And as many times that I’ve said that language is about communication, not perfection – there are sometimes that precession is necessary. Documents like International Legal Instruments, Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) between countries, international work contracts and the like, need to go beyond literal, linguistic equivalence and be conceptually and cross-culturally equivalent in each of the countries and cultures. And let me tell you, this is god-damn hard.*
When you want to be really sure that document’s true meaning is conveyed, you do something called forward-translations and back-translations. Let’s say you want to translate an English document into Arabic. You give the document to the first translator, who should have good knowledge of English but their mother tongue is Arabic. They carefully translate the document from English to Arabic. The document is then translated back into English by another independent translator, whose mother tongue is English and who has no knowledge of the original document. If the original and secondary English documents match up in meaning and tone, then the Arabic translation must be good.
I was looking through one of these forward/back translations when I spotted my now, favourite translation error. The secondary English document was matching up well to the original, when I found a phrase that had no business in my beautifully worded contract; “air practice.”
And then it clicked – it was supposed to be ‘pneumatic drill.’ An easy mistake to make if the first translator wasn’t very familiar with power tools and wasn’t paying close attention to the context of the document.
If professional translators could make a mistake like that, then imagine what happens when your only means of converting your language into another is Google Translate?
Below is just two pages of one menu.
Don’t mistake me, I’m in no way making fun of the people that put this menu together. Translating a document from one language to another can be stupidly difficult and they had limited resources. I’m glad they made the effort. Selfishly, it also makes me feel a little better about the glaring language errors I make every day.
* While translation (changing one written language for another) is difficult, interpretation (changing one spoken language to another) is probably even harder. This is because interpretation is often simultaneous; interpreting a speech as it is being given, for example. Even UN interpretors who work at the very top of their profession, still have to work in teams of two and swap with their partner every 20 minutes. I’ve seen more than a couple of them stepping out of their soundproof booths a little sweaty and dazed.
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.
I’m not the best person to hear tourists’ “I saw the craziest thing on the road today” stories. For one thing I probably see the same thing or more disastrous almost daily and I don’t feign surprise or interest well. And worse, I’ll probably share one of my own inconceivable stories that comes from a solid year on the Sai Gon streets. Either way, I’ve robbed their ‘four people on a bike’ story of its magic. I don’t like this part of my personality and I’m really trying to work on it.
To purge myself, I’m sharing some of my best/worst photos of overladen vehicles and improbable cargos. These photos are a simultaneous testament to people’s ingenuity, pragmatism, craziness, and desperation. Generally these people and their cargo are trying to make a living or just getting from one place to another; just stand back with your faces set to stunned.
An entire pottery shop on a bicycle.
A lot of people train their dogs to ride on their bikes with them; small mixed breeds, terriers, pugs, etc. This guy gets his Great Dane to squeeze itself in front of him. I ran down the street after them.
Another mobile shop; if you can’t find the basket that you want here, then it probably doesn’t exist.
So many plants on this mobile nursery, that I couldn’t see the rider.
I think it is only sheer willpower and good intentions that is keeping this motorbike and cargo together. Maybe some rope too…
Tourist cyclos (most tourists call them tuk tuks) do double duty taking cargo around town. Saigonese people are daring and skilled motorcycle riders, but not ‘four queen-sized mattresses’ talented.
These are light, plastic containers but the size of this cargo alone makes riding extremely difficult.
Sadly, this is the best example I have of long poles being transported on a motorcycle. I never seem to have a camera when I’ve seen full-length street lights being transported this way; one on either side of the bike for balance. Maybe one day.
Almost colliding with 30kgs of water spinach is a typical, early morning event near a traditional open-air market.
This is my best/worst photo of an overloaded Saigonese vehicle. He could barely reach the throttle to start moving and his riding looked pretty wobbly. Even the Saigonese native standing next to me couldn’t believe what we witnessed. This is why your stories don’t impress me.
Cargo witnessed, but not photographically recorded.
Lobster tanks with water oxygen system – fixed to the back of a motorbike.
Small refrigerator – held by a motorcycle pillion passenger.
Box of live tree snakes – fixed to the back of a motorbike.
Small mahogany armoire – held by a motorcycle pillion passenger.
60 live gold fish in bags – hung from frame on motorbike.
1.5 metre, potted mandarin tree – strapped to back of motorbike.
