The Sounds of Vietnam

Posted by - September 13, 2011 | Category: Asia, Escapes, Vietnam

Vietnam is at war.  A war against silence.  And much like that other little war they were involved in, they’re winning.  Big time.

Slow boat from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Chau Doc, Vietnam

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. 

Motorbikes in 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.

It’s horrifying.

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. 

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65 comments - add one
  1. ahaha!! i hear that a lot! I think this is one of those experiences that I’m just going to have to see to believe! :) BTW, did you guys end up renting a scooter & riding around? looks scary!

    1. Hi Jen — I rented a scooter a couple of times in Thailand, and on Phu Quoc in Vietnam, but not in HCMC or Hanoi — I don’t think I would last more than 3 minutes on the road in either of those places.

  2. What I found fascinating is that in Vietnam there are different kinds of horn honks – some that mean “move it”, others that just say “hey, heads up, I’m right beside you.” It’s like a morse code for horn honking. I suppose just like everything else in Vietnam – at first it seems chaotic, but then you realize there’s at least some (a little!) method to the madness.

  3. I forget where I was in Asia (I’m getting old) where it was all about honking. There were no street signs or street lights of any kind — you just honked to show your presence and hoped someone didn’t hit you. Terrifying!

    1. It’s funny you mention that — I just noticed a couple of days ago that there is one thing I have not seen in Vietnam in the three weeks I’ve been here — “STOP” signs! :)

  4. ahahah I’ve experienced the same in India, especially Delhi, oh my, as soon as they get on their cars, they start with the horn, and what a sharp horn lol
    I think if I go to live in Delhi, I’ll be deaf after six months 😛

  5. I have to admit–Vietnamese is not soothing to the ear. It does sound like a lot of yelling, and my experience each time I go to my favorite salon for a little “pedicure love” is akin to sitting in a henhouse amongst the clucking and feathers while listening to death metal or something. But, they are incredibly nice to me, and I haven’t found any other race that I trust to touch my feet. They’re artsy and crafty with designs, too. Oh, and the Vietnamese invented Pho! Doesn’t get much better than that. ;-D

  6. Totally agree with ya on this. I think when Vietnamese were born, they were given a horn as a toy. My experience taking a bus from Hanoi to Halong was incredibly crazy with the bus blowing his horn every 30 seconds for the 3 hour journey.

  7. I felt the same way about Canadians on the horn situation eons ago when I first experienced the busy streets of Vancouver, BC. I guess its all a matter of perspective 😉 Oh, and language thing – I totally agree. Yikes!

  8. I played a little game with myself when I was in my hotel room in Hanoi. When I heard a horn outside I would begin to count. I would stop counting when I heard the next horn. I rarely would get to ten seconds even late at night. Another game I played was I would count to 60 and see how many horn blasts I would hear during that 60 second time frame. Sometimes I would count 20-30 horn blasts in that time. It is absolutely ridiculous. Funny post, but absolutely true.

  9. Haha, interesting. I felt like Korea was the land of constant noise – but it was the more easily ignored background noise of traffic interspersed with the occasional drunken shout.

    That and domestics. I don’t know how marriage holds together in that country. Constant arguments.

    1. Thankfully I only saw one domestic dispute — a hubby and wife arguing over the scooter. She eventually threw the keys into oncoming traffic and walked away. Korea sounds like it wins on that front. :)

    1. Hi Denise — I just extended my visa, so am here for another couple of weeks. I may be back later in the winter though. Next year is anyone’s guess as far as where I will be. Bring some sleeping pills too! :)

  10. This is something I didn’t know about Vietnam. I was excited to see and experience it, now I think I will pack ear plugs. I love your comment that Thailand is a library compared to Vietnam.

  11. Haha! I sometimes get pedicures at a nearby place run by Vietnamese folks, and they speak as they work–it’s a very interesting language to listen to. I’ve heard that they are definitely into honking the horns there–must be very intense!

  12. Love this blog. while I admit there’s a lot of honking too here in manila, Vietnam is an altogether different level of honking. The scooters zip past you and you better take that honking seriously to stay whole. Enjoyed reading your piece. Nice.

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