Goodbye phở now but not phở-ever

It may be a bit corny but I love you Vietnam

Never have I felt so welcome in a foreign environment. When I walk down the streets I am guaranteed to be met with countless ‘hellos’, smiling faces, street food galore and a range of unusual activities to keenly observe. Vietnamese people aren’t afraid to hug you on your first encounter, invite you in for a meal, hand you a beer at 11am, laugh at you or immediately ask personal questions (Do you have a boyfriend? Do you want a Vietnamese boyfriend? How much did you pay for that?). Vietnam is a nation who likes to wake up early, wear their pyjamas outside, hide from the sun, share food, celebrate loudly and treat friends as family.

How can you not love a country which has stores that just sell remotes? I'm not sure how competitive this market is so can't endorse investment at this point.

Some reasons why I fit in well with the Vietnamese culture:
- We both like a good deal
- We both like fresh food
- We both like to get up early
- We both share the same humour in laughing at the differences and insecurities of another (in Australia we normally do this through sarcasm but its more upfront in Vietnam)
- We both drink tea like water
- We both like burping out loud
- We both like to cross the road whenever we please (this is coming from a convicted jaywalker)

Here's my latest learnings:

1. Purpose is derived within communities 

Working with Indochine Engineering for the last 2 months has highlighted just how important it is to create strong bonds with co-workers and instil shared value. Although work in this engineering consultancy is often individual, the concept of 'team' is so visible. Every lunch time we stop at exactly 11:45am when the classic 'Lean On' (shout-out to Major Lazer and DJ Snake for supplying the tunes) is played, prompting everyone to go to lunch in smaller groups. We then all return to have a quick nap before 'Lean On' is played again at 12:45pm and this time we all dance. We also had a 3-day work holiday at Phu Quoc Island where not only staff were invited, but all wives/husbands and children. Being shipped around beautiful beaches with buses full of loud Vietnamese children was joyous. Plus, singing 'Home among the gum trees' with my team at the Gala dinner definitely contended with the quality of John Williamson's original. Many staff members have worked for the company for 10+ years, showing the incredible loyalty that is strengthened within close communities.
A sneaky lunch nap shot:

High-vis bonding activities on Phu Quo Island:

Friends are closely integrated into family life, to the extent they are called sister and brother. If family members are sick, friends also visit them in hospital. I had an eye-opening experience at an under-staffed and packed public Vietnamese hospital visiting my friend's grandma. At home, people often separate their social and family lives, particularly when sick family members are involved. Although the intention is to not burden anyone with your problems, if we share each other's pain and fears we are actually able to support each other. 

2. Vietnam has a diverse religious landscape 

Vietnam is officially atheist due to the communist ideology which does not observe religion; 81.8% of Vietnamese identify themselves as non-religious, 7.9% Buddhist, and 6.6% Catholic (CIA World Factbook). It is the non-organised religious system of Vietnamese folk that defines their celebrations such as Tet New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival. Following the lunar calendar, these celebrations are very similar to Chinese folk religion (despite their similarities, China is often thought of as Vietnam’s big brother and most Vietnamese openly dislike the country). The Vietnamese spirituality provides a greater sense of purpose and connection to the greater spiritual world, serving to bring personal fulfillment and communal purpose. Offering tables to the gods and spirits are very common in Vietnamese homes and shops. In saying this, the Catholic influence is very strong in Southern Vietnam; I have never seen catholic churches so full on a regular Sunday mass as I have in Saigon or Dalat. You even have to pass an exam if you want to get married in a Catholic church here.  

3. Don't go to a shop at lunch time as everyone may be sleeping

There is always time to eat lunch, chat and nap - I have never seen anyone scoffing rice at their desk at work. It's not that Vietnamese people don’t work hard; I have simply noticed that many people work less intensely for a longer period of time. In comparison, Australian's seem to work more intensely for a shorter period of time. For instance, Vietnamese people freak out when in Australia as the shops close at 5pm - a foreign concept as shops never seem to shut here. However, if you turn up at a Vietnamese shop at lunch time, you may not be served as everyone is sleeping. You also see a lot of older people working in Vietnam, reflective of the non-inclusive social security system. 

4. Look down, not up; beauty is in the details

Vietnam's beauty is found in the hidden alleyways, the noodle shops beneath stairways and the bustling market streets. If you look up you may be distracted by tangled electric wires, low quality construction and air pollution. If you look down, you appreciate the intricacies of daily life, the creativity of home inventions and the tenacity of Vietnamese to execute multiple activities in a tiny amount of space.

It's a weird feeling being on the rooftop of a sky rise in Saigon. The huddled lights emphasise the sheer density of the city.  Appreciating the expanse of the city you quickly realise how rare it is for Vietnamese people themselves to soak in this view. 

5. Give it a go!

Australia prides itself on a 'give it a go' attitude however this has been drowned out by a myriad of safety rules and legal regulations that a developed country demands. Vietnam actually lives this motto. Nothing is an impossibility if you know the right people, so the opportunities are endless. Uber and Grab motorbike drivers also believe in the non-requirement of pre-planning or prior knowledge, often asking me the directions to the place I booked using the mobile app. I have spent many joyous outings with motorbike drivers, lost in the streets of Saigon. The impromptu nature of Vietnam means things either work really well, or really don’t work well. The lack of systems make life more personalised – your motorbike driver may also invite you to get a friendly coffee.

