I’ve been in Vietnam for over a year now (hooray!) and whilst the culture shock is long over, there are still some things that baffle and perplex me about this country. Part of being an expat is accepting that there are some cultural quirks you will never understand, and that’s totally okay. The following list are not things I would change about Vietnam, because that is not a list any expat has a right to make, but rather a few things I am used to, but know I will never completely comprehend.
When westerners think of dessert, we think of chocolate cake and ice cream. When the Vietnamese think of it, they think of boiled sweetcorn pudding and longan fruit soup. Most Vietnamese desserts contain beans, sweet potatoes or sweetcorn. Especially sweetcorn (more on that later). More than once I have found chunks of it inside buttercream cake icing. Not. Pleasant.
Baked goods are also often adorned with pork or chicken floss, as I was dismayed to discover when I bought what I believed to be a salted caramel covered donut when I first got here. Another time, I bit into a cupcake thinking it was topped with a dried apricot, only too realise too late that it was a chunk of glazed pork. My Vietnamese colleagues couldn’t understand why I was spitting it into the bin; I couldn’t understand why they weren’t.
The Vietnamese like to mix sweet and savoury in their cooking, often to delicious effect. However, when it comes to desserts, I will always personally prefer to keep the two separate.
2) The Sweetcorn Obsession
Whilst we’re in the vein of food…
The Vietnamese adore sweetcorn. As mentioned, it’s a major component in desserts, but it doesn’t end there. We’ve all heard of soy and almond milk, but it turns out sweetcorn milk is a thing too. Puffed sweetcorn is a popular snack (it’s actually not half bad), sweetcorn ice lollies can be found in most ice-cream freezers and vendors ride their carts up and down busy streets blaring ‘bap xao day!‘ (fried corn). I have nothing against sweetcorn, but I fail to understand why it inspires such ardent passion in the hearts (and stomachs) of the Vietnamese.
3) Fire Drills
I’ve always understood a fire drill to mean practising leaving the building as though there were a real fire. In Vietnam, this is not quite the case. We had a fire drill at school over the weekend, and instead of being taken outside in an orderly fashion, the kids were instructed to remain in the classrooms as though nothing was happening. In fact, the second floor fire exit was actually locked. Meanwhile, fire engines were pulling up outside and spraying the building with water as if it were alight, but the kids were all inside watching Mr. Bean with the TAs (and probably eating sweetcorn). I know that health and safety is not really a thing here, but teaching the kids to stay inside and burn seems a little excessive.
4) Shayne Ward
You’re probably thinking ‘What?’, which is exactly what I said when one of my students told her that he was her favourite singer.
“The one who won The X Factor? Over ten years ago?” I asked incredulously. She confirmed that yes, he was the very same Shayne.
Whilst at home, Shayne Ward is a singer-turned-soap-star who Corrie fans and a few people who watched the show at the time might remember, here he is a superstar. His song Beautiful in White (click the link if you want to get to grips with Vietnamese music tastes) seems to be on loop in every store, and he’s played here three times, whilst most artists never bring their tours ‘Nam-side.
Each to their own…
5) Constantly Changing Music
I tend to frequent clubs and bars favoured by expats and tourists here, mainly because that’s who a lot of the nightlife is aimed towards; the Vietnamese aren’t big drinkers. I have stumbled into several venues that are more catered to Vietnamese partygoers, but I never stay for long because the song changes every. thirty. seconds. Why the Vietnamese are so opposed to getting through and entire song, I’ll never know, but they seem to enjoy it, and that’s the main thing.
6) Napping Anywhere and Everywhere
Like in many hot countries, a midday nap is part of the daily routine here. Going home isn’t necessarily a part of that ritual; the locals will nap anywhere from on a motorbike to a carpark floor with only cardboard for cushioning. I’m actually kind of jealous.
7) Nose Picking and Phlegm Hawking
In Vietnam, nose-picking is totally socially acceptable, much to the chagrin of almost every foreigner. It’s apparently fine in all situations, even when you’re hanging upside down on the sit-up machine in the gym (yes, really). Loudly and enthusiastically hawking up phlegm, and, even worse, spitting it out afterwards, is also totally okay. I can’t help but flinch every time. It. Is. Revolting.
At home, wearing Crocs makes a bold statement to the world that you don’t give a flying you-know-what about what anyone thinks of your fashion choices. Here, they’re treated just the same as any other footwear. HOW? WHY?
9) Selfie Screensavers
If anyone did this in the UK, they’d get called a vain prick, to put it politely. In Vietnam, however, it’s pretty common to be your own screensaver. Why not? I’m all for self-love.
10) Sugar in Everything
Milk, bread, yogurt- you name it, they put sugar in it. Why milk needs to be sugary, I will never understand, yet it’s by far the more popular kind. Even smoothies- which are naturally sweet enough- have a tonne of sugar added unless you specify otherwise. You can even buy pure, freshly-pressed sugarcane juice from the side of the road. Perhaps this is how the Vietnamese cope with their early starts, or perhaps Jamie Oliver’s got a job to do over here; who knows?