Upside Down, Rightside Up

Some days, I really feel the fact that Vietnam is on the opposite side of the planet from where I grew up.

A lot seems opposite here. I say what I believe is a simple Yes or No question, get a Yes or a No, then act accordingly, then get a disapproving look. Well, don’t say yes if you don’t mean yes!

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I still love Hanoi. I love the coffeeshops. I love the Old Quarter. I love the quiet that descends after a long day of loud traffic. I love that there is so much life crammed into the space here. I love the fact that there are still so many parts of the city that surprise me. We rode around the West Lake the other day and went under the great bridge that first brought us to the city one year ago.

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For example, a couple weeks ago we went to a part of Hanoi that felt more like Seoul or Hong Kong. High, modern buildings. Fast, mostly car traffic. Fancy places. Baby stores that carried the very best products. It was like stepping into a different city (or country) entirely. We went to a rooftop bar with a swimming pool on the 26th floor, and bought $1 bottles of beer and observed a wedding photoshoot. The song I associate with the first night we spent in China by the XX came on, and we looked out over the incredible human hives that are constantly being built in Hanoi. Royal City is the big, bright thing in the distance there.

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I know that I am constantly, just by existing here, confusing and befuddling and frustrating people. I am from a place almost as far away as it is possible to be. Of course everything I say and do is completely different from what is considered acceptable here. I am huge and blonde and a bit loud. I’m going to stick out.

But then, there is the happiest part of my days here. Finding the new street of guild members, from a happy little accident that left me bruised but brought me to the Teapot Street of Hanoi (heaven!) to the pleasant confusion of finding a restaurant with no walls and a waterfall indoors (outdoors?).

The next adventure is approaching, this particular time in Hanoi is coming to a close. It’s a great life here, and I hope to come back.

Then, there might be a new place I want to live in Vietnam….

Things that seems normal after three months in Vietnam but actually aren’t if you stop to think about it for a second

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.

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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.

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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).

 

  1. Loose, live chickens scratching happily in the gutter outside your cafe
  2. Piles of burning fake money on the sidewalk every 15th and 30th of the lunar month
  3. The infamous ‘bum gun’ in place of toilet paper in all placesdsc_0168-01-1990794196.jpeg
  4. The hardcore gastrointestinal crossfit workout which Russell terms a ‘Vietnamese Poop Cannon’ once a week (at least)
  5. 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
  6. Purposefully squashed rats like so many bloodied pancakes outside of schools22548576_10105628614593133_6958832645589720001_o
  7. Ordering something, setting a time for delivery, and having a company call you after the appointment time to ask, “Did you order XYZ?”
  8. Setting a time for an appointment and having people be shocked and unprepared that you are there at the time you stated
  9. Setting an appointment and being asked to ‘take a seat’ for 10-30 minutes
  10. Setting an appointment and being stood up completely
  11. 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
  12. 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)
  13. 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 timewp-image-1118353373
  14. Pour over coffee (something I’d never seen until 2017 and now my very favourite. I even did a taste test in May)
  15. Sweating through clothing so rapidly that you take three-four showers per day and have to change at lunchtime
  16. Napping anywhere and everywhere at anytime
  17. The excuse, “She’s just very lazy” being not so much a bad thing as a character description without malice
  18. Near misses  on the roads twice weekly (Your weekly sphincter checks! Hope it’s not Poop Cannon day!)
  19. Headlights that looks like searchlights in the night because of the combined humidity and air quality IMG_8956
  20. A single, non-gender correct person dubbing all the voices on a TV show
  21. 22 C being ‘very cold’
  22. 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)
  23. Wearing suiting to go out and have a coffee with all the others in suits having coffee
  24. Eating at a place that makes you think, “Oh well, if I die tonight from eating this, it was worth it.”
  25. Government speakers on lightpoles to make announcements and wake everyone for morning exercise
  26. The fact that “I never do morning exercise” is one of the most shocking statements I’ve made in front of my studentsIMG_9301
  27. Thinking something that costs $2 US is really quite expensive
  28. 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
  29. 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 road22366386_10105602467791533_4775423928414036272_n
  30. Questioning whether any product I pick up is authentic or not (and then deciding whether to care if it isn’t)
  31. Tailored clothing being cheaper than off-the-rack for the same quality
  32. 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
  33. 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
  34. Takeout delivery that is from the whole menu of a restaurant, not just pizza
  35. Dragonfruit (riper than in China)
  36. Wedding pavilions that appear on the sidewalk overnight and disappear about 24 hours laterIMG_8576
  37. Children’s clothing with really inappropriate sayings in English on it (favourite so far = “Mother Fucking Airplane” on a pink sweater)
  38. People saying, “Yes” when they probably mean, “No, not at all.”
  39. Wondering where ‘Shoe Street,’ ‘Plant Street,’ ‘Tea Street,’ ‘LED Street,’ or ‘Golden Monkey Replica Street’ are and being dead serious about it
  40. Christmas of course being an excuse to have sales, but not a day off work
  41. Writing ‘No Youtube English’ on the board as a rule because students continuously use the phrase, ‘Fuck you, bitch’ to disagree mildly
  42. Dressing well above my pay grade wp-image-899568256
  43. 35-50 students per class
  44. A totally unrelated hoarse voice after Monday’s classes
  45. 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?)
  46. Students fighting with rulers constantly
  47. 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

