Saturday, September 14, 2013

Some First Impressions

I made the mistake of not articulating many of my early impressions about South Korea. This time I want to make it right. If I wait too long these strange quirks begin to fade into normalcy. In no particular order, here are some observations I have made upon arriving in Vietnam. I am sure I will have more.

  • There are cards in the street. Most often, I'll see a joker card just lying in the street all alone. I think once I saw an ace of spades as well. That card, you might know, has some history in Vietnam. The U.S. Army used to drop the ace of spades from planes as part of a psi-ops campaign to demoralize the Vietnamese. They believed the Vietnamese thought they were bad luck, but there isn't much evidence to support that. Regardless, it was good for American morale. It's more likely that American troops saw the cards on the ground and thought they were discarded for being bad luck when instead they were thrown out because they were unnecessary in the games they were playing. Such is the case with the cards littering the ground today.

  • Koreans are beautiful. This is my fourth Asian nation and Koreans beat them all so far. Part of the reason is that people try really hard in Korea. For better or worse, in Seoul there is a high standard for beauty.

  • There is a smaller replica of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City. I'm not sure why, but then again, there is a replica of the Parthenon in Nashville. 

  • Crossing the street is insane at first glance. Traffic almost never stops. You have to just go for it. Take a step into the road and stare down the oncoming traffic. They will go around you as long as you move at a slow but steady pace. Don't try to pass in front of buses or taxis as they do not slow down.

  • Work and play are mixed here. This was the case in Korea as well, but here it is to a much greater extent. Most people live in their places of business, or they work from home depending on how you choose to look at it. The line is blurry. Business hours are hazy. Shop owners will sleep on the job until their dog barks to wake them up. Families will sit down for dinner at their own restaurant which is just in front of their beds. An apartment will double as an elastic band wholesale dealer. People work long hours with breaks interspersed throughout the day. The afternoon siesta is still practiced here. It's my feeling that this lifestyle is more traditional and perhaps a bit healthier in some ways. Families are together more hours of the day. Work seems less like work.

  • Food is cheap and delicious. In my old alleyway I could find a meal for under a dollar and this is not all that uncommon. Still, I usually spring for something nicer and pay a little under two dollars. Food is delicious. Unlike Korea where everything is spicy, here all the spices are on the side and I can add them to my liking. Food seems to be greener and hopefully healthier too. I haven't gotten sick yet, but I know that's coming. There's a lot of strange food here and I've only really scratched the surface. Many times I only have a vague idea as to what I might be eating. I'm told some food can be dangerous too. Others have told me antifreeze might be mixed in some cocktails and the iced coffee isn't always exactly iced coffee.
Cơm tấm, or broken rice. Often comes with pork. Delicious.
The staff had a heyday. This guy was about to be food.

  • People love America here. The American flag is a fashion symbol. I see it on face masks, throw pillows, blankets, t-shirts, etc. A security guard proudly told me about his friend who served in the war on the American side. In Saigon, by and large there does not seem to be much of a grudge. I'm told this is not the case in Hanoi and that airport security is a huge hassle should I choose to fly there.

  • I do get a lot of looks. In Korea, I did not get too many people staring at me. Here, I get stares all the time. Kids always want to say “Hello” and little girls giggle. Today I ate down an alleyway and I could tell I was the talk of the street.

  • Sometimes people aren't so nice. I feel like sometimes there are people that try to make fun of me for being an American. A group of guys at a coffee shop called me over and started joking about “America”, “apple pie”, and so on. It could be chalked up to poor language skills, but I feel like if I started shouting random stereotypes at a Frenchmen people would think I was being rude. It's hard sometimes to tell who is laughing with you and who is laughing at you.

  • Those conical Vietnamese hats (nón lá) are worn without any irony. Unlike the Korean hanbok, they are not something worn traditionally or to be patriotic or only at festivals. They are just worn. It is as if the Dutch all still wore wooden shoes. Still, with the high heat and frequent and intermittent rain, it makes good sense to wear one.

  • Communist symbolism is all over the place. Ho Chi Minh's picture is everywhere. There is a common one of him reading a book that I rather like.
    Street where I did some apartment hunting. One of the guys living
    there said they should probably get a flag so they match the neighbors.

    • Rock, Paper, Scissors is not such a big deal here. It was huge in Korea, but here it seems so far to be at the same level of interest that it is in America.

    • The language is really difficult. There are six tones. People that have been here for years still struggle immensely. At least it uses the alphabet and not characters like Chinese. We had a series of interviews last Saturday to find Vietnamese tutors. At least I have some contact info for when I am ready to get a tutor. If interested, apply here.

    • I walk a lot more here. Every day, whether or not it is my intention, I get lost. I walk block after block and try to find patterns and places to revisit. Today I found a copy shop that will be useful for school. Copyright doesn't really exist here, nor do English book stores.

    • It rains almost every day. It is just like Forrest Gump or CCR. I was surprised by how cool the air usually is, but it is expected to get very hot and dry in a few months. If it's anything like Cambodia, I'm not exactly looking forward to it.

    • Koreans made you pay for almost any bags you used at the grocery store. Vietnam is more in line with America and gives them away for free. I still cringe when the clerk gives me a bag I really don't need.

    • Apple logos are everywhere here, even more so than in Korea and China. I'm not sure what the deal is. I see old men wearing Apple logos on baseball caps that I doubt ever touched an Apple product. I still see Detroit Tigers hats as well. Same phenomenon, really.

    • This country likes Oreos. I bought a two pack and got a free Oreo pencil. I think I will do just fine here.

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