Magazine Articles

As some of you might be aware, I write for a weekly Vietnamese magazine called 'Doan Nhan Cuoi Tuan'.  They have kindly allowed me to post the articles I write on to my blog.  I usually write 1 or 2 columns a month, where I muse about various aspects of life in Vietnam.  My articles are translated into Vietnamese before they are published.  I hope you enjoy them!

The frustrations of miscommunication
By Mark Jones (April, 2012)

Any time that communication is required, whether that be in the same lingo or multiple languages, there is always the potential for the message to be misunderstood.  This can cause minor inconveniences and result in a chuckle or two, but it can also lead to more problematic scenarios, bringing about stress and frustration.  In most cases, instances of miscommunication can be avoided and cleared up very easily, but in Vietnam, this is not always true.

One of the biggest problems many foreign teachers or business people face in Vietnam is the reluctance of many Vietnamese workers or students to admit when they don’t understand something.  Often, a foreigner will ask a local if they’ve understood the instructions given to them, and of course, the worker will nod their head, smile and say ‘I understand’.  In a culture where people are scared to lose face by admitting that they are wrong or don’t comprehend something, especially in-front of their peers, this can lead to potentially serious problems.
In Western culture, we are always taught that if we don’t understand something, we should always seek clarification and not proceed with something until we know exactly what is expected of us.  It’s seen as imprudent to attempt a task without understanding what we have to do, and managers and seniors are always willing to give clarification or re-issue instructions should that be required.  Workers and students don’t feel embarrassed or ‘stupid’ if they don’t understand something, and having the confidence to ask for help is considered to be a strength rather than a weakness.

In Vietnam, the opposite appears to be true.  When communicating with foreigners, many Vietnamese people won’t admit when they don’t understand something.  This ranges from students not understanding tasks or vocabulary in a classroom, a waitress misunderstanding an order in a restaurant or a receptionist mishearing the dates a tourist wants to stay at a hotel.  In most cases, the miscommunication causes small problems like the wrong food or drink being served, or a new piece of vocabulary being used in a harmless yet incorrect context.  However, these mistakes could easily be avoided if people sought clarification and had the courage to admit they didn’t completely understand something.

Although I’ve used the example of foreigners communicating with local people, the problem in communication runs much deeper than the language barrier.  In Vietnam, employees are also very eager to please both their managers and their customers.  This sometimes comes at the expense of honesty.  Employees tend to say what they think the other person wants to hear, rather than tell them a truth they don’t want to hear.  A small example of this is a motorbike mechanic telling a stricken motorcyclist that it will take him 5 minutes to fix his tyre.  The motorist is happy as if the job only takes 5 minutes, he can arrive at work on time.  However, in reality it takes 15 minutes and the motorist is late for work and gets in trouble for not informing his manager as he thought he would be on time.

While this may seem like insignificant and trivial example, it nevertheless highlights several differences between Western and Vietnamese culture.  In the first case, the mechanic clearly knew that the job would take longer than 5 minutes, and therefore, should have given a more honest approximation of the time it would take.  This is a common frustration that foreigners face in business.  Employees, in their eagerness to please their managers, frequently give their managers unachievable time frames to complete a task.  This invariably leads to deadlines being missed and projects running behind schedule.  The second problem is the motorist’s failure to inform his manager that he would be late.  While being late in most cases might not be a serious problem, the non-calling to the manager, presumably as he didn’t want to let his manager down, again highlights that saving face and not owning up to mistakes is common in Vietnamese culture.

As always, I’m not saying that these problems are unique to Vietnam, or that they don’t happen in the UK.  These things are of course evident throughout the world and I’ve certainly been guilty of doing these things myself.  It just appears that a failure to seek clarification and simply saying what someone thinks the other person wants to hear is more common in Vietnamese culture than in the West.  Simply seeking clarification and owning up to errors could easily remove the frustrations that many foreigners feel on a daily basis and ease communication problems, especially in cross cultural and language exchanges.

Customs surrounding new-borns

By Mark Jones (March, 2012)

Being in a mixed cultural marriage, I’ve come across many challenges, learning curves and experiences that have defined my outlook on life.  No more so than the privilege of bringing up a precious child into the world.  While to date, the process of raising Isabella has gone relatively smoothly, I’ve learned a lot about Vietnamese customs in child-care and about the roles of men and women in the ultimate of responsibilities.

