My First Week in Hanoi

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It’s been one week since I’ve moved to Vietnam and I’m pretty surprised by how quickly my homesickness has passed. But I guess when you’ve already lived in three different countries within the last three years you get used to leaving one place for another. Of course I experienced the common thoughts like “what if I don’t make any new friends?” or “what if my friends all forget about me??” or “WHAT ABOUT BURRITOS???”, but by my second day I was already getting into the rhythm of life here and have been learning so much about this culture that am beginning to love immensely.

Here are 7 things I’ve learned already from living here:

  1. Water is not easily accessible. The apartment I am temporarily living in (the one I was supposed to move into is still occupied and it wasn’t until we arrived to the apartment from the airport that the landlord said so, but more on that later), has a water heater, but the landlord told me not to turn it on because it’s so close to the shower head that I will electrocute myself.spectaculargifAlso, tap water is not drinkable. I never thought I would miss the simplicity of drinking free water or of finding water in general. Street vendors sell teeny-tiny water bottles and many restaurants and cafes do not serve water. The solution? Buy 5L jugs from the supermarket for about $1.00 and hope that they will last you the week
  2. Time is not an issue for the Vietnamese. On my first full day when I was exploring the city, I would ask the locals where I can find the bus station, and they would wave their arms one way and point and say in Vietnamese something along the lines of “that way!” and when I asked if it was far, they would typically shake their heads no. Well, it took me over three hours to get to the bus station when I thought it would only take me 30 minutes. And on my way back I realized there was a bus station literally right by my apartment, but I also really suck with my directions, so that’s on me.  

    And remember how I said that the apartment I was supposed to move into was still occupied? When I asked the landlord before I arrived to Vietnam when it would be available, he told me that it was already available, but when I made it to Hanoi he said I would have to wait until the 17th of October to move in…

    Also, each day from 12 to 2pm the Vietnamese have a “break time”. This means that everyone goes home to nap or they take a big lunch break. It’s pretty typical then that if you want to get lunch at this time that the workers of the restaurant are gone or even taking a nap inside the restaurant. The school children will also either go home with their parents for two hours or have an extended lunch break at school. 

    When I was doing my cultural studies in university, I remember learning about how certain Asian countries are considered to be less professional than Western countries due to their lack of putting emphasis on time, but I actually believe that these cultures are more calm and relaxed and do not believe in wasting energy on stress and worry. As a worry-wart myself, I find that I really like this cultural aspect of Vietnam and hope to learn to become less of a stressed-out person while I am living here.

  3. It’s cheaper to eat street food than to buy food in the supermarket. You can easily buy a delicious bowl of Phở (pronounced “fuh” like you’re trying to drop the f-bomb) for around $1.00 like this one here and be stuffed by the end of it.imageThe Vietnamese put some small red peppers and a spicy red sauce into their Phở–I tried it but I have a very low spiciness tolerance and could only handle a little bit. However, the woman who served me the Phở seemed to really like me and came back to my table with a big smile and put some more meat into my bowl. Another woman sitting close to me taught me how to eat the dish properly–you have a flat metal spoon that you use to hold the rice noodles as you suck them into your mouth with the help of your chopsticks. From what I can tell, it seems that the Vietnamese tend to eat Phở for breakfast more than any other time of day!

    Another delicious kind of street food that you can try is Bánh mì . Bánh mì is the Vietnamese word for “bread”. It is a meat sandwich made in a French baguette–this bread was introduced by the French during the colonial period in Vietnam. Fun fact: Vietnam didn’t gain independence from the French until 1954! Which is a big deal because French colonialism in Vietnam lasted more than six decades. Near the city center this sandwich will cost you about $1.00, but if you go farther out of the city then you can easily buy one for around $0.40!image

    This one was slightly spicy, but it was better (and cheaper!) than the one I had in the city center!

