I had this mindset that wherever I live in the world, I would learn the local language. When I knew that I would move to Ho Chi Minh City last year, I convinced myself to learn the Vietnamese language. Although I heard many comments about how difficult it is, I decided that I would still give it a try. Coming from Indonesia, where English is not my native language, I am used to speaking bilingually (Bahasa Indonesia and English) at home and at work. Furthermore, I can speak a little bit of French, so learning another language is just another challenge.
I registered myself in a Vietnamese class for foreigners at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities. Around two weeks after I landed in HCMC, I started the Level One course with nine other classmates.
Two Vietnamese teachers took turns teaching our dynamic class. The mix of student nationalities made the class even more cheerful. I was the only Indonesian among one British person, one French, one Japanese and six Koreans. As much as possible our teachers, Cô Hà and Cô Thục, tried to explain everything in Vietnamese. However, English is used as an intermediate language.
Getting to know your classmates is part of Level One. It is about correct pronunciation, introduction (name, nationality, what you do, where you live), asking about the time and daily activities. My personal goal is nothing but to survive in daily life and be able to communicate with people around me (taxi drivers, apartment staff, etc.). The hidden agenda is to check if this language is really too difficult, and how to conquer it.
Other than the two teachers at the class, I have real teachers as well. The housekeeping staff in my apartment is happy knowing that I learn this language. They were giggling every time they heard me listening to the CD or when I tried to pronounce the tones correctly. But I was glad because somehow they used to come when I did the homework!
After a couple of months, I was pleased enough to know what the names of buildings are i.e. khách sạn (hotel), nhà hàng (restaurant), ngân hàng (bank), bệnh viện (hospital). I smiled to myself if I passed a xe ôm and they said “Đẹp quá!” By learning the Vietnamese language, I started to understand the Vietnamese culture. I understand basic manners like how to address other people, both of the same age and younger or older people. In some other part of the world, this thing could be simple or very complicated. I am still far from understanding the local culture; however learning Vietnamese is the correct way to come to know Vietnamese culture better.
By communicating in the local language, even in limited sentences, things become simpler. I communicate easily with taxi drivers, and restaurant servers smile when I say: “Em ơi, cho tôi một ly cà phê sữa đá” (One iced milk coffee, please!)
The biggest achievement is surviving at the train stations in Hanoi and Sapa! During my recent visit to Sapa, while transiting in Hanoi, I was not aware that I had to exchange a train "ticket voucher" for the original ticket. At the stations, thanks to my limited Vietnamese, I could ask for information from the train officer and/or other passengers. Not only that, but by speaking Vietnamese they smiled at me and took better care of me.
By learning Vietnamese, I got new friends. In class after a class, two hours a day and five days a week – we struggled together. The length of time attending four classes creates a bond. The friendship grows. It was not only among the students, but also the teachers. It was a difficult final test at Level Three, but it ended with a nice memory as Cô Thục treated us to bánh xèo or sizzling pancakes. Cô Hà is always keeping in touch through SMS and email – perhaps it is partly to check if we still speak Vietnamese appropriately.
Time flies. It is almost a year and my journey continues. It has been fun learning Vietnamese and living in Vietnam. A blessing in disguise. My effort learning Vietnamese would be a basic guide to learn another foreign language in my next destination.