Well here we are, half way through the semester, still alive and certainly still kicking. I can’t decide whether my time here has gone quickly or slowly. There’s still a plethora of things to do, and to think I’m closer to the finishing line than the beginning is crazy. It’s only a matter of weeks until I see my family, which seems very odd when I think back to mum and I hugging at the airport and saying ‘just four months till we see each other. That’s not so long, is it?’ On the other hand, life here seems normal and I feel I’ve been here an age. (Well, mostly normal. Things like the local orange seller cutting her toenails in the street with her orange scissors still takes me by surprise.)
I think back to my first week in the hotel and the beginning of the teaching semester; it seems like a lifetime ago. Day one – standing outside of our house on a grey day waiting for taxis, and the apprehension I felt whilst driving to my new school – now it’s almost a hazy memory. Getting dropped off outside a yellow concrete building I’d never seen before with illegible signs was quite overwhelming, especially as no one was there to meet me. Then beginning my first classes was a challenge in itself, and I pretty much blagged my way through them with ‘Simon Says’ and a colour game because I was pretty clueless. As I lay awkwardly on a row of chairs at lunchtime because my TA said ‘let’s have a nap,’ I did wonder what I’d let myself in for.
Now I’m amazed to say that I actually know some of the names of the 1200 children I teach and thinking of a class activity off the top of my head comes naturally. I expect there to be some chaos with taxis, but now if things go to pot I just roll my eyes and contact the poor woman who has the joyless job of coordinating 70 teachers worth of taxis every day.I look forward to Tuesday afternoons where I can enjoy the awesome school lunches in the dinky silver trays, and I wonder how I ever survived a full work day without at least an hour long nap.
How time flies eh?
Anyway, I haven’t really talked much about our excursions outside of Hanoi, so here’s the first instalment:
I think one of the highlights of my trip so far is our weekend in Ninh Binh. By this point we’d settled into our new homes, and my birthday was fast approaching. What better excuse to get out of town? We hadn’t planned a single thing, but that was part of the fun. It was certainly a bit of cultural education. We hadn’t even gotten out of our taxi at the bus station when a man started tapping on our window and shouting ‘Ninh Binh, Ninh Binh!’ We must be rather trusting (or just naive) people as we hopped straight onto his bus. Whilst it first seemed quiet and empty, within minutes the seats were filling up and techno music was blaring. (Vietnam seems to have a bit of an obsession with techno music – one of my least favourite things about the country if I’m honest). The bus was pulling over here, there and everywhere for new passengers to hop on. As it goes, you can unfold what I were thought were arm rests to create more chairs in the aisle. Oh, and if there’s still not enough seating you just bring out the good old blue, plastic stools and shove the most recent passengers onto them. At this point, we’d only been in Vietnam for a month so my immediate thoughts were what on earth do we do in a crash/fire/emergency/any eventuality? I guess you’d just be stuck. Sucks to be you.
After this rather uncomfortable ride we finally made it to Ninh Binh. We’d been dropped off in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, so after wandering around with our rucksacks like good old-fashioned backpackers we decided to settle for the nearest hotel. It wasn’t a bad hotel to be honest, although trying to get breakfast in the morning was a trial (I didn’t get any). We also had a ridiculous moment in the middle of night when a weird alarm started going off. In my groggy, half-conscious state I could hear Nat blundering around the room and muttering. It was only once I had fully awoken that I realised that blaring was coming from the air conditioning unit. After five minutes of stumbling about we managed to locate the remote in the middle mine and Lindsay’s bed. Woops.
In the morning we headed to Tam Coc, named after three caves along the river. I was treated by my lovely house mates to a boat tour along the river and through the caves. These little metal boats are operated by women who manage the 5km round trip by paddling with their feet. Impressive stuff. This trip was visually spectacular owing to the limestone karsts; it’s clear to see why it’s nicknamed the ‘Halong Bay of Rice Fields’.
Beautiful Tam Coc
Of course, once we reached the midway point we ended up surrounded by women in paddle boats expecting us to buy all manner of things. Standard. They demanded we bought our boat lady something, and to be fair, it was a strenuous trip on a hot day, so we were nice and bought her drinks and a snack. However, it didn’t slip my notice that none of it was touched. I wonder if the snacks ended up back on the original seller’s boat for resale… We also made the mistake of asking our rower lady to take a picture of the three of us. Consequently she demanded a tip of 100 000 VND. She told us that we must because her husband doesn’t work and she has two children. I don’t doubt that this was true given what I’ve witnessed and heard about those living in rural areas of Vietnam (and the average pay here is very low) but the tip was the same amount as we’d paid for the trip in the first place!
