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First Thoughts of Vietnam

by Banter Shack about a year ago in Humanity
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A slightly satirical travelogue

First Thoughts of Vietnam
Photo by Tran Phu on Unsplash

First Thoughts of Vietnam

The sight of a million motorbikes hurtling towards you makes it abundantly clear that the day is going to be noisy. Every road, bridge and alleyway is a hodgepodge of multicoloured helmets. To the immediate left, an entire family huddles onto a Yamaha Nouvo. Glance to the right, a frail senior on a Honda; everything except his kitchen sink in tow. Livestock in cramped cages occupy the back seats of three of the motorbikes ahead. This looks like a scene from the Wacky Races, this must be Vietnam.

Arriving Out Of The Blue

I was living in Thailand before coming here and my decision to fly to Hanoi came swiftly. I was invited to work for a travel company as a content creator. This small business was founded by a local Vietnamese lady called Van, who became a very good friend. The arrangement was that I would produce marketing texts on a daily basis in exchange for free rent. Golden opportunities come once in a blue moon; I was practically dancing in the departures lounge.

Vietnam is as unique as it is mysterious. Being that it’s not far from Thailand, I wasn’t expecting any more culture shocks. I couldn’t have been less prepared. Commuting by taxi from the airport to the city, the air conditioning and local radio tranquillised me. Many drivers here speak very little English, so this country is perfect for anyone who finds small talk draining. It was around 2 pm and the traffic was moderately light. I was at ease all the way into the city.

Then it came, everything at once. I had only closed my eyes for a few seconds while we crossed the bridge over the Red River. A deep sleep was imminent but I was awoken by chaos. In large Vietnamese cities, a symphony of horns pays homage to every octave of the diatonic scale. Weaker in the distance, this spontaneous orchestra becomes rich in the immediate vicinity. Surround-sound revving and the clutter of an unfamiliar language toys with the ear drums.

I felt like I had been dropped on a different planet. This sensory turbulence is more intense than necking 50 cups of coffee. I didn’t feel edgy or jittery, just overwhelmed and stunned. I couldn’t stop rotating my head. Outside of every window, a leg or a pair of motorbike headlights gradually advanced forward. All roads in Hanoi are rivers of colour, machinery and living creatures. Well, some are dead, and are normally strapped to the back of a Honda. Sometimes, it’s difficult to see more than a few metres ahead. Trucks carrying blue collar workers will occasionally cut you off. Nobody makes a fuss. Locals are generally super patient on the road, but that’s not to say nobody cuts through a red light on occasion. The boys in blue can often be seen monitoring busy intersections. A yellow booth lurks on the corners where traffic offenders are expected to pay fines.

By the time I arrived at Van’s apartment block in the Hai Ba Trung district, my bewildered grin was hurting my cheeks. A thin girl with glasses walked down the steps to greet me. This was Van. I’m somewhat of a fiend for different English dialects, and the Vietnamese tongue is humbling and charming. Words like “fish” are often pronounced as “pish” and a lot of folk use the infinitive in every tense. I felt blessed and delighted to be in her presence. On the way up to her apartment, we made small talk and remained light-hearted.

The man of the house was Hien and he informed me that they had only moved in that morning. Revelations of any kind seem highly spontaneous in Vietnam. I was amused that no beds had been brought over yet, but their kettle, fridge and stove were firmly in place. Their dog, Ghim, a massive Alsatian, wandered around the premises and continually sniffed things. Van started preparing food while Hien, his younger brother and I started drinking tea and chatting. Vietnamese tea is completely different to what is traditionally supped in the UK. It’s not brewed from tea bags and isn’t mixed with condiments like milk and sugar. It is normally a pale yellow or green and is very pure. A few glasses of this stuff will make the skin radiate.

Red Carpet Treatment

After around 45 minutes, Van brought over a tantalising array of dishes. One bowl contained crispy pork, while the others were occupied with tofu and a roster of vegetables that I had never seen. In the west, diners are normally the recipient of a plate of food each. On this side of the world, it’s more common to share. Everyone is allocated their own bowl of boiled rice and then chopsticks are used to clutch delectables at will. My nose became a hoover; the spellbinding aromas baptised my mouth and gave me goosebumps. Once again, I was grinning like a lottery winner. I had barely picked up my chopsticks before Hien started piling sustenance into my bowl. It is common in Vietnam for locals to display these types of generosity towards guests in their home. Men often drink local beer with meals too; popular brands include Hanoi Beer and 333.

