skin on.

Want your mind blown even further:
Their oranges are green. And yet, like our oranges, they’re still called “orange” (“cam” in Vietnamese), like the colour (“cam”). The inside colour. And so I ask: are our oranges called "oranges" because of how they look on the inside or outside? I know. Really makes you think, huh?

There’s also the topsy-turviness of flowers, which I’ve mentioned before. In Vietnam, gerberas and carnations are some of the most expensive, highly valued flowers you can buy, while roses are common as muck. To me, a gerbera is an irrefutably butt-ugly piece of flora. If Nathan gave me a bunch of gerberas, I would assume only one thing: that I was in fact looking at Nathan’s long-lost identical twin, who had been reared in Vietnam. There would be no other explanation, as the Real Nathan knows better than to give any girl gerberas. I’m trying to open my mind to carnations, as now I’ve seen them liberated from their usual petrol-station surroundings, they’re actually perfectly nice:

 Carnations: Victims of the Western construct of beauty.

And then we have footwear. Everyone knows that in Asia you don’t wear shoes in the house; instead you go barefoot or wear house slippers. 
These are Nathan's house slippers. He loves them. I think they make him look like a creepy sexpat.

When it comes to most workplaces, this rule doesn’t apply, and you can wear your outside shoes around the office. With an exception: you are a woman sporting uncomfortable high-heels, in which case you don the heels for your motorbike ride to work, leave them under your desk when you get there, and then scuff about the office in stockinged feet and plastic slippers all day. Anyone who has watched Melanie Griffith in Working Girl knows that this is the exact opposite of what happens in the West, where women wear ugly, comfortable shoes to commute to work, and change into their sexy, career-advancing heels once they arrive at the office. All this has done is confirm for me that wearing high-heels is a mug’s game, in anyone’s language.

Lastly I present Vinawind, which is not only what you get after eating too much bun cha, it’s the name of our ceiling fan:

Looks perfectly innocent, right? No! Vinawind will mess with your mind. See the numbers on that dial? They don’t mean what you think. If you’re looking for just a gentle, fluttering Vinawind, do not trust your instincts and select “1”, the lowest number. Number 1 on the dial in fact results in a tornado of Vinawind howling through your apartment and rattling your poorly-sealed windows. Number 5, the highest number, is actually the lowest setting. I can’t tell you the number of times I have stood before that Vinawind dial and coached myself: “Right, Tabitha, you should go with the opposite of what you think it is. So if you think it’s 1, then choose… Hang on, do I think it’s 1? Would it be 1 in Australia? Do I really exist? Is Vinawind even real? What is real?” etc. 

In summary, if you’d like to feel like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, then you should move to Vietnam.


  1. Oh, I can totally relate to the futility of that coaching session

  2. "These are Nathan's house slippers. He loves them. I think they make him look like a creepy sexpat. "

    seriously spat my tea out.

  3. Karen: I think trying to do the opposite of what your instinct is generally a disaster. Or we both need better instincts.

    Erika: Well, look, I have not actually cleared this description with Nathan, so it might have to be removed when he sees it! I'm glad you enjoyed it while it lasted.

  4. Ooooohhhh!!! I've been staring at my loungeroom fan for months trying to determine whether I was just imagining a rather strong breeze coming from the 1 setting. My 45 years of Australian logic kept over-riding my observations, telling me I was imagining things. Now, thanks to you, I know the truth and can confidently press the 3 button.

    My life improved just a tad today.

  5. Rock Portrait: Glad to be of service. But, you know, is it really THE TRUTH?

  6. I've got a fan where the numbers on both sides of the dial don't match - so the Fan is at 1 and 3 at the same time!
    Take that post-modernist constructionism!

    Also thank you for introducing the word sexpat into my vocabulary.

  7. Thank you so much for writing this hilarious post. Just share it on my facebook wall, hope you dont mind.

  8. Did sexpat's slippers have those endearing footprints BEFORE he started wearing them? I'd like to think not.

  9. well, this is the country when everything that is "the best" is called "number 1" so you can't have the weakest wind to be number 1 :P

    But joke aside, it is not always like that.Fan I have at home is what you would expect it to be - 1 is the weakest and 3 is the strongest.

  10. Patrick: My God! I don't think such mind-blowing complexity was even covered in CUL100. Makes me want to assume the foetal position.

    Mai: No, I don't mind at all! Thank you! Please share with all and sundry.

    Edyta: Okay, everyone stop saying "sexpat" now. We're going to attract the wrong kind of readers!

