Chinese tourists in Vietnam generally speak neither English nor Vietnamese. Which is fine, until they go off script.
I’m traveling today for business, and I’m staying in a pretty nice hotel in Da Nang. During breakfast, a middle-aged Chinese couple just wandered into my hotel’s restaurant. The greeter asked them for their room number, which is how they keep track of who has eaten breakfast from which room. Unfortunately, she was asking in English, and the Chinese couple clearly did not understand her.
It was a complete communication breakdown. I happened to be getting a glass of orange juice at the time, and saw the whole interaction. It was getting increasingly uncomfortable, so I decided I should help out.
I jumped in and helped translate between the two. Turns out, they weren’t staying here, but they wanted just to look around and see the food. (That’s a typically cute Chinese thing to do, my lovely wife loves a good buffet).
The tourism and hospitality industry in Vietnam is facing a new challenge. They invested a lot of effort in aiming their training programs to an international clientele that speaks English. Unfortunately, they are now dealing with a kind of tourist that they didn’t prepare for. As China gets richer, international travel has become more accessible to more people in China, including a large segment that does not speak English at all. Most Chinese tourists travel in groups for that very reason. If they follow the tacit rules, to stick with the group, no problem. But if they try to do something that wasn’t part of the plan, they hit a wall.
It was the first time I translated between two foreign languages, which was a challenge for my old and withering brain cells After just a short interaction, my brain was like scrambled eggs. But I managed to pull it off, barely.
And the funniest part was a few minutes later. I returned to my seat and resumed breakfast. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the couple finishing their tour and prepare to leave. Before they walked out of the restaurant, one of them turned around and surreptitiously took a photo of me. I suppose that our interaction was as interesting for them as it was for me, and now I will be one of their funny vacation stories for their friends back home: the weird white guy who spoke Chinese and Vietnamese.