Cultural differences have the potential to delight and entertain, and occasionally to frustrate.
Usually, there is an arc where cultural differences initially appeal and, as one lives longer in one country, and the initial novelty wears off, frustrations may arise. When that happens, it may be time to move on…
Fortunately, we are nowhere near the latter in Hoi An, Viet Nam but rather, we are amused and occasionally baffled. We enjoy, even revel in cultural differences. They add richness as well as humor to our global trek. Of course, we understand that, no matter where we travel, people are more similar than they are different, at the core.
The more we travel the more we are aware that stereotyping has negative effects and trying to make generalizations about populations is neither smart, nor helpful in understanding. So our observations are not about the whole country’s population. They are about our personal encounters and conversations with locals, in Hoi An.
Here are a few of our current favorite “cultural differences” in (Hoi An), Viet Nam.
The sun is not a friend
Even if the days of lathering oil in order to bake under a hot sun for hours are pretty much gone or at least, the danger is now recognized in the West, the Vietnamese aversion to exposure to sun is taken to quite a different level. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Hoi An’s motorbike traffic.
The residents of Hoi An are not unique in their use of face masks to protect their faces, but they take the concept of protection from the sun very seriously. It is not only about protecting from the dangers of the sun, it is also about preserving a lighter complexion, which is valued, whereas having a sun tan is deemed as unhealthy and unattractive.
In full heat, one sees motorbike riders (especially women) covered from head to toe, with head cover, sun glasses, masks, zipped sweaters, gloves and socks. A successful sun protection outfit will leave not a sliver of skin exposed.
The tables and chairs are manufactured in Lilliput
To be sure, the average Vietnamese man or woman is smaller in stature than the average westerner. Most Vietnamese people are also on the slender side, due to their healthy diet which does not include any dairy and is packed with greens and herbs.
But as well, there is a cultural proclivity for small, very low to the ground, Kindergarten style seating. Makes for some interesting visuals when a foreign diner comes along…And yes, Vietnamese people have a great sense of humor and do not fail to see the humor in an oversize person squeezing onto an obviously too small seat.
One’s sense of hygiene is entirely cultural
Much as every nation thinks its definition of hygiene is THE definition of hygiene, our Green Global Trek has taught us that this is simply not the case.
The most obvious illustration of this is with regards to the Asian custom of removing one’s shoes upon entering a home. This differs from most westerners’ comfort, walking in from the street’s and its inherent dirt, and bringing it into one’s home.
Or, a westerner’s notion that, to take a bath one just gets undressed and plops in an awaiting warm bath. This is a horrific concept to a Japanese, who consider soaking in one’s own dirt to be a repulsive concept, and who take showers to get clean, before getting in a bath to soak.
So how does this cultural difference about hygiene manifest itself in Hoi An? To a Vietnamese, having one’s inner ear canal cleaned is an obvious and regular hygienic requirement. To them, it is surprising that westerners simply let ear wax accumulate for years.
And so, when in Hoi An… Ben has his ears cleaned, which is a natural service of most barber shops. Haircut, beard trim, and ear cleaning… Out come the long metallic micro-scrapers that will go inside the ear canal, scrub the outer walls, before the ear cleaner expertly goes in to remove the residue, capturing his catch on the customer’s chest, so as to prove just how badly needed this treatment was (and no, it does not hurt (but rather feels a tad invasive, for the uninitiated).
Risk tolerance is cultural
It seems that one’s definition of risk is very much a cultural one. Nicaragua had already taught us a thing or two about the potential for a bicycle to transform into a family transport system, but in Viet Nam, the culture of “carry one, carry all, carry anything” extends to the ubiquitous motorcycle.
One sees many motorcycles carrying two adults and two children. One sees children literally sleeping, leaned over the driver ~ how they don’t fall off is amazing! Babies are balanced precariously to our western eye… And there are all sorts of lethal combinations of goods and people on the roads.
The photograph below takes the cake ~ a motorcycle, speeding at a good 50 km per hour, with the back passenger balancing a large glass sheet between the two riders. We shudder at the thought of the glass debris, should a bump in the road catch the rider off guard…
Or… what Hoi An tailors think appeals to westerners.
It is always enlightening to see what merchants think that their clientele may want.
In Hoi An, one of the world’s best places for tailor-made clothing, one can walk in a shop in the morning, and leave in the evening with a full ward-robe, custom tailored, including however many visits may be required to get the item to fit just right.
The Hoi An tailor culture goes far back ~ maybe 200-300 years… As far back as written records go, in the form of early travelers’ reports, there seems to have been a vibrant cloth-making cottage industry in Hoi An. To this date, Hoi An tailors are efficient, low cost and (mostly), high quality. They can typically copy just about any item of clothing, be it from a photograph or from a customer bringing a specific favorite outfit to be duplicated.
Perhaps the suits below are “tongue in cheek”… or perhaps they think that these suits would appeal to western tourists… and who knows, maybe they do?! In any case, nice threads there!
What are some of YOUR favorite cultural differences, encountered during your travels?
We love hearing from you. ~ Do share your thoughts and comments with us.