    Mike: Ooh, that's a good way of remembering it. And as for your fan: sounds like a glitch in The Matrix to me.

  11. I have two fans. One using the Vinawind numbering system and one with the reverse.

    Thinking too hard about all the whys of Vietnam will make your mind asplode. As I've said before, after living in Vietnam, my preconceptions of what should be sweet or salty (or spicy) have been completely destroyed.

  12. I'm surprised you haven't mentioned eating the unripe guava with chilly salt (actually it doesn't get much more ripe than that though).

    About the office shoes, I have two pairs of thongs at work :)

  13. Green guava eaten with chilis salt used to be my favorite summer time snack. You should try it sometime.
    Also, when you and Hien mentioned 'thongs', I thought of the kinds immortalized in verses by Sisqo. It took me awhile to register that in this case they're actually footwears. :(

  14. Oranges aren't called oranges because they're orange. Orange is called orange because it's the colour of oranges.
    Hoan Kiem lake is not a tranquil lake, because it's a centre-city traffic interchange. But it's a very tranquil centre-city traffic interchange, because it's a lake.
    I wouldn't be surprised if our oranges are only orange on the outside because they were bred that way to match up to the name.

  15. Yes Tabitha, eating avocadoes with sugar and uripe mangoes with chilli salt blew my my mind too. Wack.

  16. Yup - sexpat slippers. You must use all your powers to prevent him from hiking his t-shirt up into his armpits while wearing them.

  17. Tomosaigon: Whoah. Sounds like a recipe for disaster. What happens when you turn them on at the same time? Don't cross the streams!

    Hien: Oh, I have eaten plenty of guava with chili salt in my time. It makes it marginally more edible in my opinion. Actually, it's the crunchy peaches that do my head in the most. Shudder.

    Robert: I refuse to call them anything else. If New Zealanders can call them "jandals", I can call them thongs.

    Nicholas: Have you seen The Matrix? Because you have basically assumed the role of the Vietnamese Oracle! I know you're lying about the oranges, but I'm going to start perpetuating this lie, especially with impressionable children.

    Emeline: Oh yes, I was totally meaning to include dessert avocadoes in this post! I remember seeing choco-avocado smoothies on the menu at the Paris Deli and chuckling. Ain't gonna see that on no menu in France.

    Katrina: Don't give him any ideas!

  18. Regarding the unripe guava, in fact I prefer it that way to the pink-coloured, soft and sweet ripe ones. We Vietnamese like foods that are crispy, worth chewing (they also enjoy the sound it makes while they chew :D), not the easily-swallowed food. You can refer to this habit by the fact that we despise the chest of the chicken, and instead, worship other parts like wings, neck, leg... anywhere that may be left with some bones :D Also, sometimes (only sometimes) the unripe guava gives a acrid flavour ("chát" in my language), which gives us more fun than the sweet thing :))

    The ceiling fan thing is quite popular in Vietnam since the late 1990s. Before that, all fans were made with the highest number (usually 3) giving the highest speed of wind. However, I don't know why some stupid jerks started to make it the other way round since, I'm not sure, but at least 1996. Now anywhere I go, I have to ask the host which number gives the highest power before daring to turn it on.

  19. Hi Tabitha: > Vietnam is Vietnam, we should not judge by your own look. Each place has a different private, should respect it... Vietnam though small, but you do not understand where all of us.
    the difference with you is not a despicable thing. The main thing that makes the world's diversity.

  20. Duck: Wow, I can't believe there was a specific point in time when the ceiling fan controls went, well, out of control. And yes, the thing about the chicken meat is an excellent further example of topsy-turviness!

    Bipbip: I think you might have misunderstood this blog post. It isn't judgmental at all, or saying one way is better than the other, it's just noting, and in fact celebrating, the differences between Vietnam and my country. So I think we are probably in agreement when it comes to diversity.

  21. @ Tabitha: Vietnam is still a poor country compared to the world, especially compared to other western countries. And our Vietnam also bearing deep in Asia. So I admit there is not much like Western civilization. We know that it should try to learn your civilization and preserve the traditional values ​​of our good.
    I read many of you, there are all wonderful, but there are some items that I feel do not agree with the perception as well as questions from the perspectives of Vietnam. (I have a feeling you ignore VN)
    (I'm not good at English, so I can not understand you like. Just hope that you understand what I mean)
    Anyway, I also learned a lot from your articles.
    Have fun in Vietnam ^^


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