Lessons in Vietnam
My first two weeks in Vietnam were very… trying… I knew I’d have my share of ups and downs on this trip but my first week in Vietnam had me questioning everything.
That said, I’d like to start with a disclaimer. I think I would have an entirely different experience in Hanoi if I wasn’t hurt. Even though I’m a lot better now when I first got here it hurt to walk and if I sat in the same position for too long my hips would protest – loudly. With most of my patience going to managing my pain tolerance, it left very little for adjusting to a new culture.
After less than 24 hours in Hanoi, I couldn’t wait to leave. I was tired of the constant honking, being terrified of crossing the street, and dealing with the overly pushy sales people. In Thailand, almost every local I encountered was lovely and helpful. Here, it’s like they see me and see dollar signs. It was very frustrating at first. I also like my personal space; I did not take kindly to strangers grabbing me or constantly tapping me on the arm. As I said above though, I am sure I would have felt differently if I wasn’t in pain all day. I’m back in Hanoi now for round 2, and already I’m having an entirely different experience. I almost find it funny now when I’m surrounded by men shouting “moto, moto” and tapping any part of my body they can reach… almost..
After Hanoi, I went up North into a small mountain town called Yen Bai City. In exchange for food and accommodation, I was going to teach English for 3-5 hours a day. I found the placement through an awesome website called “Workaway” which I recommend to any traveler on a budget. My first experience was mixed. By day 3 of volunteering, I was sure I wouldn’t make it another day. Thankfully, that was when other workaways arrived. Thanks to Jeanelle, Alex and Krista, I not only lasted the full 2 weeks, I left grateful for the experience.
I’ve learned a lot in the last 3 weeks. About myself, about traveling and about life. Here are a few of the lessons:
1. Traffic rules? What traffic rules?
Imagine a 5 way intersection. Take away any traffic lights. Add in dozens of cars, scooters, and tuk tuks going in all directions. Make sure to include constant honking. Then add the people attempting to cross. Does the picture in your mind look like chaos? Yeah, that’s the only way to get to the beautiful lake in the middle of Old Quarter in Hanoi. Never would I imagine I’d be able to cross with confidence, stopping multiple times to let cars and scooters swerve around me. And yet after two weeks in Vietnam, it now seems normal. I still can’t imagine being on a scooter in Hanoi though, but I’m sure other thrill seekers love it.
2. Honks have a meaning and they must be followed.
1 honk: I’m behind you. 2 honks: I’m passing you, move over. Long, piercing, drawn out honk: I am a bus. Get out of the way or you will be a pancake.
3. Drive slower than you want.
I will admit, I have a bit of lead foot. I have 3 speeding tickets from back home to prove it. In Vietnam though, I learned to quickly keep that bad habit in check. You never know what will jump out in front of you: a person, a scooter, a car or even a terrified cow.
4. Always check your bed for bed bugs.
I didn’t. And I paid the price. I will say this, I appreciate the hostel’s quick action. The manager was on site within 20 minutes, called pest control to look at the room and offered to wash all of my clothes and bags. Although it set me back a day, I learned to always check my bed and not to leave my clothes or bags on the beds.
5. Check your expectations at the door.
I booked my two weeks at a homestay in Yen Bai City with excitement. I’d be a teacher assistant and learn about traditional Vietnamese lifestyle. I didn’t realize how high my expectations were until I stepped into my new home. The layer of dirt and grime was thick. I could smell cat urine and feces in almost every room. My other roommates hated each other and fought over politics every day. My first day teaching showed me that my host didn’t like to lesson plan. I found myself pulling out game ideas from years ago and teaching on the fly, which I hate doing. Reality was far from what I’d hoped.
6. Calling home in tears is part of the deal.
On my third day, the host told me that I’d be teaching a class by myself for an hour while she came home to pick up the new volunteers. She told me this an hour before leaving. There was no lesson plan, I’d never met the class before, and all I knew was their level of English barely passed the “Hello, how are you” stage. All the other workaways had left town early because they didn’t like it. That was when I broke. I’d never felt so grateful for FaceTime. As soon as I saw my mom’s face, I burst into tears and admitted that I didn’t think I could make it. As soon as I said the words, I could feel my strength start to come back. It was ok to have bad experiences, and it was up to me to do something about it. Thanks to my mom’s encouragement, I stuck it out, and would go on to meet amazing people.
7. Bonds formed in the fire are everlasting.
The same day I almost quit, everything started to change. Within two days, Alex, Jeanelle, and Krista had turned my whole experience around. It’s amazing what happens when you have people around you that get it. Being in that group of motivated, passionate, and empathic individuals made all the difference. We bonded over our daily coffee breaks across the street (aka therapy sessions) and got each other through the crazy weeks.
8. A clean environment changes everything.
“So umm, are you enjoying this?” Krista’s bravery at admitting her true feelings meant we all could too. That day we started to take leadership. It all started with a deep clean. 45 minutes later the floors were gleaming, the cobwebs gone and mouldy counters abolished. Initially, we didn’t want to be rude and feel like we were imposing “western standards” but we all agreed the clean environment made everything more manageable.
9. Giving up control is hard, but doable.
I find it incredibly difficult to sit back and watch something fail. That was exactly how I felt for 80% of the teaching there. Any attempt to help lesson plan was met with disregard or resistance. It was hard to walk into a classroom and feel utterly unprepared. And yet, by the end, I was able to let go of a lot of anxiety. It wasn’t my program and it wasn’t my job to step in as some sort of savior. At the end of my time, there was a grand total of 3 classes that I actually enjoyed and I’m ok with that. All three of those were ones that Jeanelle, Alex, Krista and I lesson planned for, created the materials, and taught by ourselves.
10. Sometimes, staying silent isn’t an option.
One of the most difficult things about the placement was actually a fifth workawayer. A 33 year old man from England, he had a lot of opinions. Opinions like Trump is the best thing to happen to USA, the world is full of “money grabbing whores” and there was a good reason that more men were in politics than women – because they were smarter. I’d tried my hardest to keep things civil, we all did. But by the end, I couldn’t let it go and I told him exactly what I thought about his sexist and inappropriate comments. I couldn’t believe I had to explain that calling Justin Trudeau’s mom a slut and calling Krista a female supremacist wasn’t a “lack of humor” on my part. He didn’t say goodbye to me as we left, but I didn’t mind. For once, I didn’t care what someone thought of me. It’s been liberating.
11. My skin isn’t as thick as I had hoped, but that’s ok.
Being obese in South East Asia isn’t easy. I read as many blogs as I could before I left, and knew that I’d need to develop a thicker skin. I’d get stares and children yelling in Thailand, but it never bothered me much. Yen Bai was a totally different experience. Not only was I one of the very few white people that they’d ever see in their lifetime, I was sure I was the biggest person they’d ever seen. People would call out, nudge their friends, stare as we walked by, putting their hands out like they had a big stomach. I’m on dozens of instragram feeds I’m sure.I had over 60 kids at a school stop whatever they were doing and follow me yelling loudly in Vietnamese as I walked to the classroom. I even had some people even squeeze my arms and poke at my stomach. It was the first time I’d felt so self-conscious in a while. I hated feeling like the main attraction at a zoo. While I didn’t enjoy the experience, it reminded me that love and body acceptance is a life long journey.
12. Kittens make everything better.
Ok this “lesson” is just an excuse to show off some of the dozens of photos I took of my host’s adorable kittens.