Sarah Van Boven

I met the most extraordinary foreigner today. That’s how we generally refer to ourselves here in Hanoi, because it’s what Vietnamese folks call us and because describing yourself as an expat is more than a bit fatuous.

Upon introduction, I asked this wan Frenchwoman who her Vietnamese language teacher was. This is standard chitchat, the Manhattan equivalent of inquiring whether someone works out at Crunch or contributes to public radio in hopes that you might find out you share some patch of psychic turf in the clogged and cluttered city.

“Oh, I took about 10 lessons when I first arrived,” she sniffed. “I realized that even if I studied every day, I would never get beyond the basics. I weighed the costs and benefits and decided to quit.”

Then came the clincher: “What’s the point?” she added. “I’m only going to live here for three years.” 

I guess I’m more of a cheerful masochist than I ever thought; even though my Vietnamese lessons are exhausting and fraught with futility, I never want them to end. Mr. Hong, my long-suffering teacher, is charming and erudite and an excellent instructor, but that is not why I’m sad when it’s time for him to go. It’s because he understands me when I speak Vietnamese.

This is Mr. Hong’s true talent, the reason he earns the princely sum of $7.50 a lesson in a country where annual per capita income averages $300 a year. Not only can he speak slowly and clearly to you for two hours straight without becoming visibly bored or irritated, but he also gets your jokes and even occasionally tells you that you’re making excellent progress with all those fiendishly tricky Vietnamese tones.

Sadly, he does eventually have to pack up his briefcase and head to that next lesson. Just as I eventually have to go out into greater Hanoi and spray my poor pronunciation all over innocent bystanders.

The average person on the street doesn’t know that it’s tough for foreigners to master (or even hear) tones. To them it is, of course, perfectly natural that the word ma can mean ghost, horse, mother, rice seedling, whom, or grave depending on how it is pronounced.

Say I walk into a coffeehouse, a place that serves nothing but said beverage, and politely ask for a caphe da. There is a decent chance I will get a polite but baffled look in return. Pen poised above notepad, the ever-encouraging server will then chirp, “Caphe …?” having comprehended the first half of my request for an iced coffee but been utterly stumped by the da.

I try again: “Caphe daaaAAA?” drawling the word for ice in a near-ridiculous exaggeration of the Vietnamese rising tone. The coffee lady will look embarrassed, and grow even more mortified when I try to pantomime dropping chunks of ice into a tall glass. “Da? Da?” I say one last time, realizing I now resemble a berserk parrot but still unwilling to drink scalding coffee when it is 95 degrees outside at 8:30 in the morning.

Why the lovely, helpful waitress cannot figure out what I’m saying from context alone is beyond my comprehension. I’ve painstakingly looked up da with various other tones in my Vietnamese-English dictionary, and would think its fairly obvious that I am not trying to order coffee with a piece of bamboo pipe, coffee with a sound thrashing, or coffee with a banyan tree. The only other option is coffee with ice, then. Isn’t it?

The server’s 9-year-old son usually appears from the back of the shop at this point, asks in perfect English how he can be of assistance, and an iced coffee appears forthwith. I could get frustrated, but what’s the point? I’m only going to live here for the foreseeable future.