Christmas in Hanoi; well it was one to remember. It actually came upon us very quickly, as we had to begin introducing Christmas in lessons at the end of November (silly end-of-semester exams in December got in the way). I usually get grumpy when I see premature Christmas shenanigans, but I enjoyed our card making lessons. It was lovely to see the kids so excited. We all talk about Christmas becoming less and less exciting with age but children’s excitement rubs off on you.
Teaching them Christmas songs was a less traditional but nevertheless amusing affair. One of my TAs wanted us to learn ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ and initially I was more than happy to oblige. I hadn’t listened to the awful CD provided by work which uses the Crazy Frog version (but with the Crazy Frog edited out of it). It’s a cringey monstrosity with a drum machine loop and wailing vocals (and also put into 4/4, yeuch) – basically everything that suits Vietnamese musical tastes.* The TA told me to sing loudly and dance, and not to ‘be shy. Only students and me will see,’ so I went a bit crazy and threw the most ridiculous shapes I could think of. To my amusement, the kids loved it and mimicked everything I did. Another TA later told me that my dancing was ‘very good’. I’m sure anyone who’s been on a night out with me would beg to differ.
If you’re brave enough to listen to it, here’s the link: http://youtu.be/tPRTz5BpSCQ
‘Twas The Night Before Christmas…
You can imagine that it was a bit odd being away from home at this time of year. Christmas exists in Vietnam, but it’s a bit of a tacky and commercial affair. I may not be a church goer, but it did make me sad that I couldn’t teach the kids the Nativity or at least something more meaningful. I wonder whether simply teaching children that a fairy man flies around the world to give us presents just reinforces that western countries = money.
Regardless of all this, we were intent on making sure we had a damned good time so we booked ourselves in for Christmas dinner and a hotel apartment for the weekend. On Christmas Eve we treated ourselves to an evening at Royal City mall (yeah, I know, materialism. But it was the most festive we were going to get.) Driving there was an issue. The traffic was so bad that I basically walked my motorbike for the last kilometre of the journey. It turns out that lots of the Vietnamese like to have Christmas celebrations on the 24th too.
Inside it was ram-packed. We turned out to be the only westerners in sight. We were wearing silly Christmas hats and so got stopped for selfies with complete randomers. Not that that’s anything unusual, mind. After a bite of dinner together we hit the ice rink. Sarah was the pro and skated around carefree whilst the rest of us stumbled about until we found our feet. Unlike the usual torture, the music playing was an improvement, and we even had the original version of ‘All I Want For Christmas’. Not my favourite, but can’t be too fussy. (The Pogues or Greg Lake aren’t auto-tuned enough for Vietnam. Shh…)
We split up at the cinema as Tiffany, Rosie and Lindsay were adamant that they would watch anything but Star Wars. They went to see The Peanuts Movie whilst Sarah, Sherri and I succumbed to the Episode VII hype. I actually really enjoyed the movie and the audience seemed to too, especially during the two moments that Kylo Ren takes off his mask. The audience seemed to find this hilarious for some reason I cannot fathom. Well, maybe it’s because he is an unusual looking bloke, but it still seemed to be a bit of a strong reaction. There we go. Shopping centres are hardly the epitome of Christmas spirit, but all in all, it was a cosy Christmas Eve.
As Christmas was on a Friday, work was still on the cards. We had been aware of this since September, as it’s not a national holiday, but it was a bit of a bummer. On the plus side we were all in the same boat. Normally, I only have three lessons on a Friday afternoon, but I owed about twelve from when the family visited, so was required to cover in the morning. To be fair, it wasn’t too bad because we were still conducting writing tests. Reading out a few questions was a bit of a doddle compared to the usual circus show we normally have to put on. Or it should have been.
Let’s not beat about the bush, most weeks bring some sort of commotion, and cover is no exception. Often, the information about your cover school changes at least twice. On Christmas Eve, I got an email asking me to cover four Grade 2 lessons for one particular school. However, when the taxi schedule came through later I was down to go to another school to cover Grade 5. And then, on Christmas morning I was suddenly supposed to be at Chu Van An School, to teach Grade 4! As it happened to be a school I already taught at, I was pretty relaxed about it. I got dropped off early and waited in the staff room with my book.
