Hanoi: A Year in Review

 

The Adventure begins

 

I arrived in Hanoi a year ago. After dealing with the stress and excitement of deciding to move away, of putting things on hold in Montreal to fulfill my dream of living and traveling in Asia, I was finally here. Twenty-seven hours later, with stopovers in Chicago and Tokyo, I stepped outside the Noi Bai airport in Hanoi and breathed in the humid summer night air. Asia. Haha, well Asia is a big place. I was here. Vietnam.

It’s so funny how you can try to picture a place or an event before it happens, but then when you get there, you realize that you weren’t even close to imagining what things would be like. The reality is so different, so… real. When I arrived in Hanoi, everything at first was a blur. I had that lost feeling, the overwhelming of the senses, motorbikes rushing past, another language being shouted, smells, tastes, sounds all rushing and swirling around me. I couldn’t keep track of anything. Information my roommates would give me, street names, how to say things… Everything I was taking in had newness to it, bringing with it feelings of excitement, amazement and at times, fear of the unknown.

At first it was all about exploring and learning about my new home. One of my favourite things to do was to ride on the back of my roommate’s motorbike, watching life in Vietnam speed past. Every restaurant was a new discovery of different dishes and smells: bún đậu mắm tôm (fried tofu with noodles, fresh herbs and fermented shrimp paste) nem (fried spring rolls, Vietnamese style), chè (coconut milk with various ingredients, like beans, fruit and jellies), chè trôi nước (hot che: a coconut soup with rice balls filled with soy and black sesame seeds) nước mía (sugarcane juice), phở dishes (rice noodles served in various ways), chả cá (fried fish, noodles and herbs), vegetable dishes and tofu. (Hanoi has the best tofu, and everyone eats tons of it, fried and prepared with different vegetables and spiciness). And so it went, everywhere I looked, there was something new to see. Every conversation led to a better understanding of the world I was discovering. Every meal eaten made me feel like I was one step closer to becoming more a part of Vietnam.

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A Period of Adaptation

**Note** I unfortunately don’t have many photos of the traffic nor the streets of Hanoi, however if you would like to see some great pictures, you can Google “Hanoi” and “streets” or “traffic” you won’t be disappointed. 

 

The streets of Hanoi

The streets of Hanoi are chaotic and rich with activity. Street vendors walk or ride their bicycles while often advertising their product in song. Others sit on the side of the street selling their wares. Women barbecue meat and sell vegetables, fruit, meat, tofu, desserts, or dry goods. Kids are everywhere. Food preparation is almost always happening and different times of day will find the small tables and stools on the sidewalks filled or empty of customers drinking coffee, sipping tea, smoking or eating. The downstairs of almost every building or house is a business so the streets are constantly filled with action. Storekeepers talk with customers or friends. Dogs, roosters, chickens or cats either tied up or free can usually be found amidst all this activity, and all the while motorbikes and cars, honking, rush past. A woman crosses the street, slowly but surely getting to the other side, the water delivery boy balances eight 19-litre jugs miraculously on his motorbike, another person is driving up the street the wrong way. And of course, the famous loud speaker, with its incomprehensible messages, long become background noise to the locals, announces something or plays traditional music in an attempt to maintain the moral of the “worker” and keep up the country’s sense of unity. There is so much to describe about the streets of Hanoi, where the old and the new come together in a wonderful, sometimes frustrating magic, and oh how I love and appreciate the beauty of it all.

 

Being a Pedestrian

In the beginning, my biggest issue was the street. Crossing the street was so stressful, I would feel like I would have a heart attack every time I was faced with the daunting task of slowly walking across, small step by small step, as motorbikes and cars whizzed around me, trying to remember to breathe. When I would finally get to the other side, the realization and disbelief that I was still alive would wash over me. For months I would plan my life around whether or not whatever I wanted to do would entail crossing a street, which street, was there a traffic light to take the edge off? I would then decide if it was worth going where I wanted to go. It took me a very long time to learn how to strut across the street, stress-free. Almost a year later, I cannot believe I’m able to just go and do whatever without thinking about it, a testament to how far I’ve come.

