Hanoi Diary #4: Learning How to Speak Vietnamese

Hanoi, 2016
Hanoi, 2016

Dear friend,

I am currently at the J.W. Hotel in Hanoi, one of the most ballin’ places I’ve been here so far. Cindy is here for an orientation meeting for her Fulbright scholarship, and I’ve just sat at the cafe all day, reading, writing, and reflecting.

I just finished an (overpriced, but delicious) bowl of Beef Pho, and I just had an idea for a letter— talking about language acquisition and how it has been for me to learn a foreign language (Vietnamese).

Why learn Vietnamese?

Hanoi, 2016
Hanoi, 2016

Before talking about the how I started to learn Vietnamese— I want to talk about why I want to learn Vietnamese.

The obvious first reason is because I’m going to be living here for a long time (9 months in Hanoi, then 6 months in Saigon). Of course knowing a local language just makes day-to-day living easier, in terms of ordering food, asking for directions, or just chatting up people.

But on a deeper level — I’ve discovered that by getting to know a local language, you get to connect deeper with people on an emotional basis.

I’m starting to realize that language and communication is less about just conveying facts and information to one another — it is about building a stronger, deeper, and personal bond with someone else. It is sharing a little of your soul with someone else.

As a privileged expat living here, whenever I go to restaurants or cafes and people see that I am Korean — they treat me like a king. But once I break the ice, and start speaking Vietnamese— the facade of “professionalism” breaks down, and the people become more down-to-earth and real, just how I like talking to people.

Furthermore, now that I’m married to Cindy, I want to get to know her culture more. If I only have one goal while living in Vietnam — it is to improve my Vietnamese. I want to improve my Vietnamese so I can speak to her grandparents back in Orange County (they only speak Vietnamese), I want to speak more with Cindy’s mom (she is fluent in English, but she is much more comfortable with Vietnamese), and I also want to connect with her extended family (uncles, aunts, kids).

How I learned Vietnamese

Hanoi, 2016
Hanoi, 2016

2 years ago when I lived in Saigon for two months with Cindy, I enrolled in “VLS” (a Vietnamese learning school for foreigners) and did intense 1:1 tutoring (4 hours a day) for about a month. This really accelerated my learning of Vietnamese, as I was able to ask my teacher tons of questions, and have my teacher all to myself (instead of being in a classroom setting).

Learning the fundamentals helped a lot— but what truly helped in terms of learning Vietnamese was actually speaking it with people in the streets.

80% of what I learned in class, I forgot. But I remember almost 80% of whatever I learn on the streets— when talking to taxi drivers, my barber, servers at restaurants, or local baristas here in Vietnam.

I think one of the biggest challenges that many people have when learning a foreign language is having the confidence to just practice on the streets, to make mistakes, and to learn through situational difficulty.

One thing I’ve been doing differently this time around is that I’ve intentionally not been writing down words I learn in Vietnamese. I try to commit them to memory. And the words and phrases that I use often — I easily am able to remember them. And I know that I will forget a lot of words — but that is a good thing. I only want to remember words and phrases that I’ll use on a daily basis.

Stepping outside of my comfort zone

Hanoi, 2016
Hanoi, 2016

Whenever I am anywhere, I always try to make an effort to practice my Vietnamese and make small-talk with people. The thing is that typical small talk (where are you from, how long have you lived here, what do you do) is always repeated. Therefore the more I practice small talk, the more fluent I become at the same 10 questions that everyone asks me. And once I can master the basic small-talk, then I can begin to learn more difficult words and phrases.

But the hardest thing, even for me, is stepping outside your comfort zone. I think it is easy for me to just say hello, sit down, and order in English. Rather, I try to speak as much Vietnamese as much as possible, even when it is much easier to speak in English.

And I’ve found that when I try my best to speak Vietnamese, the locals here really appreciate it. And the same is whenever I try to learn a few local phrases whenever I travel. People treat you a lot more positively when you make an effort to learn the local customs and the language (even though you might not be very good). You get more smiles, better service, and you just feel happier.

I suck at learning new languages— but some tips which work for me:

Hanoi, 2016
Hanoi, 2016

I’m not naturally gifted at learning languages, but I just love connecting with people. And I also encourage you — if you plan on traveling or living abroad, try your best to learn the local language.

I find the best phrase to first learn in a foreign language is: “How do I say _______ in (insert language)?”

I know how to say that in Vietnamese now — so whenever I talk to someone who knows both English and Vietnamese, I will ask them to translate a word for me. And then I repeat it a few times, and I tend to remember and learn it.

Another hack that helps me a lot is this: point at an object and ask, “What is that called in (insert language)?” This way I can learn like a child— just pointing at random stuff, and asking what it is called. Then I can learn basic words (yesterday I learned how to say shaving cream in Vietnamese, but promptly I forgot it — until I will have to buy more shaving cream next time).

Signing a lease to a new serviced apartment

Hanoi, 2016
Hanoi, 2016

Later today we are going to sign a lease on an apartment we will have for around 3-months (25 minutes from the downtown area we are currently living in). We’re going to move into this new apartment in about a month, because it is closer to one of the archives Cindy needs to do research in.

It is a cozy serviced apartment (meaning they clean it for you) and costs around $500. We told our local friends how much it cost, and they all are telling us how we are getting ripped off (paying foreigner prices). We realize that— but then again, Cindy’s scholarship grants are paying a lot of our living expenses, and I don’t think it is worth pulling out our hair to perhaps save another $100 a month on rent or so.

The process was pretty seamless— we just googled “Hanoi apartments for rent”, Cindy contacted a realtor, and after looking at a few places, we found a decent spot with a good budget. The place we are going to lease also has really fast wifi, a free airport shuttle, and is nice and cozy.

We have around 3 weeks left near the Hoan Kiem area (the downtown area near the lake). I love the area— how easily walkable it is, all the great cafes, and the hustle and bustle. The new area we are going to move to is a lot more industrial — apparently it is popular for Korean and Japanese businessmen to live in. It has a lot more restaurants catered to the foreign businessman, as well as massage parlors and karaoke bars.

The new area doesn’t seem as fun as where we are living now, but then again — every new change and move is always a new opportunity and adventure. I’m starting to realize that happiness is a lot less about fulfilling your expectations and preferences, and more about having an open mind, and finding positivity in every situation.

Having fun with photography

Hanoi, 2016
Hanoi, 2016

Thank you for always tuning into these diary entries. Cindy and I always appreciate your encouragement and support, and I will continue to share some of my reflections about living here, and just thoughts on daily life.

In terms of my photography, I am still bringing the Ricoh GR II with me everywhere I go. Once again, I’m spending more time and focus in learning Vietnamese, reading, writing and reflecting — not as much shooting. And that is okay for me. I still take snapshots of random stuff I encounter along the way, and experiences I have. I hope you just consider these photos in these diary entries as “filler” that is (a little more) interesting than just reading text.

And upon further reflection; perhaps it might be a good practice for me not to be so critical with my photos. I know that I will only get maybe 5-6 photos I really like in a year living here, but I think sharing snapshots here and there is a good way to just show my stream-of-consciousness, or things I’ve seen along the way.

So consider all the photos in these posts as not the best, but still enough to give you a flavor of Hanoi; and things I’m practicing.

Until next time,