Period 1 began but there was still no sign of a TA. I text our cover (dis)organiser and asked for the TA’s phone number so I could find out where I was supposed to be. Not a lot happened. I then got a call from someone else in the office asking me to pass the phone over to a Vietnamese teacher (which was took five minutes to explain!) When they finally realised what I was saying, I was told to sit in the Teacher Room and ‘relax’ for period 1. Hey ho, more time to finish my book.
By the time period 2 rolled around, I got a phone call from my Wednesday TA, Lan, not the person I was told I was working with. At last, I jumped on her motorbike and got taken to another campus, essentially a little house down an alley. Then it was just a case of reading through the test questions (for Grade 2 and 3 in the end, after all that) and I finished early, despite all the malarkey. Smashing.
At lunch we treated ourselves to coffee at Highlands to mark the occasion. I then just had my three afternoon lessons to do. As soon as we returned home from work we were straight back out the door to get to our hotel. We decided to take our motorbikes so transport was sorted for the weekend. I followed Tiffany and Rosie as they had attached Christmas balloons to their bike making them very easy to follow. Unfortunately, I had a little accident en route, as a young student on her electric bike decided to pull out in front of me. There was little time to react and the road was wet. I swerved to avoid a full on collision but the bike slid over. The little mare who pulled out barely stopped to see if we were ok, but some women on the streets nearby came to check if we were alright. Luckily, we were fine. I’d made poor Lindsay take my overpacked rucksack so we could fit on the bike better, and this actually provided her with some cushioning on impact. I did bruise one knee and graze my elbow which looked a bit grim for a few days, but now it’s virtually healed. I suppose I’ll have a bit of a scar, but I guess that’s cooler than a tacky travel tat right?
In case you’re wondering what the hell I’m playing at by riding a motorbike with no license or prior experience, well I’d probably have agreed with you a few months ago. To be honest, when I first came to Hanoi, I figured I might take a xe om once, just for the experience, and then be done with it. But, after enjoying our ride round Ninh Binh and having to take xe oms to schools, I was feeling more confident with bikes. On top of this, having to taking taxis everywhere is a pain, so most of us now own a bike. It really does make life easier for those small trips to the cinema or into town. Yes, it’s risky, but just crossing the road in Hanoi is a life and death situation, and whilst I don’t want to sound complacent, you can rarely drive as fast as you would at home because the roads are so small and the traffic so heavy.
Anyway, we got back on the bike in one piece and carried on to our hotel, which (annoyingly) was just around the corner. The hotel was fantastic. We had three double rooms, two bathrooms and a lounge and kitchenette. My accommodation is fine, but it was so nice to have some luxury and comfort for the weekend. We changed and were straight back out the door again.
We checked into The Moose and Roo in the Old Quarter for Christmas dinner. It turned out to be surprisingly good. Not only did we get a tasty soup starter, but also a proper roast with all the trimmings. There was also a bread pudding desert, but most of us were stuffed despite the seemingly small portions we were given (our stomachs must have shrunk since being in ‘Nam’). We had brought in toys for charity donations and so received a free mulled wine too which was perfect. Just to keep tradition, I brought a box of crackers that Mum had sent from home, and there was GOOD Christmas music: Crosby, Elvis, Slade, Wizzard and all the other standards. Apart from the teeny tiny issue of not being at home or seeing family, I was pretty pleased with this Christmas.
We trudged back to the hotel and basically crashed there until check out on Sunday. We made only one trip out on Boxing Day when we left the hotel at lunch time to go for dinner at Republic by West Lake. The rest of the stay consisted of binge watching movies on the HBO channel. It was slovenly, but just what we wanted for Christmas.
Chúc Mừng Năm Mới (Happy New Year)
Following two weeks of tests, we were back into normal lessons, which was a real slog. I felt as though I hadn’t taught for six months! My timing was off and the kids, myself and the TAs were all lacking enthusiasm. The week went painfully slow, but thankfully, New Year’s Day IS a national holiday, even though the Vietnamese New Year, Tết, isn’t for another month. Four-day week. Huzzah!
