By Lauren Elizabeth
Vietnamese are very curious people. Everyone from the woman selling trà đá to your Grab driver will instinctively ask you a litany of ‘personal questions’. Questions regarding your age, marital status, sometimes even your income or rent would all be deemed impolite in western culture but are quite routine here. I turned 30 a few months after moving to Hanoi. The first person who asked me, “Bao nhiêu tuổi?” followed by, “Có gia đình chưa?” followed by “Ba mươi rồi, tại sao chưa có?” was my taxi driver, and I felt totally unequipped to answer. Now I’m 32 and know that it’s ok to just politely giggle it off. “Không biết. Soái ca ở đâu?”
Smile, especially at strangers
A westerner, also known as a ‘tây’, can be spotted from several blocks away. Don’t take offense to being stared at intently. People, especially in the cities, live in close quarters and many have been living in the same domicile for several generations. As previously mentioned, they are just curious about the unfamiliar human strolling through their neighborhood. It might feel jarring at first, but I’ve found the best way to cope is simply by smiling at everyone. You might even be surprised to find that (nearly) all will smile back at you. =]
Do as the locals do
If you intend to live here long term, you might be enticed to reside in the area with the highest concentration of expats: Tay Ho. While it has its appeal, with a plethora of delicious western eateries, I suggest spending your free time elsewhere. Find the most bustling bia hoi and cheers (dô!) with the locals. Watch the Vietnamese national football team play their hearts out and then round up your friends to ‘go storm’ (đi bão) when they win. Accept invitations into the homes of locals and the hometowns of your local friends. Be vigilant but open.
As picturesque as Vietnam appears at times, there are still many challenges faced by the locals which we mustn’t disregard. I believe it’s essential to give back to the communities that have opened their arms to us without asking for anything in return. There are some amazing non-profit organizations throughout Vietnam doing just that. Go volunteer with one of them.