Virtual meanderings

Practicing Engrish @ Hoan Kiem Lake

Hoam Kiem, Turtle Pagoda

      It would be incorrect to assume any expertise of mine regarding Sun Tzu’s treatise The Art of War (used today in all kinds of mentoring courses for improving anything from your business skills to your love life). Truth is, I have only read fragments from it and for all practical purposes my knowledge is limited. That said, one of Sun Tzu ideas which I found particularly interesting was the claim that a battle is in fact won before it even starts (if you followed Sun Tzu’s recommendations, that is). Digging deeper into it, here is the logic: the battle is won before it started, because you must only enter a battle under very specific (favorable) circumstances and avoid it otherwise. Under the correct circumstances, Sun Tzu says, events would unfold automatically, by themselves – just like pushing a ball on a slope. Of course, for this to actually work one needs to have secured all the prerequisites necessary for the victory beforehand. There are several of them, one being “earth” (what we might call “environment” in modern terms ). Simplifying Sun Tzu’s elegant logic, it all comes down to the realization that certain environments are more enabling than others for certain ends. Say, if you are interested in animal-watching in the African savannah, it’s best to hide near a pond rather than anywhere else, because all the animals would come to the pond on their own accord to drink water without you having to do anything more.


     Hoan Kiem Lake lies at the center of Hanoi. The beautiful Turtle tower in its middle, the surrounding trees, the grass and the benches – all of these make the lake the perfect recreational site. Old people would come to sit and chat or practice group dancing lessons, families would bring their little kids, teenage boys and girls would come to hit on each other. And of course, foreigners  would come to eat an ice cream or read a book (myself). Hoan Kiem lake is one of the very few places in the Vietnamese capital to escape from the heat and enjoy a wide-open space scenery not crammed full of buildings and speeding scooters. (One more such place is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, to which I will devote a separate post).

Hoan Kiem Lake


         Which brings us to the point of this post.  Young people in Hanoi are dying to practice their English with a foreigner, but chances are few. Hoam Kiem Lake, I’d s say, is perhaps the only place in the city where one can approach a foreigner while s/he is in “i-am-relaxing-and-not-in-a-hurry-for-anywhere” mode. On the other hand, while Vietnamese youngsters yearn for English practice, they are very uneasy and hesitant how to start it – employing all kinds of make-shift approaches not always to the best ends. I am writing this in hindsight and can present the situation in a logical way.  But in reality I was not aware of any of that. I was sitting on a bench there, taking a short rest after having walked around in the heat for several hours. Next thing I know a girl in her twenties sits next to me and starts talking to me. She asked me where I was from, what I did for a living – the standard questions. Then all of a sudden offered to be my guide around town and take me to all the landmarks. I was in fact on my way back to the hostel to sign up for a trip to Ha Long Bay on the next day. So I told her “no, thanks” and added that I was hungry (100% true – my stomach was empty and I was starving) and that rather than walk around I was thinking of finding a place to eat. Then she said she had some fruit in her purse – took some orange or sth out – and offered it to me.

          What? The whole thing was starting to feel a bit surreal. It was beginning to feel like I would not be able to get off easily. OK, please bear with me – her English was far from perfect and I was confused – what does she want? For me to take the fruit so that she can ask me for money? Or try to sell me something else? Anyway, I got off the bench and said that I do not want that fruit and that I had to be going.


          Hoam Kiem Lake. Midday. I was reading my newly-bought fake book, not having any plans of socializing. Two young Vietnamese guys show up. They sit next to me and start talking to me in broken English. I go for it. Couple of minutes later a third guy joins in, then a fourth. I thought they all knew each other as they started talking among themselves in Vietnamese. But no, it eventually turns out that guy #3 knew guy #1, but did not know guy #2. And Guy #4? He did not know any of the other three! He’d simply seen some peers his age talking to a foreigner and had decided “hey, me too”. Now, if realizing this was not somewhat weird…  I almost began thinking that this whole affair could be the prelude to some scam (Lonely Planet warned you!). Nope. All these guys wanted was to just practice their English. No more than that.


       Hoam Kiem Lake. Evening time. I was sitting on a bench struggling to eat the strangest Vietnamese “food” I bought during my entire stay in Vietnam from its plastic container.  A girl who looked twenty and a boy who looked twenty-one show up and sit on my bench. At first they pretend they have their own business, but of course soon turn to me and start talking. The girl in fact spoke English quite decently, but the guy was really struggling. At some point I learned that they were in fact 25 and 27 years old, and were a husband and wife. Ha, the young wife was pushing for her husband to get some practice. And for once I decided to take advantage of the situation myself and asked them to join me to the famous night market on the other side of the street and help me buy some cheap sneakers for my trekking trip next day without getting ripped off. Which they did.


        In hindsight, I think that the poor girl with the fruit in her purse had just hoped for a chance to practice her English. She had been no more awkward or uneasy than the other language-practicing enthusiasts. It was me who had overreacted. In a way, Hoam Kiem might have been the perfect environment. But her timing had been bad. But now that you know this, you will not shy away from letting young Vietnamese practice their English if you end up at Hoam Kiem Lake. Which you will, since the lake is one of the top landmarks of Hanoi – and you can learn why here or here.


One response to “Practicing Engrish @ Hoan Kiem Lake

  1. Pingback: Vietnam – perfect harmony or inner tensions? « mastercopycat

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