HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Early Bird Gets the Worm

This article was originally published in The Guide, a local magazine

Growing up in the U.S., one learns to appreciate the break from work and school that the weekend brings. T.G.I.F., an acronym for ‘Thank God It’s Friday’, is a common utterance in school hallways and office coffee rooms. After putting in five days of hard work or studying, or possibly both, it’s time take two full days off and sleep as late as you can.

Relaxing over the weekend has become such a revered pastime that many cities and states have implemented laws governing when you can start making noise on Saturday and Sunday. Say, for example, you need to mow your lawn. Depending on where you live, you won’t be able to do that until 9 or 10am out of courtesy towards your neighbors who may still be asleep. If you crank up the lawn mower before then, you could potentially be fined, and you will almost certainly be shouted at.

It is also understood that you probably shouldn’t try to contact anyone on the phone early in the morning, as they will probably either be sleeping or just enjoying a lazy morning in bed. Doing anything that could interrupt someone’s weekend recharge is considered extremely rude.

In the nearly two years I’ve spent in Saigon, I have learned that the weekend is viewed in a completely different light. Many locals seem to treat Saturday and Sunday as two more weekdays: students at language centers still go to class, and many offices remain open, at least for part of Saturday. The city roars to life early, just as it does during the week.

There is also no regard for the fact that other people might actually be using the weekend as a period of rest. The thinking seems to be, “Well, it’s 6:30am on Sunday and I’m wide awake, so everyone else should be too. Let me start taking out that wall between my kitchen and living room. With a jackhammer.”

Construction projects rumble on nearly 24/7, whereas in the U.S. such work usually shuts down for the whole weekend. Everyone’s favorite neighborhood animal, the rooster, starts shrieking as soon as the first rays of sunlight brighten the sky, and no one seems to mind. Shops start blasting music in their terribly misguided thinking that techno cranked up to the volume of a jet engine will attract customers. There’s a clothing shop on the other side of the hem my old house was located in, and most weekends I was able to wake up to the soothing beats of Michael Jackson and Britney Spears crashing down the alley.

For some reason this country seems to be programmed to wake up extremely early, no matter the day. Several times I’ve gone out for a night and ended up coming home around 4am. In the U.S. everyone would be sound asleep at such an awful hour, but here there are already women cooking broths and cutting up vegetables for their food carts.
Multiple times I’ve gotten phone calls from my landlady and the woman I rent my motorbike from at an unholy hour, and I’ve had to remind them that, believe or not, there are people who don’t get up at 6:30 in the morning every day.

I used to teach at a major language center here in Saigon, and there was always class at 7:30 on Saturday and Sunday mornings. While I stumbled into the classroom still half-asleep, my students came charging in like bulls and couldn’t contain their excitement for playing ‘hangman’, or any number of other games. These kids woke up at the crack of dawn seven days a week, and yet they were still running around like banshees. Back home a good night of sleep is expected to be at least eight hours long, whereas here five or six seems to be normal.

There are at least three major cultural reasons behind all of this jumping-out-of-bed-at-6am. Firstly, Vietnamese society is still quiet conservative, and to most people staying out late is seen as something drinkers and partiers do. Families spend their time together, and they all go to bed early. I’ve heard of westerners getting the police called on them for having get-togethers, nothing too loud or boisterous, past 10pm. 

Vietnamese people also hate being exposed to the sun, and one of the best times to get things done while avoiding direct sunlight is early in the morning. Whereas I have no problem going out at noon to get groceries or head to the pool, that time of day is when the sun is at its most powerful, so no one is outside unless they absolutely have to be. If you don’t want to take care of chores in the afternoon, it makes sense to get up early and stay out of the harsh light of later in the day.

Finally, afternoon naps are deeply ingrained in Vietnamese society. I’m not sure which came first: napping because you get up really early, or getting up early because you know you’re going to nap later, but the impact is the same. While naps certainly aren’t absent from western culture, for the most part we like to get an extra hour or two of sleep in the morning and then power through the whole day without really stopping.

In Vietnam, on the other hand, most businesses and shops shut down between 11:30 and roughly 1:30. It took me a while to figure this out, but after walking into enough offices after lunch and seeing the entire staff curled up on the floor I learned to just wait until later in the day to conduct any business. Walk the streets of Saigon at mid-day and you’ll see xe om drivers splayed out fast asleep on their bike, fruit vendors slouched on their stool catching some shut-eye, and adults and children alike napping in various positions and pieces of furniture. Once, I saw a man napping in a hammock slung underneath a delivery truck.

Thanks to these three factors, Vietnam is a country that strongly believes in the old saying that "the early bird gets the worm", i.e. those who wake up early will be rewarded. As for me, I'll take my sleep on the weekends. Just don't start up any jackhammers. Please.

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