In 2012 I spent six months in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. My goal, as a linguist, was to overcome my fear of a tone language. Vietnamese is a language with six tones.
Note: in a tone language if you change the way the word is said, you change the meaning. In English, if you say “Really?” with a rising tone, you have not said a different word from when you say “Really!” with a falling tone, emphatic – you have, however, changed your emotional relationship to the utterance.
In Vietnamese, by way of contrast, when you say ba with a neutral tone, it is ‘three.’ When you say bà with a falling tone, it is ‘grandmother.’
I took private lessons at a Vietnamese language school four hours a day, five days a week, for six months. I did, indeed, overcome my fear of tones, and I loved every minute I was in class and in Vietnam, learning this beautiful language.
Around 11 or 11:30 every day I would get very hungry. Despite eating a decent breakfast, those hours of Vietnamese burned brain calories. So after class I would head to a neighborhood restaurant for lunch, open up my workbooks, do my exercises, and eat.
When I am staying in a place for an extended period I like to establish myself at a restaurant where I show up 3 or so times a week, so they get to know me. One of the restaurants I chose was Mali Cali.
My rooms and my school were in District 1. Mali Cali is in the same district. Besides being in the city center, it was enough out of the way that tourists did not go there.
No matter where I went, my workbooks acted like magnets to the wait staff. Some would hover while I ate, helping me answer the questions and practice the tones. When I would order in Vietnamese, waiters and waitresses from other stations would drift toward my table. One time at Mai Cali I had no less than 4 waiters listening to me give my order.
Two waitresses at Mai Cali ended up adopting me. Their names are Thuy and Tuyet. They were in their late twenties. From the very beginning they were fascinated by me for no reason I could ever pinpoint.
The first time I went to Mai Cali, the young woman I came to know as Thuy happened to be manning tables at a different station. When she saw me, she walked over to me, put her face within two inches of mine, touched my cheek then walked away. The next day I asked my teacher why someone would do that. The teacher replied, “Perhaps she is newly arrived from the country and doesn’t yet know you’re not supposed to touch foreigners.” I didn’t know which was stranger, Thuy’s action or my teacher’s explanation.
Eventually I got to the lesson where I learned the correct pronouns to use in reference to myself, and that changed everything at Mai Cali.
In Vietnamese you are supposed to use the pronoun that shows your relationship to the person you are talking to along with your name. This lesson came about two months in, and by that time I sat only in Thuy’s or Tuyet’s station. So when I ordered using my name, Thuy was thrilled and told me her name. She asked me a few questions that I was able to answer. Then she went to the other side of the restaurant where she started to pace. I could see she was thinking very hard. When she came back over to me, this is the question she decided to ask me,
“How much do you weigh?”
Huh? I calculated my weight in kilos and told her. The next day I had to ask my teacher if such a question was normal. She assured me the Vietnamese ask each other all the time how much they weigh. I have no idea why, but okay.
Anyway, Thuy and Tuyet started inviting me to go out with them. We went to their favorite goat meat restaurant in District 7, to a seafood hole-in-the-wall also in District 7, to a dog meat place (yup – that was tough for me), to their coffee place. These were absolutely the plainest of plain places tourists did not go or would not know how to negotiate, and I loved it all – naturally.
What I loved most was riding on the back of Thuy’s xe máy (‘motor scooter’), tooling around the city at night. These were dreamy experiences. We were either in dense packs of motorcycles whose movements were like choreography or we were absolutely alone.
In Volume I of my Forest Breeze Series, Tied Up (affiliate)(aka A Dom in Vietnam), all of the descriptions of motoring around Saigon on Nate’s motorcycle come directly from the many times I was riding along behind Thuy, soaking up the sights whizzing by.
This post was written by Julie Andresen