I’m doing what few people of means in this country do — I’m cycling into work. I’m also continuing a little game I’ve concocted — I’m counting how many times I’m cut up, bullied by a four-wheeled vehicle or in a near miss in the 10km route between home and office.
This morning is a good day — only twice am I swearing under my breath or shaking my head in disbelief at the actions of another driver. On my worst morning it happened six times, and one time a woman motorbike driver cut me off, missing me by an inch. I yelled out in anger. The woman jumped out of her seat and almost drove into another vehicle. In the space of a few seconds she got shouted at twice.
Live in Vietnam and the roads drive all of us mad. On the road is one of the few times that we come into contact with our fellow human beings in this country, and it’s not always a pleasant experience. But is it really all that different from back home?
Here’s a story from the place I was brought up: London.
I’m driving and realise I have to go down a slip road off one highway and onto another — I have to pull in at the last minute. My action means jumping quite suddenly in front of another car. That car, a BMW, goes crazy. My fault, yes. I try and say sorry — it doesn’t matter. He goes up my ass, overtakes me at the first opportunity before pulling in in front and slowing down to a near standstill. Hazard lights flash. He swerves his car from one side of the lane to another. This guy wants a fight. I’m lucky he doesn’t have a gun.
Would that happen in Vietnam? Most likely no (although I have heard of a few instances over the years). In both places my life is in danger, but in different ways.
There are countless frustrations in Vietnam that don’t happen overseas, and thousands of everyday frustrations overseas that don’t happen in Vietnam.
Let’s take the internet. In Vietnam everywhere you go it’s free of charge. The only issue — speed. It can get frustrating.
How about in the UK? The free internet is infinitely slower than it is in Vietnam — so bad it sometimes doesn’t work at all. Not good when you’re sitting in a café trying to get some work done. And the cheek of it is to get yourself online for free, you’ve got to register. In Vietnam, you only register with the big chains.
Let’s take another instance of the internet, getting it installed at home. In London it took me two weeks to get broadband. Two weeks! Maddening. In Vietnam once you’ve got the go-ahead, it takes 24 to 48 hours.
In the UK, got an important delivery coming? You’re just told morning or afternoon, which means waiting at home until the delivery arrives. A complete waste of time. In Vietnam you get the mobile number of the delivery driver and everything is organised so that no time is wasted.
In Vietnam, go to a shop, buy some electronics and in places like Nguyen Kim, the staff will take everything out of the box and check your purchase before you take it home. In the west? Take it home, find an error, and you’ve got to go back to the shop and wait, wait, wait… I recently took some wrongly purchased lightshades back to Ikea. I had to wait an hour to get my refund (and that was not calculating the 45-minute travel time from home to Ikea and back).
The problem with Vietnam is that things happen here that to non-Vietnamese minds seem ridiculous and unnecessary. Parks are created under bridges where you can’t walk on the grass. A bus driver pulls in to stop, cutting you up, just because they can. You want your my quang in Mon Hue served with pork meat rather than pork rib, but you’re told no. Even worse you’re told that my quang is never served like that anywhere (an absolute lie). It takes an argument and a waitress almost in tears just to get you what you want.
You’re waiting in a bar to order, but can’t order yet because your drinking partners have yet to sit down. The waiter sees this but hassles you once, then twice, before trying to take the drinks menu from you to give to another table. You’re trying to get a new visa, but are told to go a particular organ of power to sort out your documents. You go to the place and they say, oh no, you can’t come here, you’ve got to go somewhere else. You go somewhere else and get redirected to the first place. You’re in a restaurant and want the bill, but you can’t get the attention of the staff because they’re chatting away and not focusing on the customers. So you have to get up, walk over, break up their conversation and ask for the bill.
Aagh! It’s infuriating.
Now for the UK.
You have a banking issue over a payment. You call up, wait 25 minutes, eventually get through, before being told that you’ve been put onto the wrong department, which means another 10-minute wait to speak to the right person to sort it out.
There is an issue with your council tax (property tax) payments. So you phone up the local council, after 15 minutes you get through. They tell you them to email them some documents, but not to a particular person but to a central email address. You do that, but get no response for three weeks. When you do get the response you’re asked for more documents, so you send them through. Still no response. In the meantime, you have to make existing payments anyway, because if you don’t you’ll default and it will affect your credit rating.
You buy some furniture. In Vietnam it will be delivered in 24 hours and assembled for you at home. Where I come from, you’ll have to wait five days or sometimes far longer. When the furniture finally arrives you have to assemble it yourself.
So, having a bad Vietnam day? My suggestion — get over it. ‘Cos right now, other people are having bad London days, bad Sydney days and bad Bogota days all of their own.