I love everything about Hanoi. Having lived like a local while volunteering in Hanoi, I fell in love with the culture, the food, the people, and the way of life. Mobile street vendors are a charming part of Vietnamese culture, and are abundant in Hanoi – you can get any anything, anytime, and anywhere. Vendors on foot and bicycles frequent the streets of Hanoi to sell flowers, sugar cane juice, and fresh produce, to name a few. I’ve even seen balloon vendors – that is, a person walking down the street with dozens of inflatable balloons strung from their limbs…truly a sight to see amongst all of the city chaos.
It irks me when people let one bad experience form their opinion about a country. I find it rather puzzling when I hear people say things like, “I hate Vietnam because I had my wallet stolen there.” Although I’m sure having your wallet stolen would put a damper on your travels, I don’t think it should have any reflection on the beauty of a country and its people. Let’s face it: There are few places in the world where there isn’t someone looking to make a quick buck off a tourist.
Bona fide travellers long to experience a destination like the locals. Taking a few tours and visiting main attractions just isn’t enough, and often leaves a huge void due to the absence of a true cultural experience. So how can one attain this “true cultural experience”? By volunteering! Working together with the locals grants a volunteer with the unique understanding of a culture – something that is very difficult to gain as a visitor looking in. Read more
I was expecting subtle differences going from Hanoi to Saigon, but instead I felt like I had entered a different country.
I was already anticipating a different experience than my time in Hanoi simply because I would no longer be a volunteer living with the locals, but rather a backpacker staying in the tourist district. Upon my arrival in Saigon, I had such an odd feeling because I was accustomed to living in Cau Giay (Hanoi), where everyone always stared at me thinking I was a lost tourist in their neighbourhood. I recall getting looks of shock and awe as I jumped off the moving bus with the other locals, weaved my way through traffic, and headed into the residential neighbourhood everyday after work. When I got out of my taxi in Saigon, I was expecting the usual stares from the locals, but no one even looked at me!
I know I already touched on the bus topic, but because I learn something new on the bus everyday, I feel like I need to revisit. The bus is where I get a chance to zone in for an hour and get some good old, uninterrupted, people-watching time.
Everyday, I leap onto a moving bus and somehow manage to squish myself in among the local Vietnamese crowds. This is where I learned about the very high regard that they have for their elders, which helped me to piece together and understand the little cultural tips that I received when I first arrived. I was hanging from one of the leather straps in the aisle of the bus one day on my way to work, and was surprised when the bus actually slowed to a complete stop. I was wondering what the driver was doing, because no he usually does a rolling stop for people who are getting on/off. It turns out that there was a little old lady embarking. All of sudden, about ten people in front of me were frantically pushing each other out of the way, to make a path for the old lady. Without acknowledging, the old lady slipped into the empty seat, and only then did the bus start moving again. I started to notice this respectful gesture more and more on the bus. It was a common understanding amongst everyone, and it was certainly nice to see. When the elderly get on the bus, the younger passengers instinctively rise and vacate the seat without even making eye contact. Similarly, which I find quite peculiar, they abide by the same policy for young children.
After seeing this on the bus, a light bulb went off in my mind as I reflected on one of the first things I heard at orientation: When you meet a Vietnamese person, they will often ask you how old you are before even asking what your name is. Western culture dictates that this would be extremely rude and inappropriate, but there is a deeper and underlying meaning here. Age is an important piece of information in Vietnam because it indicates how to appropriately address someone. I was on the bus one day and a girl wanted to practice her English on me, which happens quite often. She asked me, in the following order: where I was from, how old I was, and what my name was. In this case, we happened to be the same age, so she used no prefix. I learned that when the individual is older, the name should be preceded by the word “Chi”. Therefore, to someone much younger, my name would be Chi Kristina. Likewise, men’s names are preceded by “Anh”. “Cu” is for a very old person, and ending a sentence or phrase with “a” is a sign of respect to whomever you are speaking to.
I continue to learn about the rich Vietnamese culture, and their deep love and appreciation for family in the society.
We were fortunate enough to have our host organization give us a crash course on life in Vietnam…Of course, we had this orientation 3 days after we arrived, so we were forced to unknowingly dive right in.
Another thing I had to say goodbye to quickly was my standard 2 foot radius of personal space. Usually, if someone enters my bubble of personal space, I take two steps back – like an involuntary response. That doesn’t work in Vietnam, because when I took two steps back, I would just run into someone else! I also learned that there is no such thing as a line, or saying “excuse me” to get by. It was rush hour and we were packed in the bus without an inch of breathing space. At one point, I was standing with a death grip on both the leather strap above my head and the seat in front of me, and I felt someone slap the small of my back 3 times. Without releasing my hands for fear of flying to the front of the bus (literally), I turned my head slightly to peak out of the corner of my eye to see who did it. I suddenly felt the back of someone’s hand on my hip shoving me out of the way. It was a little older lady who wanted to see if the seat in front of me was available. I looked at her and thought “what the hell is your problem lady!?!”, and she just smiled and waved gently while turning back. I realized then that she meant no harm by the pushing, she just wanted a seat. Pushing people aside is very common here because no one waits in line. It’s not considered to be rude here….it’s just the way it is. Nothing is done maliciously.