I apologise if it sounds like I’m being stingy, reader. Let me explain: I’m well aware that there are plenty of people in this country with very little, and here I am, the rich Westerner, earning significantly more than many of the locals. It’s not that I don’t want to give, it’s just the way it’s done seems dishonest compared to what we’re used to at home. It’s one of the drawbacks of being in Vietnam (and other poorer countries too, I imagine). There is a tiered pricing system almost everywhere which can get frustrating. For example, later on that day we went to a little bar (essentially in some woman’s front room). I asked for lime juice but she gave me a can of winter melon soda (???) instead. Even after she realised her mistake and brought me my requested lime juice, she expected me to still pay for both.
Another example: my TA, who often shares her sticky rice with me in the mornings, recommended a seller next to the school who makes very good xôi for ‘just 5000 VND’. So, the next day, I went to try for myself and handed the lady a 10 000 VND note. As expected, I didn’t receive any change. To be honest, 10 000 VND is still very little money to pay for what’s essentially a meal (about 30p), and I doubt this woman makes more than a basic living, so I have little to complain about. But, when you are used to living in a country where all prices are fixed (unless you are a frequent market-goer or car boot-er) you often feel like you are being ripped off. It does get annoying, even though the reality is that I probably can afford to pay more than the average person.
But anyway, let’s not dwell in the negatives. It was certainly a memorable day, and the evening continued in the same vein. The hotel we stayed in had a ‘Happy Hour’, by which I mean we got one free beer. The women started shutting up shop about 9:30pm, much to our disappointment, and the vibe was pretty much ruined by the bar lady turning down our music to watch some blaring Indian soap opera. We decided to move on. ‘Karaoke!’ we thought, but on arriving at the so-called karaoke bar we realised we were the only people there, and there wasn’t a note of music to be heard. (Clearly there’s no Trades Description Act here.)
We popped into the Backpacker’s Hostel knowing here would be other travellers to talk to. To be honest, the other travellers didn’t seem particularly welcoming at first and probably assumed we were ‘gap yah’ geezers (although we were smug knowing that we were the expats in this situation) but the drinks were rolling and things took a turn for the better. I’d had the luck of finding 80 000 VND on the pavement (must have been birthday luck) which we splashed on a bottle of Hanoi vodka. It was strong stuff and made our noisy game of ‘Snap’ even more amusing. We then had some Russian guy called either Ivan or Boris join us. Ivan/Boris wasted no time with small talk and asked what we thought about Vladimir Putin. The others were immediately deterred from any further chit chat with him but I tried to get stuck in, rather unsuccessfully. (He’s convinced that our media spreads lies about him…) I think at that point we knew it was time for bed.
Birthday surprise, oh yes!
Now, if you’ve been to this area of the the world, or watched the Vietnam Top Gear special, you’ll know that motorbikes are the primary form of transport here. Tiffany was absolutely set on hiring motorbikes and going for a drive on our Sunday afternoon in Ninh Binh, so we went for it. To be honest, the idea made me nervous, but I also thought that it would be criminal to come to Vietnam for the best part of six months and not go on a motorbike.
Despite the issue of having zero experience or insurance, we only had to hand over 100 000 VND (£3!) to our hotel owner to hire them. I assumed that we’d only be on open roads given that we were in the country side, so how hard could it really be? I also gave the responsibility of passengers to Rosie and Tiffany who took Nat and Lindsey. I didn’t realise that we would, in fact, have to drive through the town to get to those country roads first. We also spent the first hour driving round in a torrential spell and trying to communicate with the locals to find out when the nearest petrol station was as the tanks were virtually empty. Initially I was the black sheep at the back going at approximately 10 mph, but gradually I became more confident so my poor friends didn’t have to keep stopping and waiting for me every five minutes.
I think part of the confidence building happened when we asked a local man for directions to the temple we were headed to. He decided to hop on his own bike and lead us to the country road that would take us there. Very kind of him, but it meant I had to rev it up a bit whilst driving through the town to keep up with him. I’m pleased to say we made it unscathed. Once we reached this road we enjoyed a spectacular 15km trip with virtually no traffic, so we could really put our foot down (or twist our wrists, to be exact). The rural scenery was breath taking and the mix of warm and cool breeze felt incredible, even if it did lead me to getting sunburn. I think I can safely say this has been one of the best days I’ve had in Vietnam so far.
After spending a few hours looking around the Chu Bai Dinh Buddhist complex we biked home again, deterred only once by another brief, torrential downpour. This was no issue as we stopped at a cafe in the middle of nowhere that apparently specialised in goat – actually, what we were served was a packet of instant noodles. Never mind, it sustained us for the rest of the trip before we got back onto the bus to Hanoi.
Of course, the trip home was busy as the first one, but with the added bonus of witnessing a man vomit into his motorbike helmet and have to hold it until he got off at his stop.
