Culture Shock or Drunkenly Peeing through Vietnam
Let’s face it: Vietnam is a wonderful country and Hanoi is one of the greatest cities in the world. I know this but I always struggle to explain when people ask me why I live here. Because, honestly, if you haven’t been here, there’s really no way I can explain it to you.
Is it the people? The food? The environment? No. At least not entirely. Although all of those are part of the reason I love it here so much.
When I try to explain my feelings, I often fall back on the craziest reasons that I love this place so damn much:
It’s impossible to dislike a place where there never seems be an inappropriate time to have a beer. Given that for 9 months of the year the temperature hovers between 85 and 105 degrees, I think this is a great idea. Quite honestly, if I am going to be miserably hot and sweating through my clothes, I deserve a little bit of a buzz while it’s all happening.
In Hanoi, there are beer joints (or bia hois) absolutely everywhere. It is easy to find a glass of beer for $.25. Normally, during the day, the clientele is mostly older men but it’s common to see workers enjoying a beer on their lunch hour. Equality be damned, in my experience, it’s rare to see a Vietnamese woman day-drinking.
The sex-segregation doesn’t apply to the Western ex-pats that live here, however. Maybe we drink so much because we are even less used to the heat. Or, it could be that, because most of us work at English centers in the evening hours, we make the most of our days to get our drink on. I guess it could be because we hate our lives in some big or small way. Either way, I won’t complain.
In the West, you disguise your day-drinking. Well, you certainly disguise it if you don’t want a well-meaning friend or family member to organize an intervention.
For example, you go to brunch and have a mimosa or, if you’re not fucking around, a screwdriver. The orange juice allows you to pretend that you are drinking something healthy. “See!” You can tell yourself and the judgmental eyes around you, “It has vitamins!” You say this as if scurvy is still a public health issue. The juice allows plausible deniability. It looks like juice. It sort of tastes like juice. It may be the case that you didn’t even know the booze was in there!
In Vietnam, however, you don’t need to hide your drinking. Especially as a Westerner, you can drink any time of day free of the judgment of those around you. Hell! If you are going to the right place, the people around you are all tying one on at 9:30 a.m. as well!
2) Unashamed Public Urination
Maybe, at least in part, as a result of the first of the constant drinking, there is no taboo against public urination. Everyday, all day, no matter where you are in the city, if you do a 360-degree turn, you will spot at least two people urinating.
The other day, I sat on in a lakeside cafe drinking a coffee. While I sat there, three old men, one after the other, walked to the side of the shore and peed into the lake. Note that this was not late at night. This was in the middle of the day, with women, families, and the occasional dog wandering by.
There is no shame to the public urination. It is just the way it is. As my grandpa used to say, the laws of nature were made before the laws of man and, let’s face it, we’ve all been in the situation where we need to find a toilet as quickly as possible.
If you are a man or a child (sorry ladies), the whole city is your toilet!
3) Refusal to Avoid Personal Questions
In the West, there are certain no-go zones in conversation. For example, we think it is impolite to point out that someone is bald or old or fat.
In Vietnam, however, there is no distinction in conversation between those questions that are in the realm of polite conversation and those that are not. Take, for example, marriage.
One of my third-grade students asked me my age. Then, she asked if I was married. Then, she very loudly exclaimed, “You’re 35 and you’re NOT married!” Now, granted, this could be attributed to her being a child but, three days later, one of my college-age students had the same reaction. One we got past my age and marital status, he asked what I wanted to do in the future. I told him I didn’t know and he asked, with incredulity, “Don’t you have any long-term plans.” I asked him if he had been talking to my parents.
Culture shock is one of the highlights of traveling and, living in Hanoi, I experience new forms of it everyday. I’m lucky. I think it is a gift to be exposed to new ways of doing things and acting, even when those news ways are funny or embarrassing.
It’s a wonderful experience and one I wouldn’t trade for the world. The next time I am drunkenly peeing outside at 10:00 a.m., I am going to say thank you to the universe.