Careless whisper

It was only recently that I heard Viet Nam’s national anthem and it was up until that point that I thought the anthem was probably George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper.’

Viet Nam loves Wham!’s music in a deep and enduring way – ‘Last Christmas’ plays all through November and December, ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ is fun to dance to, but Careless Whisper is a perennial favourite. I don’t think a day goes past that I don’t catch the melody floating out of a car window or from a radio in a café. It is played everywhere, all the time.

I know every single lyric and am in the grip of a Stockholm Syndrome relationship with this song. I catch myself humming Careless Whisper in quiet moments; it has become the screensaver of my mind.

I was in a taxi rattling down Ha Ba Trung Street when it came on the radio, the driver joined in and naturally so did I. In those two and a half minutes I was harmonizing with a complete stranger and we were both completely into it. We arrived at my destination and I stayed in the car until we finished the chorus.

That isn’t to say that every Careless Whisper experience has been positive. In Viet Nam, being considered good at Karaoke isn’t so much based on singing ability, as much as sheer volume and enthusiasm… I’ve experienced some Careless Whisper renditions so loud and awful, I was half expecting the sound equipment to develop sentience and fight back against its torturers.

George Michael
“Tonight the music seems so loud…” I know George, it’s giving me a headache too. 

One of the items on my Viet Nam bucket list is to learn the Vietnamese version of Careless Whisper (included for your interest below), sing it at staff karaoke night and redeem myself for my appalling rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody at our work New Year’s Party. It doesn’t look too hard… right?

Careless Whisper

Mọi điều với anh sao quá mơ hồ

Nắm đôi tay bước lên sàn nhảy

Âm nhạc dường như đang tàn phai

Mọi điều trông thấy nơi hàng mi

Lại khiến anh nhớ về màn bạc

Mọi thứ thật buồn khi chia ly

Anh không bao giờ còn nhảy nữa

Nơi gót chân tội lỗi chẳng thể nào

Còn theo kịp vần điệu diết da

Dẫu anh vờ như chưa hề biết

Hẳn em đã không còn ngây ngô

Sẽ tốt hơn khi dối lừa bản thân

Để rồi gắng trở thành bạn em

Không màn đến những điều được trao

Anh sẽ không bao giờ nhảy nữa

Không còn nữa, được nhảy cùng em

Thời gian không thể nào trở lại

Lời vụng về nơi bạn tri âm

Gửi đến con tim và tâm hồn

Hững hờ có khi lại là tốt

Hơn cả sự thật lắm phủ phàng

Sau những điều em từng trông thấy

Mọi điều xen lẫn nỗi đắng cay

Giờ đây, anh sẽ ra sao đây

Khi con tim lấp đầy trống vắng?

Đêm nay tiếng nhạc mãi ngân vang

Hay lòng anh đang phải gào khóc

Anh chỉ muốn thầm nguyện ước sao

Không phải đứng trước đám đông này

Có thể điều đó sẽ tốt hơn

Khi những lời nói vô tình trao

Khiến ta tổn thương đến nhau

Đôi ta lẽ ra sống bên nhau

Những vũ điệu đam mê còn mãi

Nhưng giờ đây, ai nhảy cùng anh?

Xin em, hãy quay bước về bên

Giờ đây hẳn mọi điều đã hết

Chẳng thể nào nữa, phải không em

Như ngày xưa đôi ta có nhau…

Giờ đây em quay bước rời xa…

Giờ đây em quay bước rời xa…

Giờ đây em quay bước rời xa…

Giờ đây em quay bước rời xa…

Anh đã làm điều gì sai sao?

Khiến em phải bỏ anh cô quạnh…


Personal space


People all over the world have a different understanding of personal space; British personal space tends to extend wider than it does for an Indian person for example. Our ideas about personal space are engrained in us early on and it can be disconcerting when we move to a new society where they’re different. Viet Nam is one of those places where personal space is a little bit smaller than the cultures I grew up in, so I took me some time to adjust. I remember having a conversation with a person that started in the middle of the room and was shocked when I suddenly found myself backed up against a table in the corner. Over the course of the long conversation, I had inadvertently shuffled away from them and they, wanting to maintain chatting distance, followed me.

Vietnamese culture also more open to the concept of ‘friendly skinship,’ the idea that the closer you are to a person, the more you’ll touch them and touch reinforces the relationship.

This skinship doesn’t cross genders; women will only walk arm in arm with other women and men will only sit pressed up against each other. I’ll often see young men and boys sitting on each other’s laps if there aren’t enough chairs to go around, girls will do the same. There is nothing sexual about all this touching, just sociable.

I’m not going to lie, it took me a little to get used to sitting with female Vietnamese friends and having them hold or rub my arm for most of the conversation. This is just a way of being companionable and shouldn’t be worried about.

Like most things, it only feels weird the first couple of times and I have to say that all the touching really does work. You do feel emotionally closer to the people that physically embrace you.

