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A Lovable Vietnamese 

by Viet Ha
English adaptation by Frank Trinh


A true statement: Our Vietnamese people have not as yet developed the habit of thanking each other (Thank-yous are not popular), even though knowing when to say ‘thank you’ in the right and proper place would make your listeners feel happy, pleased and even more tolerant of you. But the problem is that every time someone has to utter a word of thanks, such as “Thank you sir, madam, lady, gentleman, etc.… for your help in the matter of this and that”, then it feels like they are suffering an epileptic fit of the mouth, not to mention the fact that many think: “Nonsense, we are close relatives, why bother acting like a guest, mentioning this or that favour.” Others may say: “Saying ‘thanks’ is okay but I still feel somewhat strange; such a fuss-pot.” However, the saying of thank-you to older people is quite acceptable. As for your peers or those who are your inferiors, the matter of saying ‘thank-you’ by Vietnamese people is strictly limited to the point of being stingy. Simply put: Being friends, having the same status or being younger than you, why be bothered mentioning favours? So for the sake of simplicity in social situations, our Vietnamese people have gradually lost the precious virtue of showing appreciation in a fit and proper way to the listener. Of course, if you go against this virtue you may be thought of as being weird, lunatic and condescending.

Why so many ‘thank-yous’?

The first day a friend of mine went back to Vietnam on holiday he was labelled as an abnormal person. He said: “I’m used to it. Saying thanks is the first word to come out of people’s mouth on social occasions”. Being his first time home, the whole family looked after him like a Mandarin’s son. So every caring gesture was returned by a word of thanks from him. The first time he did this his mother lovingly scolded him: "Just shove it. I’m your mother. Why keep saying it to me?” Analysing the mother’s words she probably meant: “I’m your mother. Isn’t there anything I do to please you that you have to keep thanking me for?” Being reprimanded by his mother my friend just grinned. And with his Dad, my friend was also corrected. Having been such a long time away from home, my friend was doted on by his father who plied him with plenty of beer and alcohol. When his father did this, he was greeted every time by the doted son’s ‘thank-yous’. His younger sister who also loved him dearly, continuously plied him with food, and of course my friend kept thanking her. The father’s feelings were a little hurt even though he didn’t say so in words, but finally he said: “You have become too Westernized. Saying thanks here, thanks there. If you go to an anniversary dinner commemorating an ancestor and they serve you food from night till morning, are you going to keep saying ‘Thank-you’ right through till the early morn?” “Of course!” My friend stared at his Dad who spoke in such a firm voice. Then his father laughed and said in a scornful voice: “Stick it up your arse! The people you thank only respond once, but you keep doing it. Those who help you will feel embarrassed.” His younger sister also said tartly: “It’s all right at home, but if you go out, you’ll have to cut it out, or people will label you as the village idiot.”

The problem occurred exactly as my friend’s younger sister had predicted. He went for a stroll to the market place with people packed in like sardines. Even so, there was a group of teenagers about the same age as my friend’s sister, wearing very dark sunglasses elbowing their way through the crowd and showing no respect for anyone. Naturally my friend got bumped into. It’s hard to understand why he didn’t get angry. Instead of lashing out at them and getting his hackles up, and swearing obscenely at those that had bumped into him, like people usually do in Vietnam, he uttered, “It doesn’t matter. Thanks.” So the mob gathered around him as if to swallow him whole. The chap who had bumped into him, suddenly turned around, took off his glasses, glared at him in astonishment and said mockingly: “So polite. Huh? I bumped into you and you thanked me?” My friend said: “Fortunately, my sister was there to rescue me, because I was in a rather awkward situation.” He told me: “If you happen to go home to Vietnam, take my word for it, say thanks as little as possible. Perhaps being a little bit crude and rude is even better. You will be picked on and bullied less. But here if you are going out in the open shopping and opening your mouth saying ‘thank-you’ all the time, then it’s the end of you…” Running into the coarse and rude ruffians, who insulted you, then you thanked them for this and that, it is so disappointing.” He carefully told me: “Don’t forget that you must draw from my own experience. A bit of street cunning. A bit like a gangster and keep swearing while talking. When you eat, keep your knees around your ears, eat noisily like a pig eating rice bran and a dog chewing a bone. When you drink beer don’t gulp it down like a Westerner, or people will call you names. Slowly take your time, hold it up, put it down, sip and savour it, and wipe the corners of your mouth then gargle it with a few swear words and make a sighing sound… to show that you are a hard drinker and have street ‘cred’. People in Vietnam will like you and it’s easy to become integrated acting in such a way, but if you are well-dressed with polished shoes they label you as stupid, and no-one wants to know you or to speak to you.”