The first aspect of Vietnamese customs that might shock foreigners is that the partner of the pregnant woman wasn’t allowed to be with his wife for the duration of labour, but has to stay in the waiting area and wait to be summoned for the final moments.  In many cases, the women’s waters break but the expectant father has to wait for 18 hours in the waiting area until a phone came through to reception to tell them that the arrival of their child is imminent while their wife is in a different room without family members for support.  This would definitely not be the case as in England as the husband is allowed by his wife’s side throughout the entirety of the time spent in hospital.  For many soon to be fathers in Vietnam, the waiting period must be terrible as they have no idea what is happening and it can’t be pleasant for the women to be surrounded by people they don’t know for one of the most significant moments of their lives.

After many children are born, in accordance with Vietnamese custom, the new mother will take the new-born to her parents’ house to help her for the first month of her son or daughter’s life.  Again, this is flabbergasting to the majority of westerner.   Most new fathers desire to get to know their child as soon as possible and can’t bear the thought of not being able to see him or her when they come home from work.  It feels almost cruel to me.  I later learned that this is perfectly normal in Vietnam and that the family in-law would often help out after a particularly physically traumatic time for the new mother to teach her how to do the essentials such as breastfeeding, changing nappies, bathing the child and simply to ease the burden of sleepless nights.  Of course, in many cases couples will compromise and the in-laws might stay in the marital home or that the traditional month’s stay will be shortened.  But, father’s in Vietnam must greatly miss their new-born child, although the couple with always appreciate the support of their in-laws in this great time of change.

The final major difficulty comes from feeling like a spare part.  During the first month, the father isn’t really allowed near their baby because the women do everything.  The father may want to change the nappy, feed the child (with a bottle of course!) and change the clothes.  However, the mother, sister-in-law and mother-in-law usually take care of everything.  Especially with Isabella being so young, I was terrified of breaking her.  Maybe this is to take the pressure and responsibility off the husband as someone has to go to work to bring home a salary.  In England this wouldn’t happen as the family unit is generally much smaller comprising of only the mother and father.  A consequence of this is that the father has to take on a greater share of the responsibilities from day 1.

Of course, as the child grows older, the mother and father share all of the parenting tasks but my wife’s friends are always surprised that I’m happy and able to take care of our daughter by myself.  It always makes me laugh that they think that dad’s don’t want to do these things.  Maybe it’s because some Vietnamese men in the past didn’t like the responsibility of taking caring of their young children, but this is possibly changing as it seems in contrast to a lot of young Vietnamese fathers I’ve met.  Perhaps it’s just an unfair stereotype that men would prefer not to be involved in the childcare process, but I’m not informed enough to make that judgement. However, it’s clear that in both countries more than ever that men are stepping up as carers for their children, which can only be a good thing.

Till death do us part
By Mark Jones (February, 2012)

In England, future brides always dream of their wedding day.  A day where they are the centre of everyone’s attention.  They are surrounded by close friends and family members, wear a gorgeous white dress and enjoy a full day laughing, dancing, eating and celebrating the most important day of their lives.  Therefore, when two of my friends invited me to their wedding in March, I started reflecting on my own wedding day, and the contrasts between weddings in Vietnam and England couldn’t be any more different.

The first thing I was startled about was setting the date for the wedding party.  I simply looked at the calendar, saw a date that was about 6 months away, and choose a Saturday, as I knew that most of my friends would be able to attend.  My future wife agreed and I thought that was the end of the matter.  Little did I know that my future in-laws went to an astronomer to check if the date I’d chosen was going to be a lucky day.  Fortunately, the date I picked was indeed a ‘lucky’ day but to me it was extraordinary that superstition played such an important role in some aspects of Vietnamese culture.

Another surprise for me is that couples in Vietnam are often legally married before the wedding party itself or vice versa.  In England, the legal documents are signed on the same day as the wedding party, which is simple and less confusing than having them occur on different occasions.   My wife and I were legally married 3 months before our wedding party.  This leaves me confused about when we actually married because I believe the most important date was when we were legally husband and wife, whereas, for Hanh and her family, the wedding party represents when we were truly wed.  My mother is always amused when she asks us how long we’ve been married and she gets two different answers from my wife and I.