There were a few other habits that I still had to get rid of. For example, it’s rude to point your finger. I know we learn this all the time at home, but everyone still does it anyway! The Vietnamese also speak very softly. Speaking loudly, especially on the bus, is considered very inappropriate.
I’m sure I will pick up more tips each and everyday. Hopefully I will fit right in before the end of my stay!
I read my fair share of travel guides prior to my departure for Vietnam, so I was therefore well versed in the infamous rules of the road as a pedestrian in Hanoi. Looking back, I didn’t truly understand what it meant to cross a road in Hanoi until I found myself standing at the side of the road, ready to cross and saying a Hail Mary before attempting to even put one foot out there. Apprehensively, I tried to catch my breath while trying to observe the flow of traffic in order to devise some sort of plan to get across the road. A couple of motorbikes let out a few beeps as they came down the dirt road behind me. As they weaved around me, I kept my eye on them to see how they integrated into the rest of the traffic. A few seconds later, they were completely out of sight – all I could see were hundreds of vehicles zipping around left, right and centre. I felt like I had just entered an arena of bumper cars at an amusement park, except there were no cars bumping into each other! I guess you could say I was standing on the “curb” of the “intersection”, for the curb was simply a random patch of grass and the intersection was a huge circular area where several different roads just so happened to intersect, with one not continuing into the other. There were motorbikes, cars, bicycles carrying boxes stacked several feet high, and buses – all about to enter this free-for-all of an intersection. There were no lanes, lights, or traffic control signs. Vehicles travelling north, south, east, and westbound somehow entered this arena and effortlessly weaved around each other to get where they need to go. I even saw some motorbikes driving beside each other while having a conversation, and then eventually crossing paths to go in opposite directions! I should also mention that each motorbike was carrying a minimum of 3 passengers.
After a few days, I caught onto the real rules and essentially mastered the art of crossing the road in Hanoi by following this sequence:
- Remain calm, and confidently start to walk across the road regardless of what is coming towards you, because any hesitation will completely confuse the drivers and possibly cause an accident.
- Slow the pace of your walk for cars, because they always have the right of way.
- Even if you think you’re going to get hit, NEVER take a step backwards – just linger very casually, and slowly resume your saunter as the car passes.
- Keep a constant pace for motorbikes, who will comfortably weave around you even if they look like they are about to run you over. They might also come to an abrupt stop about 1mm away from your feet to allow you to pass through their space if they are unable to swerve out of the way at the last minute for some reason.
- Most importantly, be cool about it; there is no point in whipping your head back and forth, trying to identify a good pocket of space to hop into – it will only leave you with whiplash.
- Have a very nonchalant expression on your face while looking to your left, and beginning your stroll. When you reach halfway, casually look to your right as if you’re stretching your neck, and continue your stroll to the other side.
It was absolute madness to watch the flow of traffic. I could have sat and watched it all day! The sound of horns beeping characterized this system of organized chaos. The horns may indeed be the secret to the success of these highly skilled drivers, as the beeping was never an indication of anger or distress. After all, they say that motorists in Vietnam use a horn instead of using their brakes!
Leaving Hanoi, I knew I would have to ditch my newly mastered skill as a pedestrian for fear of instinctively executing the same protocol back home in Toronto, where I would probably get hit by a car…and if I didn’t get hit, I would most certainly get ticketed for some form of traffic violation!
I must admit that it feels very odd to be working a full-time job in Vietnam, and even more so to be branching out of the profession that I am accustomed to. Prior to my departure, I was aware that I would be working with a public health organization and doing a lot of proposal/project writing, but I had no idea about the organization itself. On my first day, led by my trusty Volunteer Coordinator, I walked up to a company called Viethealth. I walked inside, removed my shoes as per Vietnamese custom, and was greeted by my Placement Coordinator. I still couldn’t get over the fact that I was barefoot in my place of work. I chuckled to myself as I envisioned the staff at my office from home walking around barefoot.
I was taken by the Office Coordinator to tour the facility. We headed down the stairs to the bottom floor where I saw a child trying to run across the floor to chase after a ball. She was unfortunately suffering from a physical disability that seemed to have dramatically reduced her mobility, leaving her with one leg dragging behind her body. Once I took my focus off of her, I noticed several other children with physical disabilities, each working with a therapist on specific mobility tasks to try and overcome their physical challenges. Although I had worked with similar patients in the past, it was a bit overwhelming to see so many children with debilitating conditions in once place. There was a bit of an uplifting moment when I noticed how spirited these children were. They all had smiles on there faces, and expressed plenty of affection towards their therapist as they tried to play. After speaking with the Coordinator, I realized that many of these children were born with birth defects because of parental exposure to Agent Orange, the herbicide used by the US military that eventually caused approximately 500,000 birth defects. Many children with disabilities in Vietnam simply fell through the cracks in the system, and have never received any care for their special needs.
It’s unfortunate that there are so many individuals with special needs in Vietnam who haven’t even been identified in the public education and healthcare sectors. Unlike North America, where there is a huge support system for any individual requiring special education or physical support, there is a serious lack of funding here which make special programs hard to find.
I was taken up to the office afterwards, where I could get better acquainted with the organization’s work. As my luck had it, I was given a project on my first day which allowed me to dive into the environmental and public health problems of Vietnam.
I’m sure this will be a new and exciting learning experience for me!