Experiencing Culture Shock in Vietnam

November 25, 2008 2 Comments »

Room with a View

There are many reason to have culture shock when you arrive in Vietnam from the western world.  It’s likely the first thing that will hit you is the shock of the Motorbike culture. Followed by the number of people, how everyone seems to live and eat outside, horns, agressive markets, and more. Yet it was none of these things that shocked me, instead, I experienced construction culture shock in Vietnam.

Room with a Shocking View

During my first few months in HCMC I stayed in a guest house on and off for a few weeks at a time. The guesthouse was close to work, and next to tons of cheap eating places in the heart of the ‘backpacker’ district. However, with the good comes the bad…right? For $18 a night I didn’t expect to have a penthouse view, so when I arrived in my room and pulled back the curtains to see what my view was, I wasn’t surprised to find out I looked out on a huge mud pit which was masquerading as a construction site.

Who needs views of trees when you can have a lovely view of large cranes. Since I taught ESL during the day, I felt this noisy construction ‘mess’ wouldn’t bother me – so I let it roll right off my back as you are supposed to do in Asia if you want to survive.

However, I soon realized I had overlooked the golden rule in Asia…there are no rules.

24/7 Construction

Vietnam culture shock construction

Smoke Break

The construction was conducted 24 hours a day 7 days a week. I have no idea how many crews of people they had coming and going – but there was at least 15 people working around the site every time I looked out the window. It didn’t matter if it was pouring down rain, or if it was 3am; they were still there, working away driving pylons in a pit of mud that swallowed them like quick sand when they tried to walk.

With the 24/7 activity, came a symphony of sounds. Sadly the sounds didn’t resemble Mozart, instead they were the classic masterpieces of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and Phantom of the Opera.

Who knew that I would be awoken at 3AM by broadway tunes in Vietnam? One night at midnight I was serenaded by Christmas music. It’s like dueling banjos each tune competing in volume over the next. Strangely enough the music was coming from the construction site vehicles; surprising…not really.

All over Asia trucks and large vehicles have a warning signal for when they back up. However, it’s not the traditional beep, beep, beep that we are used to in North America, it’s more sophisticated than that. It’s generally a whole tune that sounds like it’s coming from an old, tinny Atari game from 1980. A cheap tinny speaker sound that is invoked each time a truck is put in reverse; at any time of the day or night.

Vietnam construction

Dirty Job

I’m not really sure what the fascination with vehicle musical tunes is. One night I was commuting home on a motorbike and the city bus was making a right turn in front of us – as soon as the bus turned on his blinker (a miracle that even happened), Happy Birthday started chiming from the bus.

The turn signal actually chimed happy birthday. You can imagine my surprise! Is there such a stimulation overload here in HCMC that a simple blinking turn signal is not enough…it has to play the Birthday song too?!

Cultural Differences in Safety

After a day or so, I found that the construction site was my main form of entertainment. It was like watching a big-screen TV show the best reality show ever. Step aside “Deadliest Catch”…construction workers in Vietnam play Russian roulette with their safety and lives every day. I was glued to the window fascinated about what people were doing – or not doing. I would hang out the window and take photos with my telephoto lens as someone had to capture this on film else no one would believe me.
Vietnam cultureal differences and safety

Don’t look!

I watched as men climbed a huge crane without ‘tethering in’ in a thunderstorm full of lightening. I watched them weld rebar with absolutely no protective gear. In fact, they would stare right into the welding light/flame. Sometime if there were a bunch of ‘sparks’ flying, they would put up their free hand to shade their eyes…but that was about it. I watched mud spew up from deep holes as if they struck oil and everyone scattered running to ‘safety’. There was no end to the peril these men were put in every day….and they didn’t even care about the danger, which was probably the hardest part to understand.

Accepting Cultural Differences and Finding Some Similarities

Vietnam cultura shock

Don’t look down…(click to enlarge)

It was clear that Vietnamese construction sites operated quite differently from the western world; however, one thing was surprisingly the same.

One evening I ran across the street to get a bottle of water to brush my teeth and 4 construction workers were sitting on the curb taking a break at 10PM on a Friday. As I ran out of the store with my purchase – I heard it…a cat call.

It stopped me in my tracks. Now that’s not a sound you hear often in Vietnam. ‘Aggressive chauvinist’ is not one of the words I would normally use to describe Vietnamese men. However, after I turned and gave them a disapproving look, I crossed that street and smiled to myself in amazement; construction workers are the same all over the world.

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