Vietnam is at war. A war against silence. And much like that other little war they were involved in, they’re winning. Big time.
Disembarking the slow boat from Phnom Penh, Cambodia at the port town of Chau Doc, I hear what will be my constant companion throughout Vietnam – the horn. It’s always with me. It tucks me in at night, and gently nudges me in the morn. It’s breaking my eardrums. Thank God for travel insurance.
In Thailand, the horn is used sparingly. Like guest towels, or the good china. Or perhaps there’s a tax on it? I don’t know. In any case, its use is tentative — almost apologetic. A short, precise half-honk called upon in only the most dire of straights. The underlying meaning is, “I’m sorry to do this to you old chap, but you see, I’m about to come full board. Do forgive me.”
Cambodians are more even-keeled – the horn is a mix of function and frivolity. Sometimes it signals, “I don’t want to hurt you.” Sometimes it signals, “I’m surrounded by metal. You’re not. Now MOVE!” Sort of like horns in New York.
But nothing like Vietnam.
The Vietnamese have just uncovered the capabilities of the horn, or so it seems. And like a child who’s discovered Teddy squeaks when squeezed, the love affair is not about to die anytime soon, no matter how much you will it away.
This is horn country.
The second thing you notice is the yelling. As I board a local bus to Rach Gia in the south it’s directed at everyone, and at no one in particular. The cell phone it’s often projected into acts as megaphone. There are no secrets here. The Vietnamese sit tall in their seats, lean forward as though that helps with reception, and scream when they will be home for supper, what the doctor said they have, or why they don’t love you any more. At least that’s what I imagine.
After acclimatizing to the yelling long enough, you begin to take notice of the language. Hmmm….now how can I describe it without offending a nation? There’s no tiptoeing around this one, so let’s just jump right in.
The Vietnamese language is not calming like Thai, or even sing-songy like Filipino. It’s that escalating wail westerners reserve for puncturing an eye, or discovering the dog’s gotten into the hash. It’s not pretty. And that’s too bad. It belies just how lovely the Vietnamese people really are. They say not to judge a book by its cover. For Vietnam, please add don’t judge a country by its sound.
Vietnam is amazing. Just plug your ears and see.