6. Life is lived to the fullest on the footpath

There are no backyards here so life is lived on the street. Funerals, weddings, car washes, parking, markets and food stores are all set up on the footpaths. Neighbours quickly turn into family as you literally live in each other's personal space. Always be aware as you may be handed a beer any time after 10am and it’s rude to refuse. One Sunday morning I was last minute invited to the celebration of a neighbour’s father’s death anniversary:

7. Save face

Visible anger or disappointment is considered a sign of personal weakness and will prevent you progressing in any social or business circle. Never embarrass someone publicly, as making them 'lose face' undermines their reputation as well as your own. Always communicate with respect and sensitivity. To avoid losing face, people may lie. If a friend couldn't actually go out one night, I may only find out a couple of hours before via text. Upfront western communication is blunt and often insensitive to the reputation of others but at least honesty is more so guaranteed. Western society supports self-deprecation, the admittance of fault and imperfection, however showing imperfection in Vietnam, especially in a high position, undermines personal ability. Here it is considered very rude to question a boss, teacher or elder family member due to the high power distance.  

8. Education is a commodity

Ignorance and vulnerability stem from lack of knowledge. The realisation of opportunities that education can bring is highly valued worldwide and especially in Vietnam. Australian international education exports reached a new high of AU$21 billion in 2016-17 (equal to 32% of iron ore export value in the same period). Wealthy Vietnamese families will spend their entire life's savings to send their kids abroad for high school and/or university. English teachers are so well payed here as the language is revered for the international opportunities it unlocks. However, without education that encourages progression of thought and practical implementation we are unable to develop. 

9. Be inquisitive

Living and breathing a new culture forces you to constantly ask questions and discover. My latest google searches include 'why don't they make brown rice in Vietnam' and 'how do you make batteries'. Travelling by yourself also makes you more open to becoming friends with people you wouldn't normally.

Fun fact: there's no brown rice in Vietnam as it's much more expensive than white rice. Both require a milling machine to remove the rice husk however when the bran is not removed (making brown rice) the lipase enzyme is stabilised which makes the grain go off, increasing the costs required to effectively store and transport the grain.

I am constantly challenged and motivated as an engineer, simply looking out the window prompts me to actively think of solutions to the issues surrounding me. Australia is almost too good in its infrastructure and city planning, making engineering skills more valuable in a developing nation context.

10. The north and south divide 

Living in both North Vietnam (Hanoi) and South Vietnam (Dalat and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)) has revealed how much their divided past defines present day. Their separate accents ar very distinct, making a northern Vietnamese feel alienated in Southern Vietnam, and vice versa. Even their foods are distinct; for example, fresh spring rolls are hard to find in the North whilst fried spring rolls are hard to find in the South. I am always asked what city I like better as there is constant competition to prove which is better. Hanoi is the political centre which exhibits more traditional cultural elements. Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as most locals call it) prides itself on being the more modern, vibrant, internationally-connected and developed city. Saigon is the economic centre; the fast-paced lifestyle brings with it more work opportunities and a hectic night life, drawing young people from rural areas to pursue their dreams. This urban shift to the 2 main cities is constantly increasing - Vietnam’s urban population is 34%, growing at a high rate of 3% per year (World Bank 2016). 

11. LGBTQ rights are progressing

In Hanoi I attended the Mardi Gras event held at the Australian embassy where I proudly giggled at Ambassador Craig Chittick judging the drag queen performances. I also spent a Sunday in HCMC running around with rainbow flags in the city centre with some friends who were all young gay guys struggling to find their identity in modern Vietnam. Whilst they had the freedom to shout out their sexuality in the city centre, many did not have familial support to express their true selves at home, posing a threat to the traditional Vietnamese culture and belief in the conventional relationship between a man and woman. The HCMC pride event was supported by the US Embassy whose ambassador is gay himself and his husband lives with him here in Vietnam.

12. Women rock the hardhats

It is not uncommon to find females on construction sites. As a low-skilled job it provides opportunities for many rural people to find employment when agricultural crop or livestock/fishery yields are low. Many people from the Mekong Delta have come to Saigon in the search for jobs as increasing pollution, salinity and rising sea levels threaten their livelihoods.  Construction worker wages are in general very low, generally $220-280 AUD per month. Plus, women are payed about 20% less and this is evident across most sectors. It is common that construction workers will work on-site during the day and sleep in a make-shift shelter on-site at night, returning to their rural homes on weekends.

