Seems bizarre that little over 18 months ago I was writing on this same blog about my experiences backpacking through Vietnam, and now I’m back. In my previous trip, Hanoi was my last stop before flying to New Zealand to meet Mum and Dad, so the familiar-but-differentness of my surroundings for the first few days floored me a little and compounded the homesickness. Homesickness perhaps isn’t an accurate phrase — by the time I left, I was desperate for a change of scenery, but there are some faces and hugs which I didn’t like the thought of going 5 months without.
I like to think I don’t LOOK as roly-poly as I did when my Mum used to call me Weeble*, but emotionally I do always seem to tip back up. So two weeks post landing, although I’m no less nervous about my adventure, I am at least sure it was the right move now and Hanoi has even begun to feel like home. About 90% of this is thanks to the 79 other interns I’m with (I’m a firm believer that home is people more than place), but if you’re thinking of doing something similar, Facebook is a massive antidote to expat-alienation, particularly in countries where a different language is spoken.
We’ve got it cushy, though. The company we will be working for shipped us to the hospital for our health checks, organises our work for us and accommodates us near one another in a suburb of Hanoi, so I have five lovely flatmates and a whole bunch of people to have a therapeutic moan to about difficult lessons, kitchen-dwelling cockroaches and the constant humidity. And if I’m giving you the impression that life in Vietnam is something to be ‘coped’ with, forgive me — we complain because we’re still adjusting. I’ll try to explain what makes adjusting worth it.
Picture your nearest town or suburban centre. Now picture the pavements and sides of the roads taken up with baskets of tomatoes, lettuce, coriander, custard apples, dragon fruit, carrots, mushrooms and many different kinds of rice. Meat is being carved in metal slabs or basins on the pavement, as are snakes of fresh tofu. Jars of pickled vegetables sit next to bras and socks and plastic sandals and tubs of live fish or crabs. There’s no such thing as a shop window; the shops spill onto the pavement, including those filled with tiny plastic chairs and benches where food is cooked while you wait. You don’t know whether to feel hungry or nauseous as you walk along; one minute the stench of raw meat or fumes is overpowering, then the smell of baking bread, fried rice or fresh herbs catches you. The tangle electric wires sag low, as if they don’t know how much longer they can keep working, and vines creep over them, concealing some completely behind a green curtain.
With all this commotion, you have to walk in the street but it’s ok, so does everyone else. If the streets were clear two cars could probably pass, but they’re not, so cars and taxis snake through at a painful pace, honking irritably. Most people go by motorbike or bike, weaving through pedestrians and pulling over when they get to the shop they want, sometimes without the rider even getting off to buy what they want.
This is my new home.
I may not be able to pass small talk with the shop keepers as I would back home, but we do chatter to each other — they in Vietnamese, me in English, with the mutual understanding that the only person we are talking to is ourselves. (Hopefully I will learn to understand a little Vietnamese while I’m here, speaking it is another matter, as meaning is completely altered by intonation in a way which is difficult to retrain your brain in!)
Bat Trang pottery ‘village’, now basically a suburb of Hanoi but still thriving on pottery
I posted on Facebook this week that I survived my first trial lesson, thanks to my lovely TA Hoa, and the post quickly got over 60 likes (Wtf? Anyone would think I climbed Kilimunjaro, not played word games with a bunch of 7-year-olds!) We all know that social media is a bit of an edited view of other people’s lives and how dangerous it can be to compare yourself to other people based on their photographs, and I have to confess I felt a bit complicit on Wednesday! If you saw that post and thought ‘WHAT am I doing with my life, pouring pints/ making lattes/ studying/ changing nappies/ cleaning litter trays???’ PLEASE KNOW that the trial lesson was simply an excercise in getting us interns used to being in front of a class. Hoa said Sophie, the girl I observed and was observed by, did well for a first lesson, but I was no Confucius and I was painfully aware that I relied heavily on Hoa to keep the kids anything resembling focused. I know I’m lucky to be here, but I’ve got a steep learning curve ahead of me and I’m going to have to roll my sleeves up to be worthy of it. Just like anything in life.
Now would possibly be a bad time to mention that we calmed our frazzled nerves at a rooftop pool and cafe 😛 but from Monday, I will be teaching full time and writing lesson plans when I’m not at school…so feel free to think of that, next time you’re cleaning the litter tray!
*Before you call NSPCC, know that I was a baby 😉