 

Language

The language barrier really challenged me my first few months in Vietnam. I’m not sure if it’s because I have a thing for languages and a desire to learn them quickly, or that everything was so overwhelming at first, that trying to communicate just became an additional stress to pile on top of the rest. This aspect of my new adventure seemed particularly insurmountable, especially at the market, where people shouting – Madame! Madame! – as I walked slowly by, made it seem impossible to ever be relaxed buying vegetables. Many tears were shed with the stress of trying to communicate, but like most everything, I slowly learned to deal with it. Taking Vietnamese lessons helped, but it is a particularly difficult language to learn with six tones that could take years to get a handle on. Most of the time, even after I learned some Vietnamese, no one would understand me when I talked anyways because I was either pronouncing a word incorrectly or had the wrong tone. Sometimes people were so distracted by the fact that I wasn’t Vietnamese that they couldn’t understand me regardless, because foreigners don’t usually speak this language. I learned to get by on my limited vocabulary and incredible mime/pointing/keyword usage skills. As the year progressed getting what I needed was often not an issue, and people were very appreciative that I could speak a little bit of their language.

 

Traffic

The traffic in Hanoi is nuts. I feel like I could write a book about this topic, but I won’t. Traffic here is organized chaos and takes a while to get used to. My roommate would roll his eyes and tell me that I’m too sensitive, but I don’t think I am. I think a lot of people who come to South-East Asia for the first time need a certain adaptation period to deal with the traffic. It is true that once you’re used to it, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore, so maybe one day I’ll be rolling my eyes like my roommate. For the time being however, the experience is too fresh, so I still feel the need to talk about it.

When I first arrived, I walked to places or got a lift. When I started working, I bought a bicycle. After three months on the bicycle, and feeling like I understood how to handle myself on the streets of Hanoi, I borrowed a motorbike from a friend and motorbiked the rest of my time in Vietnam. Each ride, each close call, each week, each month, brought me closer to understanding how to survive and master riding in traffic here. I am now proud to say that driving a motorbike has kind of become second nature to me but let me give you a little taste of things: traffic lights are a suggestion that people will respect or not depending on the intersection. Cars are often incredibly obnoxious. The bigger and more luxurious the car, the more likely the asshole behind the wheel will be honking, zigzagging all over the road, texting and driving… the road rage boils my blood… but I’ve learned to let it go. Motorbikes come in many characters, so always be aware. Some drive nicely, others race around everyone, others come out of alleys without a care in the world, some go up the street the wrong way, others carry enormous amounts of goods – boxes, furniture, food and what not – they are honking and not stopping for anyone. There are families of four, dogs being walked/run attached next to the motorbike and high school kids on e-bikes driving recklessly side-by-side finishing up the day’s conversation.

Surprisingly though, after a year, I was able to come to a place of confidence and calm with regards to the traffic situation. I realized slowly that the only way to deal with the overwhelming traffic was to accept it completely and even have fun with it (I would often sing songs behind my face mask as I drove) and appreciate the chaos, reminding myself to never lose focus. Things are more exciting and keep you in the present moment when you’re always expecting the unexpected. Which is what leads me to say that I feel like the traffic in Vietnam is almost a metaphor of its people, a mix of the old and the new, of rules and of complete freedom, of caring for others and of complete egocentricity, but mostly it conveys a strong sense of aliveness and freedom that I have come to love and appreciate and actually miss dearly now that I have left.

 

 

Settling In

 

The Middle

Slowly, but surely, as sure as the earth turns around the sun, I got used to life here. I rode a bicycle to learn about the traffic, I took the bus and discovered different parts of Hanoi. I got lost and found my way back. I made friends, went out, ate at different restaurants, went to the gym, discovered Hanoi’s many cafés, took Vietnamese lessons, and drove past Hanoi’s many lakes and through her winding alleyways. The market place became less daunting, a place of colours and smells and life, and of discovery of the never-ending appearance of tropical fruits depending on the season (mmmmm mangosteen, lychees, dragonfruit). I knew the prices, I could speak a little Vietnamese, people knew me now and I felt that they were yelling at me less in the streets in order to get my attention. Life was feeling more relaxed.

 

Teaching English

I came to Vietnam unsure about work. After humming and hawing over whether to teach English or try to work at an international school, I finally settled on teaching English. I wanted to keep things light, and spend more time discovering Hanoi and Vietnam than working. Finding a job was… too easy (warning sign number one) I sent out one CV and got a job. The pay was good, the work seemed very manageable and so it was fine. I could tell from the “interview” that this would be a dysfunctional job, but didn’t care too much at the time. So I started working, teaching beginner English classes five days a week. I worked at several centres that the school owned, allowing me to discover different areas in Hanoi. My students were sweet overall, although somewhat hyper coming to English class after a long day at regular school but I tried to vary my teaching activities and got better at turning a lot of their learning into a game in order to keep them engaged.