It was approaching Friday evening. Hien and his brother insisted on giving me a proper Hanoi welcome by inviting me to paint the town red with them. There were still several hours of daylight left and they wanted to let Ghim stretch his legs near the lake. We all descended towards the basement and Hien and Van ushered Ghim onto the front of their moped. I hopped on the back of Hien’s brother.

The style of driving is completely different to the order and etiquette I’m used to back home. I suppose it could be described as organised chaos, but it somehow works. Vietnamese road culture feels dog-eat-dog at first, except motorists rarely see red. Everyone tends to embrace their position and go with the flow. One must take advantage of the slightest opportunity to cut someone off. It’s nothing personal, it’s just the way of the roads here. It’s pertinent to remember that Vietnamese people generally honk their horns as a courtesy and friendly warning. From a high-rise, the sight of rush-hour traffic is incredible. It’s a mechanical river. From street level, Hanoi is a labyrinth of family-run cafes, colonial French facades, and tree-lined streets. I hate putting my life in someone else’s hands, but Hien’s brother got me to the lake in fine fashion.

I could sense the Orient massaging my perceptions from every angle. The architecture near the lake blossomed with Buddhist modesty. Old women in bamboo hats cycled by with fresh baguettes to sell. Harmonies from ancient harps danced around my ears, albeit through speakers. A tiny water feature could be heard, trickling from the centre of the lake. Middle aged men were playing Chinese checkers. Although it’s only two players to a game, a congregation of around four or five others were huddled around the low-rise table. The looks on their faces implied they were all contemplating their would-be next moves. Nearby, a group of women were playing cards. To this day, the rules of this Southeast Asian poker remain securely in the realm of mystery.

Numerous hockers are dotted around the lakes here and they sell everything from tea to sesame seeds to pastries. In order to feel like royalty, one should indulge in the local coffee. Again, this is a universe away from the watered-down, instant rubbish we’re subject to in the west. Vietnamese coffee presents itself in small cups or shots, but deserves to be served in diamond-encrusted cocktail glasses. It has the enchantment of an Emperor’s personal beverage. During a wine tasting session, it’s easy to have a whiff; those glasses are huge. Regardless, wait till you smell Vietnamese coffee. Get your nose right in the glass. Suck up those nasal-trancing aromas like a fresh-off-the-line Dyson. Thick like melted butter, complemented by a chocolatey finish, this is Oriental syrup!

The local beers are delicious too. Boasting a slightly bitter characteristic, these beverages are smooth and satisfying. The best bars in town are known as Bia Hoi and they are scattered everywhere. A chanting of “Mot, Hai, Ba” (1,2,3) can be heard from Vietnamese punters every few minutes. This is a local ritual as folk clink glasses and down the remainder of their beverage. It is in these establishments where visitors can feel like real locals. A glass of beer costs less than 50 cents and the Vietnamese regulars are very sociable with foreigners. With the aid of a bamboo pipe, Vietnamese men smoke a substance known as Thúc Lâu. There is a knack to getting the suction technique correct and this recreational activity occasionally causes visitors to black out.

I could talk about Vietnamese drinking culture until I’m blue in the face. Practically everyone I met on our boozy circuit was hospitable and kind. The locals enjoy their rice wine too and will typically invite guests to join in a toast. Make sure you’re thoroughly strapped in to your seat because it’s rocket fuel. Despite all three of us being ten sheets to the wind, the ride home was smooth. Furthermore, it gave me a chance to observe the city nightlife from a different perspective. Employees of city sanitation such as garbage men work nights. To be frank, this is the only time it is practical as the roads are totally cluttered between 6 am and 11 pm.

No Need To Feel Blue

The following morning, I was awoken by Ghim’s snout investigating every inch of my face. It took me a few moments to realise where I was. I had been given the privilege of sleeping on the wooden couch. Van had stayed at her sister’s the previous night while us guys stayed at the new apartment. After waking up properly with a few glasses of tea, I was taken to a Cơm Bình Dân (commoner’s rice) restaurant. One can eat like royalty in Vietnam as the food is beyond inexpensive. What’s more, it’s filling, flavoursome and healthy. A meal at this type of restaurant consists of a plate of rice and various side dishes of your choice. The price is normally between one and two dollars. This was the first time I ate coconut worm larvae but it wouldn’t be the last. They might look unusual to the western eye, however, they are bursting with flavour and are a terrific source of protein.

