Howard Hughes was afraid of germs (and so is my wife). His fear drove him to extremes. Sometimes I think it’s doing the same to her. Living in Saigon, I think she has better reasons but he wouldn’t touch doorknobs and eventually he removed himself, as much as possible, from all human contact. He was managing risk. He was a nut case, but we all do it to one degree or another.
For a Western expatriate, Saigon can be a challenge in risk management. Yesterday, a friend told Marilynn that she was surprised and appalled to find out that her house cleaner was “cleaning” all the surfaces in her bathroom with water from the toilet. A less extreme case was our discovery that our household help was washing all the dishes with cold water. That is more understandable when you know that most Vietnamese houses don’t have hot water. Cold water is the only kind available so naturally everything, clothes, dishes, and bodies are washed with cold water. Even when we told her to use hot water for the dishes she had a hard time complying because she said it burned her hands. She didn’t perceive any risk from bacteria and she thought it was too expensive to use hot water. Sidewalk food vendors have a bucket of water that they use to wash dishes and utensils. They use the same water for hours. It may not be the food that gives you stomach cramps. It could be the dish it’s served on.
Newcomers to Vietnam are advised not to eat uncooked fruits and vegetables. Human and animal waste is used for fertilizer and the luscious looking greens provided for your Pho might not be so luscious 6 hours later. After awhile you begin to know which restaurants are safe and can be counted on to wash their vegetables. Vegy is the name of the product used to insure their cleanliness. When asked most people will tell you that everyone gets sick occasionally. You do build up immunity over time, but no Westerner would drink water from the tap. I have been lucky and eat almost everything except fresh greens from street vendors. Marilynn has been less fortunate and doesn’t even brush her teeth with tap water.
Multinational companies almost uniformly forbid their expat employees from driving a car or riding ON a motorbike. At the top level they provide a car and driver; at lower levels they pay for taxis. It’s another risk management strategy. It makes sense. I see a motorbike accident almost every day. With 10 million people and almost as many motorbikes the streets are chaotic and the traffic rules unclear. Motorbikes use the sidewalks, drive up one way streets the wrong direction or two-way streets on the wrong side. Taxis make U-turns on the busiest streets in town and red lights are only cautionary.
Crime is another issue and a difficult one to risk manage. At first, we were relieved to know that there is almost no violent crime in Vietnam – no guns. On the other hand there is plenty of petty street crime, mostly purse snatching, so the risk management strategy is to be alert, walk close to buildings and not close to the curb, and to carry your purse or laptop on the inside not the street side of the sidewalk. Nothing is perfect, however, and last week we heard a story from a friend who had her purse snatched while walking in the middle between her boyfriend and another friend. The thief got away with the goods and when the three of them went to the police they were told to forget it. Our friends, who are fluent in Vietnamese, using the Find My Phone app, showed the police exactly (within 13 feet) where her phone was – in a used mobile phone shop. The police again refused to help. I have another blog post about the police, but Marilynn is afraid I will get run out of the country before our planned departure. Watch for the blog later in the month.