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After a few months, though, I was bored and losing my motivation. English centres, in Vietnam anyways, are all more or less the same. Students sign up for a course that runs about two months. They do a test in the final class, and if they pass, then they move on to the next level. The overall goal of the students or their parents is to pass the IELTS test, which allows them to study abroad. Centres just want to make money and parents just want their kid to pass the test. Lots of lies are told to keep the system running. Teachers at my centre were told in many different ways that they were replaceable and if you don’t like what’s happening, there’s the door. So after teaching more or less the same courses over and over for a few months, five nights a week, in a system that leaves you little to care about besides the students and the pay check, I was done. So in a very detached and easy way I stopped teaching at the English centre, leaving behind the disrespectful emails from a boss I had never met and the general feeling of money hungry apathy that was pervasive at the school.

A lot of people wonder about teaching English abroad, especially in Asia. At the end of the day a lot depends on your attitude towards your job situation. But from the stories I’ve heard my experience was very similar to most. English centres are for profit. That being said, I think you can make the most of a situation, or turn negatives into positives as needed. In my case though, I got a new job.

**Note** Some people love teaching English in Asia and centres can vary in degrees of niceness to horribleness obviously. At the end of the day, it’s important to come to your own conclusions. I think my experience takes on a more negative tone for various reasons, but this is definitely not the case for everyone.

 

International School Bliss

Subbing at UNIS was maybe one of the easiest jobs I’ve ever had. This school (overall) is a dream school: Like if someone dreamed of the perfect school and then built it. The staff was amazing, the students wonderful, lesson plans clear and resources aplenty. Going back to subbing gave me the chance again to see many different classrooms, teaching styles, and lesson plans. I really appreciate the time that I worked there because I came away from it with tons of new ideas and new information about teaching that I look forward to putting into practice. I also feel newly inspired about teaching and education.

My experience there made me think about how people say that you learn a lot when pushed to your limits, in broken school systems teaching horribly difficult classes. Well yes, maybe, after you stagger out disoriented, and take a few months to sort through and figure out what happened, then perhaps? But I feel that this is the wrong way of thinking. Our society has gotten too used to dysfunctional conditions and has normalized unhealthy living and work situations. I feel like the time I spent at UNIS was so valuable because I was seeing a school that worked. I could see a system that wasn’t broken, that was strong and thriving. Being able to relax and feel supported in a school allowed me to learn so much and made me feel even more confident and strong about my teaching, something that I’m not sure would have happened so immediately in an opposite school situation.

** Note** UNIS has tons of money and students pay a lot to go there – hence, a huge contributing factor to have the ability and the means to have a school of that calibre. That being said, it doesn’t have to be that way if governments invested more in education, in the right places

 

 

 

Traveling: Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar

Travels

I think that when I decided to go to Vietnam, I envisioned myself travelling EVERYWHERE. I quickly realized that this would be impossible. Asia is huge and visiting different places requires time, money and energy. That being said, I saw a lot of places this year and feel that I got a nice taste of South-East Asia. Here is a quick summary of the places I went:

 

August

My first quick trip was to Cat Ba Island, a five hour drive from Hanoi. It is a beautiful island just off the coast and has a mountainous landscape formed of karst rocks, like humongous dinosaur eggs jutting up out of the ground that is common in this part of Vietnam. What is interesting about the island is you can rent kayaks and explore the karst coming out of the water up close. Unfortunately, there was huge storm when I went and no boats were allowed out. Instead we rented a motorbike and drove around the island, exploring its lovely landscape.

 

 

 

October

My next trip, I went to Cambodia. I decided to save money and fly to Ho Chi Minh City then take a bus to the capital Phnom Penh. I don’t really know what to say about this city, but I couldn’t deal with it. I was alone and felt really depressed; the effects of the recent genocide here, and the aftermath – rampant poverty, homeless children, and a general sense of despair – made for an emotional trip. Things felt a bit different when I arrived in Siem Reap, where temple tourism seems to have made life a bit lighter in this small Cambodian city. The temples are amazing, and could take years to see properly. I’ll never forget the feeling when I saw the first temple, a huge mass of rocks appearing in front of me. I feel very privileged to have been able to visit them and will never forget the sense of awe and inspiration that they evoked in me.

