Before tongues start to wag, let’s deal with the ‘us and them’ accusation. What I’ve noticed in Vietnam is no different to the English obsession with queuing, the Irish fondness of potatoes and the French obsession with disliking the English (yes, it’s true — and that’s despite the 400,000 French who now live in London). You could call it stereotyping. And you’d have a case. Me? I call them quirks.
So here are 28 things I’ve noticed that Vietnamese people love.
1) Shaving their babies
Ladies, why do you shave your babies? And why do you give your babies Chinese movie haircuts? It’s not a criticism, I’m genuinely curious. In my opinion, a shaved baby looks more macho and intimidating than one with a full head of hair. Is that the look you’re going for? I mean just look at this wee man. I wouldn’t want to meet this little fellow in a dark alley.
2) Gold Red Bull
What’s in this stuff? Why are the cans so small? Is it because it’s more potent than normal Red Bull? Why is some of it written in English and some in squiggly Thai? I have so many questions I need to lie down.
Westlife are huge here. They play Westlife in my gym (nothing gets me pumped up like Flying Without Wings). Kids make collages of Westlife for school projects. Shane Filan came here recently to play a concert and filled the venue. Does he have any of his own songs? Does it even matter? They don’t get much bigger than Shane f**king Filan.
4) Unusual Crisp Flavours
I am a simple man. I enjoy simple pursuits: music, sleeping, and a good packet of crisps. However, finding a good packet of crisps (or chips, for our American friends) can be tricky. Pea-flavoured crisps? Seaweed-flavoured? Prawn-and-egg? You’ll find me in supermarkets across Saigon, standing in the crisps aisle, weeping. On the other hand, whenever I produce a packet of delicious cheese and onion, or pickled onion, or even salt and vinegar crisps, my Vietnamese friends look at me like I just farted in their coffees. So I guess the point I’m trying to make is this: crisp flavours are completely subjective to the societal and traditional strictures of any given nation, and indeed form a vast part of the foundational echelons of the culture of said nation, which is why anthropologists and social scientists have been studying them for decades in order to truly understand the differences between countries. Although to be fair, seaweed flavoured crisps are manky.
5) Curtains that don’t keep out the sunlight
No grown man should have to wear an eye mask. But the curtains in my room? They’re basically transparent. Throw in a healthy amount of noise from the street outside and hey presto: you’ve got yourself a natural alarm clock set to 5.30am every morning for the rest of your life. Maybe this is why people here love...
6) Extremely strong coffee
I lived in Italy for two years. I used to drink espresso like water every day and I would still sleep like a baby every night (as in I used to soil myself and wake up crying). Vietnamese coffee is a different beast entirely. I drink ca phe sua da. The coffee packs a caffeine punch and then the condensed milk injects a sugar rush on top. One glass in the morning is enough to give me heart palpitations for the rest of the day. Despite this, people in Vietnam still find time for...
In Vietnam, people will nap anywhere. On their motorbikes, in hammocks hanging from roadside trees, in their office chair during an important meeting. You name it, they will nap on it. And so help me, as a fellow nap-lover, I respect that.
8) Tiny toddler chairs
Sure they look cute, and they’re fun to sit on at first, but after about two minutes you realize the chair is not providing any support, and you’re basically just squatting and giving yourself an involuntary thigh workout. Luckily, this is no big deal because in Vietnam people also love...
No chairs? No problem. Vietnamese people must have thighs of absolute steel because they squat absolutely everywhere.
10) Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
I’ve often found myself sitting in restaurants or taxis here, half-listening to the radio in the background, when I suddenly ask myself: “are they playing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? In September?” And you know what? They are. Who cares that it’s four months until Christmas and it’s 35 degrees outside. The DJ wants to play this timeless classic about a deformed, mercilessly bullied tundra creature, and who are we to judge?
