Entering 2017 very shortly after moving to Vietnam and settling into my new life in Asia has been a bit of a rush and the last 4 weeks have gone past so quickly with so much to fill the diary. As I sit here now and write this post I can route through my head all the things I have seen and done in this short time and begin to slow it down.
I arrived into Hanoi on the 14th December coming straight from India, again a massive difference between the two countries. Vietnam reminded me more of my travels in Thailand with similar city vibes to how I felt on arrival in Bangkok. It is currently winter here in the North of Vietnam and I cant wait for Hanoi to reveal its real beauty to me in a few months time, but for now this city has fascinated me with so much to embrace and a real contrast in what you can expect. On one hand you find your Asian expectations of Vietnam, cultural markets, street food and dinning, people selling merchandise from a pull along wooden cart or a blanket laid on the pavement, karaoke filling the streets at most hours including live performances set on a stage in the most bizarre spots such as the corner of a junction. On the other hand you are spoilt with choice as the city is built from every single store, branch and outlet you can imagine! Shopping centres are scattered all over the city standing miles high, some even have people to greet you as you enter and open the doors for you, its how you’d imagine being famous feels. The buildings are immaculate with a variety of cafes, cuisines, home stores, beauty products, sports attire and clothing outlets. Something I noticed about these shopping centres is most have a supermarket on the ground floor and the security procedures against theft are very simple but affective. When you enter the supermarkets you are required to either put big bags inside a locker which is supervised by an assistant who gives you a key and waits by the lockers until your return or they may fasten your zippers on your bag shut using a cable tie so its important to remember to take your purse/wallet out first! Something so simple yet I have not seen before anywhere else.
Vietnam is the worlds 14th most populous country and the eight most populous in Asia so you can imagine as a small country the mess that can commence alongside that. There is a constant exposure to food being cooked and prepared openly, though this is not saying these places are dirty, the food you buy on the streets is freshly made and often prepared in front of you, it is so cheap and often some of the best food I have tasted here! My favourite street food and most commonly known dish in Vietnam is there soup noodles, it is filling and light with so many flavours and also so healthy! You are able to book street food tours as well to show you new dishes you wouldn’t of thought to try and help you understand what each dish is and its name, making it easier to ask for as many of the locals will not speak very good English. I have also learnt for the first time in my life how to use chopsticks which is a skill you will find very useful out here!
The air is polluted and some days can reach a hazardous level of PM – PM 2.5 (particles that are smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter) this is the best indicator to watch for how bad air pollution is each day. That’s because PM 2.5 particles are small enough to get lodged in your lungs and bloodstream, there for you see many people wearing masks over their nose and mouths especially when driving. The streets can get messy with litter filling the gutters and again the local bins in sight are near to none however I must say in the evenings people sweep the streets making the daily clean up procedure very efficient, though you might see a build up of litter during the day, over night the streets are cleaned and the rubbish is collected regularly. Though neither the Smog or litter issues here in Hanoi are half as bad as what I witnessed in the North of India! These are just a couple of adjustments that I’ve had to make in the city but ones that you learn to live with.
Bicycles, motor scooters and motorcycles remain the most popular forms of road transport in Vietnam’s urban areas, although it seems the number of privately owned cars is also on the rise, especially in the larger cities. Public buses are the main mode of long-distance travel for much of the population. Road safety is a serious issue in Vietnam – on average, 30 people are killed in traffic accidents every day. Traffic congestion is a growing problem in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, as the cities’ roads struggle to cope with the boom in automobile use. Driving here has certainly been an experience and one that has made me fear for my life on numerous occasions – not wearing a helmet here would just seem Ludacris! After studying their attitude to manoeuvring the roads here and attempting to ‘think Vietnamese’ when driving it does become slightly easier. Besides the extremely little road laws causing havoc in all directions the only thing I have seen the authorities pull anyone aside for is not wearing a helmet. I have learnt that people here do not use their side view mirrors and only focus on what is going on in front of them, it is your job as a driver to pay close attention to what the people ahead of you are going to do as it is very unpredictable. People swerve out in front of you to avoid potholes or obstacles at last minute, People drive down the road towards you and assume it is their right of way, pedestrians step out and cross the road whilst holding out their hand which indicates they will keep walking whilst you have to weave your way around them, there are zebra crossing however these don’t mean much out here. The motorbikes comes up very closely along side you and the oncoming bikes driving towards you. This is before talking about the cars, trucks and buses on the roads who have no consideration for motorbikes and will plough through them giving motorcyclists a matter of seconds to get out of their way. People travel with their whole families on the backs of these bikes, including babies and infants and also will move whole furniture sets, plants or scaffolding from the back of their bikes, the opportunities are apparently endless. The traffic can be so bad you end up pushing your bike with your feet either side slowly crawling through the traffic bumper to bumper with the bike in front or behind you or if you are in a rush feel free to use the public pavement as an alternative road to skip the queues, this is apparently acceptable too.
As far as grabbing a taxi its easy! They pass by every few seconds and there is a handy app called ‘Grab’ which can call you either a car or motorbike to pick you up (the motorbikes being cheaper) always negotiate a price before using the service as a standard method to avoid being over charged but otherwise these services are safe and reliable. A couple of the nicer areas to visit in Hanoi where many Expats and tourists gather is the Old quarter and West Lake which are great for restaurants and bars with much variety and a good atmosphere and there is also the Botanical Gardens which are protected grounds enabling the tress to grow and is a nice place for peaceful stroll.
Though besides the high PM levels and hazardous roads, the people here maintain a very healthy lifestyle, it is rare you see an overweight Vietnamese person as many of them will go to the gym and keep themselves in shape and you might even drive past people doing their daily exercises on the side walks with no judgements made by other people. With their diet consisting of so many natural resources and power foods you rarely even see a person with bad skin complexion and even their hair always looks so healthy.