Throwing rubbish into the street

My friend stated: “Sitting on the bus, my younger sister offered me chewing gum.” Well, to please his sister he took one out of the pack, unwrapped it and put it in his mouth. While his fingers were fiddling with the wrapper and attempting to put it into his pocket, his younger sister saw him and said: “Hey, give it here!” “Give what?” My friend asked his sister. “Give me the wrapper in your hand!” After saying this, the girl grabbed the paper from her brother’s hand, made it into a ball, together with her own wrapper and a handful of watermelon husks and apricot stones, and quickly threw it out of the window of the bus. My friend rose up from his seat and tried to stop her doing it, but the assorted rubbish had fallen, making a scattered mess in the street. She looked at her brother as cool as a cucumber and told him: “You must accept things as they are in Vietnam, if you want to survive in this country. All the social etiquette and ethics of daily living here are the same as learning your multiplication tables. It’s fun to learn, but while in Rome do as the Romans do.” She argued: “People throw rubbish through the windows of a vehicle, but your making it into a ball and putting it in your pocket is considered to be the action of a bloody idiot. They blow their nose and noisily clear their throat and their phlegm and saliva drip onto the streets, in public, whereas you take out your handkerchief, blow your nose and clear your throat of phlegm into it and then stuff it into your pocket. Your habit would be considered to be the more unhygienic. Just like a little while ago you attempted to give your seat to an elderly person. Well, that’s a good idea which is in keeping with tradition and your roots. Although the elderly man was feeling inwardly happy, he tried to keep his cool, and so he refused you. It was not because his body is better than yours and mine, but because he is a pensioner, and he’s forced to stand. That’s the law. Your love for people is appreciated but it should only be kept within the family. If you do this in public and on social occasions you will have advantage taken of you, and they will take the shirt off your back. When all you’ve got is yourself and your thongs, then nobody takes any notice of you. That’s the true cultural identity of the Vietnamese. You should keep this in mind!” She whispered softly: “We still have a long way to go. You will see so many more spectacular situations than what I have mentioned. Not only do people throw rubbish into the street, but they go even further when they are ‘caught short’ while driving. They even pull down their pants and dump their load right near the door of the car.” My friend said: “With the rubbish, we should put it somewhere first, then chuck it in a bin when we get off the bus. Is it not possible?” The sister laughed and tut-tutted: “You’re crazy. If everybody did what you do, then the City Council workers would be out of job. Many have implied that more people should dump their rubbish into the streets so that there will be more work for people to do. It’s a Market Economy! No work, no play!” My friend said: “Because of this, everybody does it so others will have a job?” That’s about it.” The sister grinned, then noisily chewed her chewing gum. “The growth of rubbish in our society somewhat reflects the standard of living. Years ago, you and I ‘gutsed’ down sorghum day and night, and when we couldn’t manage to discharge it, there were three or four species of people, dogs, chickens, or birds already waiting around for the reproduction. If you are so keen on not reproducing then where would the rubbish be?” After arguing back and forth, she turned to look at the other teenage passengers on the bus who were blowing bubbles with their chewing-gum. My friend’s sister boasted: “Chewing gum is fun, but blowing bubbles is even much more fun. You have no idea how they advertise it: "Chewing gum not only makes your breath fresh and gives you strong teeth, but it also helps your chest and your lungs to expand. At the time when our country was under the Government system of budget subsidies, the population ate wheat grains meant for pigs, and their breath smelt, while the press printed articles loudly advertising that eating too much meat would give you fat deposits in your blood and harden your arteries… Probably the journalists were dreaming of having meat to eat, but they didn’t, so they delighted in writing the opposite about it. Blowing bubbles in public, in Vietnam and everywhere else, has become one of the Top Ten.”

Cleanliness can only be found in Uncle Ho’s Mausoleum

My friend said: “Early in the morning my old man and my younger sister often go for a “Pho” (beef noodle soup). Eating “Pho” is also one of the things enjoyed by all generations. So between 6 a.m. to 7 a.m., my friend, together with his Dad and sister went to the top “Pho” food shop for breakfast. “Pho” eaters come from all walks of life. People from the markets, in big business, private citizens, drug addicts, lottery ticket hawkers, bike and tyre repairers, car washers, motor-bike drivers (those who hire themselves out to pick up pillion passengers), all like “Pho”. But they all have one thing in common, regardless of whether they are young or old, they appreciate the savouring of alcohol early in the morning while having “Pho”. Recognising my friend’s Dad and sister, the shop owner heartily greeted them: “Do you, Dad and daughter, still have Beef Broth with Fat for two?”