11) Green oranges
For the first month I couldn’t find oranges here, so I just resigned myself to a life of drinking water for breakfast, like some kind of petty commoner. But then I realised the oranges were GREEN. #Illuminati
12) Crocs in the office
My colleagues wear very stylish, quite formal attire when they commute to the office every day. But as soon as they sit down at their desks, off come the formal footwear, and out come the Crocs. Why? Because sometimes style is a burden. The most surprising part is that it’s a great idea! Sitting at a desk, hunched over a computer all day is no fun as it is, so why do so many people insist on adding uncomfortable footwear to the mix? Crocs are the way to go. This just shows how resourceful and ingenious people in this country are. Today they wear Crocs in the office, tomorrow they take over the world.
Vinahouse is a genre of music from which there is no escape in Vietnam. But what is it exactly? Well, imagine if Happy Hardcore and late 1990s techno had a baby: Vinahouse would be that baby’s ugly cousin. And it’s everywhere. Nightclubs and disco bars (fair enough), the gym (slightly annoying but OK), water parks and clothes shops (enough already) and my neighbour’s house at 7am (there will be blood).
14) Beer clubs
People. They’re just the worse, right? So sometimes socialising with people, in (for example) a bar, can be a painful chore fecklessly standing in the way of you and an ice cold beer after a long day’s work. Luckily, there’s a place where you can enjoy your beer, as well as a semblance of sociability, without having to actually talk to your friends or colleagues: beer clubs! They’re an amalgamation of a nightclub and a bar, but without any alcohol over 5.5%. The (omnipresent) Vinahouse is far too loud for any of that overrated conversation, and there’s enough beer on flow to take down Shane McGowan (you know, that guy from The Pogues with the bad teeth). If a beer club ever opens its doors in Ireland, we can write the place off as a nation.
15) Getting up early
By the time I roll out of bed at around 8.30am (mam if you’re reading this I actually get up at 6.30am and go to mass twice before work), most Vietnamese people have achieved more in a morning than people from other countries do in a week. People here like to complete most of their chores and errands before the heat gets unbearable, while also managing to find time for breakfast at 5am, and second breakfast at 8am. Two breakfasts? Yup, in Vietnam people are like super-efficient Hobbits, except without the hairy feet.
16) New Year’s Day
Every day is New Years’ Day if you celebrate New Year’s Day every day! Saigon is decorated with bright lights and signs wishing you a Happy New Year, all year long (I’m not sure why). The song Happy New Year by ABBA is also a favourite here, and it’s not unusual to hear it being played in shopping centres, gyms, schools, or funerals, no matter what time of year it is. In fairness, it’s a bangin’ tune.
17) Feet, feet everywhere
Before I came to Vietnam I researched cultural quirks and customs, so I wouldn’t make any gaffes or accidentally offend anybody. One of the things I read is that it is offensive to point your bare feet at people, but since I’ve arrived here all I see is feet. What surprises me the most is that truck drivers tend to bomb around Saigon with their bare feet hanging out of the window, which seems wildly uncomfortable as well as being kinda offensive — especially if bare feet are such a faux pas inVietnam. It’d be the equivalent of driving aggressively around Dublin flipping the bird at everybody you passed... Which is actually in the job description for Dublin bus drivers. Boom boom! #topical #SocialCommentary
18) Pants suits or Pyjamas
Women of a certain age here sure do love pants suits. Especially if the bottom and the top are made from the same floral fabric. Top it off with a conical paddy field hat and you’ve got a very Vietnamese look going on altogether, you suave fashionista you. I’m not mocking, by the way: I’d wear one myself, but unfortunately with my colouring I just can’t pull it off. I’m a total Autumn.
19) Tiny ironing boards
I’ve mentioned how much people in this country love squatting. Well, surely some things are sacred and free of squatting, right? Like ironing? Or washing the floor? Wrong.