 

 

November

Bangkok, Thailand: A trip I had to make in an emergency visa run situation (it’s a long story) and I could only stay a few days. I feel like I need to go back to really get the feel for this massive city, but in a nutshell: temples, river, boats, car traffic, sky train, shopping, pink taxis, jazz club, spicy food, and an amazing massage!!!

 

December

Over Christmas, I was invited by friends to go to Ninh Binh, Vietnam a two and a half hour train ride from Hanoi that has a similar landscape to Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay. The small town is quiet and peaceful. You can climb up one of the rocks and see the view, which in the December weather was downcast, foggy and beautiful. We took a rowboat to visit caves and temples along the water. The landscape was breathtaking and calm despite the numerous boats of tourists that were there. The highlight of the weekend though was sitting around in a café (with heating!!) playing Saboteur (a card game) and drinking wine. Merry Christmas everyone!

 

 

February

Têt holiday/lunar New Year is very big in Vietnam, and most foreigners leave during the two-week celebration to have the chance to travel while everything has shut down in Hanoi as well as to escape the cold of February. I decided to go to Northern Thailand and Laos. I flew to Bangkok then took a train ride to Chiang Mai. This trip began with a deep breath and a prayer, when I found out that all the sleeper beds on the train were sold out (you can’t buy your tickets online, and so things are complicated) and I was to do the fourteen-hour ride on a hard bench seat… But with my new attitude of “I can do anything!” I embarked on the train.

Tired, but on the other end of those fourteen hours, I was in Chiang Mai, a peaceful little city that I found immediately pleasing with its laidback atmosphere and charm. The next couple of days I met up with friends, played Saboteur, ate great food, drove up to the mountains, celebrated lunar New Year with some locals and slept in a traditional stilt house. I had a great time.

 

After Chiang Mai, I headed north to Laos. Getting across the border was a disorganized mess that took FOREVER. I ended up missing the one boat that leaves per day to Luang Prabang and had to take a thirteen-hour bus ride instead. The route from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang is around 500 km. However, the road goes through the mountains and you go along at a pretty leisurely pace taking in the beautiful scenery and local life. We made numerous stops along the way, picking up other passengers and buying or picking up market items, lottery tickets, parcels and whatnot. I learned that this is how things are done in Laos and foreigners need to relax and lean into the slow pace of life here.

Once in Luang Prabang, I met up with a friend from Hanoi. Together we walked the quiet streets of the city, exploring its markets, cafés and river view. We rented a motorbike and drove up into the mountains, along winding roads and through a village during lunchtime, seeing all the school kids on bicycles going home to eat. This short stay in Luang Prabang where all is quiet and peaceful was a perfect end to my Têt holiday during which I felt like I had been transformed into a more relaxed and flexible person, since my plans never quite worked out, but everything ended up being better than expected, #themotherwillprovide. And so this trip was a turning point for me.

 

 

April

I saved most of my travelling around Vietnam for April. The trip took place in different sections: First, we took the train to Hue, a picturesque quiet city in the middle of Vietnam. We explored the old citadel and drove to the countryside to visit an emperor’s tomb. Next it was on to Da Nang, located on the coast with its busy streets and shops downtown, and its many beaches. One day was spent driving to Hoi An, to explore and go to different beaches. Hoi An is known for it’s tailor culture, people used to come here specifically to get a new wardrobe made. It has now become a tourist destination. Its cute streets and quaint feel were pleasing nonetheless.

 

Next, it was onward south, and we flew to Buon Ma Thuot to meet up with other friends. We hired a tour guide and visited the sights in this area, the highlands of Vietnam, where coffee and cashew nuts are grown. We drove through the landscape, visited a famous waterfall, stayed in a traditional village (a place built for tourists) and visited a national park. Since we went in April, it was almost the end of the dry season; it was extremely hot and somewhat unbearable. It was interesting to see life here as few tourists come this way.

 

 

Returning to Hanoi to work, I was unexpectedly asked to accompany some UNIS students on a trip to Hue for a few days. And so it was back to the center. This time, accompanied by Vietnamese speakers, I saw a different side to Hue and discovered some of my new favourite foods: bánh nậm and bánh bèo.