    This is another type of Bánh mì that I tried that is made with egg with small pieces of chicken, cucumber and a spicy red sauce. This one cost around $0.60 and had a less exciting taste than the one made with pork, but it was still good.image

    Another great dish that I tried is Bún chả. It is made of grilled pork in a bowl with dipping sauce and it’s served with a pile of rice noodles, a plate with lettuce and veggies, and a fried sea crab roll.image1(1).jpeg

    I went after work on Friday to try this dish and HOLY MOLY was it good. I never expected the sauce to have so much flavor, and the meat was soft and tender while the noodles paired very nicely with the sauce.

    I also really like Bánh bao. It literally translates to “wrapping cake”. This is a soft, warm and savory bun that is sold on the street for approximately $0.30. The one shown below has small hard-boiled eggs inside and some delicious veggies. Other versions are made with pork or chicken meat, onions, and mushrooms.image

    Doesn’t this make your mouth water?? Yeah, wipe that drool a bit, I’m not judging.

  4. Vietnamese people are very curious and do not have boundaries. Each day when I am walking on the street, every single person is looking at me. I’ve never been the kind of person to be bothered by this (and the men aren’t catcalling as they often do in Spain, for example), so I smile and nod back to them and almost always get a smile and nod back. They seem to really like my turquoise hair as well–some of them even reach out to me on the street or while they are on their motorbikes to touch it. In general, though, Vietnamese people are extremely friendly. I have not once seen an angry person in the time that I have been here, which makes me want to cry with joy.   

    Before I started riding the bus, some of my coworkers warned me that they get very crowded, but I was used to being on overcrowded buses and metros from when I lived in Madrid, so it was nothing new to me. However, the Vietnamese will sit anywhere where there is available room. So when you are sitting in a seat, the space around the seat will be occupied by squatting Vietnamese people who hold onto the poles for dear life when the bus comes to a sudden halt. Again, though, it’s as if they always have each other’s backs and will help out anyone who seems to be struggling without giving a second thought. I saw a couple of girls come onto the bus with giant bouquets of flowers and when they had to pay, the other people on the bus quickly took their flowers for them so they could get their wallets out of their bags. It’s as if everyone is friends with each other or they are all part of one big family. It’s really quite amazing–I’m used to people being more concerned with their own wellbeing, but this is not the case in this country.

    Also, don’t be surprised if the people around you are looking at your phone when you are texting your friends or looking at photos. I find this to be adorable–I was capturing this photo on the bus the other day, and the woman sitting next to me was helping me take the photo as the motorbike drove away, and was touching my phone to check the quality of it for me. She also said “goodbye” to me when she left the bus, which surprised me because our previous conversations were just made up of nods and smiles to each other.image

  5. There are no rules of the road. No, seriously. Everything goes. People run red lights all the time, and very often you will have someone driving the wrong way on the road. They also back their bikes out without looking to see what’s around them, sometimes there are three or even four people riding on one bike, and there is nonstop honking going on. By the way, even their honking is more polite–they don’t honk to say “Hey, asshole! You cut me off!” but rather the honking is meant as “Hey, I’m right behind you!” 

    I’m still surprised that I haven’t seen any accidents, but everyone seems to be more conscious of their driving and the road than in the states where some people put their cars into cruise control and paint their toenails or eat their big macs. I have seen some people get pulled aside by a cop on the sidewalk for not wearing helmets though. Yes, that is right. The cop will approach the bike and the person on the bike complies without a second guess–the cops here do not have cop cars to chase the citizens down, but that doesn’t seem to be an issue here!

  6. The level of English is pretty low. But that doesn’t stop them from trying! Whenever I’m out on the street I will always hear a nearby “Hello!” from someone who wants me to say hi back. I do have to use Google translate a bit, but it never ceases to surprise me when a younger Vietnamese person will come up to me and say something in perfect English. Just the other day I was crossing a bridge when a girl around my age came up to me and said “I really love your sunglasses!” with a very minimal accent, and it stopped me in my tracks. 

