HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, September 26, 2011

Right On Time

'Right on time' is not a phrase one finds themself thinking, or saying, very often in Vietnam. Buses take days to go 200 miles, motos delivering your food order from a restaurant get caught in traffic, construction projects labor on endlessly, and the monsoon season comes and goes as it pleases instead of following the schedule provided by Wikipedia.

More annoying than any of this, though, is the fact that no single Vietnamese person - in history! - has shown up somewhere at the time they were supposed to. I imagine Ho Chi Minh arrived at the Palace of Versailles well after the proceedings for the Paris Peace Conference were well underway. This is quite vexing to a person, such as myself, that prides themself (Google is telling me this isn't a word, but I think it should be) on always being punctual. More often than not, the local you had an appointment with - whether it's getting coffee at a cafe, or to pick up rent - will arrive either inexplicably early, or unforgivably late.

Take, for example, Tham. I rent my motorbike from this woman, and she is an absolutely lovely lady - nice as can be, and actually charges me less than some of my friends for the same kind of bike. However, she seems incapable of telling time. Once, I asked her to come by to pick up my rent after 5pm, since I would be out until then. I happened to get home 15 minute early, and there she was outside of our gate!
"I thought you weren't getting home until 5?"
"Well, yes...I didn't think I would. But why are you here already?"

Then, there are the guys I play badminton with a few times a week. I meet (well I'm supposed to meet) them at the newspaper we all work at (where I'm the only foreigner in the building) at 11:45. Sure enough, I roll up at precisely 11:45 every time, only to receive a text asking me to park the bike and wait in the lobby. 10 to 15 minutes later they finally walk out of the elevator, ready to play. IF WE'RE NOT GOING TO LEAVE TILL NOON, TELL ME TO BE THERE AT NOON!

I have actually surprised the staff at the newspaper by always being on schedule. Several have commented on the fact: "Mike, you are always one time," as if that's a strange affliction. I want to say: "Well, in America, time is money. Meetings and appointments are set and meant to be started at the given time."

We also inform people if we are going to be early, or late, which is not done here. The prime example of this is my landlord, a blustery woman of about 60 who perpetually slaughters English at 100 decibels, and was mentioned in my last post. My roommates and I do not even know her name - we simply call her Crazy. Although, to be fair, she doesn't know our names either. I've been here for more than a year, and she still calls me Anthony. Which is my middle name.

Anyway, if Crazy is coming by to pick up rent, or look at something that's wrong with the house, etc., without fail she arrives at a completely random time. Early last week she was supposed to stop by at 12pm. I was walking home from the rock climbing wall at 11:30 when my phone went off:
"We said 12."
"Fifteen minutes."

Later that week, she had to come to the house again; this time to pick up a copy of my visa extension to give to the police. She said she would come at 10 a.m. Luckily I almost never sleep in, for I received a text message at promptly 8:30 asking if she could come. I said yes, and she was at the door two minutes later. So much for 10...

This doesn't have to do with time, but I'd like to share another Crazy anecdote. Once, when she was here to collect rent, she told my roommate Allison and I to buy a certain type of toilet cleaning liquid. You could see the gears turning as she struggled to find the words to express this thought:
We looked on, bewildered, trying not to crack up, as she made a strange hand motion and started making a strange, animalistic noise.
"Um, what?"
"YOU BUY BRAND...MAAAAAAH MAHHHHH." Further hand motions.

I then realized that her hand was in the shape of a duck bill, and there is a type of cleaning fluid called Duck.
"Ohhhh, Duck?"
"Yes, yes, we understand, just stop shouting please."

Anyways, back to not being on time. Crazy consistently shows up a half hour, sometimes more, earlier than she said she would. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I've sat in cafes by myself for 45 minutes, waiting for the person I tutor to arrive, with no phone call to alert me to their being late.

Sadly, this lack of punctuality (which is common throughout Asia, for some reason) has started to spread to many of my Western friends. Allison also likes to be on time, and every time we meet a group for dinner or drinks we can confidently guess that we will be the first people there. This makes life awkward for us, since waiters at restaurants are keen to take your order the second you sit down, and don't really understand the concept of waiting for other people to arrive.

The moral of the story is, if you've arranged a time to meet a Vietnamese person, don't be surprised to find that, when you get there, they've been sitting around for an hour already; or that they are miles away.


  1. This is identical to China. It's extremely rare to find people who are exactly on time. I always show up within 5 minutes of the planned meeting time, and the person I am to meet up with almost always shows up ridiculously early or unforgivably late.

    For example, last week I was selling my bicycle, and a guy called and wanted to look at the bicycle. I told him to come to my apartment at 6 PM to take a look. Later he calls me at 5 PM asking where I am, because he is already at my apartment, and I am not there.

    I told the guy to arrive at my apartment at 6 PM for a reason - because I have to work, and I can't be home until 6 PM. In the end, the guy just left my apartment because he didn't want to wait around for me. He kind of made it seem like it was my fault that he left my apartment. Unbelieveble. There's no use trying to explain that the arrangements were to meet at 6, because he just wouldn't understand.

    I take time very seriously, and it is one of my pet peeves when people are late. Apparently no one living in China can understand why.

  2. That's nothing. I once called my landlord about a broken air conditioner and he said he'd be round the next day to fix it. He promptly arrived a week later with two engineers, only to find that I'd already fixed it myself. And of course, no phone call or text at any point during all this.

    He's apparently coming round at 10am today. What time do you think I should expect him?

  3. That would be frustrating. Probably either 7:30am or 1pm tomorrow.

  4. I am not sure if you are able to see this comment. I stumbled on your blogspot from sojournaling's blog about two weeks ago. Since then I have added your website to my favorite. I read your blogs daily. You're an incredible writer. Also, you are quite an adventurous individual. Very impressive indeed.

    In general I like to read all your traveling blogs from various countries in the southeast Asia that your had visited. I learn so much about their way of life from reading your posts. In particular I love to read more about your daily life such as your interact with the local vietnamese, the cuisine, the high and low of living as an expat in Vietnam.

    By the way, I'm just curious if you ever ask the Vietnamese people as to why they don't show up to the meeting ON TIME as schedule? Just wondering what the answer going to be.

    Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy life to write all these insightful and humorous blogs.

    Take care

  5. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, that really means a lot to me. I put a lot of effort into this, so I love it when I receive positive feedback. I've never asked anyone about time here, so I'm not sure what that's all about, but it seems to be common in a number of Asian countries. No idea why.