We were all buzzing to get home on Thursday night to begin celebrations, but our taxi ride was horrendous. I was picked up from school at 4:20, along with another teacher, Izzy; we didn’t get home until almost 7:00. The traffic was chockablock but there was also an accident on the highway so we were delayed for even longer. I think we were starting go a little crazy. The driver was muttering ‘oi gioi oi‘ (omg), Izzy was shouting ‘I’m so done’ out of the window and I was giggling to myself in the back. We barely moved for an hour so Izzy got out too the car to look over the bridge to find the traffic below moving at a decent rate. She also had the delight of seeing men stood up against the barrier peeing as far as the eye could see. Nice. The driver just laughed at our frustrations.
By the time we had finally made it home I realised that I’d left my keys and Nokia phone at school (I put them on the shelf under the table during lunch time nap) so this set me back even more, although luckily most of us were late getting back. Never mind, we eventually made it out the door. We decided to bring in the new year at Mojito Bar in town which proved to be a very good choice. The drinks were delicious, and we got a free bottle of Freixenet. Wine is expensive and uncommon here so having sparkling wine was a real treat.
After celebrating the count down and hearing all the versions of Abba’s ‘Happy New Year’ we made our way over to Tom’s Bar in beer corner. This was the same place that we got trapped in back in September and a similar scenario prevailed as the police were doing their midnight curfew rounds as usual (although judging by the noise everyone was making I’m sure they must turn the occasional blind eye). Once they’d finally gone we put the tunes back on and had a good time until another youth took over the music and killed the vibe. De ja vu. We threw in the towel and were home by three. Pretty tame for NYE, but we needed beauty sleep for Friday.
We had decided to go back to Ninh Binh for the weekend, as we’d enjoyed it back in September. We woke up groggy on Friday morning, but trudged along to the bus station at 9:00. Of course, there was the usual annoyance of being squeezed onto a tiny bus and my back ached the whole way from being sat in an awkward ‘s’ shape. What a relief it was to get off three hours later. We then struggled to flag down a taxi, and when we finally got one were faffing around getting in and out of the taxi and slamming doors so the meter would return to zero. A family on the street had a good giggle watching us. The taxi then drove in completely the wrong direction for a good 15km, but eventually we got to Tam Coc.
We had booked to stay in a home stay that some friends had recommended. However, that particular one was fully booked and we’d been given another one. We waited by Tam Coc harbour to hear from the manager and meanwhile were approached by an old woman who spoke no English but stood grinning at us. We muttered ‘ignore her, she’s probably trying to sell us something.’ It was then that we received a phone call and discovered that the poor woman had come to collect us; we were staying in her house. Woops.
Arriving at the house was interesting. The architecture was traditional with wooden panels and poster beds with mosquito nets. We were given a clip board with a form to fill in which had been partially filled in. Tiffany asked ‘whose birthday is the 30th March 1990?’ No one replied. We then realised it also said Name: Di Fu, Nationality: Chinese. By this point we were laughing uncontrollably and tried to stifle our giggles whilst the woman was also laughing at us. We had to sign a guest book and saw that we were the only ones to stay in this place as well as this Di Fu, who had checked out on the 15th January 2015.
It was New Year’s Day so we had a relaxing afternoon. After having some lunch at a place that served the most anaemic-looking onion rings I’ve ever seen we hired some push bikes to explore the area. En route, we found a nice hotel called Chez Loan, owned by a French couple, and booked a room for the following night before continuing our cycle. We explored a small pagoda before heading home. The bikes were cheap, as you might imagine, and there was no suspension so we cut the ride short in an attempt to save our backsides from permanent damage.
None of us were that hungry in the evening as we’d had a late lunch, but the family served us the most enormous dinner. Plate after plate of food arrived and we had to keep nibbling away. The old man of the house was served us rice wine which we choked down. The family ate their own dinner alongside us, which was considerably smaller than ours, and we sat with them to avoid being rude, although the language barrier meant that we could only make a bit of conversation through hand gestures.