The next aspect that took me by surprise was when a couple who were yet to be married showed us their photo album.  They posed in various positions in various locations and wore at least 3 different outfits.  The photos were professionally taken and looked very stylish in a well-put together book.  However, in the UK, the wedding pictures are only from the actual day of the wedding.  They include pictures of the 2 sides of the family, couple, bridesmaids, the groomsmen and close friends and are set in the location of the ceremony and of the reception. 

The most noticeable difference; however, was at the wedding party itself.  I always thought that on my wedding day I would be surrounded by close friends and family, yet, in Vietnam, the party is attended by many guests that the couple might not actually know.  In my case, I knew about 15% of the attendees while my wife probably only knew about 50%.  The other guests were invited by the family, which is completely different to how I imagined my wedding day would be.  Furthermore, the party in the UK usually lasts all night.  Following the meal and speeches made by the groom and father of the bride, there is often a band or DJ that plays music and the tables are moved to allow everyone to dance whilst enjoying a few glasses of wine or beer.  In Vietnam, while there is a singer, the guests usually finish their meal, stay for a photograph with the couple before leaving.  In fact, often a wedding party will be finished after 2/3 hours which would be unheard of the UK. 

Of course, there are many more contrasts between my two home countries, Vietnam and England, but the binding similarity is the matrimony of two people, together in front of their loved ones.  On my wedding day, the folk of Ben Tre seemed shocked to see my wife and I with all our friends dancing around to English pop music longer after the meal had finished.  This was the little part of English tradition I wanted as most of the other aspects of our wedding were so radically different to what I expected my big day to be.  In the end, I had an unbelievable amazing day, I just hope my friends have a similar experience.

Development:  All for the best?
By Mark Jones (February, 2012)

New Year, a time for new starts and reflection, or at the very least, a time to regret missed opportunities of the past and a chance to aspire to achieve more in the future.  For me, as I was driving back from the airport after picking up my sister, I was startled by the development to the city in the 3 years I’ve been here and mused as to whether or not the resurfaced roads, new highways, lofty skyscrapers and luxurious apartment blocks have really benefitted the local residents of Ho Chi Minh City.  Indeed, the city is certainly a much more attractive and impressive metropolitan area than when I first arrived, but has that much really changed for those not so fortunate or privileged enough to be well educated or affluent?

In terms of development, the upgrading of the roads and riverbank has been staggering.  I used to live on Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, close to where it bisects Hoang Sa and that part of the river is unrecognisable to a couple of years ago.  The water seems cleaner and a deeper shade of blue compared to the murky water there used to be.  In fact, the same is true of the waterway sandwiched between Vo Van Kiet and Ben Van Don where extensive work on the river and new highways have made the areas both aesthetically more pleasing and much more efficient and convenient for commuters.  Additionally, the new highway to the Mekong Delta, accessible by Nguyen Van Linh, has made travel out of the city vastly easier, not to mention the Cau Calmette and Cau Ong Lon which have greatly aided my transit around town in districts 4 and 7 respectively.

The rate at which buildings are being erected is also impressive, if not slightly alarming and somewhat baffling.  In district 7, on Nguyen Huu Tho, some wonderfully stylish apartment blocks have been speedily raised yet the accommodations are likely to remain unoccupied for the foreseeable future, as local incomes aren’t increasing at the same speed as development.  Office space is available in many of the taller constructions, including the renown Bitexco Tower, and new shopping complexes have sprouted up throughout the city in a time when the economy has taken a dip.

All these changes have made the city much more liveable, particularly for the more affluent.  The buildings are well designed, the shopping malls offer a great selection of retail outlets for shopaholics, and private commuters can certainly travel around the city more easily in some places, although traffic remains a problem throughout most areas of the inner city at peak hours.  However, the main question is, has the ordinary citizen of Ho Chi Minh City seen any fruits from the city’s new clothes?  I’d have to answer, for now, that they haven’t.

To start, quite simply, the cost of renting these new office spaces and apartments is higher than the average income of most locals and businesses.  Whilst these structures do target higher earners, it seems a waste to construct some beautiful abodes without anyone being there to fill them.  While the roads have been improved, nothing appears to have been done about dangerous driving, raised manholes that are the cause of many accidents, and the quality of the public transport doesn’t appear to have improved much.  Improving the traffic flow in the city would surely be more beneficial to the local community than some unoccupied apartment blocks.   Finally, will the locals buy genuine fashion items from the malls at international prices where much cheaper products can be found elsewhere?