Live, baby black bear – dragged in a cage behind a motorbike to advertise a circus during Vietnamese New Year traffic (the worst, craziest and loudest of Vietnamese traffic). I’ve never seen a more terrorised and frightened creature in my life.
WARNING – the last image in this post is a picture of a Vietnamese safe driving poster. It is graphic images of traffic accidents meant to deter dangerous driving and riding. Don’t scroll to the very end if you want to avoid it.
I’ve noticed that people tend to behave differently when they leave their countries of origin to holiday or work overseas. Someone who would never consider riding a motorcycle back home because it is too dangerous, suddenly find themselves renting a bike when they travel to Viet Nam. I’ve seen some horrifyingly stupid behaviour from foreigners on the roads and I’d wish they’d ask themselves some of these questions before they hit the streets.
Do you know how to ride a motorbike?
If you don’t, then Sai Gon really isn’t the place to learn, not many places in Viet Nam are.
Do you have a valid license?
Pfffft, of course you don’t! But you probably should…
Non-Vietnamese citizens are only permitted to drive in Vietnam if they hold a temporary Vietnamese driver’s licence. To convert a foreign driving licence into a temporary Vietnamese driver’s licence, the applicant must hold a valid Vietnamese residence permit of at least three month’s validity. Only full, condition-less license will be converted, not learners or provisional licenses. You’ll have to hand over translations of your licensing documents and certified copies of the originals. If you don’t have these, you’ll have to take a driving test (riding in figure eights around some traffic cones) and sitting a written exam… in Vietnamese.
Viet Nam started the process to recognise International Driving Permits in January 2015, but legislative changes take a long time to enact so you’ll have to research this for yourself. Also, there are far fewer licensing requirements if you ride an electric bike or motorcycle with a 50cc or less engine. These small bikes will feel like you’re riding a hairdryer, but it isn’t like you’re going anywhere fast in Viet Nam anyway.
Police can confiscate your motorcycle if they find you without a license, though this is rare. It is more likely you will be fined. There is a fixed fine amount that you pay at the police station, but if you pay the fine directly to the person that pulled you over, the amount is usually lower… read into that what you like.
Given all this, many foreigners ride without a license, which isn’t an endorsement. It seems that riding unlicensed isn’t uncommon for the local population too. Vietnamese Government records show that there are currently 3.5 million valid driver’s licenses; that means only 3.8 percent of the population holds a driver’s license of any kind. Consider that when deciding to get on the road yourself.
Does your travel insurance still cover you if you ride unlicensed?
All travel insurances have conditions that void your cover if you break them. Conditions often include riding a motorcycle without a license or even riding a motorcycle at all. Always check your insurance’s terms and conditions.
Do you have access to a good helmet?
I brought my helmet over from Australia and it is simultaneously the joy and bane of my life. On one hand it is built to Australian safety standards, so I’m reasonably certain that it will do its best to protect my squishy brain and my beautiful, beautiful face should I be involved in a serious accident. On the other hand it is enormous compared to Vietnamese helmets and it won’t fit inside my bike’s internal storage (it won’t fit inside any bike’s storage, I’ve checked.) This means that I have to carry this huge helmet around with me, leaving it with my bike isn’t an option because the parking attendants move motorbikes and the helmets fall to the ground routinely. It would also get stolen – actually it would probably be stolen before anyone had a chance to drop it. Any helmet that you are given when you hire a motorcycle isn’t going to offer much protection – you may as well wear a plastic ice cream container on your head. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen people do that.
Do you understand Vietnamese traffic?
No, you don’t.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve been riding motorcycles in your home country for the last twenty years; Vietnamese traffic is a different animal entirely. Past riding experience is really essential to being safe on the roads, but the traffic here is next level crazy and you will not have time to learn what is happening on the first day of your two week holiday. There is a pecking order based on size, buses and trucks always have right of way. Flashing headlights and hand signals don’t mean what you think they do. Traffic lights, one-way streets, pedestrian crossings; mere suggestions. In spite of all this, there is a recognisable rhythm and patterns. You only able to read through the chaos after many hours riding pillion or when you are no longer transfixed by the disorder of a busy intersection.
Do you know there will be unexpected road hazards?
I’m not just talking about other riders on the road, I’m referring to any number of strange dangers on the road. Chickens and dogs often wander around the streets. I once had a wobble when my bike’s tyres hit some ice on the road, in Summer, in Sai Gon, at noon. A drink seller had tipped ice out of a container onto the road – I wasn’t expecting that.
