How to say hello in southeast Asia

One of the many things I have loved about traveling through southeast Asia and, now, Japan, is the ways that people in this part of the world greet each other.

Greetings are, of course, cultural codes that are so ingrained into our daily lives that they seem natural or even invisible. When you travel though, seemingly quotidian things, like saying hello to friends and strangers, become interesting spaces to understand and communicate across cultures.

In the States, there are a variety of ways to greet folks. If you come across an acquaintance–not a close friend–you would probably say, “Hello, it’s so nice to see you.” Men tend to reach out and shake the person’s hand.  A woman might keep her hands down at her side or she might show her palms in an act of welcome and openness. Unless it’s a professional setting, women don’t tend to shake hands and men don’t tend to shake hands with women.

If you came across someone who is a really good friend, you might be more demonstrative. You might say something like, “Oh, man, it’s so great to see you! How have you been?” Or, you might use another term. I like to call my good friends, “Brother,” “Sister,” “Big Man” or “Big Fella.”

In much of southeast Asia, a greeting is generally accompanied by namaskar– all you do is to put your hands together in front of your chest so that the tips of your fingers are just below your chin and then slightly bow your head toward the person you are greeting. So, if you are in Cambodia, you would greet someone by saying “Sousday,” as you are doing namaskar.

It is not common to shake hands in many parts of southeast Asia. This took a bit of getting used to for me, as shaking the hand of a stranger or even a good friend is very natural for me and for most Americans, I suspect. The few times I did put out my hand in southeast Asia, people would look at me kind of uncomfortably and then grab my extended hand with both of their hands. All you can do then, is put your hand on top of theirs so what you are left with is four hands piled on top of each other.

It’s awkward and I only did that once or twice.

It didn’t take long for me to get used to greeting folks with a namaskar. I should note here, too, that I’m aware that there are distinctions between namaste and namaskar, but for this post, I’m using them coterminously.

Sujata likes to tease all the yoga people back in Denver who are inclined to greet each other with a namaskar and say, “Namaste.” She finds it humorously affecting and a mild form of cultural appropriation. “They’re just saying ‘Hello,'” she laughs. I’m of a very different mind: I don’t think it’s odd for people to do namaskar at home and I loved doing namaskar when I greeted people when we were in Bali and Cambodia. I’m a tall white guy, so I already felt sort of awkward in many of the places we went and doing namaskar helped me to fit in or to at least demonstrate my respect for where we were.

As I’m thinking about this now, I’m coming to realize how gendered hand shaking is in the States. And it’s not just that, as I mentioned above, there are different expectations for women and men when it comes to greetings. It’s also the way greetings, especially handshakes, are done. American men tend to tightly grasp the hand of the person they are shaking and they put their shoulder into it a bit so the action can oftentimes come across as assertive. Sometimes men are judged if they have a ‘weak’ or ‘limp’ handshake.

Namaskar is actually a much more gender neutral way of greeting. Part of that may simply the root meaning of namaskar–it’s to demonstrate respect for the person you are greeting. Because there is not physcial contact between the greeters, it simply cannot become an act of dominance. In the same way, men and women do namaskar exactly the same way; that is, there is not a gendered way (from what I could tell) to namaskar. And, given that there is no physcial contact (as in a handshake or a hug) men and women can namaskar to each other without eithe paryt feeling uncomfortable.

Tuk tuk drivers are ubiquitous in Cambodia–you can’t walk out of your house or a cafe or restaurant, let alone cross an intersection without a tuk tuk singing out, “Sir! Tuk Tuk?!”  If you did acknowledge them and say “No thank you,” most of the drivers would quickly respond, “How about tomorrow?”–as if I knew when I’d be needing a tuk tuk  a full 24 hours later! Most people–foreigners and nationals–just ignore them (unless they need a tuk tuk, of course) and just keeping walking without acknowledging the request. I spent enough time in tuk tuks, especially in Cambodia, to realize that these guys are really super cool, friendly and hard working. Most of them love to chat and they’ll offer all kinds of advice and insights into the city. And even if they are not garrolous, you have to respect what they do–it’s hard and dangrous work, there’s more competition than you can imagine and they don’t make money. They are not, for instance organized into tuk tuk collectives (like taxi drivers, for instance) so they are all out there struggling for customers. Given that, then, after a few days in Cambodia, when a tuk tuk  driver bawled out to me I would always acknowledge him with a namaskar and the typical Khmer greeting, “Sousday!” If nothing else, it made me feel good that I was acknowledging these underappreciated purveyors of cheap (and fun!) street travel, and most of the time, they smiled and, sang out “Sousday!” accompanied by a namaskar.

