I’ve been in Vietnam a few weeks now, and it’s amazing how much can be conveyed using mime, small words, and numbers.
Some people can have a full conversation with you, without either of you actually knowing much of the other’s language.
But transactions are the really peculiar bit. Vietnam’s currency uses some (initially eye-watering) numbers – seeing someone put two fingers up and meaning 20,000 VND takes a little getting used to.
After that, you’re well into the realms of typing out numbers on calculators to barter in tourist hotspots, writing numbers on notepaper, or, in one restaurant, doing the whole thing through Google Translate on the waiter’s phone.
Some people might just show you the notes you have to give them.
One lady was very patient with me and didn’t try to short change me when I misinterpreted her various attempts at saying “55” – meaning 55,000. Which I appreciated, seeing as I’d only been in the country a day, had very little sleep, and didn’t work out what she was getting at until several minutes after leaving.
One cabbie got irked that we know the quick way to the hotel, so he couldn’t take us on a tourist route and overcharge us. Instead, he rolled just far enough forward when we arrived to make sure he couldn’t give us change from 30,000 VND. That made for a particularly frosty ‘conversation’.
As did the incident with the cab from the airport trying to charge us for his airport parking fee. Seemed odd, as he’d already paid it to get in to get into the rank at the terminal. If we had booked him, fair cop, but we hadn’t. Yet his frustration at our questioning the situation was evident, arguably even patronising.
Most shops in workaday Haiphong don’t mind one bit if you stop by and browse. A lot of people are just happy to say ‘hello’ in passing (literally). The popular World Heritage site at Hoi An, on the flip side, is full of shop staff hustling for business, and even pleading you in broken English or somber-sounding Vietnamese to buy something – as if you hadn’t noticed the free WiFi, flatscreen TVs and general affluence of the area and would somehow be doing them a massive favour by spending money there.
The long and short of it? It’s funny when you realise that money has a common, global, language all of its own, and we can all understand it with surprisingly little trouble.