    As for my students in the elementary schools, so far I have taught 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders and it’s definitely much easier to teach the 5th graders than the 1st. I have a Vietnamese teaching assistant in the classroom whenever I am teaching–there are over 50 students in each classroom–and typically the TA will translate everything I say to the 1st graders whereas the TA doesn’t need to explain anything to the 5th graders.

    On Friday afternoon I was teaching four 40 minute periods for 3rd grade, and the only materials I had to work with were three flashcards that read “this”, “that”, and “friend”. That was it. Really. But the good thing is that I can get creative with my lessons, so I know from my experience of teaching swim lessons that as long as you keep the kids engaged, they will participate and learn something.

    But all of my students definitely know how to say “Hello, teacher!” so whenever I’m walking in the courtyard to the teachers’ room during the break time, the students will run up to me yelling “Hello, teacher!” as I high five them or teach them how to ‘pound it’.

  7. Very often I am the only foreigner around. It is a very rare sight for me to see any other foreigners, and it’s obvious that it is the same situation for the Vietnamese. I was leaving from lunch with my coworkers and some women came up to me to ask if they could take a photo with me. It was very sweet to see how happy they were as they thanked me and walked away showing the pictures to their friends. 

    Basically, though, in the week that I’ve been here I’ve probably seen a total of ten foreigners, most of them being my coworkers. But it’s pretty cool to be the complete odd-one-out for once. Plus, it seems that most of the people here like me since they often smile and say “hi” to me or even manage to squeeze in a hug and kiss on the cheek as one motorbike taxi driver did.

So that’s my update from my first week here, and I’m excited to share more travel stories and tips in the weeks to come! I hope that this post will help others who have decided to come to this beautiful country to understand its culture and all of the exciting aspects of it. I actually did a lot of my own research about Vietnam before I arrived here, but I have definitely learned a lot more in this last week than I ever did just reading about it! It helps to have English speaking Vietnamese friends who can explain the cultural differences to me and answer any questions that I have like “is it safe to pet street dogs?” And if you want to know the answer to that it’s a resounding “YES. Wait, well maybe. Wait–why are you asking me this?”

 

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A New Start

So today marks one week until I leave for Vietnam and while I am EXTREMELY excited, I have to admit that I am also a little terrified.

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There are several reasons for this. For one, I will no longer be living with my twin sister, Anna. My twin sister and I literally do everything together. I mean everything. We go to the gym together, we run errands together, we hang out with the same friends, we get haircuts together… well, you get the point. Although we are fraternal, I always tell people that we are the most identical-fraternal twins you will ever meet–the only thing that gives it away to most people is the hair (Anna’s hair is a normal color, unlike my eccentric turquoise….most people are quick to think that I dyed it a different color so that people can tell us apart better, but I just did it for fun).

Fun fact: the longest we have ever been apart is four days! At the time she was visiting a boyfriend in London and I was exploring Vienna, Austria with two of my gal pals. I think that distraction is key when it comes to us being apart–luckily I will have a bunch of cute little Vietnamese kids at my job to distract me while I am away.

On the other hand, I think that it is going to be a good thing for me to be on my own for once. Up to this point in my life, I have relied on my friends and family to help me along the way, but now I will have to figure it all out on my own and follow my own journey. It will definitely be a challenge, but I have always been the kind of person who prefers to step out of her comfort zone in order to become a better and stronger person, and I think that this internship in Hanoi has come at the right time in my life to do this.

On a different note, while I’m gone for the next six months, I will only have my hiking backpack with me along with a school bag.

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The good thing is that I have been preparing myself for this moment for a while. Like I explained in my last post, I have lived in three different countries in one year, and let me tell you, dragging around copious amounts of luggage is not fun. I’ve had suitcases break down on me while running to catch my connecting flights and have sprinted my ass with backpacks surrounding my body and rolly bags in both hands through giant airports without knowing where I am going. You would probably recognize me as the sweaty girl with sunken eyes from lack of sleep huffing and puffing and running around like a maniac. It’s not that I’m an irresponsible person–flights from the U.S. to Poland are rarely non-stop flights so there were many times that my sister and I would be stuck with all of our stuff in a deserted airport in Frankfurt or Munich at 3am with no idea of where to go.

