My first night in Hanoi, we sat at a sidewalk bia ho’i, a local hangout favored for drinking lots of home-brewed beers while perched on minuscule plastic stools a mere 6 inches off the ground.
We were a bit puzzled by bia ho’i protocol, but decided to roll with it and see how things played out. Plus, I had just learned the words for “thank you,” cảm ơn, and “toilet,” nhà vệ sinh, and despite questioning for better or worse how far “toilet” would get me in a beer joint, I was itching to use them.
In an unexpected flurry of chaos, the table of men next to us realized we had no idea how to call a waiter or order beer, took pity and paused from their cigarettes and pile of half-drank mugs to scream orders at a waiter and gesticulate wildly. Moments later, foamy beers appeared before us. I proudly cảm ơn-ed a bit, smiled a lot, drank my beer and soon needed the restroom. Bingo. It was nhà vệ sinh time.
And yet it wasn’t. A waiter saw me stand, and as the only female non-local, figured I needed a toilet. He pointed to a sign, pointed up some stairs. Foiled. I made my way up a few flights of stairs until I wound up in a kitchen filled with Vietnamese cooks playing cards. Again before I could utter a word they pointed at the toilet door. Again, fail.
While in the tiny room, I decided since I had been foiled with “toilet” the least I could do was offer a big, Vietnamese “thank you!”. I practiced over and over in my head. I was jazzed. I emerged from the toilet, triumphant. Everyone was staring, puzzled. I smiled my proudest, most culturally sensitive smile, and shouted at the room, “Nhà vệ sinh! Nhà vệ sinh!”
Toilet. Toilet. I shouted “toilet” not even once, but TWICE. To their credit, they all looked awfully happy for me. Smiles all around.
Before I left on The Journey, I was often asked how I would manage not speaking the native language (or in India’s case, languages) of the countries to which I traveled. Truth is, it’s been simple – the world is awfully small these days, with few nooks and crannies not visited by the ubiquitous backbacker set.
This means it’s not terribly hard to find English spoken, or at least relatively understood, or an English language menu (though I’ve seen an awful lot of beverage menus offering “Diet Cock,” but really, you get the picture).
Still, in the out of the way places, when having learned the usual phrases that help you get by (please, thank you, hello, etc.) don’t cut it, semi-chaos, or at least awkward hilarity ensues, most often tempered by a smile, or laugh.
And for those who remain dubious that communicating in sign language or broken English is all that difficult, I would dare you to explain to a Vietnamese pharmacist that you need more probiotics. And when met with incomprehension and frowns, further mime that probiotics help prevent diarrhea and yeast infections.
In that situation I was the one laughing. The pharmacist, though she smiled back, looked deeply concerned.
Seriously though, it’s hard to write this and not sound like a complete cheeseball, but one of the great lessons of the trip thus far is that the smile is indeed the universal language. When words fail and gestures confuse, a big toothy smile can be the best way to say things like, “I’m sorry I’m such a dolt and can’t tell you in words that those clams in lemongrass, chili and pineapple broth are the best street food in the world, but I loved them, really.”
While in the tiny, charming town of Hoi An, Ayaz came across a brochure listing things foreigners wished about Vietnamese and vice versa.
“What do the Vietnamese wish foreigners did?” I asked. “Smile and not look angry,” he replied.
I thought about it, and decided that yes, Westerners do have a tendency to be on guard (not a bad thing while traveling, of course), or filled with stress, and it’s totally imaginable that these realities translate into a lot of frowny faces.
A while later, I walked down the street, and passed by an elderly Vietnamese woman. Our eyes met and she didn’t drop my gaze. Where normally, my polite “don’t stare” culture might have caused me to look away, I decided instead to smile. And in turn her face crinkled into so many lines as a gigantic smile crossed her face. I smiled bigger, and though I hadn’t thought it possible, she smiled bigger. Then I laughed. And she laughed. Happy.