Adjusting to Life in Vietnam’s Cultural Capital: Hanoi
When I first wandered through Hanoi’s old quarter, I couldn’t help but notice the narrow streets pumped out an unceasingly steady stream of loud, evasive mopeds. These surges of mopeds and their unwavering drivers certainly will not slow down for you or anyone that dares to cross the street. Instead, you’ve got to walk - slowly but surely - while being engulfed by the sea of swarming metal.
Despite the travel guides, locals, and seasoned travellers telling you that you should walk slowly and allow the traffic to go around you, you battle every urge to stop or burst into a frantic sprint.
As an English teacher living in Hanoi, you have to navigate the quirkiness of Hanoian and Vietnamese culture just as you would the streets, by carefully immersing yourself amid the organised chaos.
Vietnam opened up to tourists only in 1997. Since, it has undergone rapid tourist expansion that has transformed its sleepy, agrarian economy into one of Southeast Asia’s top backpacking destinations with a thriving expat community. But, as a nation young to the tourism and hospitality scene, many of its authentic cultural roots are still intact and visible while walking down the unique streets of Hanoi.
You’ll no doubt find yourself asking so many questions when wandering Hanoi. As a first time teacher landing in Vietnam, I was overwhelmed with so many questions about Hanoi. Why is that moped carrying a whole tree? Why is it so busy at 4:30am? Why is there egg in my coffee?
Food markets at every corner present a panoply of alluring (and strange) sights and smells. Singular bicycles and motorcycles are used to transport bountiful harvests, enormous equipment, and sometimes even entire families (plus their pets). When you’re not seeing French colonial architecture, you’re seeing Buddhist pagodas (also known as a chua) or you’re gazing up at the narrow tube-esque houses vernacular to Hanoi.
The history of these tube-esque houses that look like jenga blocks encapsulate Hanoi and its cultural resilience so well. While the government enforced a new property tax based on the perimeter of a house, Hanoians moved their gaze upwards. They built houses which were deep, narrow and high in a bid to avoid the effects of a new policy.
Today, the introduction of modern transportation infrastructure such as the metro failed to change the habits of Hanoians who prefer to don their noisy mopeds (but leave their helmets at home despite traffic laws).
Despite newer and modern facilities, Hanoians stay faithful to their roots, which is what makes Hanoi’s culture so authentic and seemingly unscathed from rapid modernisation as opposed to its Southern and more cosmopolitan counterpart, Ho Chi Minh City.
Having endured long periods of colonisation and frequent wars, it might only be natural that a country that has faced prolonged conflict develop a natural defence mechanism to preserve its national identity.
For myself, visiting Hanoi, especially as a first time teacher, felt like a gateway to another dimension. Despite expecting the unexpected, Hanoi was so utterly different and polarised to anything that I had ever seen or experienced.
But while these stark differences from your home country may intimidate you at first, they ultimately create an experience which is so unique that you can’t help but fall in love with the idiosyncratic city.
Navigating a Foreign Language
Because it has only been open to tourists for a short period of time, the standard of English isn’t as high in Hanoi as it is in other capitals such as Bangkok. Venturing down the streets away from the Old Quarter, you might find it difficult to recognise any words other than ones influenced by French colonialism such as bia or ca phe.
Relying heavily on tones, Vietnamese is a language that is very difficult to master. The slightest of mistakes can mean something very different from what is intended. An example of this is the simple and monosyllabic word, ma:
● Ma: ghost
● Má: mother
● Mả: but
● Mã: horse
● Mạ: young rice / rice seeding
Expect to make plenty of mistakes when you’re trying to communicate in Vietnamese. My former co-teacher, Trung, often corrected me whenever I pronounced her name as trứng, which means egg. Had she ever grown impatient with my language mishaps, I would not have blamed her. Yet, like most of the Vietnamese co-teachers I worked with, she was kind, helpful, and patient.