After a few weeks in, I started to embrace the ‘crazy’ in this city and started to evolve myself as what to expect. Hanoi however has endless opportunities for work and setting up a lifestyle here is very do-able, especially as a native English speaker, all over the country English teaching positions are available left, right and centre! I have been here just over a month now and already have morning, afternoon and evening classes both with in schools, privately owned classrooms and private classes at peoples homes and still have my weekends free to myself. From this I am earning a very comfortable salary and for the hours I work I am able to start saving more than I could ever imagine to put aside at home, alongside paying rent, motorbike rental, food, gym membership and all your other basic necessities. Their are many Expat pages on Facebook for teaching jobs and also apartment rent or house shares. To rent an a nice apartment you are looking roughly at $300 a month for a fully kitted modern comfortable place to live, prices can go up if you want to upgrade but the value for money is amazing and what you pay for something nice here would barely rent you a room in someone else’s house back in the UK. For teaching jobs all you need is a good CV attachment and small introduction to yourself employers will start messaging you right away! Most employers will like to see some teaching qualifications or experience and sometimes they just require somebody who is enthusiastic with a friendly face! I am mostly teaching Kindergarten which involves basic introductions to new vocabulary and supporting their grammar and pronunciation practises, but I also teach children up to 12 years old in my private classes which can make games and activities more interesting as they are capable of understanding the instructions. If you are not as comfortable teaching children there are jobs to suit most people and adult classes are also available usually in preparation for their IELS exams. Most of the employers or landlords will present the salary/rent price in dollars however this will be exchanged and you will pay or be paid in Vietnamese Dong.
Over Christmas and New year the atmosphere was incredible even though this is not traditionally their holiday as many of the people are Buddhist, the decorations towered sky high and the lights decorated the streets! Christmas trees, blow up snowmen and banners were found everywhere and for expats and tourists Hanoi did not make you feel any less festive for being away from home at this time of year. We celebrated on a rooftop bar overlooking the city at night with all its beautiful lights surrounding us, there was good music and the Vietnamese people loved to celebrate every moment of it with us. From the 26th January the Vietnamese TET Holiday begins and everywhere closes so people can take time off to return to their home towns and be with their families over their Lunar New Year. This is a massive celebration that happens every year with many traditions which I am still learning much about! The city has become noticeably busier over the past two weeks as people wiz about collecting decorations for TET, one of the traditions is to collect an old tree with many dead branches and decorate it themselves with flowers and lights. They also put lucky money into envelopes and make Chung cake which is a traditional savoury desert made from sticky rice, beans and pork wrapped in banana leafs and tied as a package to be given as a gift.
Over Christmas my friends who are part of the Cristian church in Hanoi mentioned to me that their was an organised trip to a local Orphanage for disabled children and adults to bring clothes, food and gifts for those less fortunate and help bring them joy over Christmas. All 3 of us decided to go on Christmas eve morning in a mini bus organised by the Church with many other members and a tone of donated items ready to give as gifts. We were not sure what to expect all we knew is we would be taking part in games, dances, songs and activities to bring a Christmas spirit to these people. Though when we arrived nothing could of prepared us for the conditions we were about to witness these people living in. It was like a small village completely for the disabled, house after house after house full of beds for the many people that had been placed at the orphanage and the many had grown old within it. I’d imagine many children ended up here because many families would not be able to afford a disabled child to pay for treatments and home care to look after them properly, it would entitle their parents taking time off work to care for them which with some of the poverty crisis was not a position they could justify, a tragic outcome! the village was separated into two halves, one for children and the other mostly for adults, each building block was full of beds and would hold up to 20 people. Each block had only one carer to look after all 20 people living within this building, that is no where near enough carers to maintain the personal care and hygiene of these people!! Though it seemed the people here did the absolute best they could! I saw disabilities and deformities I have never seen or heard of before which was very shocking to see. The children slept in metal framed beds which the sides pulled up like cages, they had no toys or source of entertainment. Many children might not have use of their legs or may be blind and therefor sit in these beds day in, day out with absolutely nothing to do – they were just existing. The orphanage was a non-government organisation and therefor had barely enough donations to keep the place up and running, the village was dull with old worn down buildings, no colour or livelihood. I noticed whilst one of the carers was changing a child’s nappy they did not even have basic facilities such a baby wipes to properly clean them with!
We gave out 3 items of clothes per person, goodie bags with sweets and colouring books and pencils for the children, though during this day we got the children and elderly involved in many activities, made many smiles and gave them so much love leaving here and knowing this would continue to happen every day whilst we went back to our normal glorified life’s, was heart breaking! In the future we would like to organise another trip to the orphanage and get the orphans involved in helping us paint the walls to brighten the place up a little, but this is the least of their issues, I praise the carers who dedicate their lives to helping these people and ask for nothing in return – they are the true heroes.
I am still looking for some voluntary work myself with animals in some of the local shelters to help with the dogs or cats, however this is currently proving difficult due to the language barrier. Though I am staying persistent and hoping to get involved with these projects shortly as for my biggest struggle and heartache in the city is the treatment and welfare for the animals in these countries regardless of my love for Asia, hopefully there will be more positive updates from this in the upcoming months.
Besides from some of the hidden truths which is always a huge reality check I have found the Vietnamese people to be very friendly, kind and giving. They are a great community to live amongst especially when trying to create a lifestyle within a country that couldn’t be any more foreign. The people here have been so welcoming, supplying me with gifts and invitations into their homes to meet their families and sit and enjoy dinner with them, it is an honour. Hanoi is a city I feel comfortable, safe and secure within and I am very much looking forward to the upcoming months with many more opportunities, memories and stories to tell!
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