Disclaimer: if I start the hashtag #strawhatwankers , I'm referring to Westerners who buy the hats as a souvenir/ joke, not actual Vietnamese fruit sellers or rice farmers.
Ho Chi Minh City in the summer. Sweltering by anyone’s standard. Sounds like a good first line for a book.
I haven’t been to Ho Chi Minh yet, but I did pass through the airport. That’s where I met the first other person on my placement. We chatted for a while, both quite keen to get on and make a good impression. He had a travel chess set, so we played chess. This would, I thought, be a good way of taking the focus off trying to keep a conversation going. There would be less pressure on me.
Then the game started.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve wanted to win something so much, especially when Josh didn’t appear to be very good. Soon I was spending five or six minutes deciding what to do, and had convinced myself that I had irreconcilably alienated somebody on the placement forever. Obviously, being so intense was completely socially unacceptable.
The time to came to board while we were still playing, so we packed the taken pieces into the middle of the folding board, active pieces help in place by their pins. I carried the chess set through customs, and the officials laughed at me.
I ended up losing, giving my queen away unnecessarily and having to surrender when it was clear that I could only stop Josh from gaining a second queen by sacrificing a castle. He steadfastly refused a rematch for over a month, until yesterday, when, both heavily hungover, I won comfortably.
Hanoi is a relaxed place. In a city this size, or even close to it, in Europe- London, Stockholm, Hamburg, even Düsseldorf or Sheffield, people would be rushing past each other on the pavement all the time, getting from one place to the next. That doesn’t happen here. The traffic is absolutely manic on the roads, mainly full of xe oms and xe mays- low-powered motorbikes that serve as personal transport or taxis for most people, with lights only at the largest intersections, but on the pavement, the pace of life is relaxed; everybody sits around, in their store front or perched on a tiny plastic stool or parked xe om.
When I enter a café or shop, by which I mean sitting on the pavement outside it (or sometimes going inside) it is hard to tell who works there, who is a customer, and who is a friend of the owner, come over for a several hour long chat- the only guarantee is that they’ll turn the fan on and point it at me. The social aspect may have to do with the fact that there really is not very much pavement; it tends to be uneven, covered in xe om and stalls, often with tiny chickens wandering around, in cages, or sometimes sat on a xe om. Walking in the road is unavoidable. In a sense, the chaotic traffic ensures that the pedestrian has right of way, which is how things should be.
If you had told me a month ago that I would quite like the green tea with ice that tends to come free with food or coffee, I would have told you that you were sadly mistaken.
I enjoy the Vietnamese food, though I’m yet to experience much variety. Most places sell pho, noodle soup with chicken or beef and spring onion, though pho xao mem, confusingly, is a plate of noodles, vegetables and meat, with a tiny bowl of broth (I put the noodles in the broth, to the distress of the manager, who also added chili sauce and black pepper to our food without being asked. Seasoning is provided in the form of limes, salt, pepper, chili sauce and garlic oil.
Other affordable street foods are bun cha, glass noodles and grilled pork in a sweet, slightly sickly broth, and banh mi, a sort of hot dog with chicken, sausage or egg, and chili sauce. My best experience has been in an upmarket restaurant, where they brought out clams, fatty duck on the bone, a peanutty lemongrass and other dishes; my worst was the seafood soup with quail eggs in it, which made me dash straight to the toilet.
At the weekend, I had a hot pot with my friend Vu, who works in his parents’ shop next to my accommodation, to celebrate his birthday. We were able to fry some fresh bell peppers, courgettes and okra in the pan, and having missed these vegetables lately, the taste of them, crisp, juicy and slightly blackened, almost made me cry. As it was his birthday, dinner involved a bottle of a whisky-like homebrew and chugging whole icy cups of Ha Noi beer.
Then there’s the coffee. In a fairly sheltered life, Vietnamese Ca phe sua da/ ca phe dai da might be the most intense thing I’ve ever experienced. Drinking it is like being beaten up, then pumped full of steroids and having the Rocky theme played wherever you go afterwards. It’s extremely strong, and the condensed milk makes it extremely sweet. And the cups aren’t small. As far as other soft drinks go, I like the sweet lemon juice and passion fruit juice (chanh tuoi and chanh leo).
Vietnamese is hard. The locals don’t expect strangers to speak it, and are often very excited if you can stutter out “toi muon mot ca phe dai da” or something along those lines. I’m seen as something as a guru for language by my peers, but even then they don’t trust me to tell the taxi driver where to go without showing him the address written down.
Vietnamese has six tones (six! Try telling me Mandarin is difficult now!) , one of which is a rising inflection that makes the speaker sound slightly like Andrew Neil of Daily Politics introducing Diane Abbott on Dead Ringers (“I want one one water juice… pineapple??” ).
Another aspect I’m having to get used to is the myriad numbers of ways of saying “you” and “I” depending on the speaker’s age. I learnt a general catch-all one, which worked fine, but now that I know the proper way to address people I try to get it in; it depends on whether the speaker is a small child, and older child, a young adult, middle-aged or older; within the terms for middle-aged people, which mean aunt and uncle, there are additional permutations depending on whether you, the speaker, think the person is older or younger than your parent. Essentially, all introductions mean “I hello you!” or “I the young person/ child greet you the slightly older/ older person!” I’ve definitely told one woman that she looks old, and I’m thinking of sticking to the basic “xin chao” instead of complicating things.
Meeting Vietnamese People
Vietnamese people are a bit cautious around us, but they definitely believe the idea that westerners are very attractive and glamorous. Being a short, thin, dark-haired man, I don’t get the most attention (that’s for pretty girls, especially if they’re blond, very tall men and anyone with a long beard), but I did have one teenage boy show me his phone (the menu was in English), apparently asking for help (or maybe not; most Vietnamese people speak very limited English) and told me I was handsome. At the end I said “rat vui duoc gap ban”, and he laughed, delighted and said something like “Yes! You- I – funny.”
I’ve been fortunate enough to make friends with people in the shop on my street and other neighbours, because I wondered in there tipsy after dinner, noticed that they stock Knoppers (Knoppers!) and tried to tell them that I had only ever encountered these in Germany before. It led to a forty minute conversation, and we now play football together. It was him who got me very drunk, and asked me to sing, at his birthday meal (on the pavement outside a smoothie bar; I’m not sure whether they always sell hot pot in the evenings, or whether it’s only for those who know them, as it’s on my street and I walk past it every day); a nice evening marred by the hot pot spitting at me, leaving me with a small but definite burn on my ankle.
I enjoy life in Hanoi, which is an extremely lively place, with a mixture of Vietnamese food and attractions, and Western amenities available when you want them. That said, I am missing the countryside and greenery, so I intend to travel to more places outside the city when the opportunity arises. In the next blog, I will focus more on the teaching experience, as well as Hanoi transport and my first trip outside the city to Ninh Binh National Park.
Jack is currently located in Hanoi, teaching English on a five-month placement. The last month or so have revolved around orientation in Cau Giay district, getting used to the city, other English teachers, and school life. This introductory blog focuses on Vietnamese food, learning the language (from the perspective of someone who has lived in Germany and Spain) and on meeting Vietnamese people. I also keep a vlog.