Despite the difficulties that learning Vietnamese poses, it is undoubtedly worth learning basic phrases to enrich your experience. Not many people in the capital can speak English. However, a much bigger reason for you to learn Vietnamese (or at least try to) is that basic interactions with the locals will turn into meaningful encounters.
The local population are incredibly fond of tays (Westerners) and foreigners, especially when they have the courtesy to learn their native language. Basic phrases such as xin chao (hello) and xin kahm on (thank you) will undoubtedly enlarge the smile of each local you meet, whether in the form of welcoming or laughter. If you make mistakes, they are likely to laugh, but this is done in endearing fashion rather than laughing at you.
Teachers are in a special position because they aren’t merely passing by location after location. Instead, they have the opportunity to immerse themselves in a completely foreign culture, and Hanoi is a city which is likely polarising to any other city in your home country.
If they treat the place like their home by learning the language and engaging with the community, it will start to feel like home. Had I been travelling through Hanoi rather than living there as a teacher, I wouldn’t have appreciated what the city had to offer.
The Highs and Lows of the Classroom
Teaching isn’t an easy job, it can be tough shuffling from one classroom to another teaching over 1,000 students per week. The classrooms of public schools in Vietnam are overcrowded with around 50 to 60 hyperactive students, and each student is likely to possess a different level of English. While one student may understand colloquialisms of English, another may struggle to say the date.
And while it can be overwhelming and tiring initially, each teacher will leave Vietnam with countless wholesome memories from the classroom. Not only can the students be unwavering in their enthusiasm for the presence of an English teacher at their school, they can be extremely generous.
A friend of mine returned home after a day of teaching with a brand new PS4 controller along with Mario Puzzo’s The Godfather. Another shared with a student her fondness of turtles, only to turn up to the next class with that same student presenting her with an illegal and invasive species of turtle. Bewildered and unsure of what to do, her co-teacher told her that she must accept the sentient gift out of politeness according to Vietnamese culture.
While I myself wasn’t presented with a gift such as the violent crime novel The Godfather or an illegal turtle, a student of mine made an incredible gesture. At a school in a less affluent area of Hanoi, one student would turn up to school, not in school uniform, but in the same Real Madrid shirt for each lesson. One day, I turned up only to see that he had written down my name across the back of his shirt with a permanent marker.
It was a reflective moment of how important a giáo viên tiếng anh (English teacher) can be in the Hanoian community. Despite that; the area was less affluent, this student would turn up wearing the same shirt for each lesson, and that Hanoi has a revelling football community, he still deemed his teacher’s name worth being on the back of his favourite shirt.
Regardless of how much or how little the Vietnamese have to give, they will always find a way to make sure that your presence is not only welcomed but appreciated. These gifts created such a reflection of how valued you are in the classroom, as do the positive interactions you’ll have outside the classroom.
Even when you don’t have your best days at school or you miss home, you will always come across someone who will make you feel at home in Hanoi. While the local population are already hospitable towards a tây, or Westerner, they are far more receptive to a giáo viên tiếng anh.
Teaching English in Vietnam
It is an unhealthy projection to pretend that your travels will be filled with highs and highs only. Maybe your instagram will show only the luxurious and desired aspects of your adventure, but culture shock, especially for a first time English teacher in Vietnam, is almost inevitable. And not to be cliche, but it is true that your time spent teaching abroad will bring you lows just as well as it will bring you highs.
However, living and teaching, not just travelling, in Hanoi provides you the luxury of embracing something truly foreign and polarised to what you are familiar with back home. It took me some time to wrap my head around the informalities of Hanoi and Vietnamese culture.
And as a 21 year old fresh out of university and a tedious retail job in the UK, Hanoi was the perfect destination for me to experience and adjust to something so utterly foreign to what I was used to. And whether you are fond of the energy of your students, succulent roadside cuisines, or a distinctive architectural environment, Hanoi’s seductive peculiarities will tempt you to stay far longer than you anticipated.