Also, ask the young children who you can find out most evenings in Bui Vien or other nightlife hotspots who are selling cigarettes in the early hours of the morning if they have benefitted and I doubt they’ll be as impressed with the changes to the city I have been.  Ask the old men/women selling lottery tickets at the fuel stations, question the starving begging at traffic lights or the disabled dragging their selves along the roads if their lives have improved and the responses will be negative.

With a business and economics background, I understand the necessity of investment into the infrastructure and commercial opportunities of a city.  I’ve actually been impressed by the speed, quality and beauty of a lot of the changes I’ve encountered.  I certainly feel more comfortable in the city, and hope it continues to develop in the coming years.  However, in this time of reflection, let’s not forgot that for all the positives, there are those less fortunate that often get forgotten by all of us in the perceived advances we see around us.

The spirit and luck of Tet
By Mark Jones (January, 2012)

In January 2009 I was caught in the worst traffic jam I’ve ever experienced.  It was 6:30am and my girlfriend, now wife, and I were trying to avoid the inevitable mass migration where everyone returns to their loved ones over the single most important time of the year.  Apparently the whole of Ho Chi Minh City had the same brainwave.  Being sat on a motorbike for 5 hours, for a journey that usually takes 2, I started to question whether it would be worth it. Luckily, my fears proved unfounded and I learned a lot, especially being fortunate enough spending my first Tet holiday with a Vietnamese family.

The first thing I was taught was to say ‘Chuc Mung Nam Moi, Hanh Phuc Phat Tai’, a phrase I’ve now mastered saying it to everyone and anyone; though, I still don’t know exactly what the second half of the expression means.  While in England we traditionally wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, the words seem hollow and it’s as if everyone’s going through the motions.  They are said as more of a courtesy or duty than expressed in their original intent. This is completely opposite to my experience in Vietnam.  These words are received with huge grins and seem to be genuinely appreciated which had made me heartfelt when I address my in-laws and my better half’s more distant relations.  Here, the expressions of goodwill bring the family together, are listened to and shared in a manner that lifts even the most cynical of people.

Lucky money was the next aspect of Tet that I was taught about, and observing the midnight custom of my parents in law addressing their parents, followed in turn by the younger generations caught me off guard.  Firstly, standing in a line waiting to bow to show respect, expressing words of luck and exchanging red envelopes was fascinating.  My sister in-law, Hanh and I formed a line, ready to address my Vietnamese parents and great grandmother.  It felt awkward.  I didn’t know if it was a supposed to be a serious, solemn or humorous occasion.  As I approached, I recited the words I’d carefully been memorising and their faces lit up.  However, I only did the job half correctly and I received an elbow in the stomach for not giving or receiving my lucky money with two hands, another custom I’d yet to learn.  It was a moment that is nothing like anything in England.  Being an outsider to the culture, I’ve struggled to understand the significance of this ritual; however, after seeing it first hand, I have started to comprehend how much it means to my inherited family, and presumably families across the nation.

Since then I learned that if you give or receive lucky money, you are thought to be lucky for the coming 12 lunar cycles.  It’s also bad luck and socially awkward if you don’t have a little red package with a little treat inside, even if unexpected visitors arrive at your door.  Luckily, Hanh gave me plenty of spare envelopes so I could bring luck to the younger members of the family and seeing the innocent joy and gratitude on their faces really encapsulated the spirit of Tet holiday.  It’s the kind of joy that children who believe in Santa Clause get before they view Christmas gifts as a right rather than privilege and are disappointed if there expectations aren’t met.  When I think about the genuine happiness of receiving lucky money, I feel saddened by the materialistic attitude of a growing number of young people in England.

My final learning curve was on the first day of the New Year.  To start, I decided to wear old clothes.  Not only that, back I selected a combination of black trousers and my best shirt, which also happened to be black.  Hanh intercepted me coming down the stairs with a look of shocked horror.  It was then explained to me that donning new attire symbolised wiping the slate clean from the previous year and as black is associated with death it wasn’t appropriate for me to be dressed in such a manner on the most special 24 hours of the year.  I protested that I didn’t have any new clothes, but always thinking ahead, she pulled out some newly acquired jeans and shirt, problem solved.  New clothes and a clean house equal a positive start to the year.  Back home, I’ve always found New Year’s resolutions a daunting prospect, and unrealistic to keep, whereas having fresh surroundings and being well groomed and turned out is a much more appealing prospect.

