Lunch and an existential crisis

There are some places in Sai Gon where you are sure to find foreigners; tourist spots like the Central Post Office, Notre Dame, or the Independence Palace.

I happen to live and work in the dead centre of this tourist zone, so I do tend to spend a lot of time there. I sometimes pick up a Banh Mi (a delicious Vietnamese baguette) and sit down in one of the parks to eat and more often than not, I’ll get some students coming up to me to ask if they can practice their English. Just about every foreigner is assumed to speak English and in my experience it is rare that this isn’t the case. In the last couple of decades, English has easily surpassed French as the Lingua Franca of foreigners living in Viet Nam (sorry Francophones).

These students are always in groups of 3-7 people and are nervous but unfailingly polite.

I’ve had some great conversations and get some wonderful insights into the lives of young Vietnamese people… and then there are those mistranslated questions that have you questioning all your life choices.

Some great examples are – “Where are your feelings?” “What are your visions and dreams?” “What is your life?”

Christ, kid! I’m just trying to eat my sandwich and you’re asking me to plumb the depths of my soul.

To avoid having to answer the sort of existential questions that leave me awake at night, I just quickly fix a couple of those simple errors – I’ll tell them it is better to say, “How are you feeling?” “What do you dream of doing in the future?” and “Can you tell me about your life?”

Actually, I love these students’ enthusiasm and appreciate the amount of courage it takes to walk up to a complete stranger and strike up a conversation in a language they’re still learning. I’d encourage anyone to have a chat with these kids, talk for as long or briefly as you like.  You’ll probably get as much out of the experience as they do and it is an easy way to do that one-good-deed-a-day thing.

If that doesn’t convince you then you should realise that you’re talking to people with local knowledge. Ask those burning questions! Get restaurant recommendations! I was once given the name of a Cha Ca place (pan-fried ling fish made with turmeric, dill, curry powder, peanuts, and vermicelli noodles) that was so good I almost wept. And if you’re not convinced by that alone, then nothing will.


2 thoughts on “Lunch and an existential crisis

  1. I agree with you whole heartedly on this. I’m in HCMC 4 to 6 times a year for work and every trip I try to make time on Saturday or Sunday morning to hang out in 23/9 park and talk to the college kids. It is always one of the highlights of my trips.


    1. Kids like them inspire me to be better about my language studies.

      I’m glad someone else appreciates the opportunity to talk about their hopes and dreams with complete strangers.


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