There’s another reason I like to greet people with namaskar: it reminds me of Walt Whitman and the mid-nineteenth-century American writers I love. Here are the opening lines of  Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself/ And what I assume you shall assume/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

These are some of my favorite lines in all of American literature partly because what Whitman is doing is performing a literary namaskar for his reader. Among the great early American writers, Whitman wasn’t alone in his love of eastern culture and traditions. Emerson, Thoreau and all their Transcendentalist friends (save that old codger, Hawthorne) were walking around Cambridge and Concord with copies of the Vedas and the Upanishads tucked under their arms, looking for ancient literary and cultural inspiration as they forged their own. Emerson read deeply among sacred Hindu texts, and he turned Thoreau on to them as well. Some of Emerson’s greatest essays and poem directly and indirectly invoke Indian mythology and culture and Thoreau based much of his writing on his reading of eastern texts.

If Walt Whitman  was passing through any southeast Asian country he, too, would freely namaskar everyone he met.

I think that is one of the things I liked so much about southeast Asia: there were so many opportunities to connect with people. I could have stopped and chatted with any tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap in the same way that I could have chatted with any shop owner, restaurant owner, patron or bar fly in Ubud or Phenom Penh. It’s the same way in Ireland and that’s probably why I like Ireland so much, although doing namaskar in Ireland might get you punched in the face.








Saigon on a Scooter

We’ve spent the past month in southeast Asia. We started in Bali, made our way up and around Cambodia and then spent the last week in Saigon. I’ve written about the traffic in Saigon, the museums and rock and roll music in Cambodia and sundry other things that we did and noticed as we moved through this part of the world.

In this post, I’m going to focus on one of the most ubiquitous elements of southeast Asia: the motor scooter.

Back home in Denver, I sometimes see folks driving around on scooters. You see more bicycles and motorcycles, but there are a fair number of scooters. Sujata calls them ‘donor’ cycles, a not-so-subtle suggestion that they are not safe to ride. I’m of the same mind: the only two-wheeled transport I’m comfortable with is a bicycle. I ride my bike to work just about every day, even in the winter, but I don’t trust Denver auto drivers, so ride the side streets and I’m very careful. Until a few days ago, I’ve never been on a motorcycle nor a scooter.

The scooter, though, is the primary mode of transport throughout southeast Asia and I think it would be virtually impossible to spend a month here and not spend even just a little bit of time on a scooter. When we were in Bali, I really wanted to hop on a scooter and ride the meandering country roads that connect the rural inland villages. Tuk tuks were our primary mode of transportation in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap–aside from a couple of close calls, they seemed relatively safe. The scooters in the big cities, though, are a different story. We didn’t see a lot of accidents in the cities but when we did, it always involved a scooter driver on the ground. I had no interest in driving or riding on a scooter in the fast-paced urban areas.

That said, Sujata’s phone rang early one morning while we were in Saigon. She started having a spirited conversation with the caller, hung up a few minutes later and announced, “Hey guys, we are all going on a scooter ride tonight!”  My stomach briefly dropped, my eyes got wider than usual and I asked her, “All of us? The kids, too?”

Yup. All of us, and it was all my fault.

Back in Siem Reap, we took a bicycle tour with a local company. I guess they liked us because at the end of the tour they asked us if we’d come back the next day and agree to ride around the city and be photographed for their marketing material. Sujata writes about this in a previous post. One of the terrific things about that experience was getting to know the photographers, two young Colombian nationals, Luis and Dur.