13. The middle income trap

Vietnam's GDP increased from US$6.3 billion in 1989, to US$33.6 billion in 2000 and US$202.6 in 2016 (World Bank). The annual GDP growth rate is currently 6.2%. Continuing with current trends, the middle and affluent class (incomes over US$714 per month) in Viet Nam will double in size between 2014 and 2020, from 12 million to 33 million. By 2020, Vietnam’s average per capita income will rise from $1,400 to $3,400 a year (Boston Consulting Group Centre for Consumer and Customer Insight). As a result of this rapid economic growth and rise of the middle class in the past 20 plus years, Overseas Development Aid (ODA) funding has recently decreased significantly. The increased economic power reduces international aid priorities in the region, particularly as Vietnam officially became a middle-income country in 2009. According to the Ministry of Finance, the World Bank stopped offering loans to Vietnam (at low or zero interest rates) from July 2017. This is a huge shift as the World Bank sourced nearly 30% of Vietnam’s low-interest international loans in the past. Although Vietnam is not yet a developed nation, it faces the challenge to enable its own stable long-term development without ODA.

14. Sometimes the system doesn’t work

Vietnam’s 37 urban wastewater treatment plants only have total capacity of 890,000 m3/day which is 13% of released wastewater (Ministry of Construction 2016). Therefore, Vietnam treats less than 10% of its total wastewater. 75% of industrial wastewater is being discharged directly into lakes and rivers without treatment (Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment). 37% of the rural population have access to ‘clean’ water meeting quality standards set by the Ministry of Health (Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development 2011). Bottled water companies have an extremely competitive market here as no one can drink the water straight from the tap.

Flooding is common - 49% of HCMC’s 110 channels and canals stretching 5km are non-serviceable due to blockages. Flood control infrastructure should be a priority as HCMC is ranked the 4th most vulnerable city to sea level rise as a % of GDP (Washington Post 2013). I have had to jump on the back of stranger's motorbikes when walking to work after a big down pour as some streets are completely flooded, transforming into a dirty Venice. 

Landfilled solid waste covers approximately 80% of Vietnam's solid waste and 85% of the country's 450 landfills are not sanitary (Vietnam Environment Administration (VEA)), releasing toxic pollutants into the air, soil and water. Whilst 84% of solid waste is collected in urban areas (VEA 2014), rural area collection rate is only 40-55% (Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment 2011). This makes open rubbish dumping and burning common practice (despite waste burning being illegal).

15. Reverse racism exists

Sometimes all I wanted was to look Vietnamese so people wouldn't stare, especially as I eat noodles for breakfast and consider myself pretty damn Vietnamese. However, my Western appearance will guarantee me a poolside seat at the fanciest hotels in town (which I don't stay at) and any Westerner can get a well paid job here teaching English without any training (you just need a degree). Westerners are often incorrectly assumed to be rich and intelligent so it sometimes works in your favour to stand out. 

16. Why is culture preservation associated with low socioeconomic power?

Vietnam's 54 ethnic minority groups represent 70% of the extreme poor but make up less than 15% of the country’s population and suffer deeply from social inequalities. They are the farmers producing your coffee, tea, pepper, vegetables and fruit. Some of these families get caught up in 900% interest loans. Commodification of food and industrialisation of agriculture has destroyed their independence and livelihoods.

17. PDA is not accepted but women holding hands is

People are constantly touching each other here but in a different way. PDA (public display of affection) between couples is definitely not accepted (so that’s why couples like secret motorbike cuddles) and you don’t hug or kiss when you greet each other. However, you are constantly being pulled, tugged and touched by others. Women often hold hands with each other when walking down the street. Small spaces in Vietnam means personal space is rare and sharing rooms and beds is common. 

18. Living overseas sometimes makes me more Australian

I am pretty sure I say 'mate' more often then I used to and I developed a weird habit of eating vegemite straight from the squeeze bottle. I talk about kangaroos as if they are my best friends and I even played my first competitive game of AFL in Vietnam. I was in fact playing for Vietnam, against Cambodia, and Vietnam won! Most our team was twice the size of some little Cambodian girls, but this was not classified as an unfair advantage. 

19. Dare to truly problem solve

Now ‘innovation’ is programmed into institutions and companies, but to truly grasp the concept of innovation you can’t read textbooks. When your resources are minimal you are forced to innovate. I am constantly admiring how an entire street food store can be packed into a tiny cart and be wheeled away within minutes. 

Dr Paul Olivier, who I worked with in Dalat, is an example of a true innovator who has constantly devised his own career path based on incredibly clever applications of technology to real world issues. He created million dollar machines that highly accurately separate bad carrots from good carrots, and other machines that separate all the components of shredded automobiles to optimise re-use potential. Dr Paul has always worked on the belief that waste is our greatest resource. I was lucky enough to work with him in the development of small scale waste transformation technology, including the biomass gasifier which uses agricultural by-products (e.g. rice husks, corn cobs, macadamia shells) to create heat energy for cooking as well as biochar. 

People ask me what I will take away from Vietnam the most? I say the people and the passion. Whatever you do in life, do it with purpose and continue to challenge yourself. Be inquisitive, meet new people and try new things. People are important and patience is definitely a virtue – nothing will get done unless you invest in personal relationships. Share both your wins and your losses. 

In my final hours in Vietnam I was on the footpath savouring the last moments and last meals, hugging good friends and strangers. I was in prime position to watch the humorous daily activities and breathe in some freshly polluted air. 

Goodbye phở now but not phở-ever...I will be back.


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