My 6 weeks of adventures have put in me the path to meet many Vietnamese people. Living in a more rural part of the country, locals rarely have the chance to try out their English skills outside school. This means that everyone I meet is eager to ask me questions. And here we reach an interesting place – in my part of the country, the students learn ask a few very specific questions. So while they want to try out their English, I’m hit with the same deluge questions every time I meet someone new. So, in no particular order (or rather, in an order that’s convenient for me), here are the top 6 questions I get asked when meeting a new Vietnamese person!
1. Where do you live?
Up until this week, I had to explain that I lived in a hotel. This was tough because a) everyone wants to know which hotel but I’m terrible at street name pronunciation so it takes a while to explain and b) it reminded me that I was living in a hotel (it was a fine hotel, but it was somewhat lonely and confining, and the bed and chairs were rather hard.).
This week, however, this answer changed!
I moved to a house on Friday. I’m renting the top floor of a house owned by a guy named Phil from the UK and his Vietnamese wife V.
V’s parents occupy the first floor, as does a kitchen and dining area.
Phil and V take the second floor, along with an office, two balconies, and a TV area. I’m back in a penthouse room (I resided in the attic room of a three story house my last year at Ohio State, so this territory is familiar and to my liking) and have my own bathroom and two balconies.
They are also letting me borrow a motorbike and bicycle. No change in mailing address.
2. How many people are in your family?
Family is paramount in Vietnamese culture, so it’s only natural that students learn this question early on. Big families are relatively uncommon where I am, as it’s a poorer area of the country and many people can’t afford lots of children.
The follow up question I get is “What does your mother do?” and “What does your father do?” For a fun activity, find someone who barely speaks English and try to explain to them what a lighting director is!
Families also tend to stick together, with several generations living under one roof being commonplace. Though only two generations are living in this house permanently, the family has quickly taken me in as an adoptive child. V and her mother cook for me, clean my room, and generally make sure I’m doing okay.
Phil takes me motorbiking around the area and explains rugby to me.
V’s siblings live in the houses around us. They share yards, guard dogs, kitchen supplies, among other things.
3. Where are you from?
Children holler this question at me most often while I’m wandering around Dong Hoi. I’ve started responding with “Mỹ”, which is Vietnamese for America.
Dong Hoi’s tourism industry has grown since the discovery and development Phong Nga caves (which I’m visiting again on Thursday). Most foreigners are only in town for a few days to hit the caves, lounge by the beach, and recover from busy days in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. I enjoy getting to follow up with “but now I live in Dong Hoi!” and seeing the excitement in the inquirer’s face.
I’ve found that when I reciprocate, the answer is almost always Dong Hoi. Some folks will go to University in another city or perhaps live in Ho Chi Minh City for a little while, but it seems like few people leave permanently and even fewer people move to Dong Hoi. I mentioned earlier that families stick together; a big reason people move back is to get married or take care of their families. Moving from HCMC back to Dong Hoi is a bit like moving from New York City to Rochester, so prospects of marriage and family are pretty compelling to the Vietnamese.
4. How old are you?
Vietnamese are not shy about talking about age. I estimate this is the most common question I get. It seems to be one of the first questions new students learn to say. The problem is that the Vietnamese accent makes this question sound similar to “How are you?”. A somewhat comical quirk to ask “How are you?” and get back “32”. I blame Taylor Swift.
Vietnam measures age using East Asian age reckoning, making a newborn’s age is 1. Everyone adds a year on the first day of Tết, which is February 19th this year. This means that I and most of my fellow 1992ers will turn 24 in about five months.
5. Are you single or are you married?
Like age, Vietnamese are also not shy about wanting to know your relationship status.
There are three ways to answer this question, but only two responses from the asker.
- I AM MARRIED.
The response to this answer is unsurprising follow-up questions. Do you have children, is your wife/husband coming to Vietnam, what does your spouse do, etc.
- I SAY THAT I AM SINGLE.
The response to this answer is a flurry of people trying to set you up. Everyone has a son/daughter/neighbor/friend who is single. As I mentioned, family and marriage are cornerstones in Vietnamese culture, so any single person is a potential spouse. Some people have even nodded or otherwise not-so-subtly gestured towards women in the room to pique and gauge my interest. (In my FAQ blog post, I make mention that I have no intention on returning to the U.S. wedded or otherwise romantically involved. Still full steam ahead on that plan.)
Also common is encouragement of finding a Vietnamese girlfriend and the follow-up question “There are many beautiful girls in Vietnam, yeah?”
- I SAY THAT I HAVE A GIRLFRIEND.
Basically the same response as above.
Seriously though, dating culture is much different in Vietnam. Casual dating is becoming somewhat more commonplace, and I often see teenager couples sitting on benches or motorbikes together in the parks at dusk. (Even more adorable is when they’re motorbiking around the city and one person has his or her foot on the other person’s motorbike.) Still, the bastion of matrimony stands strong and dating is seen as a pathway to marriage. Claiming a relationship status back home does little to impede the tenacious Vietnamese matchmakers.
6. What do you think of Vietnam?
This is the most difficult question to answer. The struggle lies not in knowing what to say, but rather how to say it. How can I give a question this big the answer it deserves and still have that answer cross the language barrier?
My usual answer is, “I like it a lot. It is beautiful. The people are very friendly. The food is very good.” This gets a positive response because the words are easy to understand and because of significance natives place on the beauty of the country, the affability of the people, and the engagement of the culture through cuisine.
The answer’s not a placation; I mean what I say. I only wish I spoke enough Vietnamese or they enough English to grant this question the respect it demands. Here’s what I wish I could communicate:
I’ve only been in Vietnam for six short, thrilling, challenging, enchanting weeks, weeks that feel closer to six hours, so I am speaking with marginal authority at best and precipitously at worst. Regardless, my experience in Vietnam has been tremendous. The landscape of Dong Hoi is stunning. Mountainous jungle backdrops the white sand beaches, and lush rice paddies fill the space in between. Everyone I’ve met wants to dote on me and make sure my needs are met and I’m maximizing the short time I have here, and regardless of language barriers. The people are so admirable. They work hard, they care about and help each other, they socialize, they joke, they smile. The food is rich, complex, and oh so delicious.
These six weeks have been filled with new experiences, memories, challenges, struggles, triumphs, and growth, both big and small, expected and unexpected. I’m learning about my values, my priorities, and more broadly, myself. My days aren’t always easy or fun or exciting. But if every day were easy or fun or exciting, I don’t think I would be having the experience after which I’m seeking. Of course, some days I still question my sanity in making the decision to come here. But thinking about how the past month and a half has gone makes me nothing but excited for every new day in Vietnam.