Hanoi! Motor bike ready outfit!
Just over two years ago I landed in Hanoi as a VSO volunteer. It was my first visit to Asia, never mind South East Asia. What an adventure it has proved to be. Having met many volunteers from other organisations I must say compliment VSO on their exceptional preparation and induction programmes which they put their volunteers through. Added to that excellent in country support and I felt myself lucky to be part of this organisation. Well done VSO.
The year in Hanoi had it’s ups and downs. Learning how to deal with the Asian culture takes time and effort and many misunderstandings later but eventually it sinks in. As for the traffic! That is something that I couldn’t come to terms with. I managed to cope eventually but that is as far as it got.
Hau, my favourite artisan at Hope Center.
Relocating to Hue was a great move. The smaller city was more comfortable for me and easier to negotiate. I was fortunate to have a great boss lady and a fabulous center to work at. Such amazing people. Never mind a disability or a tough background as a disadvantaged person the staff and artisans at the Hope Center are just wonderful.
What also helped was the family joining me on this adventure. It gave me huge respect for people who travel and work in outlying areas and countries all on their own. It’s tough. You don’t know the language, you are trying to adapt to foreign cultures and you have no support systems. Very very tough. And very brave of people to manage that. I met a few VSO volunteers who did their own thing in remote areas of Vietnam. Huge respect for them!
What will I take with me? I’m not as brave as I thought. It’s been quite tough in parts. The language defeated me. I love the sound of it but just couldn’t get my tongue to get those special sounds to be anywhere near what they should be. After many months of struggle I gave up. Probably shouldn’t have. But it’s difficult to carry on with something so difficult when you know you are going to leave again.
The language barrier ment that I couldn’t move as freely as I would have liked to. It also made it difficult to make friends with some people such as my boss lady in Hue. What a fabulous woman. Very special. But we also had to work through an interpreter. Regrettably interpreters in Hue don’t know how to interpret. So it ended up being a chat show between the interpreter and the boss leaving me out of the loop. And I saw many instances of this same problem. Somehow they haven’t learnt that it’s not a chatfest amongst each other. In the end I would sit there and day dream about other stuff while they got on with discussing the weather, babies or whatever else they felt like.
Hue. Ancestor shrine.
But on the whole it was a very good time. Interesting cultural differences. Loved the belief in spirits, karma and ancestor worship. It’s given the people a stoic approach to hardship that was kind of refreshing. The developed world people do so bitch and moan when the slightest thing goes wrong. Here it’s a matter of shrugging and getting on with it.
I loved the sharing aspect of this nation. Celebrations are always accompanied by food and drink. And the sharing is open and welcoming. Even just popping in for a visit will mean instant tea served and somebody will rush out to get biscuits or food to ensure visitors are welcomed. During Tet (the oriental new year) people sat in their thick jackets with doors wide open to ensure people felt encouraged to visit. And it’s a veritable tide of motor bikes with red and gold wrapped presents visiting each other to wish happiness, good luck and health.
Once outside of Hanoi the true people emerged. Hanoi can be very cold towards foreigners. Not so the people of the smaller cities such as Hue. Always ready with a smile, a wave, a greeting and ready to make contact. And some truly outrageous things sometimes. My son-in-law was ‘accosted’ by a granny who wanted a lift on the back of his motor bike. Just like that. He took her as far as he could and it ended up in an argument for a while when he wanted to turn left and her way was going right.
On the other hand prejudices are still there and some of the older generation were not that willing to have visitors. My Hanoi interpreter’s parents didn’t want to meet me. They were worried that their town would think badly of them if they had a foreigner step into their house.
In fact prejudices and old-fashioned habits abound. A baby is taken out of the house on the first trip to having vaccination shots with chopsticks wrapped in tissue to keep the bad spirits away. And paper is burnt, flowers stuck in trees, ancestor temples or temples to deities are in arbitrary trees and on pavements. And even though they might appear to belong to nobody in particular there are lit incense sticks, fresh flowers and other offerings on them.
Some parts of this society are still a little behind. Hygiene in hospitals is unheard of with staff unaware of such niceties as washing hands before touching anybody. Dentists have their doors wide open to traffic and dust. And food refuse is thrown on the floor while eating.
Phoenix School. Still keeping in touch with Vietnam.
But it’s a great community of people living close together and looking after each other. And I will stay in contact with this beautiful country. For the next six months I will still work as a consultant for this school and I hope to be able to help with fundraising.
Of course it’s not an idyllic world either. Washing up dishes in the backyard while squatting down isn’t my idea of fun. And my boss from the school where I am doing some work in fundraising has his staff chopping food on the floor. And you should see his fantastic kitchen that has every modern convenience you can think of. Yet his housekeepers are cleaning veg on the floor outside next to the tap which is right next to a magnificent swimming pool. Hollywood folks would be jealous of it.
But perhaps that’s what’s so charming about this country. The opposites. Five star hotels next to houses where people are still cleaning food in their courtyards. And it is that. People live mixed up with a shack next to a fancy new house. And they all seem to get along somehow. And I suppose sometimes not. But it works. And that’s what I’m going to miss the most about Vietnam. It’s the people’s ability to make things work regardless of the setbacks they encounter. Whether it’s strapping a dozen live chicken to the motor bike or hanging your washing on the neighbour’s fence because that’s where it will get some sun during a break in the rainy season. You gotta love ’em!