This isn’t to say that all touching occurs in a friendly, established relationship… I’ve definitely been felt up by complete strangers more in a year in Viet Nam than a full decade living in other countries. And all the perpetrators were women. Someone squeezed behind me in a small shop and patted my bottom the whole way past and then went back again. I’m on the transfer bus at an airport and the woman next to me is going in for a quick snuggle with a bit of side boob squeezing… while her friend took pictures. I put a stop to this pretty quickly, but often these tussles happen quickly like a hit and run and you’re left to replay it in your mind.

I think most of these encounters have a foundation in curiosity; my body is different from most the women around me and the desire to know what it feels like might be too strong to resist. At least this is how I chose to see it and I can live with that.

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.

The Faux Américaine; the first among Viet Nam’s third culture kids

I met the Faux Américaine at a house party some time ago. I realise that the moniker I’ve given her is probably confusing, but it was just the thing that stuck in my mind when we first met. She seemed like a nice American expat that was just working for the short term in Viet Nam like the rest of us. And it was then over the few hours that I spoke with her, that every single one of my assumptions about her turned out to be false.

She has only been to America once for a holiday. She is the daughter of French parents. Her impeccable west coast American accent came from the American English teachers at the International Schools she attended.

She arrived in Viet Nam when she was weeks old in the late 1980s (a time when a limited number of foreigners from Europe lived in the country) and grew up in the loving arms of various local nannies and care-givers. So she speaks perfect, Southern Vietnamese dialect with a seamless accent, complete with street slang and all the saltiest swear words. The local Vietnamese people seem to think she is very strange and endlessly entertaining.

She told me that on the way to the party where we met, she couldn’t find the street the party was on and asked a man sitting outside his house. He just stares at her, so she repeated herself. He tells her to wait and ducks inside the house. Then he comes back out with his whole family; they all want to see the foreign woman her age that talks like a local. “Say something else!” a little boy asks her.

The Faux Américaine rides off. She gets a bit sick of being a sideshow.

She is so unusual not just because she is a adult foreigner that has lived all her life in Viet Nam, but also because Viet Nam was and is a migrant source country, not a migrant destination country. This means that there are more people leaving Viet Nam than people moving to Viet Nam. This has been gradually changing over the last few decades, with the strengthening of the Vietnamese economy and various other global factors. So there are small, but increasing numbers of foreign migrants* taking up residence and making a life for themselves in Viet Nam. As a result we are starting to see more third culture kids (TCKs)**. These are the children of foreigners that moved to another country, stay and raise a family. TCKs are raised in their parent’s language and culture in the home, but they also know and understand their local culture and language better than their parents could ever hope to. They often become bridges between countries. They’re the physical embodiment of a new global society and that is wonderful and exciting. This isn’t to say that life isn’t sometimes confusing and difficult for these kids. Childhood is often a time when the thing you want most is to blend in and sometimes being a TCK means that you really stand out.

I recently spotted a flaxen-haired little girl in the playground of a local school, playing badminton and yelling in Vietnamese with her little friends. So maybe it won’t be too long before The Faux Américaine is less of an oddity. But she’ll always be one of the first.



*The majority of migrant to Viet Nam come other Southeast Asian countries, also Europe, North America and the Antipodes.

**The first culture of children refers to the culture of the country from which the parents originated, the second culture refers to the culture in which the family currently resides, and the third culture refers to the amalgamation of these two cultures. The third culture is further reinforced with the interaction of the third culture individual with another expatriate community one would come to encounter.

Thanks for the definition Wiki!

Màu xanh lá cây – The Colour Green

Green was Viet Nam’s first colour. Before the people, the culture, the languages, the cities; there was a green covered land. Alive and bright with the vegetation and botantic scents. It was a colour of renewal and regrowth.

That changed soon enough and the colour green came to symbolise more.

Two hundred Vietnamese solders and I visited Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum one day. I might have stood out slightly.

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A vibrant green of a banana (chuối) plantation, nestled in a mountain valley. The landscape was as beautiful and serene as I was hot and sweaty. The ideal growing conditions for bananas are not the ideal conditions for a hike.


Getting covered in vines and moss is just part of getting older for Viet Nam’s ancient buildings.

20131225 Vietnam trip 325

Rice waiting to be harvested. I was waiting for the rain and cool change promised by the clouds.


I ordered this drink because it was called Cóc* and I childish thought it would be funny to order. The joke was on me. It was just terrible, undrinkable. The radioactive green colour should have been my first warning.

20131120 HCMC 007

Eventually the vegetation will take what was once their’s. There are already some temples that are succumbing.

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I couldn’t resist getting a little artsy.

*This is a drink called Nước Cóc. Nước means ‘water’ or ‘juice,’ while Cóc means ‘frog.’ A Cóc is also a small green fruit that is the same size, shape and colour as a tree frog. This drink was made with fake Cóc, as always, real Cóc is best.