Every so often, I would glance around the room and catch a stranger staring straight at me. In many countries, this kind of behaviour might be interpreted as provocative or even rude. However, Vietnam isn’t particularly regarded as a multicultural country. Therefore, local people are simply curious when foreigners happen to be in their line of sight. Gazes from local strangers should not be taken offensively. The atmosphere of Cơm Bình Dân restaurants is relaxed and in the pink. Chit chat furnishes the airwaves as diners come and go. Most Vietnamese restaurants lay a jug of green tea at each table; complementary soup is offered with every meal. In the west, folk traditionally drink something cold after dining. However, I learned here that warm soup or tea aids with digestion more efficiently.

I made another intriguing observation during my first breakfast in Hanoi. Opposite the restaurant, a three storey house was under construction. Although every builder was wearing a hat and bandanna over their face, the more slender physiques implied that half of them were women. Construction is typically a man’s job in the west; women are often accredited with making the house the home. In Vietnam, women don’t muck around. They get the thing built, populate it, furnish it, pay the bills, feed the family, do the laundry and raise chickens. Yet, they still find the time for their daily dose of gossip!

Although I bonded extremely well with Hien and his brother over the following months, I gelled even tighter with Van. It was through her that I learned just how driven some Vietnamese women can be. Unfortunately, it is somewhat of a man’s world here, yet this social norm doesn’t slow people like Van down. With the exception of literally building a house, Van administers all of the aforementioned expectations of the fairer sex. She then manages to find 12 hours a day to run her business. From day one of living with her, she stipulated that I only needed to write one article per day. This gave me plenty of time for my freelance writing and almost made me feel like a spoiled rich kid. Consequently, I felt I owed it to her to make daily conversation and help to fine-tune her English. I often rewrote her emails and pointed out her flaws, though explaining why something was incorrect was a little more challenging.

Though fierce and determined in some respects, Van is a also a gentle and considerate person. One day, she advised me to start purchasing warmer clothes for the winter months. I was a little drunk during this discussion and my immediate impulse was to burst out laughing. The notion of winter in Vietnam seemed as ridiculous as elephants doing the ballet. The temperatures can pole vault towards 100 Fahrenheit here and the humidity is ridiculous. For months, I had been sweating buckets before breakfast. The climate had fried my brain. What did people around here know about winter?

Red Hot Opportunities

By the end of August, the immensity of the heat drops from volcanic lava to bubbling jacuzzi. Both Hien and Van had painted a vivid picture of the ESL market and encouraged me to seek work. The typical rate for a native English teacher in Hanoi is around $20 an hour. Moreover, there is absolutely no shortage of positions available. Facebook groups like Hanoi Massive are booming with ESL teachers looking for work. Within an hour or two, their posts are targeted by dozens of local English centres and schools. Local employers offer competitive salaries and many throw in free accommodation and meals too.

Becoming an English teacher is one of the easiest ways to secure temporary residency in Vietnam. Applicants are required to have a university education and a TEFL certificate, though a CELTA is more desirable. Many people, including myself, make a proportion of their living from teaching online. This is especially applicable, given the pandemic. However, as the online market is now saturated with English teachers, joining any platform in 2020 will be very difficult.

After paying around $30 to complete my TEFL online with International Training Accreditation (ITA), I started looking for work. Hanoi is a huge city and although public transportation will hardly send you into the red, a moped is most ideal. I secured a used Atilla quickly, though relying on this brand was contrary to Hien’s advice. I didn’t even make the four-mile journey home before it broke down. This was my first time driving in this city and I was stuck in the middle of a busy road shouting at my dashboard. Luckily, two local adolescents pulled up beside me and offered to help. They didn’t speak a word of English, but using coordination and tact, they pushed me all the way home. I soon learned the true value of the expression “When in Rome, do as Romans do”. Most of the locals put their faith into brands like Honda and Yamaha.

For the next few weeks, I negotiated my way around Hanoi and did an hour or two of teaching each day. Half of the people I was working with didn’t ask for a resume, they didn’t even check my ID. What’s more, teaching ESL is one of those “thrown in at the deep end” kind of industries. My first lesson was with a group of kids who couldn’t have been more than five or six years old. I was a nervous wreck and made a pig’s ear of it. My new employer and half of the Mums N Bums committee told me I was fine. I was paid and asked to return the following day. Completing a TEFL certificate online could probably be done in a week, providing one doesn’t have the burden of work to contend with. It took me two or three weeks. A CELTA is a more expensive qualification to gain but is far more comprehensive. If this was ESL Scrabble, a CELTA would rake you in a juicy 75 points!

