My blogger friend Virtual Doug and his wife have returned to the USA from Huê, Việt Nam. He recently published a post comparing the noise of Việt Nam with the quietness of suburban America. In addition to the millions of honking motorcycles in Việt Nam, he correctly mentions the "liveness" of Vietnamese houses due to their masonry construction of all hard surfaces. I returned a comment that "There are many times when I look behind me in my own HCMC "tube house" to figure out where a voice is coming from, only to realize that it is my neighbor across the lane." Sounds reverberate through our house from top to bottom and side to side.
The Vietnamese-American blogger Triet added a comment that "In Vietnam, people get home from work and live outside. They often sit outside in their hem (or kiet, since you're from Hue) chatting with their neighbors, watching the children play da cau or soccer. In HCMC, the streets team with youth going downtown to eat, or play.
Back in the states, things are quiet, because people stay home. The large streets, yards, etc. put distance between neighbors. Although they say "fences make good neighbors," I find myself sorely missing the personal relationships and experiences of sitting in the alleys..."
Mr. Triet is so right. Vietnamese are very sociable people -- much more so than Americans. They are very verbal -- they love to talk. I think they are inherently more sociable by nature, but the environment also encourages public interaction. Mr. Triet is also right that Vietnamese live outside. Since there is relatively little space available in Vietnamese homes and there is usually heat build-up in them through the day, families spill out into the hems (lanes) in the evening where it is slightly cooler and they can socialize with their neighbors.
For some, though, the evening is also an opportunity for those that have them to crank up their karaoke players and practice their crooning. Some of my neighbors are very good singers, and I enjoy Vietnamese music very much. On the other hand, it adds substantially to the din of voices and motorbikes and food vendor calls and cooking noises in the hem. As an experiment, I recorded a segment of time last evening from my chair in the middle of our ground floor -- you may need an audio player of some kind on your computer to play this, so try it: Download Hem.m4a Trust me -- the sound is actually much louder in reality than it is on the recording.
We have made the mistake over the past four months of spending our evenings in my third floor office watching TV or doing internet reading, or relaxing on our roof deck in the evening breezes. As a result, we have not connected well with our neighbors (so I am afraid we may have become known as the snooty Americans). For the last couple of days, I decided to sit outside the house on the hem after dinner for awhile, and we immediately were approached by a few neighbors for conversation. Not that I could participate very well with my extremely limited Vietnamese capability (still working on it slowly but surely, though). But I enjoyed the smiles and laughter while my wife translated some of the action. There are quite a few babies and toddlers on our hem, so that is often the conversation starter. Our neighbor's little girl adds substantially to the noise with her squeaky shoes as she is learning to walk. We will be changing our evening habits now to participate in this intensive Vietnamese life.