A few months ago I visited my business partner for the first time in Vietnam's capital, Hanoi. I remember my visit as if it was just yesterday.

Driverless motorbikes and gaping fish eyes

I had arranged to meet for dinner and took my business partner's advice, hiring one of the many cycle rickshaws. We sped through Hanoi's old town: a tangle of winding alleys, vehicles and charming colonial-style houses. But I couldn't relax and enjoy the beautiful city vistas. They drive on the right in Vietnam, but nobody seemed to have told the motorists. Everyone just drives wherever there is space. The taxi's style of driving and the rapid changes of direction demanded my complete attention. I could barely shift my gaze from my driver's shoulders.

I could hardly believe what I was seeing when I suddenly noticed several driverless motorbikes. Although motorbike was hardly the right word. I could only make out two wheels, a smoking exhaust and a mountain of flour sacks. Just a few metres further on, the same picture: two wheels, a smoking exhaust and plastic bags filled with water, a metre high. And in every bag, two fish eyes gaping out at me. My driver laughed: "We transport just about everything by motorbike in Vietnam, and in as large quantities as possible. It's often impossible to make out the driver." So that's why I could see driverless bikes! I wasn't going mad.

Having reached my destination, I went into a small restaurant. My business partner and his entire family were already sitting at the round table: from small babies to grandparents. I was delighted to meet the extended family.

The crux of the cross

"It's traditional for everyone at the table to order their favourite food," explained my business partner's friendly wife. The result was ten delightfully aromatic dishes placed in the centre of the table. I was just about to serve myself when, without even being asked, one family member after another began transferring delicious morsels from their plates to mine. I couldn't believe my eyes. "It's the custom in Vietnam for everyone at the table to taste each other's favourite dish." And so it went on, with my business partner soon adding another two chicken feet to my plate. I looked around my table, a little embarrassed. I had absolutely no idea how to eat these! With my hands? Using chopsticks? With the knife and fork Vietnamese diners are also familiar with? Still trying to work it out, I carefully placed my chopsticks across each other on my plate.

There was a cry of horror to my right; to my left, my neighbour flinched! A shout echoed across the room, followed by absolute silence. It was suddenly eerie and oppressive, like a scene from a horror film. My business partner slowly got to his feet, spoke calmly for quite some time and then re-arranged my chopsticks – in plain view of everyone – to be parallel to each other. He then went from table to table, placating guests where necessary. The restaurant soon sprung to life again, with guests resuming their conversations, laughing and giggling as if nothing happened.

I cast a guilty glance around my table. "It's fine," my business partner consoled me. "We have very few rules for eating in Vietnam, but you just broke one of really important conventions by mistake." But what was my faux pas, I asked the table shyly. "Never cross chopsticks! It's bad luck," my partner explains with a laugh. That's why he'd gone from table to table, explaining that I was from a different continent and unaware of the rule. He'd managed to calm the waters.

I secretly reached for my mobile phone and read up on the other rules I should keep in mind. Having to calm the nerves of the whole restaurant again might have been too much to ask of my business partner!



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