Banal cruelty

Every society and culture has different ideas about an animal’s purpose and treatment. In Viet Nam, a dog’s purpose can range from a treasured family member* to a source of meat. Eating dogs is slowly being unpopular, but there is still an average of 5 million dogs killed for their meat every year.** Dog meat is a more commonly eaten in the north, so I rarely see it here in the south. That isn’t to say that I haven’t seen dog carcasses in the markets; their fur burnt off, their blacked lips stretching their mouths into a permanent growl…

But this isn’t the cruelty I’m writing about. This is about the dogs that live, but are being left. Alone. All day. All night.

Dogs are pack animals; the entirety of their happiness hangs on being with others. When dogs are left by themselves they don’t think, “Terrific, now I can work on writing my novel…” No, their whole world stops when they are left. For them, being isolated is a punishment.

Below is a little Phú Quốc Ridgeback pup chained up on a Saigonese street. I don’t go near strange dogs, they tend to be a little on the bitey-side, but this one looks so dejected that I couldn’t walk past. I whistled at him. He flicked his ears, but otherwise didn’t move at all. I approached him slowly and carefully, holding my hand out for him to sniff. Nothing. A quick scratch behind the ears. Nothing still.

Whatever spirit this pup possessed, had since fled the foot long chain and left behind a sad, lonely little creature.

Phu Quoc Ridgeback pup, far from the island paradise that created it.
Phu Quoc Ridgeback pup, far from the island paradise that created it.

A little pup with an obvious eye infection and limp, chained up outside its house. It was panting and covered in its own saliva. I gave it some water in my bag, it was thirsty and drank more than I expected.


This is an example of a guard dog chained to a front gate. I don’t think they deter thieves, as much as they make some noise if people come to the door. I see dogs left like this all the time outside homes and businesses.

Tight chain. No water. No shelter.

These dogs are obviously given food and water, but in all my time in Sai Gon, I’ve only seen a handful of dogs being exercised on a leash. Most dogs walk around the streets by themselves or don’t walk at all. When I’ve asked, people say that they chain up their dogs so they don’t run onto the street or get snatched by dog thieves who sell them to the dog meat trade.

This is reasonable, I suppose. But just because you are protecting a dog from a potential, terrible situation doesn’t mean that you can’t provide adequate care and attention. To say that there are dogs that are treated worse does not mean that dogs shouldn’t be treated better. Being neglected is also harmful.

Pet shop
Pet shop

*There are some really terrific pet owners in Viet Nam look after their animals beautifully and provide them with food, water, shelter, leadership, exercise, grooming, training, veterinary care, companionship and protection. I also understand that not all owners live in ideal situations, but they still do the best they can for their animals. Looking after animals is a lifelong commitment, which can be difficult, time consuming and expensive. But it can also be one of the most rewarding and loving relationships you will experience.

**I understand that meat comes from living creatures that are slaughtered, but while there are regulations for slaughtering cattle, sheep and poultry, there are none for dogs. It is common for dogs to be bludgeoned, burned, hung, or stabbed to death; in full view of a cage of terrifying dogs waiting their turn. There are dozens of examples of it online if you don’t want to sleep peacefully again.


I stop by the supermarket on the way home from work.

My local supermarket is a fairly standard, western-style affair with air-conditioning and florescent lights. If I don’t look too closely, I feel as though I am back in my country for a few moments as I walk in the door. But as I stride past the aquariums overcrowded with live, gasping fish and rows of pigs’ feet, my nostalgia extinguishes.

I’ve run out of laundry detergent and walk over it find some. There are a bewildering array of options; I settle in and start running my eyes across the brightly coloured bags. A store employee notices that I’ve been staring at the laundry detergent for some time and decides that it must be because I don’t know what I’m looking at. With most products in the supermarket she’d be right but in this instance the pictures of sudsy clothes tumbling in washing machines on the bags leads me to make a deduction I was reasonably confident in. She gestures to the bags of laundry detergent and mimes washing clothes with her hands; I watch for a moment and admire her perfect use of non-verbal communication. I nod and begin to copy her. We wash our imaginary clothes together in aisle 5, smiling at each other in perfect accord. I’ve almost finished washing my make-believe underpants when she is finally satisfied that I understand the use of the products on the shelf and leaves me to my deliberation. I sniff several bags of laundry detergent until I find the one that will make my clothes smell like a wildflower meadow after rain and place it in my basket.

I remember that I’m down to one roll of toilet paper at home and head in the direction to get some more. I stop suddenly when I see my new friend next to the rolls. Probably best to skip that particular improv session; I’ll come back for them tomorrow.

This is not to say that I didn’t really appreciate that woman’s efforts to help me and everyone else that has gone above and beyond to aid this hapless stranger in a strange land. I’ve lost count of the number of times people communicated with me through stilted English and French, mime, pointing, drawing, and once, animal noises. Thank you for learning more of my language than I have of yours and for your patience in the face of my ignorance.

Thanks Saigon!
Thanks for all the peace signs, Sai Gon!