20) Noisy funerals
In this country, people really put the ‘fun’ in funeral! Seriously, if your neighbour dies, you might as well rent a hotel room for a couple of days because you won’t be sleeping for at least 48 hours. Funerals are raucous affairs held at the home of the deceased, usually involving copious amounts of drinking, karaoke, drumming, a brass band and of course a dead body. (Sounds like my Friday night!) But why so noisy? The reasons are twofold: the copious noise is said to drive away bad spirits, and the raucous party is so that the deceased receives the best possible send-off. We used to have funerals like this in Ireland too, but for some reason they died out (sorry) in the 1950s. Bring them back, I say! Whoever opens the first beer-club-slash-funeral-parlour in Ireland will be a very rich man indeed!
21) Looking young
Asians don’t age. That’s just a natural fact, like the sun setting. It’s impossible to guess the age of someone from Vietnam because they all look 22, due to their fantastic genes. Irish people — though we are all blessed with quick wit, disarming charm and rugged good looks — do not age well. I used to wonder why Vietnamese people my age treated me with a sort of subtle reverence, until it transpired they all thought I was in my late 30s and thus a sort of father figure. Most people here don’t believe I’m only 25 unless I produce multiple forms of I.D., and even then they look at me like I’m some sort of alien because I look so much older than they thought. At this stage, I’m going to have “Mr. Kieran — but you look so old”etched on my headstone. Which will be soon, because apparently I’m already a decrepit old man.
People in Vietnam have sweet teeth, and so they put sugar in everything. At least, they do in the south. Smoothies, barbecued crab, even noodles — everything is drenched in sugar. By living in Vietnam you’re on a one-way train to diabetes-ville. Even milk only comes in two forms: ‘sugary’ and ‘slightly less sugary’. Which explains why Vietnamese children run around with boundless energy the whole time.
23) White skin
This one really bothers me. Why do people here find white skin so attractive? Well, I know why. White skin is seen as a status symbol, a sign that you have money and do not have to do manual labour outside. But still — why?? Vietnamese women pay good money for skin bleaching treatment, bleaching moisturizers, and even skin-whitening deodorant, which I just can’t wrap my head around because I’ve been programmed to think that nothing is more appealing than a good tan. I know I’m shooting myself in the foot because I’m super pale, but there is nothing more attractive than a tan. Actually, since I’m so pale, women here must find me really attractive. Come to think of it, the receptionist in my company smiled and said hello to me this morning. Mother, I’ve finally found a suitor!
When I lived in Italy I used to laugh at the Italians’ love of shameless selfies, but here it’s taken to a whole different level: they’re like Kim Kardashian on sugary milk. Every time I’m in a public place I find myself surrounded by girls taking multiple selfies, like some kind of reverse-paparazzi. I often lie awake at night wondering just how many Vietnamese girls’ selfies I’ve ruined by inadvertently shoving my big Irish head in the shot. Probably loads. Sorry ladies!
25) Zombie by the Cranberries
Hyperbole aside, I have honestly heard this song at least once a day since I arrived here in September 2014. Why an Irish alt-rock hit from 1994 remains so popular in a country half-way around the world is a mystery to me. Seriously, Zombie is bleedin’ everywhere. Karaoke bars, creches, cafes, bus stations. Sometimes when we’re stuck in traffic, my taxi driver will turn around and ask me “do you wanna listen to Zombie by the Cranberries?”
26) Bum guns
No toilet paper? No problem! Just use the handy little butt hose beside the toilet to, ahem, clean up down there. Bum guns are perfect for anybody who enjoys a squirt between the cheeks!
27) Long fingernails
This one is puzzling. I’ve seen a lot of men here, of various social backgrounds, who possess creepily long fingernails. Are they vampires? Classical guitarists? Or worse? I’ve asked around, and there seems to be several theories as to why this is a thing: some maintain that long fingernails show that you don’t have to do manual labour and are thus comfortably middle-class, others reckon the long fingernails function as miniature spoons for eating noodle soup. Either way, I’m intrigued. Answers on the back of a postcard, please!
28) Making a selfie your screensaver
No shame in that. If you look good, work it! Make that selfie your screensaver! That way you’ll be reminded of what an absolute babe (or dude) you are every time you check your phone!
Next week, 28 things about Westerners that Vietnamese don’t understand