I took a run early this morning through the windy streets of Hanoi’s old quarter and made my way north to the city’s wide boulevards lined with government buildings.
As I neared the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum two men in olive green uniforms promptly spotted me and started moving my direction. While my Vietnamese isn’t so great, my international charade interpretation skills were telling me that their yelling and pointing meant that they didn’t want me to be walking on the sidewalk where I was.
Using my ignorant American skills, I snapped a picture anyway then moved along. As I picked up my pace and headed towards the more runner-friendly promenade on the West Lake waterfront, I was reminded of another time I’d been yelled at in this very same spot.
It was was 1998. Bill Clinton was President and he and Monica Lewinsky were the hot news item of the year. Now, I’m not sure if this only happens to Americans, or if other nationalities experience this phenomenon, but I often find that when someone wants to talk to you, but can’t communicate in your language, they say any words to you that they might know. Often, this just happens to be the name of the President of the United States.
In 1998, the conversation went like this. “You are American. American. Bill Clinton. American.”
In 2011, “You are American, American. Barak Obama, American”
Back to 1998. I was traveling in Vietnam with my friend Michelle. Hanoi was the last stop on our trans-Vietnam bus journey which included midnight fistfights.
As all good tourists to Hanoi, we paid a visit to see the waxy body of Uncle Ho. Unlike today’s Hanoi that is chock-full of motorcycles, in 1998, the main way for a tourist (and anyone else) to get from point A to point B was on a bicycle, or in a bicycle rickshaw.
We had hired a rickshaw to transport us to the mausoleum, and when we arrived our driver was trying to tell us something. The only problem, was that we had no idea what he was saying. So, he started yelling at us.
The yelling sounded something like this, “F#$@ing. F#$@ing. Bill Clinton. F$#&ing Bill Clinton.”
We sat in the rickshaw confused. “Um, rickshaw driver, sir, that isn’t very nice,” was our naive traveler response back, but of course he didn’t understand and just kept yelling.
In this case, it would have been great to know a little Vietnamese, or even the name of the Vietnamese leader, President guy, but alas, all we had was our best charades.
Finally, after a few rounds we finally decoded the mystery. F#&%ing = Farking = PARKING. He was trying to tell us where he was going to park, so we could find him after our visit to Ho Chi Minh was complete. The Bill Clinton bit was just an added bonus to the conversation in an attempt to make a connection.
I still laugh when I think of this story. And wonder how many other times someone was yelling at me in attempt to communicate something that was probably meant to be helpful to me.
Maybe the mausoleum guard pointing at the ground yelling at me today, wasn’t telling me to get off the sidewalk, maybe he was just trying to tell me my shoe was untied.
I finished my run around the lake and headed back towards my hotel, passing a beautiful Catholic church where I stopped to take a picture. As I stood there shooting with my iPhone, I was greeted by a man waiting at the gate. “Where are you from?” he began “Ah, American. George Bush once visited this church.”
The lesson is this: In the art of travel, we will be misunderstood and we will misunderstand. Never forget to pack your sense of humor. And when in doubt, it is always helpful to know the names of world leaders.
How do you pack your sense of humor?