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My first Vietnamese friend

December 18, 2010

After three month in Vietnam, I have my first Vietnamese friend. I’ve met many locals, but Ann is the first one that I have kept in contact with and seen on a personal basis. Her English and the level of comfort we share make it so we can discuss nearly anything. I feel privileged that she wants to be my friend.

Her life fascinates me, and she seems happy answering all my questions. She is from a town several hours away where her mother still lives (her father died in a motorbike accident.) Though she isn’t a nun, she lives here in Saigon in a convent. Several hundred girls (all students) live there very inexpensively. They sleep in dorms (under the supervision of several nuns,) waking either at 4:30 or 5:30, depending on the day of the week, to exercise and cook their meals together. One night while I chatted to her online, they were having a contest similar to American Idol in the dorm.

Some parts of the lifestyle sound stifling to me – the 9:30pm curfew and forced community – but she, and her younger sister who lives there, feel safe and love it. She said once she finishes studying next year she will find something else to study so she can continue living there. I won’t underestimate the value of a safe home and people who look out for you in a big city like this.

We met for lunch this week, and ended up in a garage-sized room eating a bowl of noodles, lettuce-like greens, some pickled veggies, and a little of all the meats they offered (a skewer of beef, a slice of pork, a spring roll.) It was very similar to Hanoi’s bun cha but without the broth. It was obviously a popular place, because part way through our meal, when all the other tables were full, we shared our 2’x3’ metal square with two young men.

 

 

Next, we went back near her office for a ‘drink.’ I use this term loosely. It was in a cup, but we ate it with a spoon. I really don’t know what it was. We bought it from one of the many ladies who carry their shop on a pole on their shoulder. The basket on one side has a huge pot with something white and yogurt-y. The other basket has small containers of more unidentified, edible things. Somehow, she also carries two tiny stools for her customers and a bag with plastic cups and spoons.

 

 

 

She ladled out two cups – first the white stuff, then something the color of apple pie filling but with clear things shaped like kernels of corn, then another layer of something white but more liquid. The only information I got from Ann was that some of it was soy products. I was very surprised to discover that it was warm. In spite of my trepidation, it was quite good. It was fairly mild in flavor and leaned more toward the sweet side than anything else. I had no trouble eating all of it. The only trouble I had was sitting on a stool that was six inches high while wearing a dress.

 

 

Ann explained that it’s actually illegal to operate as a street vendor, but that the government knows that for most of these people it’s the only way they earn money. The lady who served us, and charged less than $.50 for both drinks, has a small baby that someone takes care of. Ann said she once tried to carry one of the shoulder poles before and couldn’t even lift it. To say their lives are difficult doesn’t even begin to touch the reality of it.

We wandered around for a while, her answering my questions about Vietnam, me answering her questions about people and relationships, discussing the affectionate couples on the benches in the park, the people we passed on the streets, and window-shopping.

When we walk, she either twines her arm around mine or holds my hand. Other than in the parks, you will rarely see physical contact between opposite sexes, but the Vietnamese are very affectionate between the same sex. This has taken a little adjustment for me, but I enjoy it. With time, I can learn to appreciate nearly any sign of fondness. When we greeted each other she hugged me and lightly pinched my cheek saying how pretty I looked. I feel so honored.

Our next stop was the local market near her home. We sat at a stand, and I asked for a caphe sua da (iced Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk.) Evidently the lady thought I said soda and brought me a can of club soda with a cup with lime juice, sugar, and ice. Despite my protests, Ann immediately offered to drink it herself, and told the lady what I actually wanted. When my order came I had my back turned, and I accidentally hit it with my elbow. It wasn’t ruined but there was a mess, and I felt really foolish and clumsy. I apologized in English and Vietnamese, but the lady and Ann both refused to hear it.

This is when I realized that they were saving face for me. Neither of them would acknowledge that anything had happened for which I should be embarrassed. I’ve always heard how you never yell at someone or do anything to make them lose face. Sometimes this seems really frustrating – especially when I think someone needs to be chastised. But, after having the same grace, the same refusal to let another be ashamed, extended to me, I was finally able to appreciate it. It was an amazing, practical lesson in understanding their culture.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 18, 2010 15:35

    What sort of religious convent is it? Catholic or Buddhist?

    • December 18, 2010 23:00

      It’s a Catholic convent next to a hot pink Catholic church. From what I’ve seen, Catholicism is the second most prominent religion here.

  2. Charity permalink
    December 18, 2010 16:44

    Sweet story!

  3. Mary Holby permalink
    December 20, 2010 08:10

    Sweet story too. How did you meet?

    • December 20, 2010 23:35

      She is a realtor and helped some of our friends find their apartment. I met her at their house warming party.

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