Back in Hanoi for the tenth time in my life, I am still not used to the way the people handle queuing. Our airplane from Taipei (there are currently no direct flights from the U.S. to Hà Nội) landed in a dense fog at Nội Bài International, and my brain feels about the same way: I have gotten my usual two hours of sleep over the course of the past twenty-four hours. For some reason, sleeping sitting up eludes me, but not my companion of thirty-plus years, Larry, who has snoozed his way through the entire journey, with the exception of eating. So, I’m left to my own devices during the flight, which usually means reading or, when I’m too tired to manage that, binge watching all the movies on board that I haven’t seen, and some that I have if I run out.
We have pulled up to a gate at the brand new International Terminal, designed to handle ten million visitors per year. When we first came in 2006, this Terminal didn’t exist, and we entered through the (by comparison) tiny original Terminal, prompting the thought, “What have we done?” The new International Terminal is world class, however, teaching us yet again not to underestimate the Vietnamese.
The plane pulls up to the terminal, the Australian pilot bids us a ‘g’dye’ from the cockpit, and immediate bedlam occurs: Vietnamese are literally climbing over each other to exit; it’s a mob scene. These are typically very small people, so three can practically walk abreast down an airplane corridor, and they proceed to try and outdo this number. I try and catch someone’s eye so that I can exit my row, but nobody is falling for that ploy. So, I take my under-the-seat carry on and literally shove it out into the corridor, which stops the next person dead in their tracks, and I follow it and block the way with my big American body so I can extract my violin from the overhead compartment.
Nobody takes offense that I can see, it’s just part of the ritual, and for all I know they admire this move. But I wonder at this type of behavior, and what is the root of its cause. Vietnam is a very dense country, so if you don’t push and pull a lot in crowded areas, you may never get anywhere. But there’s something else that puzzles me; it’s the way they do it, without any apparent self-awareness of invasion of space, a brain wiring that is decidedly un-Western.
Americans, I think to myself, are super aware, overly sensitive of the other guy’s space, and we’re always apologizing to each other (especially on airplanes, for some reason) if we feel we’ve overstepped the boundaries. Eye contact is the way we use to communicate this, in addition to language. This is completely missing in Vietnamese behavior; they go into a kind of stoney-faced trance that defies definition from a Western standpoint, and could easily be mistaken for rudeness or lack of intelligence. In the case of the latter, there’s plenty of evidence that this is a highly intelligent group of people. And I don’t buy the rude description either; it’s just another puzzling form of behavior that illustrates how little we human beings understand each other.
Before exiting, we had a brief conversation with our row mate from Taipei; she is a very pretty young Vietnamese and lives in Hà Nội. Where? we ask her. She doesn’t seem to comprehend this question, so we start listing districts to get a better idea of where she lives: Hoan Kiem? Dong Da? Cau Giay? To each one she shakes her head and smiles, but we are no closer to knowing her location, and it’s clear she’s not intending to share this information. Why? I wonder. Again, I don’t think it has anything to do with a logical reason, like she doesn’t want us to know where she lives because she believes we’re ax murderers. I think it’s cultural, but, frustratingly, I don’t know the thinking behind it.