On our very first morning in Vietnam, when we strolling around Hoam Kiem Lake In the center of Hanoi, two groups of young people approached us and said they were students, seeking to improve their English. Both times they asked if we could spare 5-10 minutes to chat with them and give them some conversational practice. My hackles rose. I remembered all the students in Beijing who did the same thing, but there it invariably turned out to be a ruse to try to lure tourists into buying art. So I brushed them off. They didn't react the way the Chinese students did, however. Instead of pushily pursuing us, they seemed embarassed and apologetic, and they immediately backed away. Steve later chastised me; said we should have talked to them.
In Ho Chi Minh City (still aka Saigon), we got a second chance. While planning the trip, I had found a website for free tours organized by Vietnamese university students to give themselves some one-on-one time with native English speakers. It sounded too good to be true, but I emailed anyway and asked to sign up for such an excursion. I got no response at first. But 5 days after we left San Diego, I received an enthusiastic e-mail from one “Salmon Tranh,” offering to show us some of Saigon's top sights. We made plans to meet at 10 a.m. Sunday morning (10/26) in front of the Independence Palace.
By that point, Steve and I had come to understand the desperate need for more and better English-language instruction in this country. We've been told that nowadays all Vietnamese children get English lessons in school. But we've also heard — and it's obvious as one travels here — that this education is poor. It focuses on grammar and (some) written comprehension, but there's little to no opportunity to converse. As a consequence, many shop folks cringe when you ask them anything in English. Others, particularly tour service providers (hotel and restaurant personnel, museum guides, etc.) speak it freely — but with such heavy accents it's usually tough to understand them.
Twenty-year-old “Salmon” (who arrived right on time) turned out to be an exceptionally perky young Vietnamese woman whose accent was pretty good. Over and over, she exclaimed about how excited she was to be able to talk to native speakers. Although she's studying accounting at one of the best universities in the city, she seemed to have a clear grasp of how important a strong command of English is (particularly for folks whose language is pretty much only spoken by their own fellow citizens.) She told us she's only been a member of the free tours group for a month, but that we were the sixth set of visitors she'd taken around.
We spent a lively and entertaining two and a half hours with her. The palace, where we started out, is a fascinating place — the former home of Nguyen Van Thieu during all the bloody years when American warriors struggled to keep him in power as the head of an independent south. A tour of the place takes in everything from the sumptuous state rooms to the underground bunkers to the rooftop from which Thieu finally escaped in 1975. (Big red circles on the roof mark the two spots hit by North Vietnamese bombs, and the first two Communist tanks that crashed through the gates sit in a place of honor on the grounds.). Salmon also showed us the exquisite Cathedral and central Post Office and City Hall structures built by the French colonialists in Saigon, and we chattered away about everything from English-language pitfalls to where 20-somethings live (in both our countries). We paid for her admission to the palace, and pressed her to join us for lunch. But she demurred, hinting that she had to prepare for her next day's classes.
For my part, I have to say my biggest regret of this trip is that I didn't have the foresight to take a semester of Vietnamese. I love learning new languages and have spent a lot of time studying both Japanese and Mandarin. I think I failed to think of it because I knew we'd be passing through dozens of different language zones. Yet if I had concentrated just on Vietnamese, I would have gained a lot. I wouldn't have become anywhere near fluent, but I would have mastered a lot more of the spoken language than just the “please,” “thank you,” “hello,” “yes,” “no,” and “OMG!” I got Manh on our Halong Bay cruise to teach me. Most importantly, I would have been able to read dozens or hundreds of words. Unlike the Japanese and Chinese and Thais and Cambodians and Laotians, the Vietnamese have long used a standard Latin alphabet (albeit embellished with a bunch of diacritical marks) to write their language. That makes it easy to get around town and find stuff.
We still managed to do a lot of that, but it would have been even more fun if I had had a bit more of Salmon's gumption.