But enough about travel difficulties (because we all know that we experience them at some point or another), what I am trying to get at about having less luggage with me this time around is this: minimalism. Now, if you haven’t watched the documentary film on Netflix “Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things,” I highly recommend that you do. Here is the link to the website of the minimalists themselves, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who are trying to get more people on board with this movement: http://www.theminimalists.com/minimalism/.

It’s a very simple concept: the less things you have, the less stress you have and the more freedom you will acquire. In a society as materialistic as the one we have in America, many people make the mistake of finding happiness in material things rather than through life itself.

This is not a new concept–certain ancient Athenian philosophers like Aristotle understood that the way to achieve supreme happiness is through “eudamonia,” or doing well and living well, and not by trying to achieve subordinate goals like being wealthy. Of course, in a country full of celebrities and athletes who make millions, many young people believe that this is the way to live a happy life.

This past summer when I was volunteering at Lollapalooza, a music festival in Chicago, I met a 32 year-old mom with red and blue hair who was celebrating her weekend away from her family. She told me that her time away from her children made her love them even more, and although I was already really digging her nonconforming parenting ways, her background was what really grabbed my attention.

She told me that she grew up poor, and her parents often blamed all of their problems on money. So she studied hard and became a stockbroker at the age of 20, and for the last 12 years she had been working on Wall Street making six figures. Even though she was making a boatload of money, she said her job made her extremely miserable. She was constantly being sexually harassed for being one of the only females and, if you were wondering as I was, she told me that it was exactly like being in The Wolf on Wall Street.

So she had just quit her job the other week when I met her, and I would have never guessed that such a happy woman went through such horrid things. She told me that leaving the job was a big relief–she started to understand that her happiness came from experiences in her life, rather than making enough money to support her family. She told me about all of the crazy new things she was trying at the moment, like hitting up as many festivals as she could with her season pass (the pass was $800 and allowed her to go to over 100 festivals!!!), attending political protests for women’s rights, and next, traveling the world–she might even visit me in Vietnam!

Anyway, her story really put things into perspective for me. I also once thought that making a lot of money was what was right for me, but now I understand that that’s not what I want. I mean, in high school I was always told that engineering or computer programming or nursing was the way to go to be successful, but somehow that never seemed right to me.

As the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh once said: “We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living. We know how to sacrifice ten years for a diploma, and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on. But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive”.

That’s why I have decided to live my life to the fullest by seeing the world and finding whatever crazy opportunities are available to me out there rather than being stuck here. To be honest, I am quite surprised by the amount of people my age who are already working 9 to 5 jobs. I know I’m not ready to settle down just yet, and while I don’t have anything tying me down, it’s my time to be completely free. I’ve had a taste of the world when I was studying abroad, and I want to continue adding to that palette of beautiful people, cultures, experiences, LIFE.

So I guess what I am trying to get at is this: “Let your life mean something. Become an inspiration to others so that they may try to do more and to become more than they are today.” Thomas D. Willhite

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Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

Starting a New Journey

Many of you have probably already heard that I am moving across the world very soon. Where am I moving to exactly? That’s right, Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam!

Now, for those of you who don’t know me so well, this is the not the first time that I am completely saying goodbye the motherland.