Now we’d had a glimpse of more rural parts of Vietnam I was eager to take a trip to Mai Châu, a small town home to White Thai ethnic minorities. This was another trip that we didn’t plan much. In fact, when we arrived at Mỹ Đình bus station early on Saturday morning we were told that a bus was just about to leave and we had to make a run for it. As with Ninh Binh, the bus was full and at times uncomfortable, so I just kept nodding off on Rebecca for the whole journey.
After the first bus was nearing it’s destination I was really beginning to need the toilet, but no sooner had we stopped were we told that our next bus was about to depart. Onto the next bus we hopped. I was put in the front seat next to the driver and at our next stop a little old man sat himself next to me. I figured that he was trying to ask me if I could speak Vietnamese, to which I replied ‘không tiếng Việt‘ (appalling Vietnamese! I later found out that it should have been tôi không nói được tiếng Việt, but it’s not an easy language so I think you’ll forgive me). He nodded, but still proceeded to chat to me for the next half hour. I think I may have actually gotten the jist of some of it. When he was imitating firing a machine gun I guessed it was something to do with the American/Vietnam War, but who knows. Nevertheless, he was very pleasant and shook my hand before hopping off to what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. Little moments like these seem to be the ones you remember most.
When we finally made it to Mai Châu it seemed very sparse indeed. All we could see was a couple of bia hoi places, some very small shops and a sign saying ‘Attractive Tourist Area’. However, after a little wander we found the tiniest village called Pom Coong. It even had the most adorable minuscule primary school you’ve ever seen. All of the families live in stilt houses and offer home stays for next to nothing. We picked one close to another village and were charged 80 000 VND each for our stay, including breakfast. About £2.30 – unbelievable. The family set up all of our bedding inside of mosquito nets and it was surprisingly comfortable. The entire floor of our room was made from bamboo and you could see the ground several meters below us.
Who needs a hotel?
The weather was pretty crap on the Saturday, so we wandered around in lovely plastic ponchos and went for a hot chocolate and ‘fish’ cakes in a little cafe. We got talking to an Aussie couple and their son in this dinky little place, and they helpfully gave us some recommendations, so we took their advice and decided to climb the ‘1000 Steps’ (there’s actually 1200) in the rain. The steps were old and weathered and consequently crumbling and slippery from the rain. I’d managed to leave my trainers at one of my schools so climbing up the steps in flip flops was interesting. Nevertheless the views were spectacular and we reached the cave at the top injury free.
In the evening we took a trip around Lac village to explore their markets. Most families rely on weaving, as well as home stays, for their income, so of course I had to add a couple of scarves to my already enormous collection. The rain continued to hammer down so we stopped for dinner in the home of a Korean family. They were nice people and gave us some warming herbal tea whilst we faffed around trying to decide what we wanted to eat. Another thing you notice in Vietnam is that they often expect you to know what you’d like to order almost instantly, probably because they tend to to order a selection of things to share between the table. We foreigners must look hilarious, especially when we are dividing up the bill so precisely and all giving the correct money. Apparently it’s customary for the oldest party member to settle the bill. Thankfully that rules me out.
It was too early to go to bed after dinner so we decided to take a walk and maybe have a few beers. We heard loud music coming from one of the home stays which turned out to be a group of university students from Hanoi. They demanded that we join them. To be honest, it looked like fun so we thought why not? Initially we tried to sit and have a beer round the table but they kept shouting ‘stand up,stand up!’ We didn’t settle into their crazy partying at first (partially due to yet more repetitive techno music), but once they suggested karaoke things began to warm up. One guy also spent most of the evening on a stool shouting ‘yeah! Come on! Let it go!’ which helped too. We sang abysmally, but the students seemed pretty enthused by our renditions of ‘Let It Go’, ‘Uptown Girl’, ‘Uptown Funk’ and ‘Gangnam Style’. Later into the night they introduced us to a traditional game of Nhay Sap. Three pairs of sticks are moved to a song and the aim is to cross the sticks without touching. It was great fun, and I’m convinced that Rebecca and I won it.
Later, we returned to our home stay and despite the drizzly weather, our bedding was extremely cosy. After we had switched the lights off there was barking outside, to which Sarah groaned ‘f*** off chicken, it’s not even 6 yet!’ (We hear the damn things every morning in Hanoi.) George rather bluntly pointed out: ‘it’s a dog’. I spent the next 15 minutes trying to stifle my hysterical laughter so everyone else could get to sleep. When I eventually did drop if it was one of the best night’s sleep I’d had in a while. Wonderful stuff.
The old currency of IndoChina. We saw this in a ‘museum’ – basically a gentleman’s house, but nonetheless interesting.
Until next time…