Hanoi is Marmite Central – you love it or you hate it. Right now, I feel waves of nostalgia for it, because I’ve just left after 7 months of living and teaching English there, but it’s not all candyfloss and unicorns. Some people, like Anthony Bourdain fall in love with Vietnam as a country as soon as they get off the plane. On, the flip side, it’s common for other people including Nomadic Matt to express frustration, because they feel they’ve been cheated. I’m somewhere in the middle and my time in Hanoi has been like an on-off-on again flingationship… just complicated.
I moved to Hanoi straight from living in London and experienced waves of of homesickness, loneliness and frustration as a result. So here’s a list of 10 things I learned NOT to do *drumroll*(!) By not doing these things, I helped myself to stop feeling stuck and enjoy life a little more in Vietnam’s crazy capital.
1. Do NOT Freak Out At The Traffic
It’s OK. You’ll only die if you act like an idiot. Not comforting enough? OK, here’s the lowdown; The traffic will never stop moving, but it moves super slow. Therefore, if you walk into a road slowly, the vehicles are expecting you and ready to move around you. If you wait for someone to stop, you will wait forever – because it’s just not done. If you stop suddenly or start to run, then drivers won’t expect that and won’t be able to predict how to swerve around you – then you’re in trouble.
It’s very different to Western driving, but there’s a flow to it and an order to the chaos. People park bikes and cars on the pavements and there’s no real parking legislation, pedestrians just walk on the road, alongside the cars, bikes and anything else that moves. The number one tip for crossing the road is: Just move slowly.
2. Do NOT Be Scared If You Don’t Know How To Ride A Motorbike
Never Driven one? Never driven a car? OK, don’t freak out. Yes, I know, there are no trains in Hanoi and the buses are rubbish. Firstly, download Uber and Grab apps which work for motorcycle taxis as well as cars and are very cheap. Learning to bike is do-able at your own pace. I hopped onto a huge, bulky scooter in my second week in Hanoi and freaked when I saw a car coming towards me. So my instincts told me to turn my right wrist up in a panic and I accelerated instead of slowing down. Bad move. I hit a wall… Three times. The guy selling bikes refused to sell me the scooter, because he thought I would kill myself (at that point, it was a sensible thing for him to do). There, does that make you feel better?
Once you feel a little bit confident, get something small – Hell, I started with a bicycle for a month just to get to know the roads and was really grateful for that experience. I then got a second hand electric bike off The New Hanoian – this is what students commonly drive before getting a motorbike. My electric bike was all I needed to get to work and the gym etc. – fast enough to get around the city, small to fit through traffic, not heavy, reliable (never broke down) and needed to be charged every 8 km, but I never had to buy petrol. My point is that nothing is impossible if you learn in baby steps.
I went at a pace with which I felt comfortable and was later comfortable enough to make a whole documentary about people’s crazy motorbike experiences , that you can watch HERE. For my last week in Vietnam I went on an epic solo motorbike ride through the mountains of Ha Giang on a semi-automatic bike – sometimes I couldn’t believe it was me driving! Keep checking my Homepage for the upcoming article all about that!
3. Do NOT Buy Your Size Clothes
Are you a medium size in a Western country? Ok, well I hate to break it to you, but you’re probably an extra-large now. No seriously. Vietnamese people are built smaller than us because of a combination of lifestyle and food factors that still boggle my mind but foreigners are like giants there. So don’t go to Hanoi if all you want to do is clothes shop – it will be complicated. If you’re a guy needing to buy something, be prepared to feel extra tall. If you are a lady, be prepared to swallow your pride and take the XL size.
If you have big boobs, then stock up on bras, because as far as I know, a C is ginormous in Viet-size. Shoes are also a minefield. Once I went to the Vincom centre (which is a pretty posh shopping centre) and tried to buy Skechers in a European size 39 (not that huge). I was told “I am sorry this is Asia, we don’t have this size.” Having said that, going to shoe street is a trip well worth taking for knockoffs of great quality.
4. Do NOT Think You’re Isolated
If you’re in a new country with a new place to live in with a new job then it can be overwhelming and lonely at times. Figuring out how to deal with loneliness has been a huge learning curve with me; I am very comfortable in my own company now.
However, we all need friends. Luckily, Hanoi is full of Facebook groups and great people waiting to befriend you. I would thoroughly recommend Hanoi Massive where most people are nice and Hanoi Beautiful for ladies (I won’t give the link, because it’s a girls only group). There are other places too like Hanoi Expats and Hanoi Expats Housing and loads more. My advice is to join them all – you’re bound to meet people, so be bold and ask to meet up! I made some of my first Hanoi friends from Facebook.
If you’re teaching, then you bound to go out with people from work, so don’t worry, you’ll have a great network of support!
