When Nicole and I took our first overseas trip eleven years ago, we packed a separate translation dictionary for each of the four countries we visited and studied them religiously. I still remember going on morning walks in Italy and saying Buongiorno to every single person we saw.
Since that time, for the most part I have slowly stopped learning the language basics of the countries we have visited. This has coincided with us typically staying in a bit nicer hotels since our early travels and, the nicer the hotel it seems, the more likely that the employees speak excellent English and can help me with what I need. (In fairness, Nicole the Francophile has diligently used Duolingo since we've been here to learn basic French for when we get there.)
Thus after almost three weeks of travelling in Vietnam, I didn't even know how to say hello in Vietnamese. To communicate, Nicole and I had been either (a) finding an English speaker or (b) pointing, or (c) using Google Translate on our phones to show people what we want. To be sure, this usually has worked just fine. For the most part, the people we have encountered recognized us as westerners and have greeted us with hellos even if that is the only English they know.
But as I swam the other day, I remembered back to our first trip and thought about how international travel had changed since then. Everyone these days seemed to know at least hello and greet us in our language giving us no reason to learn even a basic local greeting.
Then for some reason it hit me that international travel probably hadn't changed that much in eleven years and people in other countries hadn't all of a sudden learned to say hello. The Italians could say hello on that first trip, I just in my excitement wanted to connect with them in their own language.
I decided to get the excitement back! Just that morning we visited the local, early morning food market to buy fruit. Prior to going, I read on the internet that visitors needed to be prepared to bargain, so I went in ready to make a deal. Long story short, I didn't score any fruit deals, my bargaining (entirely in English, basically just saying lower prices) was completely unsuccessful in that I paid the dealer's initial price at each of the fruit stalls we visited and, overall, we left with a sense that the local fruit market wasn't much fun and that we'd rather just buy mangos at the nearby mini-mart where the owner spoke English.
Fast forward to my swimming revelation, after which I told Nicole that we should try the market one more time but that I would learn some basic Vietnamese before we went. I memorized hello (chào bạn), very good (rất tốt), and how much (bao nhiêu) thinking we would greet people, express that we thought the pho (soup usually eaten in the mornings) that is served at the market was very good, and inquire as to how much things cost. I also decided that I would forget haggling because I didn't really see locals doing it and instead focus on having more of a fun time. (In fairness, buying fruit here, like in the States, isn't exactly a high stakes event; even if I paid a little extra I would be out something like fifty cents.)
Not to overemphasize the overall effect of learning a few Vietnamese words, but what a difference it made to us! We had a great time. While eating pho there were smiles all around at our greetings and, when I needed a spoon, instead of pointing, I looked the word up on Google Translate and then verbally requested a spoon which was another crowd pleaser. Buying fruit went similarly well. The prices seemed fairer and we left with smiles on our faces.
This made me think that, if a little Vietnamese is good, more would be great! A few days later when we were low on fruit I decided to study up the night before on various Vietnamese fruits I'd seen offered at the market and memorize some of the names. I focused on mangosteen (măng cụt) because it is considered the "queen of Vietnamese fruits" and looked interesting and papaya because Nicole and I like it and the name is easy to remember (du du). The next morning I hit the fruit stand with chao bans, ie hellos, all around. Admittedly, from there I got off to a bad start by pointing to a mangosteen, forgetting the name, and then just babbling incoherently which was confusing for everyone. But I recovered quickly when I saw what looked like a papaya, pointed and said du du! No joke this was a hit. The fruit vendor who had been a bit surly a few days back stopped helping other customers and started grabbing random fruits to help me learn their names. It was awesome.
So lesson learned! My excitement to engage with people through their own language is back and since then I've had lots of fun speaking a little Vietnamese here and there even if the person knows some English. It's a small form of respect and has provided lots of great experiences for me. Kết Thúc.
Like this post? Want to read more about Travis and Nicole's travel adventures? Check out Our Overview And Observations From Travelling For Two Months Through Vietnam.
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