Image source: www.citypassguide.com
Once again I’m leaving my city Hanoi to look for a new adventure elsewhere. Poland, then India, and the next challenge now comes from my own country. Yes, the destination is called Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon), a city in the South of Vietnam, also the biggest city of the country. I remember sometime ago a Saigon friend said to me that “Hanoi seems like another country to me”, I think I can now tell him the same thing “I feel like a stranger here in my own country”.
This is not the first time I’ve been to Saigon, but the last time was already 3 years ago when I was just a visitor touring around the city. So much fancy about Saigon then! Taller buildings, wider streets, friendlier people, better services, etc. But things have changed so much since, and especially when you live here it is a lot more different and more REAL than when you are only a tourist.
The first thing I have to “learn” is the language. Yes, you heard me well! Though we speak the same language within the country which is called Vietnamese, the accents in different regions are so distinctive that we have such a hard time understanding each other. On my first week at work I almost went crazy because I couldn’t get the correct email addresses of my clients on the phone. And my colleagues were making fun of me all the time with my “Hanoian accent”. The vocabulary is different as well. And I bet people here also have problem understanding me just as much as my problem understanding them.
The second thing is the food. Southern food is sweeter and spicier than Northern. There are many popular dishes here I have never tried before in my life! My colleagues were joking me “hai lúa” (countryside) since I didn’t know what “hủ tíu bò kho” was. In fact, one of my flat-mates (my flat-mates are all from Hanoi or have been living in Hanoi for a long time) doesn’t really like Southern dishes but for me, I’m quite ok since I often favour sweet taste.
The third thing is the people. Southern people are so different from Northerners. I really mean SO different! I hear that Southerners don’t like Hanoians, because we “invade” Saigon and form a huge community here. There are some places that will make you feel like you’re actually in Hanoi, e.g the area around Tan Son Nhat airport; and even in District 1, I hear Northern accent every day! Yeah, we come here taking too many good jobs, we are “stingy”, we are “not friendly”, we are “rude”, we are “insincere”, etc. Well, I’m not going to defend Northerners against that accusation because sometimes I myself think the same way. Sure thing I won’t exclude myself from the Northern community since I have been growing up in an environment where we don’t spend money in endless parties and shopping and where older people teach us to be obedient and polite (which to some extent has turned into fake courtesy, yes, that is the negative side). However, just to be honest, I’m not feeling comfortable when people here comment on my “vâng, dạ, ạ” (additional words to show politeness in Vietnamese language when you talk to older people) or when I sometimes leave a bit of food on my plate, or when I ask before using other people’s stuff though I know 100% they let me freely use it. I don’t think that is “insincerity”, it’s simply “different culture”, and so what’s the problem with that? Why some people have to laugh at us because of our different culture?
What more? 3 years ago, I thought: woow, services in Saigon were way better than in Hanoi! Everyone smiled with you when you stepped in a restaurant and brought you an extra glass of tea or water compared with the grumpy face of the shop keepers in my neighbourhood in Hanoi. That was why I wanted to move to the smiling land of Saigon so bad! But now, once I really live here in a residential area and not wander around the touristic places, I can tell that my fancy has completely gone. Absolutely the sellers in a local market are not that friendly (once going to the market near my flat, I decided to count smiling faces in each food stand I bought stuff in, and the result was amazing: 1 smiling face out of ALL the food stands I visited), and the shop keepers in small convenient stores are also grumbling to me because I don’t use the correct “Vietnamese” word for a pack of 4 milk boxes. So, my flat-mates and I have come up with the conclusion that the service you receive depends on the money you spend, no matter you are in Hanoi or Saigon. If you go into an upscale restaurant in Hanoi then smiles and free glasses of water are what you get, and if you go into a little local shop in Saigon then grumpy faces are also what you see. As simple as that!
However, to be honest (again), I like Saigon now as the way it is more than the way I fancied about it some years ago. Absolutely it is more real, more practical and I can discover the true reasons why I like living here. Yes, the weather here is not as tough as it is in Hanoi, the streets here are wider and people do not jump the lanes crazily like in Hanoi (although they drive on pavement and stop on the zebra crossing more, but that also means that they DO have free pavements in Saigon which are not turned into parking lots like in Hanoi). There are more entertainment activities to do, however, shame on me that I have been spending much more time sitting in front of the computer than going out..
Those above were just some factual notes from my life in Saigon. And please don’t try to persuade me otherwise because I’m living here and seeing things by my own eyes, not hearing through friends. In conclusion, I have some words to those saying they hate Hanoi and never want to go there (either Vietnamese or expat), also to those who only live in Hanoi, come to visit Saigon once or twice then say they will never move to Saigon: “Don’t trust what you hear, and don’t trust your feelings when you are just a tourist; don’t do a city tour and say you know the city. You never know it unless you really live with it”.
This one last sentence is a bit off topic, but my advice for friends that were planning to live in India then somehow changed their mind because of external factors such as “experience from friends and relatives”: the majority of people’s opinion may not be applicable to every individual; and whether you will like it or not, it’s always a new lesson of your life and it’s worth every try!