5. Do NOT Get Annoyed At The Bank
Ah the bank in Hanoi. A great place where red tape and tight controls come together. It’s very difficult to move money out of the country. Always come to the bank with your passport. Yes, it’s an important document and you may feel uncomfortable carrying it, but Hanoi is very safe (one of the reasons why I love it) and you can’t get anything done at a bank without it (one of the reasons I don’t love it).
Be prepared to fill out and sign about ten forms for the simplest of transactions (I had to show plane tickets to prove I was going to Hong Kong before they exchanged currency for me and I had to come back to next day for the cash). It’s just something you have to get used to.
The queues are can be crazily long. Top tip: give yourself a lot of time when you want to visit the bank. Half an hour is optimistic. Also, go to a quieter branch away from Hoan Kiem and arrive as soon as they open to avoid the rush. Remember, the staff try hard to help and even though you want to scream sometimes, it’s not their fault.
6. Do NOT Underestimate The Pollution
Here’s a riddle: It’s heavy, sticky and gives you a headache. What is it? The pollution in Hanoi of course! Yup, it’s everywhere. You can feel it on your skin when you first arrive, it’s in the water, the fumes of cars and motorbikes and pretty much everywhere. Things you can do – buy a mask. I never bought one, but people said it did wonders for the quality of air they breathed in, especially when they were driving. Make sure it’s a good quality mask.
Get a shower filter – again something I didn’t do but probably should have. They make the water better for when you shower and wash your hair etc. Ask around on Facebook where to get these. Lastly, just get used to it. I mean, my lungs have probably blackened considerably and my hair thinned, but I enjoyed my stay!
7. Do NOT Get Frustrated At The Language Barrier
Right now, the level of English spoken by Vietnamese adults and professionals is lower than in other parts of South East Asia. There’s a definite language barrier. It’s not unusual to walk into a shop and ask for something ten times with gestures and find that none of the staff understand! English is spoken even less in older generations.
But don’t be pissed off – See this as an opportunity. English speakers (especially native ones) are in really high demand as a result and people want to learn. Language centres, International Schools, Kindergartens – you name it – all mean lots of money for foreigners, because pay is seriously good and hours are easy. Here’s a link to Dave’s ESL Cafe if you’re interested in a job. Requirements to teaching English are not high – you just need a degree in anything and to be fluent; non-native speakers can also easily find jobs.
It also a very rewarding thing to teach a new language. I taught Kindergarten for seven months and to know that your ‘skills’ are needed to make progress happen is a great feeling. For every day dilemmas, just learn to use lots of made-up sign language, or our good friends Google Images and Translate.
8. Do NOT Have Too Much Laughing Gas
Just be careful. I won’t go all puritan and forbid anyone from doing anything (hey I did it..). Equally I won’t promote it, because by inhaling Nitrous oxide, you’re essentially killing your brain cells. Just don’t take the crazy huge balloons from places like Dockers Pub and try looking like a hard-ass by doing them all in one go. You will collapse and that’s not cool. Balloons are cheap, readily available and the gas is strong in Hanoi, which is what makes them so popular. If you’re going to try, just be safe and do little bits at a time and know when to stop and take a break – nobody wants to blackout.
9. Do NOT Ignore The Supermarket Rules
Yep the supermarkets have strange alien rules. Take note:
a. You need to take off big bags and rucksacks and store them in lockers (I know you’re not a thief, it’s just protocol)
b. Get fresh fruit and veg stamped with bar codes – otherwise you have to go back from the checkout and do this
c. Don’t take drinks in – No liquids
It’s not much, just felt really different when I first started grocery shopping. Also sign up for loyalty cards if you’re staying for a while – I stocked up on loads of Fivimart points which came in handy for discounts.
10. Do NOT Reject The Food
When you think of street food, what words buzz into your mind? For me, it’s ‘cheap’, ‘spicy’, ‘delicious’ and sometimes ‘questionable sanitation’ (but I’ll eat it anyway). Vietnamese food is different. In Hanoi, food is not spicy and at first I rejected it as bland. But I gradually grew to like the way the pho was so hearty and filled me up or the simplicity that made bun cha so yummy. There’s no definitive guide to where to find street food – just walk around in the old quarter and sit down where you see the mini plastic stools. If you’re really into lists and stuff, then OK, listen to Tripadvisor. But the best way is just to walk around and discover for yourself. Remember: When in doubt… Just eat it. (That’s a joke BTW).
So in conclusion, don’t be too quick to judge Hanoi. It’s might not be love at first sight, but give it a chance and it will make you feel very affectionate, sentimental and mushy.
What do you think? Is there anything you would add to the list or anything on here that surprised you? Let me know in the comments below and hit me up if there’s anything else you’d like to know :).
By the way… Have you read the Vietnamese version of Cinderella??