Vietnam in a Coconut Shell

Because I don’t do nutshells, they’re too small.

10 Memorable Moments 

1. Bear on a Tuk Tuk

It was as bizarre as it sounds. Sadly, this happened during the first week of teaching when I had lost my smart phone so I can only describe this ridiculous event. A tuk tuk drove past as I was waiting outside of school. On top sat what I first thought was a gorilla but on closer inspection appeared to be a rather docile ursine, seemingly unrestrained. I don’t know what species it belonged to, but it looked like an American Black Bear. Goodness knows where they were headed to. Definitely the weirdest thing I’ve seen here.

2. Getting a Motorbike

The whole process was bizarre. Tiffany and I went to pick one up from Minh’s Motorbikes and were greeted by the man himself before we had even gotten out of the taxi. ‘Can you drive a motorbike?’ he asked. Our response: ‘Yes. Well we did once in Ninh Binh.’ Unconvinced but also unfazed he left us to practise on a side street whilst he disappeared to find bikes (which took forever, as most of them were a pile of junk.) We put down a deposit and gave him a copy of our passport. Then we were free to go. It seems even more stupid in retrospect: two complete novices pick up a motorbike with barely any hassle and then have to brave Hanoi traffic to get home. But we made it.

Returning the bikes was just as easy as getting them. We pulled into Minh’s and hopped off. He wheeled them away without even checking them over for damage. I was convinced I’d lose some of my deposit because I’d added a few scratches for my little accident. Not so. ‘How much do you want?’ he asked. ‘Well, we both paid 2 million each,’ we replied. Without even checking the paper work he handed the cash over straight out of his pocket. Done.

  Sarah and I trying to look badass on our matching Yamaha Nouvos. And failing. 

3. Getting Lost Driving to the Old Quarter

The day after getting the bikes Tiffany and I thought we’d take them for a spin by driving to the Old Quarter in the city centre. We checked the route and jotted down the street names on a piece of paper. It should have taken 20-25 minutes to get there. We were lost after about 15. After two hours of driving round and round we found a cafe with wifi and readjusted the route. One hour and several mistakes later and we finally reached the city centre.

We enjoyed a lovely day in town but had to face the drive home after, which we thought would be more straightforward. It wasn’t. We lost each other after I went round a roundabout twice. I couldn’t get my phone out because the lock for the seat compartment seemed to be stuck (I was actually just using the key incorrectly) so I continued on in the hope that we would see each other along the way. I made it home unscathed but when I phoned Tiffany she had no idea where she was. After consulting Google maps, I tried to keep my voice calm and neutral when she asked ‘am I far away?’ She wasn’t fooled. She made it home. Eventually.

  Finding some enjoyment between both instances of getting completely lost.

4. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

It’s bizarre but a must-do in Hanoi, I think. Lindsay and I took a trip one weekend out of curiosity. Modelled on Lenin’s resting place in Moscow, Hanoi’s Mausoleum is dedicated to their ‘great leader’, Ho Chi Minh. Ignoring his wishes for a low-profile cremation, Uncle Ho lies in the fancy refrigerator surrounded by ultra-strict police for most of the year, and is occasionally shipped off for preservation, which I just find weird.

  Apparently it’s modelled on a lotus flower. I clearly don’t have an artistic mind.

5. Perfume Pagoda 

It was ‘one of those days in Vietnam’, by which I mean kind of disastrous. The guide was decent but talked non-stop, like a lot of the guides in this area of the world. He asked us to tip our rowers because they are poorly paid, but the rower looked appalled when we each handed him 10 000 VND, the amount recommended by the guide. Then, on return, all of the boat men refused to let our speed boat take us back to the entrance, so we all sat awkwardly watching the guide argue with them. A Vietnamese woman translated for us: the men expected to take us back to the entrance too and they weren’t happy with the amount they’d been paid. Eventually the guide chucked a wad of notes them and shouted something before storming off. ‘Should I translate?’ asked the woman. We said yes. ‘He says, “fuck you all.”‘ 

  The view and temple were nice, if nothing else.


6. Christmas Party in Haiphong

Following our training back in August, about twenty interns, or so, were placed in Haiphong. We’d seen some of them at various events and promised to pay them a visit at some point. We got round to it just before Christmas.