His sister said tartly: “It’s Beef Broth with Fat for three!” After saying this, she pulled her brother towards a chair to wait for the “Pho”. The tables and chairs were clean, there was enough room for leftover food, but for some unknown reason everything was thrown on to the floor. Still at a loss to know where to sit, my friend was pulled down on a chair by his sister, around which tissues, vegies, bones and leftover food…were strewn higgledy-piggledy, as if caught in a storm. She said in a soft voice, but loud enough for others to hear: “You must get used to this. Sitting amongst the rubbish, eating and listening to the buzzing music of the bluebottle flies in your ears is half the joy of eating out for Vietnamese people. If you haven’t become used to it by now, then you won’t be regarded as a true blue Vietnamese man of the world. She next turned round to ask him in the knowing tones of a heavy drinker: “To wet your whistle with Dad, would you like a heart-starter to make you feel on top?” My friend refused: “You’ve only just got out of bed and you want to drink alcohol?” He’s hardly finished his sentence than he was kicked under the table on his leg by his sister: “That’s what we do in Vietnam. When you come to a "Pho" food shop, regardless of age, we all have a shot. People who are not in an alcoholic haze will not be very productive in their labours.” Before he went back to Vietnam, there was an incident, where the police booked someone who was drink-driving and exceeding the speed limit. Getting out of his car, the driver found that the policeman also smelled strongly of alcohol. They argued for a while then voluntarily left the scene. The younger sister took her chopsticks and boasted loud and clear: “This shop is one of the best and it has a very good Vietnamese cultural identity. One day I will take you to another shop where you will see that people even sit on top of rubbish to eat. Rubbish to Vietnamese people is a companion.” My friend added: “That’s the rubbish cult of the Vietnamese people, otherwise if you are too clean everyone will think you are lying in Uncle Ho’s Mausoleum. If this is the case, then it is no different from your having kicked the bucket?” She then whispered softly: “From the day you arrived back home everyone got the right message. Mostly when neighbours come to visit and chew betel-nut and smoke, even with ash-trays on the table, they throw their ash and butts all over the place.” My friend asked: “Do they put ash all over the floor?” “Of course!” the sister innocently replied, “If the ash is long they tap it with their finger and it drops to the floor, they butt it out on the arm of the chair or squeeze it between their fingers and throw it into the corner or out the door. But cigarette ash is not as bad as the juice of the betel-nut. Our home has seen some mind-blowing events. When some women recently came to visit us, I prepared some pewter spittoons for them, but they chewed noisily until the juice was running out of their mouths, they wiped their hands over their mouths and spat it out onto the floor. Looking at the red liquid spilling out over the white tiles, I shuddered. Of course, I was upset but I didn’t dare to say so. If I had said something they would have said: “You have white tiles, it’s clear to see, but in our homes we have earthen floors, so the liquid soaks in quickly and cannot be detected.” There are people who even call us snobbish and heap scorn upon us by not visiting us again. Vietnamese people have the habit of making other people’s homes look like a shit-house, or they enjoy shitting in your home just to make them feel more comfortable, but if they are pulled up about it, they’ll throw a tantrum and then shout: You’ll never ever see me coming here again.’ Vietnamese people like the idea of treating their neighbours better than they treat their distant relatives, so often they try to keep the peace and allow their neighbours to urinate in their home. What kind of a civilization is this?” The young sister gently tapped her hand on her forehead and uttered in a cheeky and sarcastic way: “This is a civilization that urinates and shits on one another, my brother!”


My friend has told me many stories. If I told you all of them you would think I was a real chatter-box, nit-picking about our homeland. However, our Party and our Government has been continuously working hard towards renovation to conform with the worldwide trend of advancing humankind. Thinking along these lines I decided to stop talking about my friend’s stories at this stage, so that I could finish with his North-South Unification train trip. The fact is that his sister gave him this advice: “You’d better listen to me. You’d better wear only dirty Army fatigues. I will buy you a backpack. With the weather as hot as it is, there’s no point in wearing shoes.” My friend blew his top: “I’ve got to walk around in bare feet?” The sister said: “Why are you so stupid? You only wear thongs or slippers like when you’re home. By dragging your feet you will look like other people. If people see that you are dirty and unkempt they won’t bother you, but if you dress yourself from A to Z, and your body smells fresh and clean, they would find ways of fleecing you on your way to the station, let alone if you intend to travel by plane. Now listen to me. Take the Inter-Vietnam North-South train. It’s cheap and you have time to enjoy the scenery along the way. When you buy a ticket, don’t buy a Sleeper, get a Cabin ticket only. If they see you entering a luxury Sleeper, even though you look filthy and down-at-heel, then your true class cannot be disguised.”

My friend went to the railway station. He boarded the North-South train, intending to visit his aunty, a blood relative who lived in Saigon. His trip was smooth and uneventful. Looking at his poor circumstances, his fellow passengers even offered to share their food and drinks with him. (Of course, he politely refused). Even the train conductor ignored him, only briefly checking him and his carriage and then moving on. What a shame though, on arriving in Saigon he hailed a taxi to take him to his aunt’s home, but because of the sweltering heat and the long train journey, he looked exactly like a true blue beggar, so no taxi would pick him up. His blood boiling, he waved down a motor-bike to take him to his aunt’s place. He pressed her doorbell so hard that he nearly sprained his wrist, but no one cared to come to the gate to answer. The fact of the matter was that everyone living upstairs could look down and see everything. Thinking that he was a beggar the whole family decided: “Let him stay outside.” Fortunately, his younger female cousin arrived home from school, and seeing this strange person, asked him what was going on. Immediately he took off his hat, adjusted his clothing, patted down his hair and told her the truth of the matter. Then the whole family swarmed out of the house to greet him. His aunt gave him a big hug and cried out: “Oh, my God. How come my nephew who’s from a Western country, comes here looking so scruffy and wretched?”

Adapted from Vietnamese by Frank Trinh
Sydney, December 2004





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