Two years ago, I decided to get on the travel-bandwagon and live abroad. I had heard many great stories about teaching English as a foreign language in South East Asian destinations like China, Thailand, Cambodia and South Korea, but the place that I decided to go to, in the end, was Vietnam..
Vietnam was never a place I was particularly interested in, but I needed to get out of my comfort zone, living in Cape Town my entire life, so my boyfriend and I decided to get our TEFL qualifications, apply for visas, book our flight and pack our bags. We also had friends in Hanoi who had told us all about how much they had been enjoying it, the comfortable standard of living, and how easy it is to travel to other nearby Asian destinations like Hong Kong.
Since then, we learnt that Vietnam is one crazy country! It’s a fascinating place to live. Hanoi is completely different from Cape Town. There are no beautiful beaches or forests to explore; it’s just a concrete jungle. You think Cape Town’s traffic is bad? Wait until you drive on the roads in Hanoi… Nobody here follows traffic rules. “Oh, it’s a red light?” – In Hanoi that means “go!”
The easiest way to get around in the city is on a motorbike or scooter. Out of about seven million people living in Hanoi, five million ride bikes. For foreigners, it’s pretty easy to hire a scooter. You have a choice of either a manual, semi-automatic or automatic. Having never ridden a scooter in my life, I was extremely nervous to be riding around the busy streets of Hanoi. But it had to be done and I faced my fears out of sheer necessity.
I hired a manual scooter from a shop down the road from the place that we now call home in Tay Ho, which means ‘West Lake’ (which is quite ironic, considering that this is the expat area where most of the ‘Westerners’ stay). I pay $44 a month to hire a scooter and about $7 a month on petrol. The cost of getting around is indicative of how cheap it is to live here.
But, as fun as it sounds to be riding around on a scooter, you have to be constantly vigilant. It’s critical to be completely aware the entire time that you’re on the road. Keep your eyes peeled on all sides of the street as bikes, cars, and trucks could come speeding past you at any time. I managed to get the hang of riding a bike rather quickly – this after initially thinking that the bike could balance by itself, which I learnt very quickly after landing up on the ground, it does not!
We’re very lucky to be part of such a big expat community. The majority of them are South Africans, but we’ve also had the opportunity to meet new people and make friends from places such as Ireland, England, America, New Zealand and even Chile. Tay Ho is really accommodating towards us foreigners. There are plenty of restaurants that serve ‘western food’ as well as shops that supply many of our comforts from home. We also can pop down to a local shop and eat a Vietnamese meal for as little as $1. For my boyfriend and I, our favourite local food is something called bún xá xíu– a noodle dish filled with crispy pieces of pork, fried onions, peanuts and broth. The trick is to then add condiments! Squeeze some lemon, add a bit of soy sauce and don’t forget the chilli sauce.
Another popular meal is Bún chả which is typically eaten at breakfast. This is made up of a sweet broth with pieces of lettuce, carrots, pork meatballs, and char-grilled pieces of bacon. Finish it off with a cup of trà đá (a cold, brewed tea) or a cup of Vietnamese jet fuel coffee. Vietnamese coffee is out of this world. I once got such bad jitters from a cup of coffee that I was unable to function for a whole day. But, for some people, this is exactly what good coffee is meant to be like.
There is always something going on in Hanoi for foreigners to entertain themselves during the week and over the weekend. Many places host food markets, gigs, pub quizzes or you could just pop down to your local ‘beer hoi’, which would be the Vietnamese’s equivalent of a pub. Don’t get fooled by the word pub. Most of the beer hois are just makeshift places set up with kegs and tiny chairs you would typically use in a kindergarten. But no complaining is done when you spend 10 000 Vietnamese dong on a glass of beer, which is equivalent to about ZAR6,50 (less than 50c American).
Yes, from what you have read Hanoi sounds like the place to be. But with every country there does come the disadvantages of living there. For Hanoi, the biggest disadvantage is the pollution. Hanoi is unfortunately situated close to the polluting factories of China. Along with the millions of bikes on the road and the Vietnamese cultural ritual of burning paper to offer to their ancestors and burning their trash, Hanoi is often covered in a layer of smog.
Personally, I have noticed this affect my health. At one point I battled a sore throat for weeks on end and the pollution was a huge contributing factor. However, there are things to do to try to keep healthy – wear a mask when driving on the roads and invest in an air purifier for your apartments. This does help in the long run.
When leaving Cape Town, the plan was to spend one year in Hanoi, and about halfway through this year I was ready to leave and go back home. I was extremely homesick, missing my mom’s food, fed up with the children I was teaching and just missing some clean, fresh Capetonian air.
But after leaving my previous school I managed to find a good job at a Korean school. The kids aren’t much better behaved than the ones I taught before but we are lucky in that the school we work at is a full time job where we are expected to be there from 08h00-16h00. Many other English schools in Hanoi are either only in the evening or split up between morning and afternoon classes at different schools, which can result in a lot of driving around the city. At the school I was at before I could have up to 60 badly behaved students in the class. Now at my new school my biggest class I teach is 20, which makes things a lot easier.
We have a great apartment, which came fully furnished with everything we need. We stay close to all restaurants and pubs and have even adopted a dog from a rescue shelter. So after our one year in Hanoi we decided to come back and are planning to spend at least another six months here. Yes, I miss my family and Cape Town a lot, but I have seen so much, experienced so much and done so much since moving to Hanoi – and there is still so much more to see. From Hanoi I have been able to travel to Bangkok and Chiang Mai in Thailand, Penang in Malaysia, Siem Reap in Cambodia and Hong Kong. For the same price as a return ticket to Johannesburg from Cape Town, you can travel to another country from Hanoi. Travelling around South East Asia is so reasonable – food is cheap and delicious. The markets are great and you are spoilt for choice of what to do. Whether you enjoy city life, relaxing on the beach or wandering through the jungle there is bound to be a country not more than two hours from Hanoi that can give you one of the above.
Leaving home is never easy, and our time in Hanoi has not been straightforward, but it has given us experiences we could never have dreamt of before we got here.
This story was written by a guest contributor, Siân Murray. If you enjoyed reading about her experiences, follow her on Instagram at @sian.murray. And if you’d like to become a contributor for Essential Millennial, please contact us and we’ll help you share your stories far and wide.