As much as I find Vietnam a struggle, there is good to be found, emphasising what a charming and unique city it can be once you learn to appreciate it. As the initial shocks and adjustments wear off, a kinder, brighter, friendlier place can be revealed if you take the time to uncover all the shining beacons within it. Living as a local gives you the opportunity to appreciate some of this and it’s what you may well miss as a visiting tourist.
The local families that I pass every day in the maze of alleyways can be wonderful to observe. I get to see a mother singing a gentle Vietnamese lullaby to her sleepy young boy just outside her house. I walk past the friendly woman selling fruits and vegetables (some of which I am still unsure as to what they are) on the corner every day. There’s a tiny white dog that stands guard for his owner. He pokes his head out whenever he hears my footsteps (or those of anyone else). Even the man with the hairy mole on his face in the tiny little “hole in the wall” type shop I buy food from has a familiarity to him. We go through the same routine every time. I squeeze past him in the confined space, pick my food, hand it to him, he looks and it and then summons his wife who knows a little more English than he does. We share a “Xinh Chao” and a smile before she tells me the wonderfully cheap price and asks me another question within her English repertoire.
The alleyways are almost like a safe haven, slightly cooler, slightly quieter and slightly less intense until you take that step out onto the big street where the noise and heat and craziness of Hanoi city centre engulfs you eagerly. But I always breathe a small sigh of relief once I step back into that familiar warren of concrete which I have now come to know so well.
As a tourist you will find a friendly and hospitable welcome from the Vietnamese. Sometimes too friendly and it can feel laid on and rather fake. Once that facade is laid to rest and you are officially no longer a tourist with money to burn you are seen in a completely new light and may have some adjusting to do. I had read about this concept in travel blogs before arriving but experiencing it for myself (and comparing it to our experiences in Cambodia) was a little disconcerting. Having said this though, it makes you so much more appreciative of the true encounters and real friendships you make. Some of the keepers I work with at the zoo now come under that banner and we can share a rapport without sharing a language. Earning their trust and friendship has been a massive boost, both to the work I am trying to accomplish at the zoo and my general daily morale too.
As an expat in Hanoi I find I experience a strange kinship with almost every westerner I see. It’s such a rare occurrence for me to come across one that whenever we do cross paths there is often a shared glance of surprise or intrigue, or indeed, conversation with a complete stranger, sharing that one common bond of being “Tay” and in the minority. It’s a strange phenomenon. I would never strike up a conversation with a random person I met on the street back home but here it almost feels like a wasted opportunity if you don’t at least attempt to conjure a friendship from just one simple similarity.
Hanoi’s bustling epicentre is, of course, the street markets. All of them a myriad of intense activity and flowing with mismatched colours. The flavours and smells that waft into your nostrils will swirl around you until you are dizzy and confused with the exotic scents of a million different offerings you still know nothing about. And once you appreciate them for what they are you can really marvel at what the stall holders achieve in such a cramped and confined space with so few resources. Getting lost in their labyrinths reveals hidden gems and surprise treasures, making sure you leave completely high on the fumes of eclectic choice and electric impressions.
The Vietnamese are beautiful people with stunning smiles and gregarious laughter. Of course all this appears magnified when you feel in desperate need of finding it because a simple smile from a stranger can be laced with all the kindness you need to find within the day. But of course it’s not all beautiful. As much as I am trying to appreciate what I am surrounded with there is still the constant reminders of the ugly truth. The scams, the stares and the spitting. Oh the spitting! It really is getting to me now. Every single morning without fail I begin my daily commute to the sounds of five or six Vietnamese men hawking up a huge glob of spittle and flinging it on to the ground with the speed and accuracy of a jet fighter pilot. It’s disgusting.
But the beauty of such a strange city is starting to slowly show me some of the highlights and, especially when comparing to Ho Chi Minh there are some drastic differences and all for the better within Hanoi. It’s a city with a personality. It will be your friend one day and then kick your ass the next. But it’s a city that is starting to show off some of it’s light and show me what it’s really made of. I love how this place of bricks and mortar is able to teach me so much about how to live and what I, myself am made of too.