Christine and Ashleigh do laundry in Vietnam: or, a lesson in cross-cultural communication failure

Heeeere’s laundry!

We are drenched in sweat, and it’s only 9:30 am.  Carrying heavy white plastic bags exploding with sweaty tank tops, smelly shorts, and wrinkled underwear, we squint down the main strip.

Last night, we arrived in Mui Ne, a sleepy beach town on the eastern coast, from Saigon, Vietnam’s largest city.  Now, on our first morning in Mui Ne, we are going to do what every adventure-loving, soul-searching backpacker on a budget does upon arriving at the beach: laundry.

“I don’t see any places, do you?”  Ashleigh asks, looking at me from behind the giant black anti-UV forcefield that are her sunglasses.

"Who's ready to partaaaay?"

“Who’s ready to partaaaay?”


Maybe we’re SOL.  It’s hot, it’s too early, and this place is more deserted than a karaoke bar during World Cup finals.

Then, up ahead, a glimmer of hope: Laundry, 10,000 dong / kilo

“There!  That hotel up there…”

We walk towards the white sign advertising cheap laundry service, our bags feeling lighter already.  A minute later, we are standing in the foyer of a hotel that could have once been grand.  The place is dark, and a random assortment of chaotic potted vegetation blocks out what natural sunlight would have entered.  Although we’re standing at RECEPTION, there’s not a soul in sight.  This could be the setting of Hostel, minus the perky Slovakian girls.

"You want to do laundry?  Sure... right this way..."

“You want to do laundry? Sure… right this way…”

“Hello…?”  Ashleigh calls out.  Nothing.

"Did you say laundry???"

“Did you say laundry???”

“Hello… We want to do laundry!”  As if that would bring a flurry of helpful hotel personnel rushing out from the darkness.

We make our way down the hall, glancing at the locked rooms on either side.  Nobody seems to work here, live here, or do laundry here.

Then, from the other end of the hall, a woman appears.

“Chao!” we call out, in our best imitation of the Vietnamese greeting.

"Get your dirty underwear away from me!!!"

“Get your dirty underwear away from me!!!”

We’ve startled her.  She approaches us cautiously, covertly glancing left and right for potential escape routes should we turn out to have more sinister motives for calling her attention than our dirty underwear.

“We want to do laundry…” I start out.  She stares at me blankly.

“Laundry…” I point at the plastic bags in our hands.

A flicker of understanding crosses her face.  She points at the sign with the price that initially drew us in.

“Yes, we know, 10,000 dong for 1 kilo.”

"Of course I understand you.  Why, do I look confused?"

“Of course I understand you. Why, do I look confused?”

She nods and wordlessly takes our bags from us to put on the scale at the reception desk.  Altogether, it’s 4 kilos.

“So, 40,000 dong, right?” Ashleigh confirms.

Again, a blank stare.

“40,000… this much,” I pull out the bills from my wallet and present them to our new friend.

“Yes!” she says, understanding.

We are awesome.  Who needs language when you can instead point your fingers at random objects and play charades?

"This is sooo fun, let's never talk again!!!"

“This is sooo fun, let’s never talk again!!!”

“What time will our laundry be finished?” I ask.

A blank wall.

"My language is perfectly clear!"

“My language is perfectly clear!”

“What time [pointing at watch] laundry [pointing at bags] finish [had nothing for that]?”

She stares at the wrist I just pointed at, then at the bags, and then back at me.  Nothing.

“Time, time,” Ashleigh pipes in, pointing at the clock above the desk.

There it is.

“Ah… 4:00.”

“OK.  4:00 laundry finish?  We come here 4:00?”  As if talking like a child and cutting out all verb tenses will help our cause.


"If I keep saying yes, will the scary Amazon girls go away?"

“If I keep saying yes, will the scary Amazon girls go away?”

We’re not sure if the emphatic “Yes!” is an indication of comprehension or if it’s the only appropriate response when faced with a litany of foreign words being thrown at you.  But, we’re satisfied enough with that, so we turn to leave.  We are ready to hit the beach.

“Oh wait, she took my purse!”  In all the confusion with the bags, Ashleigh had also handed over her purse along with her laundry.

We turn around.  The woman has just started to walk back into the dark abyss.  She looks back and is displeased that we haven’t disappeared yet.

“Uh… I gave you my purse.”  Ashleigh tries.  “Where is my purse?”

"Yes, keep throwing foreign words at me, and eventually I'll understand..."

“Yes, keep throwing foreign words at me, and eventually I’ll understand…”

She gives us the famous blank stare we are starting to love.  “4:00.”

“No… not time.  Purse… bag… small bag,” she tries, using her hands to indicate the size of the object in question.

She looks at our hands and back at us with confusion.  “Yes.”

“No, it’s not a yes or no question.  Where is my purse?  Purse, you know…” Ashleigh places her right hand on an imaginary purse strap and indicates the invisible bag with her other hand.

“No.”  Now she’s really confused.

It dawns on me that I’ve never seen a Vietnamese woman carrying a purse, with most women tending to go for the smaller clutch bags or nothing at all.



“Purse,” I jump in, and hold my imaginary clutch bag under my arm and pretend to walk down a street with it.

The woman stares at my armpit.  She then starts to follow me as I imitate walking down the street.

“No…” I sigh.  How to make her understand?

“Purse, purse!” Ashleigh says in frustration.  We understand that there is no logical reason to shout out foreign words to someone who doesn’t understand you, but our impatience is clouding our judgment.  It’s hot, it’s beach time, and Ashleigh’s purse has disappeared into the bowels of this sad hotel.

We try everything in our charades repertoire.  Pointing at bags on the floor.  Indicating the size again with our hands.  Imitating holding invisible purses of all kinds.  Nothing is working.

"It's not creepy if I follow you down this poorly lit hallway, is it?"

“It’s not creepy if I follow you down this poorly lit hallway, is it?”

“No!” the woman shouts in annoyance.  “4:00!” And with that, she stalks off.

On a hunch, I follow her to the back room she turns into, trying to be as un-creepy as is possible when stalking a small woman through a dark, abandoned hotel.

She has gone into the laundry room.  The smell of detergent and wet clothes hits me full force.

She ignores me and goes about her tasks, so I take the liberty of opening the machine whizzing away in front of her.  I see the familiar brown design, and pull out Ashleigh’s purse.  It’s soaking wet and smells like bleach and flowers.

“PURSE!!!” I say, holding up the wet, soapy object triumphantly.

She stares at me, and her eyes trail over to the detergent-covered mess I’m holding.

“Ahh… ”


To see photos from Vietnam, check out my album on flickr!


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