Vietnam, in particular the bustling city of Hanoi where I made my home, is a vibrant place with beautiful sights and some truly kind people. If you ask travellers of their Vietnam experiences, all you will hear is ‘It’s absolutely amazing. The people are so friendly, and the food is amazing, you HAVE to go.’
They’re not wrong, but there are a few confronting truths you will only discover if you live there for an extended period of time. These would not at all have stopped me from going, but I do wish someone had prepared me before I left.
1. There ARE rules when crossing the road
Yes, we’ve all heard the ‘just walk and keep a steady pace’ rule, and it’s a pretty good one to get you going because if you wait for a gap you will be waiting a very long time. However, there are a few important notes to take on the subject. Namely, never take on a bus, and beware of cars. Scooters will move for you, cars will change their pace if you’re already halfway across the road and they really have to, buses shall not let you pass.
2. Love them one minute, not so much the next
The locals of Hanoi can honestly be some of the most wonderful people you’ll meet. Besides all the typical hero-esque worship of white westerners (handshakes, photos, friendly hellos, autograph requests and, if you’re male, the odd matchmaking attempt are all to be expected) many a local will go out of their way to help you hail a cab, give you a lift or invite you in for food. At these times, you want nothing more then to live here forever.
Then there are the ‘other’ times. The non-tourist times. When your friend gets smacked so hard it leaves a bruise simply because she didn’t want to buy the smacker’s products. When you’re a female working amongst mostly females and there is clearly a hierarchy of which you come in at the bottom. When you randomly get yelled at for simply standing, even though you are blocking no stores.
3. Face Culture is not that big a deal
Which brings me to point number 3. You may have heard of the Vietnamese concept of ‘Face’. It’s a multi-layered complex thing, but basically it says that to ‘save face’ one must never raise their voice or lose their temper. So the Vietnamese must be incredibly serene, kind people then. Right?
Not exactly. You’ll only really discover this if you’re working here (shout out to the English teachers), but you can expect blatant eye-rolling, being hung-up on, and some serious stink-eyes to some more severe treatments like being screamed at and man-handled (these are not all my stories, most came from fellow teachers).
I was in a female dominated industry, so this really only happened to those of us who were also female. White males in this country are sitting pretty, that’s just the way it is.
4. It defies logic
Seriously. The only way to prepare is to think of the logical option, then identify the complete opposite. The latter is the one that will happen. It goes beyond just ‘a different way of getting things done’. I thought it must have been a huge exaggeration when I was first told. Then I worked there. The only way to deal? Be completely flexible, and have no solid plans. Which most of the time isn’t a bad way to be.
5. Communism is awesome
There are so many ways I could delve into the obvious truth that communism does not work, and that it can actually do a lot of harm to a country. But in a practical sense, if you’re a Westerner working here you’re on their radar, it’s something to keep in mind.
6. Once you voluntarily take the chopsticks drunk, you’ve made it
Want to feel like a local? Get raging drunk on the local bia hoi (it’s crazy cheap and has no hangover-causing preservatives, so seriously, go for it). Come home. Cook yourself up a big old bowl of instant noodles. Get up to your bedroom and marvel in delight at the fact you grabbed the chopsticks, not the fork, without even realising.
7. Contrary to popular belief, vegetarian is NOT easy here
All I heard about before I left was how good the food is, and how many vegetarian options there are. Which is true, if you’re living at a backpackers in the centre of the city. When you’re out in the residential districts, not so much.
Travellers always tell you to eat the street food, and you really should, sitting around in our local hang with bun cha (or in my case, ban mi I had bought down the road) and bia hoi are some of my favourite memories. But anyone who has lived there will know (particularly if meat is not an option) that sometimes the more expensive ‘Western’ options are the only thing keeping you sane…and sustained.
8. This is where animal rights come to die
Let’s just rip this bandaid off quickly. When you don’t have a lot of the human rights many of us may take for granted, you can’t expect animals to receive any. Still, it’s confronting to see the state of these animals, and their tiny transportation cages. To hear the screams (yes, actual screams) of birds having their necks wrung. But you learn to deal with it because without those animals, many of these people would have nothing.
But then, there’s the case of the dogs, particularly popular as a cuisine in the North (especially in my district of Cau Giay). At first glance, this is only confronting because we are used to dogs as beloved pets (and no, for the record, Vietnamese would never consider eating their own pet dogs) but that’s before you read about the industry practices. Put down your lunch and feel free to read for yourself here.