Smile and the World Will Smile With You

Valerie Conners

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.



  1. Your trip sounds incredible so far! Just keep smiling and learning “Hello” and “Thank you” everywhere you go an you’ll be set. Can’t wait to see you when you return — if you decide to return. 🙂

  2. that made me smile 🙂

  3. This was awesome. I am the worst ever at picking up languages (which is really bad of me seeing as I’m a language teacher) but I truly believe in the power of a smile and a few well-executed hand gestures. I lived for a year in Japan and only knew how to say “Thank you,” “Excuse me,” and “I’m excited!” It’s surprising how far a few phrases (and an absolute commitment to looking like a goofball) can get you.

    • Valerie Conners says:

      Thanks, Sally 🙂 I love that one of your catch phrases was, “I’m excited!” I feel like that could go in all kinds of directions – hahaha! Since hearing that more smiles would be a plus, I’ve been grinning up a storm (and I already thought I was fairly smiley) – but no joke, I totally sense the difference in happy exchanges with strangers. Lots of unexpected excitement around appearing friendly – and I love that!

  4. I love the ending of this post. That’s great. I was once with a friend on the subway in Seoul and an old woman was pointedly staring at us with a scowl on her face. She then walked past us, cranking her head, so that her scowl and stare were with us even as she walked up and down the subway car. My friend scowled back, naturally, but I suddenly found the whole situation funny, so I started to laugh. At that, the old woman smiled back, yelled “Beautiful!” at me and ran through the subway doors.

    • Valerie Conners says:

      I LOVE that story! I’ve been being super conscious of smiling a lot as strangers stare at me since hearing about that article, and have truly noticed that people really DO get excited to see a smile. I hope this lesson sticks with me!

  5. GO. DO. BE. SHARE – be a traveller and share your story. So glad you’re living the dream. Pat

  6. I miss ur smiling face doodie!!! I bet they’re wondering…American or orthodontist?? when they see you two! Enjoy.

  7. Dana Dalton says:

    This is definitely one of my favorite posts from your blog! Love, love, love it!~