Us with Luis and Dur

It was Dur who called Sujata and asked if we’d join the food tour that evening in Saigon. She and Luis had a contract to develop some marketing material for a local food tour company–Saigon Food Tours–and they wondered if we’d join the tour so they could photograph us scootering and eating our way through Saigon. Later that evening, after the tour was over, Dur confessed to me, over beers, that she wasn’t even going to call–who would take their children on a scooter tour through Saigon during rush hour? Luis, Dur informed me, said, “Just give them a call–all they can do is say no.”

We said yes.

I’ve written about Saigon traffic in a previous post. If you haven’t read that, all that post really says is the Saigon traffic is nuts and that scooters are the major reason for the traffic chaos in the city.  Part of that is simply a result of the sheer volume of scooters in the city: the ratio of people to scooters is almost exactly 1:1. There are just over 8 million people living in Saigon and there are just over 8 million registered scooters in the city.

Saigon traffic really heats up at rush hour, around 4:30 pm. The streets get so congested that many of the scooter drivers–impatient to get home or to the bar–forgo the surface streets and ride up on the sidewalks. Pedestrians are at the bottom of this commuter food chain.

Dur texted us at 4:35 pm.

We traipsed downstairs and there were Dur and Luis, each sitting on the back of scooters driven by young people from the Saigon Food Tour Company.

We meet our tour guides

Sujata, me and the kids were issued helmets, we each hopped on the back of a respective scooter and  . . . away we went. My driver’s name was Phan and my first question to him was, “How long have you been driving a scooter in Vietnam?” I wanted him to say, “Oh, I’ve been doing this for 10 years and I’ve never had an accident,” but from what I could tell, he wasn’t more than 20 (later he told me he was 22) so his veteran scooter status was questionable.

Phan quickly proved himself adept with the scooter, though. He confidently glided into the wave of traffic and the other six bikes followed behind us.

Within minutes, I was feeling quite at ease. Frankly, I felt safer on the back of the scooter than I did walking on the sidewalks. Phan was a garrulous host–I leaned in over his shoulder as he told me about his life studying economics at one of the many universities in Saigon. He was an industrious, interesting young man: the Saigon Food Tour gig was his third job. Most importantly, he was a big basketball fan, so we talked basketball for at least half the ride.

Saigon is a leafy city with wide boulevards that look a bit like Chicago in places. Spacious roundabouts with wide lanes of traffic dot the city. We found one such roundabout and took four turns around as Luis and Dur snapped photos and caught us smiling and laughing on their video cameras.

Sujata taking a selfie as we circle a roundabout

I kept half an eye on the kids–Phan and I were pretty far out front, so I couldn’t see them except when we paused at a stop light, or got caught in a traffic jam. The first time I saw Atticus he had a wide-eyed I-Can’t-Believe-You-Made-Me-Go-On-This-Insane-Ride look on his face. Or perhaps it was the You-Are-A-Really-Irresponsible-Parent look. I couldn’t tell. When Eleanor’s scooter pulled up, she was, of course, chattering away in that stream of consciousness, Jack Kerouac sort of way of hers.


Eleanor having the time of her life

Our first stop was one of the thousands of open-air restaurants that serves street food to workers on their way home. There was a great deal of confusion about vegetarians. The Vietnamese think that fish is not meat so we got a few helpings of fish-based street food and I’m pretty sure that one of the dishes had pork in it. Sujata and Atticus ate the fish, but, of course shunned the pork. Eleanor and I took a pass on all of it until fully meat-free dishes were served.

Saigon street food

After that, we rode around the city for nearly an hour and a half–that’s a really long time to be on a scooter. I’m 6′ 3″ so my knees stuck out the sides in an awkward, probably semi-dangerous way. Every time Eleanor’s scooter pulled up to Phan and me Eleanor would admonish me to pull my knees in. That said, I was comfortable and happy as we rode on.

The sun set and the lights from the cafes began to replace the sunlight. Saigon residents seem to live their lives outside–the sidewalk cafes and open-air restaurants are always full and they get more crowded as the evening wears on. One of my favorite Saigon scenes was a long line of scooters on the sidewalk and behind the scooters a crowded cafe with men and women and children eating their dinners and enjoying each other’s’ company.

