A Wonderful Surprise in Hue

This past weekend, I went to Hue, in central Vietnam. Hue is a small town, with lots of history, a unique culture, and wonderful food. When I am looking to get away from the big city for a bit, Hue is my go to destination. This past weekend, I was looking forward to seeing my local friends that I hadn’t seen in some time, enjoying some of my favorite foods, and relaxing in the quiet royal city.

I arrived Friday afternoon, but my friends were busy until the evening. So I decided to take a nice walk along the beautiful Perfume River that splits Hue in half.

View of the Perfume River in Hue
View of the Perfume River in Hue

About 2 minutes into my walk, I was approached by some local students who were sitting in the park that is around the river. They asked if I would take some time to speak with them so that they could practice their English skills with a native speaker. I was a bit cautious and wary that it might be some sort of scheme, but I agreed to talk with them for a few minutes.

The group of students that quickly became my new friends
The group of students that quickly became my new friends

I was pleasantly surprised by this group of wonderful people. They were students studying in all different fields, including medicine, law, economics and tourism. The few minutes that I had promised them, quickly became an hour. They asked me about life in the US, and about how I saw in Vietnam. Every time I said something nice about Vietnam, I could see the happiness in their eyes, as if I had just complimented them personally.

At one point in the conversation, it came out that I speak a very decent Vietnamese. They were all quite surprised and said that none of them had ever met a foreigner capable of holding a conversation in Vietnamese, because so few foreigners live in Hue. We switched to talking in Vietnamese and the conversation continued for another hour and change.

Around 7pm, most of the group excused themselves and went home to eat dinner. But a few remaining people invited me to eat at some of their favorite student eateries and introduce me to some new foods. I assured them, that I had been to Hue many times, and there was probably no local food that I had yet to try. But of course, I was wrong.

Going out for dinner
Going out for dinner

They took me to two different food stalls, and showed me 4 different dishes that I had never had before. All 4 were quite tasty. But the real fun was the conversation with my new friends. It turns out, that before that day, they only knew each other’s faces, but had never talked. But after that day, everything changed, and now we were all friends.

After we finished eating, we went to a drink stall and sat and talked. At each place, my new friends couldn’t wait to introduce their new foreign friend to whoever was near by. After we were done drinking, we all exchanged Facebook contact information, and one of them drove me back to my hotel on his motorbike.

The interesting things is, that when they initially approached me, I came very close to saying no. Many times, while walking around Hanoi, I have been approached in similar fashion, and it often turns out to be an attempt to try and get money out of me. It was getting to a point that I was becoming quite cynical. But for whatever reason, I decided to give this group a chance, and I am glad I did. I had a great evening, and now have more friends. Sometimes in life, you just have to put yourself out there, especially when traveling alone. If you do, life often has pleasant surprises waiting for you.

Learning Vietnamese

I always knew that one of the most difficult parts about moving to Vietnam, would be the dreaded “language barrier”. English is not widely spoken here in Vietnam, and Vietnamese is considered one of the more difficult languages for English speakers to learn. All challenges aside, I was determined to try my best to learn the language of my new home.


Why is Vietnamese so difficult? For starters, it is tonal. I have tried to explain this concept to my friends and family back in the US and Israel, but most don’t seem to grasp it. Basically, I can say the same “word” with 6 different tones and that would actually create 6 different words. Westerners often have a lot of trouble with this, which can lead to some very funny communication breakdowns. In Hanoi, the words for pineapple. watermelon, and coconut are spelled the same, but have different tones. I have yet to meet the foreigner in Hanoi that has not had the experience at least once of ordering a pineapple smoothie, and receiving a coconut smoothie instead (or vice-versa). There is also a common mistake between the Vietnamese word for grapefruit and the word for a certain part of the male anatomy, but I have never heard of this leading to an order mix up in a restaurant.

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The other really difficult thing about Vietnamese is the pronoun system. Off the top of my head, I can think of 25 different pronouns, but there are more. They change based on age, age difference, social situation, age difference of parents, type of relationship, gender, closeness, anger, etc. Trying to master the use of this complicated, yet culturally important pronoun system, is quite mind boggling.

tieng viet sad book

To being with, I signed up for classes at the National University, here in Hanoi. While these classes were extremely helpful, anyone that has ever tried to learn a new language will tell you, you can’t learn it in a classroom. You must “live the language” and talk with native speakers. There are the usual tricks of trying to talk with taxi driver and waiters. But that too was not enough.

Anyone that knows anything about gay subculture, knows that there are tons of apps and websites designed to help people meet, date, or whatever else they are looking for. The same is true here in Vietnam. I used apps like Grindr and Jack’d, along with Facebook groups for gay Vietnamese, to help meet local people. Some nights, I would spend hours chatting with guys from all over Vietnam. I was able to learn phrasing, syntax and all in all improve my conversation skills.

When I was still new at Vietnamese, it was always easier chatting online, because I could use Google translate for words I did not understand or could not remember. But, when I started meeting people in person, this was not always easy. Of course I have Google translate on my phone, but constantly looking up words on your phone, ruins the conversation. So I tried to keep the use of the translation apps to a minimum. We would rely on the good old classic options, like body language, pointing and describing. It wasn’t always easy, but I was definitely living the language, and that is the quickest and best way to master it.

Now, two and a half years later, I find myself frequently being complimented for my Vietnamese skills. I have many local friends who do not speak any English. In fact, my recent boyfriend of eight months does not speak English. We communicated solely in Vietnamese.

Of course I still have much to learn. I have continued my classes and am always looking to meet new people. And since I have met guys from all over the country, I have been able to learn to understand (somewhat) some of the different regional dialects, and have had many local guides for my travels around the country. But those are stories for another post. keep-calm-and-learn-vietnamese-1