The cost of land and housing in Hanoi, the lost art of four hour tea drinking sessions, Vingroup President Phạm Nhật Vượng’s (very) alleged links to a/the concrete mafia, adulterated and ersatz coffee scandals, the fashion export industry’s inexorable unfairness, regional variations on basic phở spices, conspicuous consumption trends, the centrality of Hanoian sidewalks and streetlife, ASEAN alcohol prices, international tax-free thresholds, appropriate monosodium glutamate deployment, the one party system’s throttling of development.
Oh, and Rihanna.
Does it still qualify as a conversation if one participant talks while the other silently congratulates himself on powering through tenuous comprehension, contributing a satisfied “ừ nhỉ”1 at every significant breakthrough?
I was there for the right reasons. A recently married Vietnamese couple, whose ages—the husband slightly older than me, the wife slightly younger—corrupted my personal pronoun choices, had laughed at me joking around with the proprietor of a Phố Cổ cafe. Bia hơi invitations led to great times with their friends and a wormhole into the parallel health and safety standard universe of the Vietnamese club experience. Sorry DJs. Height, the prison of a packed dance floor, and ubiquitous cigarettes transforms any music inciting vigorous arm movements into an indistinguishable thrum of imminent immolation. Never send to know for whom the roof raises; it raises for thee.
The couple mentioned their marriage had acquired them the responsibility of running the family’s Đồng Đa bar. Gratitude inspired a show of support one quiet weeknight—a large space by Hanoian standards, wall-papered with murals from Greek and Roman antiquity. Three big screens ran FashionTV and most of the tables and booths were unoccupied. A customer or a relative, a man in his thirties, working his way solo through multiple refilled pots of green tea, abandoned his audible iPhone game and introduced himself in Vietnamese. We talked for an hour and a half. Instead of the standard “vân vân" 2, he’d trail off his implicit lists with a rapid, vaguely Germanic-sounding “ah-bɛ-tsɛ ah-bɛ-tsɛ”. The couple debated certain points or supplied simpler synonyms when they weren’t busy.
We are large, we contain multitudes…eh.
No earthshaking revelations, potentially important nuance lost to the aether. An inherent selection bias, as only a specific type of person is willing to bear execrable Vietnamese for any extended length of time. If the situation was reversed I’d give up around the fifth pitiful, “Sorry, what was that? I couldn’t quite hear clearly.” And I imagine someone comfortable with engaging a stranger to such a degree—particularly a stranger who telegraphs his taxing demands on patience—is fundamentally more open or opinionated or cosmopolitan than the rest of us jammed under the bell curve’s hulking mass. It’s not something you easily forget though, or dismiss entirely either. The worst kind of sweeping generalisations are consolidated when their subjects’ right to reply is denied, diminished, or summarily dismissed. First-hand bumps against the complex strangeness of reality, trading thoughts in another language on the “Where Have You Been” music video under the watchful ancient statue eyes of a bar in Hanoi, has to make you a little more tentative about whipping out the authoritative pronouncements.
Opinion pieces that brush the hair-trigger of my indignation pollute more considered analyses on the same theme. Recognise my foresight damn you, reassure me of my usefulness! Brain-raking smugness aside…the critiques are probably right. High school language classes were a nightmare. I’m the lingual equivalent of the born-again evangelist, the guy overflowing with such an irritating surfeit of recovered faith he simply must shout its welcoming embrace at whoever falls prey to his ambush. The problems with the Australian Government’s PowerPoint visions of Asia Literacy are eloquently and informatively highlighted in an essay by Dr Lewis Mayo. They’re the same perspectives that birth one well-meaning caller’s contribution near the end of an excellent Sinica podcast. His question about whether urging Chinese study upon his nieces “and any college type person” is sound advice was beautifully answered by Danwei’s Jeremy Goldkorn. You don’t torture yourself with Mandarin in the interests of future job security. You do it to unlock a “completely different way of thinking about life and language and writing”.
I get the depressing economies of journalism that necessitate its Airbourne Battalions and their frequent overreaches. I get that a tiny minority has the luxury of opportunities like those I’m enjoying, and a smaller subset see any worth in the sacrifices seizing them requires. I get that for most of the planet the whole point is moot and frankly kind of ridiculous.
But such random, dislocating weirdness always jolts me back to how learning another language is—fundamentally—really fucking cool. Even skimming the surface can feel like a privilege when so many others soar right on over the craziness below the clouds.