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:
- 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.Also, 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
- 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.
- 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.The 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!
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.
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.
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.
Doesn’t this make your mouth water?? Yeah, wipe that drool a bit, I’m not judging.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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’.
- 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?”