Haiphong is the third biggest city in Vietnam, located a couple of hours north of Hanoi. But you wouldn’t know it. We took a bus and then went for a wander around to find…not a lot. We stopped in a cafe and checked travel websites which recommended a museum, the opera house and a brewery. The museum was shut, the opera house could only be viewed from the outside which was mostly adorned with a giant portrait of Ho Chi Minh, and the brewery was essentially a bia hoi place. We spent most of the day trawling the streets and stopping in various cafés, none of which were impressive. I did have a wonderful photo or Rosie and Tanith looking appalled by their strange tasting coffee to which they added an entire jug of condensed milk.

But, it wasn’t a complete waste of time. We met the other teachers in the evening and had a great time crashing their Christmas party.

7. Losing My Phones

The first time was following my lunchtime nap at my Thursday school. I lay down to sleep and my Nokia phone and keys fell onto the floor. I sleepily picked them up and put them on the shelf under the table. Of course, I forgot to take them home later. As it’s my Vietnamese phone, it’s a basic model, so no one would have had much interest in taking it. I was able to pick both items up the following week.

The following Thursday, I did indeed collect the phone and keys, but noticed that my smart phone was missing. I hadn’t used it in the car so figured that I’d left it on my bed at home. I hadn’t. It must have just fallen out of my bag in the morning. I then frantically emailed the taxi coordinator, Huong, begging her to give me a contact number or something. Following some stressful correspondence I got a response saying ‘taxi has your phone. He will bring it to house Saturday.’ I still can’t quite believe my luck.

Saturday was my last free weekend day in Hanoi and we’d planned to make the most of the city before we left, but I had to wait for the phone. Eventually, it was dropped off with Uncle Toan in the main building. I was relieved and elated, but then discovered that the cheeky beggar had tried to get into it as it was disabled. Paying for it to be reset and losing all my photos was a pain, but at least I got it back. I text Little Huong to say thank for her help. Her response: ‘ok’.

Both phones and house keys lost. All found.

8. Acrylic Nails Getting Hacked Off

The false nails that I’d had put on for Naomi’s wedding were growing out quickly so I had to get them sorted. I decided to try the local salon but they thought I just wanted the paint taking off leaving me with white plastic still stuck to my fingers. After I explained again with hand gestures, they covered my nails in cotton wool-soaked nail varnish remover. ‘Thats one way of doing it,’ Tiffany remarked. After waiting for a good fifteen minutes they were soft enough for the beautician to prise off with nail pliers. I did worry that she would pull a few nails off in the process. The nails were an absolute state after, but she painted over them in an attempt to smooth them over. It was a marginal improvement.

9. Selling BME to New Schools
One of the most ridiculous days at work ever (and there are several). I was told to go to a school miles and miles away, and to conduct some fifteen minute lessons with students ‘with songs, stars, sticky ball game, so students will very like your lesson.’ Of course, this was to sell the company to new schools (yes, in a ‘communist’ country). I could go off on one about how BME was already over stretched and there weren’t enough teachers or assistants, but that’s a post in itself.

The first three lessons after lunch were total crap. The TA started off the lesson herself, leaving me stood around like a spare part. When I got to take over, she spent the rest of the lesson flapping around and giving out feedback sheets – and undoubtedly making sure the students put smiley faces for each question – so I got virtually no response from the seven year olds who’ve not experienced a lesson like it and didn’t have a clue what I was going on about. Students in Vietnam don’t really tend to use their injustice either because they’re taught in such a didactic way.

We’d only managed to do three trial lessons before break time, when we should have done four. The TA seemed to think it was my fault but I’d just been following here. I said that trying to do lessons this short was just silly but she was insistent that we must do all of the classes, meaning we had to do five lessons after break time with just ten minutes each! 

After break, she led me back to the classroom that we’d already been in, but told me to carry on even when I told her that we’d already taught them. Five minutes later she realised her mistake, prompting one student to say ‘bye bye teacher, no see you later!’ I could go on…

It was a good introduction to the working of BME (and Vietnam, to some extent).
10. Getting Home Without Phone Credit or Money

Bad luck or bad disorganisation, well you can decide that.

I was at my Thursday school in Mai Dong, which is a good forty minute drive away from my house. As was often the case, my taxi wasn’t there after school, even after I’d waited a good twenty minutes. Fine, I’ll phone Little Huong I decided. Except, I couldn’t, because my phone had run out of credit. I’m so used to having a contract that it’s not the sort of thing I consider on a day to day basis. Ok, I’ll go buy some. Oh wait, I only have 40 000 VND. Not enough for another top up, or a taxi home for that matter. 