We stopped for dinner at a local barbeque joint–the kind of place we’d never have found on our own. This time, they served us all vegetarian food, except for the frog that was wrapped up in tin foil and that we unwittingly barbequed. Geez.

Vietnamese barbeque
Frozen beer–very typical in Saigon

After dinner, our Saigon Food Tour hosts told us they had one more place to take us. We wound our way through District 4, zoomed through the Saigon River Tunnel and then popped up on the other side, in District 1. It was past nine pm and at that point we’d been on the bikes for nearly three hours. By then the hot afternoon streets gave way to a cool, breezy evening. The streets were emptying out a bit, so Phan and the rest of our drivers opened up their engines and we sped down a wide, open boulevard that turned into a dark, narrow street. We were barreling toward the Saigon River–I could see the city lights flickering off its placid surface. I noticed rows and rows of scooters parked on the side of the street and couples leaned against a long parapet that held back the river. We made a quick right turn. There were loads of people here, mostly couples, arm and arm, walking along the street, perched on the parapet or decamped on blankets–everyone gazing at the bright lights of Saigon from across the river. As our entourage came to a stop, I looked to my right and was nearly blinded by bright white lights high overhead. As my eyes adjusted, I realized that we were underneath the eight iconic, enormous Heineken billboards that mast the east side of the Saigon River. Vietnam has some pretty good beer but the Vietnamese love Heineken because the Heineken red star looks almost exactly like the star of the Vietnamese national flag.


Underneath the Heineken signs
Eleanor, the Saigon River and the City


That’s fair enough, I’m alright with Heineken.

Phan told me that this spot was the exact spot where he and his girlfriend of five years got back together after separating for a nearly six months. I looked around and noticed all manner of young couples arm and arm, cheek to cheek, enjoying their lives and settled into this relaxed, romantic scene. As I gazed around at the light from the Heineken billboards shining down on all these people and as I looked across the river at the the tall buildings of Saigon, I thought that this was really the stuff of a Bruce Springsteen song–barefoot girls sitting on the hood of a Dodge and all that. Bruce would would love this side of the Saigon River.

It was late, the kids were tired. So was I. We got on our scooters and headed home.


How to cross a street in Saigon

To the uninitiated, traffic in Saigon is hurly burly.

A typical intersection in Saigon.

After spending a nearly a week here–as pedestrians, passengers in cars and vans and, most recently, passengers on four of the city’s 7.5 million scooters–we have learned how to navigate the city streets.

Now, the interplay between scooters, pedestrians, busses, cars and motorcycles seems more like a dance than a fray.

If you ever come to Saigon, here are some basic principles on how to cross the street without losing your life.

Principle One: Never, ever run across the street to avoid onrushing traffic.

To those of you in the United States, I know this sounds counterintuitive and even dangerous. In America, pedestrians who begin to cross a street and suddenly notice an oncoming car will generally walk more quickly, or even run to avoid the getting run over.

It doesn’t work that say in Saigon. When you pick up your feet and begin to run, you make yourself an unpredictable pedestrian. Drivers don’t know what you are doing or where you are going and you will create chaos and disorder. What this means is that, above all other things, you must trust the operators of scooters, cycles and cars and busses. If you are walking at a deliberate pace, if you look the oncoming drivers in the eyes, they will not run you over. It is also okay to hold up your hand and ask them to stop, especially if you have children with you. Drivers won’t even beep their horns, shout, curse, flip you off or give you a weird look. They will simply steer their way around you and go on their way.

Jaywalking is perfectly acceptable in Saigon. Just please follow the principles above if you choose to cross the street in the middle of a block.

There is much to be learned about life in this first principle. Many of us, when we cross a street, or, when we are planning for our future, look for a straight, unobstructed path where there are no cars or scooters barreling towards. We try to mitigate risk so that we may, literally and figuratively, safely get to the other side of the street. There is some freedom, though, in practicing this first pedestrian principle in Saigon: initially it can be unnerving, even terrifying, to step off the sidewalk and notice a long string of traffic coming at you at a relatively quick pace. But then you realize that you are seen and perceived, that drivers make way for you, that, you are indeed part of a larger almost synchronized dance and everything is okay.

