Tuesday 21 April 2015

Lost in translation

I am trying to learn some basic Vietnamese while I'm here. I want to attempt to speak to people without relying on them speaking English and, to be honest, one thing I am desperate to do at this point, is differentiate myself from the tourists here. Now, I know I am a tourist by default, but I am planning to work and live here for a while, so I need to make the transition from being seen as a holiday maker to a person who is just a small part of a bigger whole. For one thing, I can't afford to spend money like I'm on holiday every day, it's not tenable, and I don't know whether this can be achieved in Hanoi, but I'll come back to that.

The Vietnamese language was once over beautifully script like, more like Chinese or Japanese, but after years of occupation by the French it is now more recognisably European in many aspects and while it does have accents and symbols above and below certain vowel sounds that change pitch and inflection, it is rarely ever written in the original script. Unlike English, where we have so many different words for each nuance we wish to communicate, Vietnamese has far fewer words, and each word can be used for a variety of different, if semantically very similar, meanings. For example, their word or 'no', khĂ´ng, which is pronounced 'khome', seems to be, dependant on context, used to mean don't, can't, won't, not, never, and many variances in between. It's all in the pronunciation. So even though it's easier than you might think to learn the basic structure of many words that will allow you to have simple conversations, it is far more difficult to get the correct intonation that can make you be understood. This can make the language more inaccessible than originally hoped, because I have not had the benefit of the social interaction that natives have had to learn the different tones and inflections that not only allow better communication but also avoid causing any offence. For example, there are a few different ways to ask someone's name, and it depends on the age and gender of the person as to which phrase is correct to use, and using the wrong one to the wrong person can cause great offence. It's a bit of a minefield to be honest!  I'm already better at recognising written Vietnamese, but it makes sense that I would be really. I'm better with the written word and there is no inflection or tonal difference to cloud matters, and this has been reinforced by watching a lot of dubbed films on the HBO and other English speaking channels over here!

Whether improving in my use of the language will improve the way I'm perceived here, I do not know. My impressions of Hanoi have been quite mixed to be honest, and not overwhelmingly positive, perhaps I'm in the wrong part? The buildings are undoubtedly beautiful and historic, the lake is stunning, with the trees around it carefully lit up to create a very specific effect, and initially I was really impressed with this. But the more time I've spent here, especially in the notorious Hong Bac backpacker area, the more disappointed I have become. I guess I had high expectations of the place, everyone had raved about it and my partners memories from over ten years ago were very positive (but as we learnt from Nha Trang, a lot can happen in ten years) Here, all of the street food is as expensive, if not more so, than the sit down westernised restaurants. Here, street vendors don't just try their luck, with a knowing wink and smile like in HCMC, they physically grab you, shoving doughnuts in your face or trying to heave a carrying pole onto your shoulders, so that they can force you into giving them money. It's not done with any grace or charm, put simply, their attitude seems to be 'you're western, you have money, give me your money.' Frankly, it's made me feel worthless. I've lost my temper on a few occasions, and those of you that know me well know that I don't get angry easily, but there comes a point when you are sick of people trying to take advantage of you, it's wearing and it's not what I had come to expect from the Vietnamese people. The worst example? Giving a child a doughnut with a smile when their parents were not looking and then hustling their parents for money. I don't care what culture you're from, we all know that to be wrong. So it begs the question, have things really gotten that bad here?That it is worth manipulating a child and upsetting a family for the sake of a dollar? And if it was just a one off, you would dismiss it as such, but it's constant. Is this what tourism has done? Has it really made the locals that cynical, that hard? This especially upset me because what I thought I had learnt about the Vietnamese is how attentive and sweet they are with children, of any nationality. I have seen this over and over again, at airports, on trains, in restaurants. This is not the Vietnam that I have grown to respect and admire, and I have seen it, it's just not here. So disillusioned have we become with Hanoi, that whenever one of us is upset by another local, or stunned by food prices that are literally in some cases, doubling every few days, we just try to make a joke about it with the appropriated reference, 'Forget it Jake; it's Hanoi- town.'

HCMC I loved because you are nothing to that city, you are just another cog, but it allows you to be. You don't feel that you are a walking target, not in the same way. There are nice places to eat that don't charge a fortune, you can live on a budget there. HCMC, from what I have seen of it, doesn't pander to you, you're not special to it, and I didn't realise how much that is what I need. I don't want to be pandered to, I don't want to be singled out, I want to function as a person. I am a guest in this country, I respect the people in it, I don't want them to bend to me, I will bend to their ways, their culture, their food, because I'm choosing to be here.

The irony is that the people in Hanoi have no idea how little I have by western standards, and they don't care to know. They just assume. Yes I used to earn more in a year than they could in many years, but my outgoings always matched my incomings pretty much, it's entirely relative. That's why everyone here has the same iPhones as back home, the contracts are a pittance by comparison but it's relative to their income, whatever losses Apple may make in the East, if they even do, are subsidised by the contracts they charge in the west, because we can afford to pay more and do, it's all made relative to the economy you live in.

For my part, I don't know how sustainable it is to live somewhere where you are being charged tourist rates for everything, and you nearly weep with relief when you find a place with prices on things, so you know that you can't be easily manipulated into paying more. HCMC has work, and is increasingly becoming a light that I want to return to. I know the Vietnam that my partner fell in love with is still here, because it was only three weeks ago that we were sat with those dudes in Phan Theit, who plied us with food, booze and friendliness, and made us feel human again.

Maybe this is why I need to step up in my learning of Vietnamese, because this culture seems to have to have learned to placate every other nationality on their terms, and I don't want to be part of the problem. I want to get to know them, and I have time, I'm not going anywhere right now, and I truly, truly hope that they will let me. I hope that by giving that respect, I, in turn, have a hope of being treated as an individual too, who is not here to have them entertain me, to take advantage of them or to be taken advantage of, but to genuinely learn about Vietnamese culture, not to impose my own. I just hope that this is possible, and that is what we're going to find out.

Because my experiences in Hanoi have not been exactly glowing, I didn't want to be a hypocrite and show an amazing photo of the place. So instead, here's a picture of this dude who we found on a pagoda in Hanoi, just chillin' in the sun. Let's face it, you can never go wrong with a cute cat picture!


  1. Learning the language of a nation you're visiting is one of the greatest pleasures you can actively involve yourself in. And while learning the basics may be easy, advanced sentence construction will be a feat, especially since it doesn't translate word for word. At any rate, seeing how passionate you are; your interest in learning Vietnamese should be enough to fuel the actual learning process. I'm sure you'll be able to do it, Chrissy! Kudos!

    Israel Oliver @ Atlas Translations

    1. Hi there,
      Apologies, I've not been able to access my blog for a while but thank you for your kind words and for reading! I've been in Vietnam for a while now, and I'm picking up some more of the language the longer I am here.
      Thanks again, all the best!