With the arrival of more friends, we headed back down south to Ho Chi Minh City, exploring the streets of this massive metropolis, with its more capitalist feel, night markets, and slightly tamer traffic than in the north? I think? Next it was a bus ride south to Ben Tre and a luxurious homestay. We took a boat ride down river to Cau Ke, passing palm trees, boats and stilt houses. Cau Ke in Tra Vinh province is an interesting area because it used to belong to Cambodia, and most of the people who live here are of Khmer descent. People speak Khmer and monks can be seen walking the streets doing their alms. While we were there, we got to have lunch with a friend at his family home. We ate a traditional lunch of hot pot, with the meat placed on the rim of the pot. When you want to eat it, you cook in the soup. It seemed odd to be eating such a hot meal in fifty degree heat, but the spiciness caused the sweat to come and cool us all off. Finally, we finished our southern Vietnam exploration in Can Tho, meeting up with students wanting to practice their English, who took us to the local sights and to the famous floating market. Boats come down river transporting various fruits and vegetables. Locals come to buy goods to sell at the market in the city. All of this happens between five and seven in the morning when the heat of the day is more bearable.

 

June

My final trip before heading back to Canada was to Myanmar. I had made a promise to a friend before she left Hanoi in May that I would meet up with her there, and I’m so glad she dragged me out of my travel burnout to visit this lovely country. After traveling quite a bit this year, especially during my April Vietnamese traveling bonanza, I was struggling to find the energy to go on another trip. We met up in Yangon, which I found to be a very peaceful and laid back city despite the amount of cars and traffic. It was so interesting exploring the different neighbourhoods like China town and little India, riding the train out to the countryside, and going up to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, where locals who are all quite Buddhist, enjoy a peaceful stroll and a prayer around the sacred grounds.

It was then on to Bagan, in the north, where temples are EVERYWHERE. So interesting to visit, going from one temple to the next by e-bike, the day’s heat at times unforgiving. One thing that really struck me on this trip was: I have really gotten used to life in SE Asia. Markets, street life, traffic, ESL conversations, landscapes, the heat, the sounds and the smells have become so familiar. As I walked through the streets of Yangon, taking everything in, but comfortable, I was blown away by how much I have changed and adapted to life here. It is a great feeling.

 

Homeward Bound

And Finally

I cannot believe this year in Hanoi has come to an end. Now to be on the other side of this time spent exploring, learning, challenging myself, opening my mind, experiencing, living, crying, and laughing, is kind of hard to get a grasp on and write about. So much happened during this time spent away and I believe that I have profoundly changed. In my everyday life I feel more confident. I feel like I can deal with most situations and I can make decisions more easily. When things get difficult, I accept situations and move on more easily because things usually have a way of working themselves out. Everything seems to have become more peaceful and beautiful, even the traffic that I spent so much time fighting has turned into something to appreciate in its crazy imperfect chaotic existence. I learned that the only way to really deal with traffic is to accept it for what it is, the good and the bad wrapped into one.

Overall I think that what this trip allowed me to do was to get out of my comfort zone in so many ways and it has made me a better person for it. Before I went to Vietnam, I would say I challenged myself somewhat to do things I was not always comfortable with, but I still managed to somehow hang on tightly to my securities, my home, my routines. When I arrived in Vietnam everything seemed to be pushed off balance so that even habits and abilities that you can bring with you wherever you go seemed to get thrown up in the air. After a period of adaptation when I first arrived, where I felt like I had regressed back into childhood, I slowly built my life back up into a satisfying mix of friends, work and leisure. The difference I felt about this new life was that I felt stronger, less afraid and more adaptable. I noticed myself doing a lot of things without overthinking. What was important to me seemed clearer, and I could focus more on what I wanted to do. Getting through difficult situations left me feeling like things aren’t always as bad as they seem, and that I could handle a lot, making most of life’s regular problems seem lighter and more manageable.

And so with mixed feelings, but a lighter spirit, I decided to come back to Montreal. Life in Hanoi is great, but I could feel a push coming from somewhere that I needed to move on. It may be only for short while, as I don’t know what the future holds for me, but my indecision on whether or not to stay could only be decided by leaving. Saying goodbye to friends and a city that I have come to know and love was difficult. Even now that I’m back, the memories of the past year are still so fresh I can touch them. I keep in my heart what a friend said, “you can only say goodbye to people that you have met and gotten to know. It would be sadder to have never met them at all”. While I am sad to have left Vietnam, I think I would be even sadder had I never gotten on that plane. And so here I am, back in Montreal for two weeks now, curious to see what the next chapter of life will be about. Hẹn gặp lại Hanoi!