Cultural adjustments can cause back pain.

For as long as I can remember I carried the smallest, thinnest wallet I could find. In the US, I carried a driver's license, debit card, AAA card and student ID. Maybe a credit card, maybe some cash, but not if I could avoid it. I like to keep things svelte. That doesn't really fly in Vietnam. I finally gave in to this fact after 8 months.

A singer/actress gave me a wallet as a gift a while back. It's nice, made from supple distressed Italian leather that even matches my cowboy boots. However, It is about 4 times the size (by volume) of my old wallet, so I've never used it. Until today. It turns out that it is perfectly suited to life here. I guess she really knew what I needed. She is very thoughtful. Here's why:

1. Monopoly money.

No matter how hard I try, I can't get over the feeling that Vietnamese currency is play money. It's because the denominations are so outrageous. In my wallet I have notes ranging from 500 to 500,000*. The banks have branded plastic shopping bags for carrying currency - apparently you go to the cashier and then to the bagger, just like a supermarket.

I first saw this at my Vietnamese Godfather's house.

It's a cash economy and I have to carry cash. Not only that, I have to carry small money (500-10,000), medium money (20,000, 50,000 and 100,000), and large money (200,000, 500,000 and good old $100).

The small money is needed for things like parking motorbikes, buying raincoats, and combating taxi drivers. I hate the small money, but I find I life is easier when I keep some on hand.

The medium money is pretty useful anywhere, but try to pay a street vendor for an 8,000 VND coffee with a 100,000 note and it might be hard for them to make change.

The large money, well it's a good idea to have it. I've learned the hard way that I should not walk out the door with less than 500,000 in my pocket.

The trouble is, under a number of circumstances, it is a good idea to conceal how much money you are carrying, whether it is a lot or little. With my old wallet I had a couple giant stacks of currency. And I had to fumble through them to get the right bills. I couldn't take the looks I got from street vendors on the occasions when I dropped one or two 500,000 notes on the ground.

Then there are those times when you just need large money.

Enter the new wallet - two sections for currency (small and medium) and a zippered pocket for the large money. It's wonderful.

2. Name cards

In the States I avoided business cards, or as they say here name cards - I'd take them when I had to, punch the info into my computer and put it in a drawer. I had cards of my own, but I only carried them if I expected to give one to someone. That doesn't really work here. I meet a lot of people. Almost every single person I meet gives me their name card. It's traditional. They offer with two hands, I receive with two hands. It's polite.

Now, I could do the data entry thing with my computer, and I do, but the fact is that I cannot pronounce Vietnamese names. Or remember them. Or type them into my computer. It is terrible. If I have the name card at least I have a cheat sheet.

So I have a large and rapidly expanding collection of name cards. I'm finding that there are not that many given names. It gives me hope that I may be able to pronounce people's names some day. On the other hand, I know half a dozen people with the same name, some men, some women. Having the name card helps me keep track of who is who, where I met them, what they do, and so on.

That is not quite as good as taking a picture with my phone, but I've found that to be a little awkward, especially with the waitresses who are constantly giving me their phone numbers. Why they do this, I don't know. It's not like my limited Vietnamese can possibly be understood over the phone. It's bad enough in person.

Which brings me to the next thing. Addresses. I often travel by taxi. I'm starting to get to know my way around the city, picking up some street names. It doesn't matter. I can barely pronounce the name of the street I live on. Never mind some other street.

It is much easier to give the taxi driver the business card for where I'm going than to try to explain. Besides it's not likely that he knows where he's going either. Sooner or later he is going to have to ask directions.

Addresses in Vietnam are incomprehensible, even to the most experienced taxi drivers. Take my address for instance. 46/10/4A Nguyen Cuu Van, W.17, Binh Thanh Dist. HCMC. The W.17 has a meaning, but no one can tell me what it is. Binh Thanh Dist. starts close to downtown (District 1) and extends eastward all the way to the boonies.

Nguyen Cuu Van could be anywhere. As things turns out, it is an alley-sized, but fairly major, corridor a couple kilometers east of downtown. Okay. I'm told the streets are narrow so planes can't land on them.

Most taxi drivers can find Nguyen Cuu Van. Some street names could be a different street in one of a couple districts. Some streets go all over town, running N/S in some areas, and running E/W in others. Fortunately there is only one Nguyen Cuu Van and it only goes N/S. Except for the branches.

46/10/4A means that when number 46 is on your left, you take a right onto an even smaller street, then take a left, then take a right on a street which is smaller still. All of these streets are named Nguyen Cuu Van, except that my neighbor, and every one to the east, technically live on Dien Bien Phu. Apparently the street name changes after you pass my house. You can tell because there is a street sign over the road. It would have been nice if someone had put some signage on the street corners too. Well there is a sign at the corner. It says Cham Chu, but I think that is a business of some kind.

Anyway, add to this the fact that house numbers do not necessarily ascend/descend sequentially and the house numbers on opposite sides of the street do not necessarily bear any relation to each other. I went to 6D Tu Xuong Street. 6D was on one side of the street and 133 was on the other. 6A was a block away. 6 was half a block away. 8 and 10 were in between 6 and 6A. Basically the only way to know where you are going is to have been there before. You can see the difficulty this presents to taxi drivers.

It's funny however, that they always seem to know the longest plausible route between two points. I'm not going to think about it. I have a large stack of business cards to sort through.

3. Driver's License

I have the Ho Chi Minh Driver's License at least that's whose picture is on it. cf. 1. Monopoly money.

4. Other cards

I'm starting to amass other cards. Frequent diner cards. A taxi card billed to a company I work for sometimes. VIP cards for various nightclubs and stores. A copy of my passport and visa. An emergency evacuation insurance card.

The only cards I don't really need to carry anymore are my driver's license, my AAA card, my student ID and my debit card. Go figure. Clearly it was past time to change wallets.

* Just for reference, 500 VND is worth about $.03, 500,000 VND is worth about $30, and Truc says she wants to marry me when I am worth about $5,000,000.

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