A few years back when it was time to decide what college I was going to go to, I had my heart set on Denver, Colorado, my favorite city. Although I did receive many scholarships from different schools I applied to, having a twin sister automatically doubles the expenses (not that I’m blaming her or anything…). So, my twin sister and I were given three options by our parents: 1) take a gap year, which I was not very fond of the idea at the time since I wanted to immediately continue my studies; 2) go to an all-girls Catholic private college where the deal is pay for one twin and the other goes for free… pretty self-explanatory why I wouldn’t want to go….; or 3) go to school in Poland, the country our parents emigrated from over 20 years earlier. Our parents were pushing us for months to go to Krakow, and every time I would reply to them by saying *insert snobby teenager voice* “but I want the American college experience”. Which basically meant that I wanted to live the parties like in Dazed and Confused or The Neighbors.

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Well, the day rolled around to choose schools, and since I wasn’t very sure what I wanted to study anyway, I decided to move to Poland ….where I found out the day I arrived that I could only study international relations. Disaster? Not at all! In those three years that I studied my bachelor’s degree I learned more about myself and the world around me than I ever did before in my lifetime. I even studied abroad on Erasmus (the European exchange program created by the EU to help European students experience different cultures–mostly through partying) for one semester in Madrid where all of my classes were in Spanish–which was unexpected–and I had to force myself to become fluent in a language I only used in the classroom and make it my daily routine. I fell in love with Madrid–my favorite place so far in Europe, and I made lifelong friends over there (fun fact: it’s also where I first turned my hair blue…my parents didn’t want me to do it, but I figured that being overseas couldn’t stop me!). It’s funny because the city itself does not have so much to offer, but, as I once read in a Spanish poem my friend shared with me, the atmosphere of the surroundings and the people are what make it so loveable. Madrid was the city that made me completely fall in love with cultures–I had an anthropology class with a professor who would call my sister and me “Las Extranjeras,” meaning the foreigners, since we were the only two students in the classroom without dark hair, darker skin and dark eyes. It was by far my favorite class that I have ever taken, and it sparked my love for cultures and traveling. You see, I’ve been traveling my whole life–my parents took me on my first vacation to Mexico when I was one. Instead of buying us Christmas or birthday gifts, my parents would save up money to take everyone to Europe or the Dominican Republic or somewhere closer like California. Today I can’t thank them enough for doing that for me because it has taught me to live a nonstatic and exciting life–I already experienced living in three different countries in one year, so I am officially considered a migrant and I intend to keep it that way. This past July I graduated with a degree specializing in Politics and Culture, and after this hectic political year in both the U.S. and the EU, it made me realize that I do not want to become involved in politics but rather I want to focus my career on culture. A few months before I finished school, I discovered an organization called AIESEC. Many of my friends and classmates had told me that it’s been around for a while–since 1948, to be exact, and I was surprised to hear that none of them were jumping at the opportunity to work with them. Basically, AIESEC is the world’s largest international non governmental and non-profit youth-run organization that helps young people find volunteer-ships or internships around the world. What stood out the most to me, though, was the fact that the purpose of this organization is to help young people with leadership development and cultural accumulation with a focus of empowering them to make a positive impact on society.

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Well, I found out that a friend of mine in Poland was actually teaching English in Indonesia through AIESEC, and I started to ask her more about it. I discovered that there weren’t any opportunities currently available in Indonesia, so I started to look at other countries in Southeast Asia. If you’re wondering why I checking out this part of the world, it’s because over the course of the last two years I have become more of a spiritual person, meditating and learning to live an anger-free life and one full of happiness. I found that the culture of Southeast Asians is very enlightening and respectful, where the majority of the people are Buddhist and believe in making others happy. So for the last several months I’ve been having countless interviews with AIESEC recruiters and have been doing days and days of research of the country to prepare myself for my new journey. Two weeks ago I was officially accepted by the Dreamsky English Center in Hanoi, where I will be teaching 3-15 year-old Vietnamese students and engage in their culture and holidays. Needless to say, I am EXTREMELY excited for this new adventure!

So this is the start of my new journey, and I’ll be sharing what I am doing and seeing in Vietnam on this blog during the six months while I am in Hanoi. I hope that you guys will enjoy reading my updates because I know I’ll be having an amazing time as I discover more about myself and the world around me.

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