12 things you can learn from the resourceful people of Vietnam.
Được không means it’s possible. Không được means impossible.
I moved to Vietnam three and a half years ago; I live on the outskirts of a glorious city called HCMC, Saigon as many of you will know it. It has an enormous population of around 13 million. A mish-mash of people from all over the globe squished into this sprawling urban landscape of tall skinny houses, shanty huts, opulent villas and luxury condos. It is very much a city of contrasts.
We do all share some common challenges; risking our lives every time we set outside in that perilous multi-directional traffic, breathing in the toxic air, and trying to stay afloat in the midst of rainy season. I love this city and its quirks with all my heart. In many ways, it’s lawless, not like the wild west, more like a free-flowing metropolis of happy go lucky inhabitants and I don’t know how this madness all works, but it does.
So, I want to step away from plastic pollution for a few minutes. It is a critical issue, yes, but it is also a very sombre issue, and that is an entirely different article. I want to celebrate the bits that are often overlooked…
Vietnam is a country of resourcefulness, waste not want not, make do and mend, it is completely normal to reduce, reuse and recycle.
I once sat on a plane behind a Vietnamese family. I watched the Mother painstakingly remove each of the families headphones from the packaging, very gently, to make sure she didn’t break it, then carefully fold each of the packets up and put them in her handbag to take home with her.
This is a prime example of what I mean about waste not want not. The lady will get multiple uses out of those bags before they end up in the river; we just need to address the river part.
So anyway, here are some of the brilliant, (sometimes hilarious) things we can learn from this developing country, and it’s people.
1. Time And Fluidity
Ah, yes, time. Until I moved here, I thought that time was fundamentally important, a crucial tool to enable us to go about our everyday life; without it, we would be royally f*cked. Not something I am particularly fond of as my timekeeping is poor. Imagine my glee when I moved here and found out that time is only a rough guide, an estimate, approximation. There are two main reasons for this — one the traffic is horrendous and unpredictable; a 30-minute journey can take 2 hours in rainy season, it only takes for your chosen bridge across the river to be blocked and you are screwed. The second is because people here are relaxed; it’s no big deal; it is what it is and all those other things. I once arrived 10 minutes late at the hairdressers and scuttled through the door apologising as I went and they looked a little confused, I mean 10 minutes is not even really late here. It’s all fluid; perhaps I was late, maybe someone was early, in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter.
2. Laws (especially road laws)
Similar to the above, they are just a guide. The direction of traffic — you decide, traffic lights — you decide. I will never forget the day we saw a man in D1 (the city centre) march confidently into the road on a green man:
GREEN MAN GO!
he said, and we looked at him, looked at the moving traffic, and I got ready to grab him by the shirt and drag him back to safety.
If someone had told me I would be one of those people that fearlessly rides their motorbike (or even more fearlessly bicycle) into the path of oncoming traffic 3.5 years ago oh how I would have laughed. Now I am pretty indistinguishable from the Vietnamese. The traffic is like water it ebbs, flows and bends around things; as long as you ebb and flow with it, you’ll be fine. If you need to go that way, you go that way, missed your turn? Turn around and go back! No road there? MAKE ONE WITH YOUR SCOOTER! And the police. Well, they are too busy solving actual crimes to worry about the rather unimportant issue of what direction people are driving in.
3. Trash Collections — Rubbish
Every day where I live, we get two official rubbish collections — one in the morning, one in the evening. Then we get the ladies (almost exclusively ladies) that come round on their motorbikes hunting for treasure. By treasure I mean anything they can take to exchange for money, in my neighbourhood, this is cardboard, cans and any electrical parts. I began sorting my rubbish and separating things for them as I couldn’t bear the thought of them having to sort through my four cats soiled litter to find that one random can that fell to the bottom. I am happy to do so as I know it will be recycled and they will get a little cash. If you have something else you no longer want — leave it outside; someone will take it. I had left shoes, suitcases, furniture, most of which had already been spotted, assessed and was being closed in on before I even made my way back up the garden path. It is not rubbish to someone else.
4. Compact Disk Or Reflecting Device?
Ahh the humble compact disk, long abandoned for more high tech downloadable solutions. What to do with your old CDS? Reflectors, of course. Put them on your trike, your bike, your food stand; whatever needs reflecting, and you are good to go.
5. Giant Leaves Are Rain/Dirt Shields
See how seamlessly this leaf becomes a makeshift mudguard. Also extremely handy if you left the house without your umbrella.
