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A Case of Extreme Hospitality

01.12.2011

I’ve returned to Vietnam for the second time in as many years, and I love it. Here are a few reasons why:

Halong Bay

Man Mai's Headdress

Some other reasons:

The food

No matter where you go in Vietnam, the food is probably going to be awesome. Street food, I mean. None of this hotel/restaurant caper. I’m talking squatting on a 10cm-high plastic chair next to the gutter and (in my case) mishandling chopsticks while enjoying some fresh ph.

(Heads-up: if you’re offered a can of beer, check first that it is beer because it might really be two beer cans fitted together and containing an entire cooked bird. Maintaining culinary politeness in this situation is rather challenging. I suggest you try and eat a little bit so as not be rude. To be honest, it doesn’t taste too bad. It just won’t quite be the beer you may have been expecting.)

The people

I love maps. They’re my friends. Except in Hanoi, where street signs are all over the place, or sometimes point to the wrong streets, or just aren’t there. You know you’re in a great city when someone crosses the road (through insane traffic) just to let you know which way to go.

(The people in the pictures below aren’t from Hanoi, but they’re awesome nonetheless.)

The entertainment

I went to the Hanoi Opera House tonight for the final performance of the Danish-Vietnamese Gala Evening. (Yes, this concert was real, and I have the program to prove it.) The performances were an unusual cultural mix: the ballet segment was like a saccharine high school spectacular number; the orchestral pieces were quite good; and the contemporary Vietnamese choreography was intriguing.

Some of the most entertaining moments of the evening, however, came from the audience, from a little girl two rows in front of me who was doing ballet movements with her arms the entire way through the orchestral pieces, to the camera crews flitting about the aisles and leaning into the orchestra pit to get close-ups of the musicians. And no Danish-Vietnamese Gala Evening would be complete without phones ringing, small children talking loudly, adults talking softly, hocking, coughing, cameras flashing, and people coming and going as they please. Can’t wait for the Water Puppet Theatre tomorrow night!

The customer service

I’m in two minds about this. In general, people are really, really nice and accommodating and agreeable (especially if you’re bartering with a smile). But sometimes the hospitality is extreme, and I don’t cope very well when this happens. I guess you might call it stage fright. I feel as though I have to suddenly be on my bestest behaviour. Having had a humble Aussie country upbringing devoid of silverware, table manners and courteous nods, I become unsure about how I should behave when faced with a case of Extreme Hospitality.

Extreme Hospitality pounced on me this morning when I met the travel agent in the hotel foyer to arrange payment of my hotel room. I imagined that this would take approximately 5 minutes using my credit card. Wishful thinking. It took 2 hours.

To begin, I sat down with Mr Tho Nguyen, the ultra suave travel agent (I’m not exaggerating – he oozed brand names), as well as the prim, suited hotel manager, for a brief introduction. Both of them called me Kinsela. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that was my surname because they were trying so hard.

(The hotel manager had approached me at breakfast this morning to introduce himself and inquire after my health and hotel satisfaction levels. Because we already knew one another by the time I met Mr Tho, social etiquette demanded that the manager introduce me to Mr Tho, thus transferring the hospitality baton in one swift move. I remembered to show an appropriate amount of interest in both their business cards when they handed them to me. At their vehement insistence, I also finished all the water in my glass.)

Mr Tho informed me that to make the credit card payment we needed to go to his office, which was “just around the corner”. He rang his driver, who mounted the pavement outside the hotel, and Mr Tho opened the car door for me. I was already feeling slightly self-conscious from the stares that my curly blonde hair was attracting, and the royalty treatment did not exactly help me in my attempts to blend in as a normal tourist.

We drove to Mr Tho’s office, which turned out to be 20 minutes away. (I was busting at this point from all the Extreme Hospitality water I’d consumed.) En route, I asked Mr Tho if he knew where I could get a Vietnamese SIM card. He said he’d take me to a place where I could buy one, but when we arrived I realised I didn’t have any cash, so he crossed the road with me, being very protective of my safety in the face of crazy Hanoi traffic, waited for me at the ATM, took me back to the SIM card street seller, then finally we went to his office.

They were renovating, so Mr Tho was exceedingly apologetic for the noise (and the wet paint rails). We took our shoes off, sat down, discussed payments, made payments, thumbed through brochures, and then at Mr Tho’s suggestion, went for coffee downstairs.

Of course, I had to go ahead and order a hot coffee, which meant it came in a drip-feed filter and took around 20 minutes to drain into my cup. (Apparently the freemen read two newspapers when drinking this type of coffee – one while the coffee filters, one while they drink it. They’re called freemen because they’re either unemployed or really rich. Thus they don’t work and are ‘free’. I got the impression that this practice is frowned upon in brand-name social circles.) By this stage, I had got to know Mr Tho quite well and we were already delving into topics such as hilarious slang words in different English-speaking countries, and syntactical oddities in Malaysian and Vietnamese English.

Finally, Mr Tho asked me what I had planned for the day. I glanced at my list and nominated the Opera House. He called his driver and I was chauffeured to the Opera House steps.

It was midday by the time I arrived, and all this Extreme Hospitality had made me hungry, so I went and got a nice steaming bowl of ph.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 14.01.2012 11:46 PM

    The trip was certainly worth it! Fantastic work!

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