Language, linguistics and travel. A blog that tries to bring them all together.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Hanoi, The Vietnamese Language and Heading North to the Border

My friend, Bradford, described Hanoi as being a Graham Greene city. It's a place where East has met West and left behind a mixture of decaying, French colonial buildings, concrete monoliths, courtesy of its fling with Communism, and more recently ultra-modern mini-skyscrapers. To provide protection from the sun and rain many of the city streets are lined with sinewy, tropical trees that provide a canopy for the swirling street life below. In the old quarter each area has its speciality. Near my hotel was the discordant tinsmiths' street where each small place acted as both a workshop and store front. Around the corner was the place dedicated to selling traditional musical instruments. And so it went, street by street, each geared up for one type of business. As the modern world sneaks in, holes are forming. CD stores are intermitently sprinkled throughout the old quarter, as are bright new clothing stores and tourist style restaurants. The march to modernity is relentless. Every day, I was told, another delapidated and shuttered colonial building disappears to be replaced the gaudy new standard.

Wandering around Hanoi is always an adventure. The traffic is a constant and abundant buzz of mopeds with horns blasting every few seconds. The Hanoians have a habit of parking their "Honda Dream Excesses" and "Dylans" crosswise on the sidewalk so what few pedestrians there are must walk in the street to make any headway. Like all big cities, Hanoi hides little nooks of delight. One was a cafe that Bradford showed me. I would never have found it otherwise. It was down an innocuous corridor with only a rough sign to announce its presence. After climbing four flights of stairs we eventually arrived at a table and chair strewn balcony boasting a magnificent view across one to the treelined lakes that dot the city. I'd walked around this particular one earlier on in the day. It was edged by a well-designed, manicured park of curving walkways and strategic benches and provided a welcome respite from the ever shifting energy of the surrounding city. My walks around the city invariably took pause at one of Hanoi's numerous coffee shops. They can be found just about everywhere and come in a wild variety of styles, from shabby holes in the wall decorated by a curling picture or two, to state of the art glass and steel establishments where the staff wear uniforms and the prices keep out the riff-raff.

When I wasn't sipping coffee or getting lost in the warren of streets, I had to work. I needed to finish of the process of correcting and revising the Vietnamese Phrasemaker. The person I found to help me was Mr. Duc, the manager of a tour company that operated out of an office at the back of my hotel. He wasn't the perfect man for the job as his English was somewhat feeble but as time was running out, I needed to use whatever resources I could. Like all residents of Hanoi, Mr. Duc hid himself behind a mask of reserve and never once offered information about himself that didn't first require an inescapably probing question. During one smoke break, I pried it out of him that he was fluent in Russian. He'd learned it at school and had then lived in Volgograd for a year. He said that Russia had seemed like a paradise at the time, compared to the relative poverty of post war Vietnam. Using this theme as a spring board, he gracefully switched the subject to talk of more impersonal matters.

As usual the process of revamping the Phrasemaker led to some interesting snippets regarding the language and the culture. Like Khmer, Vietnamese has enormous range of pronouns to refer to people based upon their sex, age, relationship and number of people. One of the more interesting ones is the word "chung-no". It translates as "they" or "them" when speaking of small children, objects and animals and was term used during the war when speaking of the American forces. Mr. Duc showed how easily Vietnamese can change it's meaning with a simple omission of a tone. The phrase "an buoi", with a diacritic over the "o" that looks like a question mark, means, "eat for a little while", without the mark it becomes "eat cock".

Once the Vietnamese portion of the project had been finished I told the hotel staff I would be leaving for China the following day. One of them urged me to buy a $21 ticket for the tourist bus to Nanning, the first big city across the Chinese border. His description of the journey made it sound very comfortable and convenient; a mini-bus would pick me up from the hotel at 7:30AM and whisk me and other foreigners out to the edge of the city where we'd board a luxury A/C bus. By 4:30PM we'd arrive safe and sound in Nanning. No hassles, no danger, nothing unexpected. It sounded as adventurous as a can of chicken noodle soup. I deliberately got up late the next morning and after a lingering breakfast caught a motorcycle taxi to the train station to see if anything was going north that day. What I really wanted was a last opportunity to use the Vietnamese I'd learned over the past three weeks. In Hanoi so many people had spoken passable English that it made it difficult at times to make any progress. In Vietnamese I bought my ticket to Dong Dang, the last town before China then constructed the sentence to find out at what time the train was expected to arrive. It turned out the border would be closed by the time I got there. I'd have to spend one more night in Vietnam.

The journey north was slow and pleasant. I traded snippets of conversation with my fellow passengers, who were delighted at having a foreigner on board, and spent languorous hours studying the scenery from the only area on the train open to the elements. The staff warned me repeatedly not to stand there as young boys were apt to throw stones at the passing train. I couldn't resist staying where I was; the view was extraordinary. It was dominated by a long, snaggle toothed range of karst hills that presented great sheets of brittle, discolored rock face and crests of stone so rough and uneven they looked like saw blades. A dense mane of foliage clung to every horizontal surface and draping it all was a foreboding mist that suggested this was not a place to go for a Sunday walk.

In Dong Dang, to my great relief, not a soul spoke English and just as I'd hoped, I managed to accomplish all the necessary tasks in basic Vietnamese: transport into town, haggling the price of a hotel room, supper and a bottle of water. I was surprised at how easily it came to me and it was with a tinge of regret that I realized the following day I would be leaving it behind like a piece of discarded luggage and in its place start picking up Mandarin Chinese


At 4:25 PM, June 15, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yea!!! Todd and Rod

At 12:57 AM, June 23, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So where exactly did you leave your basic Vietnamese? I could use it! Enjoyed reading about your trip. Cheers.


Post a Comment

<< Home