Scooters are the transport of choice here — Smaller so better in traffic, can hold up to four adults plus one additional child, dog, cat, or a f*cktonne of whatever you might need to carry home, easy to manoeuvre, great in rainy season, cheap to run, cheap to insure, cheap.
7. The Rainy Season Magic Shop Switch
I have still not worked out how the little stands at the side of the road can go from selling, food/goldfish/T-shirts/Jeans/Army Surplus and the first spit of rain (spit rain is what my friend Linh calls it) their stand is transformed to sell umbrellas and ponchos. It is a fishing umbrella at the side of the road, where do they keep the other stuff? How do they switch it so fast? It’s a mystery!
You can just go and do things here. You want to get the ferry to the beach, you go to the port on the day and jump on a boat. You want to arrange a car to the mangroves, you book it using Grab (our version of Uber), and off you go. You don’t need to schedule things or arrange things weeks or months in advance; you can do it on the day. Everything is geared up for spontaneity, and because everything is very inexpensive, you often find yourself on all sorts of impromptu adventures!
Everything runs on a trust system here. When your parcel arrives from Lazada (our version of Amazon), you are allowed to open it and check it before handing over the money, or handing said item back to be returned. When I ordered a sewing machine, the delivery man insisted on getting it out of the box and plugging it in to show me it all worked ok. Most things can be delivered from lunch to cat litter, tools, motorbike parts , and for almost everything you order, you pay when it arrives. I have tried to pay in advance before and I broke the system, no one does that. Trust is fundamental, without trust, the infrastructure of the country would collapse.
10. We Will Fix It
Anything can be patched up, repurposed and reused. ANYTHING. This goes from the very small, my cleaner took my old broken air fryer as she thought it could be repaired, to the large, these patchwork shanty huts on the river are both beautiful and terrifying. There are people by the side of the road with little stands to fix all sorts of things; you just drive along until you find the one you need. A man comes round to our neighbourhood once a month to re-sharpen knives and scissors. There are tailors to repair your clothes. If it has reached the end of life for you, then refer to point 3. Leave it outside, and someone else will claim it.
11. Make The Most Of Daylight
We do not alter our clocks here, so it gets dark from around 5 pm — 6:30 pm all year round which kind of sucks. People compensate for this by getting up super EARLY to make the most of the light, also because it tends to be cooler in the mornings. From around 4 am you will find the parks full of people going about their daily exercise, dancing, playing badminton, doing their Thai Chi, meditation and so on. Every time I run through and see the park alive with activity, it puts a big smile on my face. GET UP PEOPLE IT’S GOOD FOR YOU!
12. Be Nice
I think that one of the things I hear the most when people come to visit.
Arent the people friendly?!
They are; super friendly, proud, but humble and would do anything to be able to help. A long time ago, I can remember asking my Vietnamese teacher about a bad experience where I was trying to speak Vietnamese, and it had ended (as it so often does) rather disastrously. She explained that their reaction would have been because they felt embarrassed that they couldn’t understand and therefore help. This is true, and later I began to understand the level of this after a similar occurrence where we had tried to buy paint.
We were attempting to explain (google translate and Pinterest) that we wanted the same colour in gloss and emulsion. We were with the patient shop owner for almost an hour pointing at things on our phones, while gesticulating wildly at random objects in the store. There was whooping and cheering when he finally managed to unravel this intricate puzzle; this resulted in him not charging us for the paint, which was to us extremely embarrassing. To him, it was extremely awkward because he took a long time to be able to understand and therefore help us. We never buy paint from anywhere else, he has assisted us with all manner of things before we had motorbikes and when my language skills were EVEN worse than they are now.
It might not sound like much, but this one kind man and his Mother (who was how we happened across the shop in the first place) gave us the (somewhat misguided) courage to go into all sorts of places and try to buy things, sometimes successfully, often not.
So that concludes a very brief overview of how life works here. You have a bunch of really happy proud, humble, positive, kind, patient people that have been through a world of sh*t, that don’t have very much. A nation that has just triumphantly punched COVID-19 in the face. Yes, they are still facing some challenges, but instead of moaning and complaining they just get on with it. Creatively, late, in the wrong direction with a big smile on their face.
See this and more of my wrting here:https://medium.com/@anouskaparr
First published on medium: https://medium.com/the-haven/%C4%91%C6%B0%E1%BB%A3c-kh%C3%B4ng-yes-it-will-fit-on-the-scooter-a2bd5e86f077