I waited a bit longer in the hope that the taxi might just turn up super late. Meanwhile, a woman running a stand nearby offered me a seat. We couldn’t communicate but she still wanted to take a picture. Why the hell not? The students started filing out of school, including a Grade 3 pupil ‘called Quynh, but I go by Ben’. I told him how impressed I was by his brilliant English, to which he responded ‘I practise present continuous and past perfect with my father every evening.’

I soon gave up hoping the taxi would turn up and so set off in the hope that my ABC taxi receipt book might help me out. Ben asked ‘Sophie, will you walk me over the bridge? I am going to walk home,’ so we set off together. He was wonderfully sweet.

I never found an ABC taxi despite wondering around for over an hour to goodness knows where, so in the end I flagged down another taxi. Once we reached home I feigned surprise whilst counting out money and ‘realised’ that I didn’t have enough. I pointed to the house and said ‘nha, tien’ (house, money) and got the rest of the bill. Two hours later and I was finally home.

5 Things I Won’t Miss

Traffic – constant chaos, smog and permanent beeping. Oh, and fearing for your life because everybody drives like a bloody lunatic. I’m pretty sure I’ve shaved a few years of my life expectantcy from living in Hanoi because of the pollution. Getting picked up from school is hit and miss and one problem you could do without on a daily basis.

People – I doubt I will use the word ‘hello’ so frequently ever again. Everywhere you go, every child at school: ‘hello, hello! HELLO! Hello teacher!’ Some days I deliberately avoid talking to locals to dodge being asked, ‘where you from?’, ‘do you like ___’. Attempts to rip you off are frequent because most people assume you have money to burn. I look forward to walking into a shop without any interference or haggling involved.

Food – morning glory, that tasteless water spinach that permeates every dish. Take it away! Give me something with more than just two vegetables, a decent cup of tea and a biscuit. And bread. There’s only so many plain white baguettes that you can eat.

Timing – ‘9 o’clock’ is arbitrary in Vietnam, unless it’s getting to school, in which case no one will hesitate to tell you that you’re late. People either go at a snail pace or you are rushed off you feet. Example: the rush to go kayaking in Halong, or the guide at the Primate Conservation Centre in Cuc Phuong. But if you want a job doing don’t overestimate how long it will take to get done. Basically the opposite to what you’d like.

Attention – staring is not rude and being asked for pictures is not uncommon. I once was asked to pose for a selfie because ‘you look like Kim Kardashian.’ (!???) It’s both awkward and annoying being stared at constantly, although I will admit, I am usually as intrigued when I spot other Westerners.

5 Things I Will Miss

Traffic – Because somehow the craziness just works. People rarely get angry as you expect chaos. It makes the road rage at home seem laughable. If you ever need a lift there’s always a xe om in sight and getting a taxi to school means you can sit back and relax (assuming they turn up). Walking across a busy road without getting hit is still both thrilling and liberating.

  Daily business  

People – Despite the tendency to ask rather personal questions within about two minutes of meeting you (e.g. how much money do you make?’), on the whole, the Vietnamese are friendly and helpful people. Most of my TAs have been so welcoming and generous. I’d only have to meet someone once before they would offer to take me out for coffee or lunch, which of course they would pay for.Sometimes you’re not in the mood to talk to someone who’s first language isn’t English, because it’s more effort. But you always learn something new when you make the effort.

Food – No more sticky rice for breakfast, booo. There’s always something easily available. The coffee is delicious. I crave rice if I haven’t had it for a day. The enormous, non-squirty grape fruits are the best travel snacks. Oh, and eating on the streets; that’s not something you get to do so much at home.

Breakfast: Xôi bắp. Cooked with green beans, topped with corn paste and shallots. Sounds weird. Tastes amazing.  My Xao and Com Rang (fried noodles and fried rice) at our favourite noodle place.

Timing – living in Vietnam has made me realise how obsessed we are with productivity at home. We can’t bare to waste a minute, especially at work, because of course time = money. Three hour lunch breaks seemed ridiculous at first, but then I started to appreciate them. You don’t give yourself indigestion by wolfing down your lunch down so you can get back to work half an hour later. You have time to go out to eat or sit with a book in a coffee shop. If you need a nap, just pull out the chairs and snore away, no one will judge. I think sometimes we need to take our time and enjoy ourselves rather than constantly rushing around like headless chickens.

Attention – because what’s not to love about children being so happy to see you every lesson.
Vietnam: It’s a love/hate relationship, but I’ll always remember it fondly.


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