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    Make sure the small child doesn’t have a shiv before approaching (in any country)

  48. 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)
  49. Wearing my hair in styles that work with a helmet (in other words, only low braids and low ponytails)
  50. 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).

 

Hanoi

Unexpectedly, we find ourselves unemployed.

“What are we going to do?”

“I dunno. Vietnam?”

This was a condensed version of a conversation from March that we had. We’d always wanted to go to southeast Asia. We knew it was cheap. We knew that we liked Vietnamese food, eating it most Sundays before going out to hike in Busan. We wanted to be in the same place for a few weeks before going back to our ‘own’ (less and less, yearly diminishing returns on sense of nationality) countries.

Vietnam or Bali was the choice. I’m sure that Bali is great in many ways, but I’m really happy we went with Vietnam.

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Hanoi 2017

Vibrant is a term that I never truly new the definition of until I walked through the Old Quarter of Hanoi. It’s thrown around in the travelsphere like a talisman; Look how vibrant this costume is! This rickshaw ride showed us so much vibrancy in the city! The people are so vibrant! You know that you’ve read these descriptions of the many places that travel bloggers now travel and blog.

But Vietnam is actually vibrant.

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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.

Hanoi’s Old Quarter has streets for everything. There may well still be guilds, functioning as ever within the ancient and less-ancient city walls. They each make and sell different things. There is fan street. Coffee street. Knickknack street. Beer street. Grave marker street. Wedding street. Bead street. Jade street. Everywhere people, all the time. Except after 23:00. That’s the city-wide curfew.

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Hanoi is walking, eating, walking (always slowly, zen masters crossing the traffic in all directions at each intersection), beer, eating, coffee, walking, eating, bia hoi (fresh beer), eating, ice cream, beer, sleeping. On weekends the city centre becomes a playground for the children, zooming around on hand-modified hoverboards that they sit on and make dart around the ankles of adults. Traditional music is played on street corners, mixed with modern pop and Ed Sheeran’s intractable beats.

Hanoi is a steam room in the afternoon, a mobile sauna that sweats out all the toxins in your body without the need for pretentious terms like ‘wellness’ and ‘sterilisation.’

Hanoi is every meal as the best thing I’ve ever eaten. Hanoi is wanting to learn how to make all this abundance and knowing that the only real way would be to apprentice with one of the vanishing grannies who knows the old ways.

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Hanoi is desperately human, and overwhelmingly successful. Abject poverty is not the ever-present albatross around a traveller’s neck that Mumbai gifts you the moment you leave the international airport. People are, truly, ‘Happy Enough.’

Hanoi is relaxing in the din. It feels like a place I’ve always been looking for, especially since falling in love with the loud and ancient feeling of Napoli more than eight years ago. A real city. Hanoi is not as old as Napoli, but it feels like the city will be much the same in 100, or even 1000 years. The thread of humanity living in citites, holding on and making do and keeping going, not giving up but not getting all big in the head about how awesome everything is and is going to be. That was a crazy, disorganised thought. But that’s how Hanoi is.

May it always be so.