My colleague had an accident when a street vendor’s mobile food stall dropped some tofu on the road; given that tofu doesn’t have a great deal of traction, her wheels spun out and she went sliding. Would you expect street tofu? DEFINITELY NOT, NO ONE EXPECTS STREET TOFU!
Do you know what to do when you have an accident?
You’ll notice I didn’t say ‘if you have an accident,’ this is because if you ride on Vietnamese roads for long enough, it is guaranteed that you will hit someone or something or they will hit you. There have been countless times that I’ve been cut off, bumped from behind or come inches from colliding with someone. There have been three separate occasions that I’ve had to swerve around a bike carrying a family of four that has come to a dead stop in the middle of the road because one of the kids has lost a shoe…
Of course there are degrees of accident seriousness; from a slight knock, to a three inch obituary in your local paper – hopefully they don’t use that high school picture of you when you were going through that ‘awkward phase.’
If the accident only caused damage to property, then money is probably going to change hands and as a wealthy foreigner you’re almost certainly going to do the paying. If you’re involved in an accident that injures or kills someone, then your life is going to get very challenging in many different ways.
Do you still want to ride a motorcycle?
I understand that after all this many people will still want to take to the roads themselves; just be informed of the risks and make an informed decision. Riding a motorcycle here is dangerous and foreigners do make up a portion of Viet Nam’s five figure road mortality rate.
At least take some advice;
Be careful, don’t go fast, don’t drink and ride (there are enough people doing that already).
Wear the best helmet you can find.
Ride the best bike for you. Make sure the breaks and lights work. If you don’t know how to change gears, then get an automatic. Generally a smaller bike and engine is the better for inexperienced people, under 50cc is preferable.
Avoid riding on highways if you can help it. The trucks don’t really care if you’re mowed down as long as they don’t have to stop.
Wear more than just shorts and a sleeveless shirt – something like jeans will only protect you if you come off in an accident for a couple of centimetres before the road shreds them, and then your skin gets cheesegrated. Jeans will stop you from getting burned on someone else’s exhaust pipe, though. The burn takes a long time to heal, it will scar you and it is a terrible tourist cliché.
It is your first time in HCMC and you find yourself hungry after a long day of walking around parks and museums. Your stomach might still be adjusting to the local food and you want something safe and light to eat. Luckily a fruit seller wheels her cart over to you to have a look. There are so many unidentifiable fruit on offer, but then you spot some nice, harmless and reliable bananas. “How much for the bananas?” you ask, pointing at them. She pulls out three 20,000 dong notes and says something in Vietnamese. This is great, the art of Commerce punched through the language barrier and you understood each other. You hand over the cash and smile and wave as she leaves you with your fruit. It is only later that you discover that the same amount of fruit is usually sold for half the price. You probably feel a little cheated; the lingering taste of bananas turns to betrayal in your mouth…
That woman preyed on your ignorance and added the dreaded “Tourist Tax.” Additional charges given to people that don’t know the going rates for goods and services. But I want you to stop right there and cheer up my friend, you still just bought a whole bunch of bananas for about a dollar and a half! Even with the Tourist Tax, you still thought it was a pretty wonderful deal. The fruit seller just saw an opportunity to make a little extra money from someone that could part with it. And believe me, as a tourist or an ex-pat living in Viet Nam, you are always going to have more disposable income than that fruit seller. Even if you are one of those backpackers that lives on $5 a day and survives on that beef jerky you smuggled in from home, you are still in a better financial position. You are on holiday, you have options.
This is the fruit seller’s real life, she works seven days a week and she probably has children to feed. I don’t want you to get the impression that every transaction you make is going to have Tourist Tax included, it actually happens pretty rarely. Generally, people don’t increase their prices on a case by case basis. Just remember that when it does happen, try to understand someone else’s struggle, keep some perspective and quickly get back to enjoying your time in Viet Nam.
At this point in my stay in Viet Nam, Tourist Tax is something I recognise and know how to avoid; knowing the price of something or asking for the price in Vietnamese is a strong signal that I know what I’m doing and local prices are always offered. But as time moves on, I find myself not minding too much if I am charged a little extra; it is fine – I have extra, a lot extra.
Be aware that my definition of Tourist Tax is different to outright scams, of which there are many and you should look out for them. Scams seem like a good post topic; I’ll probably write about those later…