Fast-forward 3 years and the spirit of Tet hasn’t diminished in the slightest for me.  I’m very much looking forward it and not only because I get some time off work!  I’ve been told that I’m getting a haircut and buying new clothes, which are two things I rarely enjoy doing.  I’ve already got some scarlet envelopes and I’ll learn some new phrases to express and share messages of health, wealth and happiness in the next Lunar cycle.  I certainty won’t be making the mistakes of Tets past, and hope to delve more into the spiritual and cultural roots of the celebration as well as enjoying the merriment, sentiments and solace that can only be found through family.

Sidewalks: Car Park, Road or Pedestrian Right of Way?
By Mark Jones (December, 2011)
A few days ago I was going for a walk with my wife and new born daughter. It was a couple of hours after a downpour so the temperature was cooler than usual. Isabella, 3 months old, was fast asleep until dad stumbled and almost lost control of the pushchair. A couple of seconds later, we knew why. The pavement had been laid on sand, which had gradually been washed away by the incessant rainfall to leave a hole, which I fell into. Two minutes later we were beeped at by a young couple who thought the path was a road in disguise. Bella cried. Just another day in Sai Gon I thought.
Sidewalks, pavements, footpaths or whatever you like to call them, should have one thing in common. Namely, that it's safe for those traveling by foot, pedestrians to you and I, to walk on them. In England, almost every road has an accompanying pavement. There I can walk to my friend's house, local corner shop or to the train station not having to worry about spraining an ankle or avoiding motorised vehicles. Sure there is the odd skateboard, bicycle and mother pushing her child in a buggy to worry about, but they are hardly likely to cause injury. In fact, one of the things I miss most about ‘home’ is being able to leave my car at home and go for a gentle stroll. However, in Ho Chi Minh City, things are a little different and, as a result, I seldom walk anywhere now due to the various dangers.

To start with, while most major roads have a sidewalk of some description, they are mainly narrow and full of obstacles. Perhaps these are to make traveling on foot more exciting but honestly, it's just annoying. Motorbikes are generally parked in front of the stores due to the tiny nature of the pavements and lack of parking facilities. As a result, pedestrians are forced onto the roads which are generally teeming with traffic. Needless to say, anyone who is walking is forced onto the roads and has to avoid oncoming traffic with deft skills and bravery.
Another hurdle is simply the poor quality of the sidewalks. They aren't smooth so people regularly stumble; the drains are largely exposed so vermin can be seen everywhere and the poor drainage system (often clogged up with litter) means any period of rain deems the drains useless. Lose tiles are more the norm than a rarity because of poor workmanship and the frequency of curbs is staggering. Even in district 7, which is more pedestrian friendly, the disabled or those taking young children in a stroller are constantly faced with the challenge of trying to find safe passage through inclines and descents every 20 yards.
Finally, and most worryingly for a new father, motorbikes can often be seen mounting the curb to use the pavements as a shortcut! I'm not sure if it's illegal but it's mighty dangerous. The thing is, it's not just young men. It's also full families on one bike, old women and delivery guys with cargo loaded on the back. In short, everyone's at it! If you're walking on the footpaths, you're beeped at for getting in the way! Half the time, they don't even slow down. You would think that some consideration would be shown for pedestrians as presumably they know what they are doing is not only violating some kind of law, but is also really dangerous! But alas, this moral conscious is often lacking as people just want to get from one place to another as quickly as possible.
It seems to me that in this city I call home, paths are generally seen as an after thought. No real consideration is taken for pedestrians, let alone the elderly, disabled or those with young children. Most people in the city travel drive everywhere, even if their destination is only a couple of hundred yards down the road and if the quickest way to get there is along the sidewalk, then so be it. It’s clear that the sidewalks in Ho Chi Minh City are not designed to be walked on.

Maybe I'm being a little unfair, but I used to love walking from place to place in England. Plugging in my iPod and going for a run around town was a past pleasure. To do that here I have to take significant risks as footpaths, the home of human powered transport, are merely an extension of road in Viet Nam. One day, I might be able to push Isabella down a clear, smooth pedestrian right of way, but until that day we’ll continue to have fun completing our daily obstacle course.