Principle Two: Traffic that is turning right (scooters, cars, busses, trucks) will almost never stop nor will those drivers look to their right for any pedestrians who are trying to cross the intersection.

I realize that this seems like a contradiction of the first principle and perhaps it is, to a degree, but for your own safety, if you are pedestrian, just look to your left  before you step out into traffic.

Curiously, this principle also applies to one-way streets. For instance, imagine that you are crossing a one-way street with traffic coming at your from you right. In the United States, it would be perfectly reasonable for you to not even bother looking to your left–it’s a one-way street after all and it would be highly unlikely for anyone to be driving the wrong way on a one-way street. In Saigon, though, it’s quite common for drivers–scooters are especially guilty of this–going the wrong way on a one-way street so . . . you’ve been warned.

Principle Three: It is common for scooters and motorcycles to ride on pedestrian sidewalks.

In the United States, most dense urban areas don’t even allow people to ride bicycles on the sidewalks. In fact, unless you are little kid, it’s considered rude to ride your bike on the sidewalk.

This is not the case in Saigon, even for scooters and motorcycles, and what this means for you as a pedestrian is that you have to watch your back, even when you walking on a sidewalk in the middle of a city block. Generally, you can hear the motorcycles because their motors are louder. The scooters, though, can sort of sneak up on you so if you have kids, like we do, who enjoy breaking out into spontaneous dance and acrobatic moves on city streets, make sure that you are always walking behind the children. This way, even if you don’t happen to notice a scooter coming from behind you, you can least yell, “Kids! Scooter behind!”

The next post will continue our explorations of the streets of Saigon, this time on a scooter.

Taking photographs of street traffic is not recommended

National Day, Vietnam and a few more thoughts on Cambodia

We flew into Ho Chi Minh City today, 2 September 2016. Seventy-one years ago, to the day, a young Ho Chi Minh climbed onto a primitive wooden platform in Hanoi and declared Vietnam free of French rule by reading the American Declaration of Independence. As he read our sacred document, American war planes flew by and tipped their wings in approval. A lot of good that did Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese people. Twenty years later, the first American Marines climbed ashore in in Danang . . . you know the rest.


The view from our balcony of fireworks celebrating N


It’s sobering, I have to say, to be an American traveling through southeast Asia. For most of my adult life I’ve been conceptually aware of the effects of the wars we waged here during the Cold War era, but when you see it, walk through it, talk to people who suffered through it . . . that’s just an entirely different thing.


In a previous post, I told the story of our family’s visit to the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh. At the end of that post, I asked my readers their views on our decision to take the children to those places. Many of you got back to me (thank you for that) and the overwhelming consensus was, yes, it was the right thing to do, especially since we talked about what we witnessed and helped the kids process the experience. Here’s a follow up to that:


When we were in Siem Reap, we met to young Colombian nationals who had crafted a career for themselves as photographers and videographers. They were wonderful, smart, interesting young people. We got to talking one evening about Cambodia’s history. I told them about our experiences in Phnom Penh and one of them told me this story:


An American travel group brings American teenagers to Cambodia to build houses for people in the villages and to cycle through Cambodia. The American kids spend a month or so here, and they have a blast. At the end of their time in Cambodia, they tour used to take the kids to see the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum, but after a while, they started getting complaints: the kids said it ruined their time Cambodia because it was so sad and that they wanted to leave the country feeling good about the places. So, the tour group started making the visits to the Killing Fields optional and, soon, no one even opted to visit.


I’m sure you can imagine my thoughts on that. So, given that and given our experiences (which I are best represented in Atticus’ post), and upon a lot of reflection and some experience in Cambodia, I’m of the mind that if you are an American and you spend any time at all in Cambodia, you are just shy of being morally obligated to go to these spaces of public memory because, as Atticus writes, “I hope that you tell other people about this horrific thing because they ought to know.” And, if that’s all we can do, then we should do that.