For the next couple of months, I made a transition from writing 4000 daft words a day, to teaching daft words, 4 hours a day. The unique sphere of academia has its own quirky benefits and drawbacks. Even if you’re a muscle-clad, primitive male, the sight of a dozen kids cheering will penetrate that stereotypical masculine shield. One feels like a celebrity walking into classrooms here and youngsters often ask for an autograph. High fives are the currency of the whippersnapper realm and it’s difficult to avoid the instinctive sense of favouritism. Unfortunately, there are several downsides to this work. The support isn’t always there when it’s needed; assistants are often distracted by other responsibilities. Kids naturally get impatient and bored when they don’t understand something, causing them to become restless. Outmatched by a regiment of cherubs due to a lack of mutual language. This situation is common and humiliating.

By the time November came, I finally realised my arrogance and stupidity as I was driving home. I was draped in nothing but thin shorts and a T-shirt and began to shake like a belly dancer. It was freezing. The torrential rain didn’t help things either. On my arrival back at Van’s, my face must have resembled a traumatised seal. Van was pleasant and compassionate, Hien pointed at me and laughed himself into a fit. I was directed to Made In Vietnam. This clothing outlet is popular nationwide and is very affordable. My purchases displayed a kind of oddball logic, I bought two pairs of jeans and three Parka coats.

Green Light To A Vietnamese Future

By early December, I had landed myself a more stable employer. This English Centre gave me a fixed contract and guaranteed me at least 15 to 20 hours a week. New teachers are generally assigned to all age categories until it is determined what is the best fit for their abilities. It turned out that I had a knack with teenagers and was sent to towns like Bắc Giang and Sóc Sơn. The bonus here is that English Centres normally pay a higher rate when they send the teacher to work outside the city.

In order to process the work permit, tourists working as teachers need to leave the country and return on a business visa. This will be granted providing the English Centre issues an invitation letter. The next step is for the teacher to apply for a criminal records check from their home country. The fee varies from country to country but the waiting time is typically around two weeks. Once this is received, an appointment must be made with the teacher’s embassy. This is to notarise the criminal records documentation, teaching credentials and university certificates. Teachers will need a housing contract to prove they have a fixed abode before visiting the embassy. Following this appointment, your passport and paperwork are handed back to the employer, who takes care of the rest. The work permit is received a month later and the temporary residence card allows the holder to remain in Vietnam for two years.

Merely touching this card made me feel like a poor immigrant landing on American soil for the first time. I had been aimlessly wandering around Asia for years prior to securing employment here. Working online is somewhat of bureaucratic grey area in many countries. Therefore, a certain relief comes with having a wallet-sized document that allows you to flutter in and out of the country at will. Accommodation in Hanoi varies depending on budget, but finding something for as low as $200 a month is realistic.

Through my employer, I was initially sent to a town called Bắc Giang, roughly 60km from Hanoi. Most of the kids in these schools barely speak a word of English, but each forty-strong class contains five or six bright sparks. Naturally, their pronunciation is slightly inaccurate in places. However, some of these kids possess more complex vocabulary than half of the adults where I grew up. They’re super eager to practice their communication with native speakers too. A great way of breaking the ice during the first lesson is to have them write the names of famous people from their country. Then announce that that was just the easy part. The hard part is then for the students to explain why they are famous.

After a few weeks, I had familiarised myself with some of the local teachers. Still, I couldn’t pronounce their names properly yet. Every so often, foreign teachers like myself are taken to a restaurant to dine with them. This was an experience I will never forget. The particular restaurant I was taken to specialised in dog meat. A Chinese restaurant that I grew up near was closed down for retailing such a delicacy. Thus, it is somewhat of a stigma where I’m from. Albeit, this didn’t bother me and I was happy to join this clan of dog lovers. I won’t go into detail about the dishes I ate, however, it is worth noting that dog for dinner is normal in Vietnam.

During my time in this country, local teachers have taken me to a number of stunning locations in the region. The tiny city of Ninh Bình is nothing short of a paddling paradise. Near-stagnant rivers weave in and out of limestone cliffs and occasionally float into immense cave systems. A kayak tour costs less than $10 and lasts for several hours. I was also taken to the hilltop hideaway of Tam Đảo. This mountainous escape is within marathon-running range of Hanoi and boasts mesmerising views of the entire region.

Given the current health climate, it is incredibly difficult for foreigners to enter Vietnam. The government have taken a robust and fastidious approach to tackling the pandemic, resulting in a super low death toll. Life is back to normal here and even before the pandemic, wearing face masks wasn’t unusual. Tourism in Vietnam accounts for less than 10% of its annual GDP, therefore, the economy hasn’t suffered too badly. In fact, thanks to the diligence of the government during this crisis, the local economy is expected to rise within the next couple of years.


About the author

Banter Shack

Music with a pinch of salt.

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