We retired to our room feeling like balloons and set ourselves up for the night. We were offered three double beds, but we realised we would be taking the old man and woman’s bed so decided to squeeze the five of us into two doubles. After endless visits from the old woman who kept bringing us things we cosied up with our quilts and watched ‘Kingsman’ on HBO.
The following day we decided to hire motorbikes. Rosie’s sister was also with us and decided to give driving a go – talk about a baptism of fire. The bikes looked like some sort of space hovercrafts from a 1970s sci-fi, and my speedometer didn’t work, but it actually turned out to be a decent ride. The suspension and accelerator were both much better than mine back in Hanoi which made the trip much smoother.
We rode down to Tranh An to take another boat cruise. It was nice day but we got a little irritable, firstly because we were charged to park our motorbikes when locals weren’t, and then found out that you had to pay to use the toilet. We also wanted to go on a boat as a five and thought this would be alright seeing as other boats were filled with families of seven. The boat man kept saying ‘no, two and three for safety.’ Yeah mate, I know we are fat westerners, but I couldn’t see how we would weigh more than some of the other ram-packed boats.
On our final day we took a trip to Cuc Phuong National Park, apparently Vietnam’s first National Park. It was in the Lonely Planet guidebook, and us unoriginal as that sounds, sometimes it’s best to consult the book to save planning yourself. The park had a sanctuary for primates and turtles as a lot of poaching goes on for souvenirs and ‘traditional’ medicine, so the animals are kept in conservation units until they can be reintroduced to the wild. It was fascinating as we hadn’t seen many of the species before. (Or maybe we had – the guide whizzed barely stopped for two minutes and kept saying ‘come on, please’ the second he’d finished his spiel so we barely got a look in).
There was a Cave of Prehistoric Man, supposedly inhabited 4000 years ago. It was quite a walk up to the cave and the steps were pretty dodgy – at times I did fear for my life. It also highlighted how unfit I’ve become as I’ve barely done any proper exercise since I’ve been in Vietnam. The cave was pitch black inside so reaching the top required us all to use the flashlights on our phones so we could see our way up a rickety ladder. It was a bit of a challenge but the view from the top was great. We then had the challenge of stumbling around in the dark to get back down again. I’ll admit, the darkness proved to be quite useful later as I was dying for the toilet and there was no other viable place to go. Vietnam remains to be a place of many firsts.
We had to return to Hanoi on Sunday night and had originally booked the bus home through our hotel. The bus was full up, but the hotel hadn’t been notified, so they were going to send us a private car instead. Initially this sounded quite good, as the bus to Ninh Binh had been excruciating. However, there were two French travellers who were also returning with us, which meant that eight of us had to squash into the 7-seater (one of the times that I wish Vietnam would enforce safety standards more!) The chap in the passenger seat had a pretty cushy ride, but the middle row of seats weren’t aligned properly meaning that Tiffany had to sit at a dodgy angle. Rosie, Lindsay and I had to squash onto the two back seats which were cramped enough for two people. My hip sockets were killing me within about half an hour. Traffic was terrible when we reached Hanoi so after 2 1/2 hours sat in this position I felt homicidal.
The one thing that did leave a smile on my face after this awful journey was seeing the driver so wound up (schadenfreude or what). He was clearly frustrated by the traffic and maybe had to get home in a rush (although I couldn’t help thinking mate, at least you’ve got a seat to yourself!) Because of the lack of space and the stuffy air, I’d been peeling off layers and chucking them into the boot of the car. The woman at the hotel had also given us a big bag of bananas as an apology, but I’d flung those into the boot too. When the driver got out and threw open the boot door the said contents all fell onto his head. I let him shout ‘oi gioi oi!’ and grumble away. I probably should have apologised but I found it too funny. Think the French tourists got a decent first impression of Hanoi.
*Yes, taste is subjective, I know, the pop music here is awful. Objective fact. Most things you hear are covers of Western pop songs but with drum beats and cheese-tastic vocals added. A Vietnamese version of ‘When A Child is Born’ was an interesting one, and ‘Last Christmas’ is ridiculously popular. One person’s TA said she loves it because ‘it’s so romantic’. Clearly I have misunderstood the lyrics all this time.