I’m in Hanoi right now. I think I’m taking about the same time getting used to it as it took in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, but Hanoi definitely has a rougher edge than the others. Dirtier, less glossy, more polluted, and definitely as noisy and chaotic as Ho Chi Minh City. At the same time, Hanoi has a lot of beautiful landmarks, like the Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mausoleum (yes, they really love Ho Chi Minh here), Hoan Kiem lake, and so on. There are a lot of trees lining the streets here, much like Da Nang. Inexplicably, I haven’t tasted the pho here yet—which is supposed to be the best in Vietnam. Actually, the fact that I haven’t tried it yet may be mainly due to the incredible hospitality of those families hosting me, meaning that just about every meal I eat is homemade Vietnamese cooking (which is more varied than I ever could have expected).
the Vietnamese—especially from the North, I think—seem to have the same concept of politeness as Persian tarof; whatever the case, they must provide hospitality to those they meet, even if it hurts. that is, if you show up unexpected to someone’s door, be prepared to be treated like a king and offered tea and sweets and fruits several times, but also be aware that you may be eating your hosts’ dinner for the night. The reverse is true: if you’re invited to dinner and you’re really not hungry, you’ll have to expect to be invited many times in succession even if you refuse each time. If you do go to dinner, you’ll have to expect your hosts to keep offering you more and more food, even if you’re full. The general rule of thumb is: if you seriously want to say “no”, you have to say it at least three times. If you refuse an invitation three times, they’ll generally understand that no, you don’t want anymore squid/tofu/water spinach/corn/fish/weird pickled things. Thankfully, having grown up in a Baha’i community full of Persian friends, I managed to get a bit of the inside scoop on tarof—institutional politeness.
If you’re staying with Vietnamese friends, understand that they will probably refuse having you pay for yourself, i.e. when it comes to helping with the food, electricity, internet, laundry, whatever bills. You’ll have to insist (again, probably at least three times) if you seriously want to contribute for the impact of your stay. However, that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t appreciate the help; they’re just very polite. Some sort of gift during or at the end of your stay is well appreciated; gifts for a family’s children are especially well received. Something that relates to your country of origin is also a good gift idea.
Since this post is largely about politeness, maybe I should write a bit about the proper use of Vietnamese pronouns, since the way you address someone here plays a huge role in politeness. Unlike the English language, which uses only the words “you” and “I/me” as second- and first-person pronouns, Vietnamese pronouns are myriad and change depending on a person’s age, your relation to them, the formality of the occasion, and so on. For example, the most common pronouns I use in addressing someone of my parents’ age (~45-65) are “chu” (uncle) and “cô” (auntie). When speaking with them, I’m required to refer to myself as “con” or “châu” (child). Since I’m almost 30, I can probably get away with addressing people of my brother and sister’s age (~31-40) as “anh” (older brother) and “chi” (older sister), and I would refer to myself as “em” (younger brother/sister). I can call anyone younger than myself “em” as well—they would call me “anh”—and I can refer to myself as “chu” to children or junior youth—they would refer to themselves as “con” or “châu”. Confused? I sure was. I’m still getting used to it. Every time I found out about a new pronoun, I buried my face in my palms in despair.
Perhaps one of the reasons I tend to be a little more introverted is that I don’t adapt too well to formality, or, at least, it makes me uncomfortable. I’d much rather refer to everybody as “dude” and address them with a simple “yo”. But, to quote the guidebook I left behind in Saigon, when you’re in Nam, do as the Viets. One of the challenges of living as a visitor in a different place is learning to be humble and to show respect to the local culture and its customs. Isn’t respect one of the signs of love?