You Know You’ve been Living in Saigon too Long When You Say…
Ah Saigon, city of crazy traffic, frustrating paperwork, an impossible language and endless possibilities.
Ho Chi Minh City, as Vietnam’s de facto capital is officially (though rarely) called, is home to expats from all over the world, drawn to its rich history and culture, welcoming people and cheap way of life.
But what happens when you’ve lived here a while? Here are the things you’ll probably find yourself saying:
1. “Do you have that in an XXXXL”
You may be the slimmest and fittest little thing back at home, but in Saigon you’re a giant. Get used to Vietnamese stopping you on the street to comment how fat you are or asking you “Is everyone so big like you in England?” Never said in an insulting way, just accept that if you want clothes you’ll need to look out for the signs that say ‘Extra big sizes here’ – that’s you now.
2. “No Fish. Country elephant skin.”
Thought you ordered chicken with rice and some iced water? Think again. With six intonations for each sound Vietnamese is a notoriously difficult language to master and eating out can be a minefield. Simply by saying a word as if you are happy or sad will transform ‘ca’ from fish to aubergine and ‘mi’ from eyelid to noodle. On saying that, most Vietnamese are thrilled you are trying to learn a language they know is difficult, and with some miming and a smile you should be able to come to an arrangement you’re both happy with.
3. “I’ll just check with ‘Expats in HCMC’”
A wondrous fountain of wisdom and friendship, most Saigon expats would be lost without this Facebook forum. Consisting of almost 28,000 members, questions asked (and answered) vary from the standard ‘new to town, let’s grab coffee’ to the more niche ‘does anyone here know where I can get this super rare and previously unheard of fruit.’ If there is anything going on in Saigon you’ll find out about it here first. Be warned though; ask a popular question at your peril. Really!? Another visa question, seriously?
4. “How much?”
In a country deemed to be one of the most corrupt in the world, with the police its most corrupt public service paying to get rid of a problem seems to be commonplace in everyday life. For many bribing a police officer becomes a rite of passage in Vietnam. Expats are advised to keep a ‘police wallet’ handy on their person so when they are stopped and their entire wallet’s contents demanded, the $10 dollars stashed in your fake second wallet looks like all you have. With little interest from the Vietnamese government and British (or other relevant) embassy on this matter, sadly this practise does not seem likely to change anytime soon.
5. “I’ll just call my Xe Om Uncle”
Getting from A to B in a city without a metro, a logical bus system, bicycle or pedestrian paths leaves few transportation options. Cabs are cheap, but unable to move in Saigon’s pulsing heartbeat of 10 lane motorbike traffic. Your options are either to ride your own motorbike, or be driven around on motorbike! In a previous fancy life a Xe Om Uncle may be comparable to a chauffeur but in HCMC he’s an oldish man who takes you where you need to go on the back of his bike for a dollar or two. A good one will be by your side at the drop of a phone call and fill you in with the latest local news as well as offering their two penny’s worth on why Man United is better than Chelsea.
6. “Cook a meal for myself? I don’t understand…”
Cook slow, eat fast is the mentality behind Saigon’s diverse and delicious cuisine and given you can pick up mouth-watering meals for less than $1 you’ll quickly forget how to use your kitchen. Some of the tastiest (in my opinion!) Vietnamese dishes that you can get all over the city include Bánh Mì, Bún chả and of course, Phở Bò, all easier and cheaper to get from eating out than cooking. But let’s not forget, Saigon is one of the world’s fastest growing cities with a growing urban elite population to match, so if you want flashy dining, there are sky view bars and restaurants aplenty.
7. “Let’s meet for coffee.”
Vietnam is now a major producer of coffee and as a result it has a huge café culture. Made much stronger than the coffee we’re used to back home, Vietnamese coffee is meant to be taken slowly and over a lengthy conversation with new or old friends. One of the most popular ways to enjoy Vietnamese coffee is with condensed milk and ice. However, if you’re travelling to the north, don’t forget to try its famous egg coffee which is made, as the name suggests, with egg rather than milk and tastes like you are drinking a giant coffee meringue. The streets of Saigon are filled with coffee venues, from roadside carts selling 30p cups, to the more expensive flavoured mixes a western palate is more accustomed to.
8. “I’ll Line you”
In Vietnam you’re nothing if you can’t convert what you wish to say into an emoticon of some sort. Step forward Line, the messaging platform de rigueur with Saigon’s young(ish) people. You type what you wish to say and Line will transform this into a series of dancing sheep (or the like!) for the respondent to decipher.
9. “I can’t imagine leaving.”
Because while it can be frustrating, polluted and rife with petty crime once you’ve lived in Ho Chi Minh City for a while, it’s hard to think about living anywhere else.