I open the Italy lock on the door to our apartment complex. It’s a clunky dimple lock, the kind that it supposed to be secure. For extra security, we have a small hole through which we must put our hand to unlock it from the outside. Measures against bolt cutters.
I pull my bike outside and lock the door through the tiny hole. Then I’m on my way, one of the bustling ant people on the roads in this city of eight million. My commute mirrors the ant superhighway in our house, except that we’re following roads instead of pheromone trails.
It was hard for me to come up with this list, because the things on it have become so normalised.
I want to emphasise that for the most part, our life here is ridiculously comfortable. I feel very happy indeed living in Hanoi. It’s not always easy, but that’s precisely why we wanted to live here.
That said, this is definitely not a familiar place when you first arrive. I described Hanoi back in April as:
Bustling, but not stressful. Loud, tempered by silence after curfew. Trust and intense connection with a human community, such as must have once existed in major cities all over the world but which is vanishingly rare in 2017. It’s not always confortable, oh no. It’s real, though. It sweeps you up an makes you think about what you’ve been missing, living in a boxy gray concrete apartment and ignoring your neighbours every time you misfortune to find yourselves in the same hallway. If you’ve become a city person, you can eventually relax into it.
And it still is. Despite the fact that I’m tired a lot of the time from teaching, and that I don’t have the certainty that living in the Western world supposedly grants (but doesn’t actually follow through with), I love my time in Vietnam. For Teacher’s Day we went on a bicycle tour and rode through the banana fields that are about 3km from our apartment. I had no idea they were there.
Hanoi is still surprising me. But much is becoming a new home.
We thought of many of these sitting at Epoque Furniture/Cafe store (which is basically someone’s rooftop of the house converted to bring in a few people for coffee, tea, and cocktails). These situations feel totally normal after three months in Vietnam (but actually aren’t).
- Loose, live chickens scratching happily in the gutter outside your cafe
- Piles of burning fake money on the sidewalk every 15th and 30th of the lunar month
- The infamous ‘bum gun’ in place of toilet paper in all places
- The hardcore gastrointestinal crossfit workout which Russell terms a ‘Vietnamese Poop Cannon’ once a week (at least)
- Clapping one’s hands when entering an alleyway, toilet block, garden, or classroom and saying, “Ho, rat!” to scare them off before you see them
- Purposefully squashed rats like so many bloodied pancakes outside of schools
- Ordering something, setting a time for delivery, and having a company call you after the appointment time to ask, “Did you order XYZ?”
- Setting a time for an appointment and having people be shocked and unprepared that you are there at the time you stated
- Setting an appointment and being asked to ‘take a seat’ for 10-30 minutes
- Setting an appointment and being stood up completely
- Setting an appointment, changing it according to a message you receive from the person you make the appointment with, and then having a very angry person on the other end of a phone line wondering where on Earth you are
- Setting an appointment, forgetting that naptime is from 11:00-14:00 and getting no message about whether the person is coming or not (because they are napping, of course)
- A sense greater than in any other place I’ve lived (yes, even Chile or Italy) that there is not a shared cultural sense of time
- Pour over coffee (something I’d never seen until 2017 and now my very favourite. I even did a taste test in May)
- Sweating through clothing so rapidly that you take three-four showers per day and have to change at lunchtime
- Napping anywhere and everywhere at anytime
- The excuse, “She’s just very lazy” being not so much a bad thing as a character description without malice
- Near misses on the roads twice weekly (Your weekly sphincter checks! Hope it’s not Poop Cannon day!)
- Headlights that looks like searchlights in the night because of the combined humidity and air quality
- A single, non-gender correct person dubbing all the voices on a TV show
- 22 C being ‘very cold’
- Shoe shiners at every cafe, constantly pointing out the sorry state of your worn out shoes (can’t buy new ones because my feet are huge here)
- Wearing suiting to go out and have a coffee with all the others in suits having coffee
- Eating at a place that makes you think, “Oh well, if I die tonight from eating this, it was worth it.”
- Government speakers on lightpoles to make announcements and wake everyone for morning exercise
- The fact that “I never do morning exercise” is one of the most shocking statements I’ve made in front of my students
- Thinking something that costs $2 US is really quite expensive
- Wondering why I can’t seem to find XYZ for our house and realising that labour is so cheap here that everything from hairdrying to vacuming is a job for someone in the city
- Merging across all lanes of fast traffic with mopeds flying everywhere, doing a U-turn, and then immediately merging across all lanes of traffic again to make a right turn on the other side of the road
- Questioning whether any product I pick up is authentic or not (and then deciding whether to care if it isn’t)
- Tailored clothing being cheaper than off-the-rack for the same quality
- Devastating headaches after enduring 76 decibels as the ‘low volume’ of my classes for 70 minutes, and then walking straight back in to another class again
- College students who shout, “Hello!” just like five year olds when we pass them having coffee near their classes for the 50th day in a row
- Takeout delivery that is from the whole menu of a restaurant, not just pizza
- Dragonfruit (riper than in China)
- Wedding pavilions that appear on the sidewalk overnight and disappear about 24 hours later
- Children’s clothing with really inappropriate sayings in English on it (favourite so far = “Mother Fucking Airplane” on a pink sweater)
- People saying, “Yes” when they probably mean, “No, not at all.”
- Wondering where ‘Shoe Street,’ ‘Plant Street,’ ‘Tea Street,’ ‘LED Street,’ or ‘Golden Monkey Replica Street’ are and being dead serious about it
- Christmas of course being an excuse to have sales, but not a day off work
- Writing ‘No Youtube English’ on the board as a rule because students continuously use the phrase, ‘Fuck you, bitch’ to disagree mildly
- Dressing well above my pay grade
- 35-50 students per class
- A totally unrelated hoarse voice after Monday’s classes
- Bad behaviour moving from class to class within a school like a malevolent zeitgeist, infecting each group in turn and making a good day of hard work suspect (Who will fall to the star-decimation next?)
- Students fighting with rulers constantly
- Wondering if making shivs and shanks is actually an instinctual behaviour for the genus Homo, given how young the stabby classes are and how pervasive the drive to sharpen one’s ruler appears to be
- Dodging typhoons for all of autumn (I dodged two on the day I arrived to Vietnam, one near Taipei and the other here in Hanoi)
- Wearing my hair in styles that work with a helmet (in other words, only low braids and low ponytails)
- Sheer exhaustion come 22:00
It’s been a long time coming, this list. I find myself with lots of hours off, but tons to do during them to be truly ready for my work (or at least, tons of relaxing to do to be mentally calm enough to do the work).