Tag Archives: traveling

Hidden Dangers of Cycling in Hanoi

8 Nov

The following incident took place a few weeks ago. I am only just recovering from the humiliation and so, it has taken me this long to post the story that I wrote some time ago. Enjoy.

Standard bicycle scene in Hanoi...

Standard bicycle scene in Hanoi… Taken from the back of our motorbike

Living in Hanoi teaching English, it is considered something of a crime not to drive a motorbike. A failing almost. Everyone has one. Seriously, everyone. It is just part of essential everyday life here, with the public transport system being practically non-existent and very difficult to figure out for non-Vietnamese. Truthfully, I’m too scared (don’t judge me). I will happily ride around as a passenger on the back of John’s Yamaha and have actually given it a try myself but I really don’t feel great about driving a motorbike with no insurance in the crazy traffic. I have resolutely stuck to my bicycle since I arrived here, stubbornly denying claims that it is too hot to cycle to work in the heat of Hanoi’s summer. The sweltering temperatures, combined with the fact that I generally have to wear smart black trousers, means that I consistently arrive to work clad in a suit of sweat. Lovely. Attempting to try and aid the airflow a little, I wore a loose, long flowing maxi-dress to work the other day. While aware that it wasn’t really appropriate cycling attire, I decided that minimizing my intolerable sweat situation was more important.

Mistake number one.

I was soon to find out that bicycles can, in fact, be even more dangerous than motorbikes.

As I cycled home from work that day, I was enjoying an unusual breeze as my dress floated around my legs in the light wind. Just as I thought to myself what a welcome respite this was from the usual stifling heat of my smart trousers, I heard a huge ripping sound and my bike began to skid to a stop. My dress had become caught in the back wheel of my bike. It felt like slow motion but in an instant my dress ripped right off from the waist down, causing me to topple off of my bike, on to the ground with only my underwear protecting my modesty. Kneeling at the side of the road, practically half naked, trying to untangle my dress from the wheel, a Vietnamese man stopped to help me.

Although touched by his kindness, I was far too embarrassed and over-exposed to want any help so I attempted to wave him away politely. He persisted in untangling the remains of my dress and, politeness prevailing, I let him.

Mistake number two.

Obviously encouraged by me allowing him to assist with the situation, he started rubbing my arm and gesturing wildly at me. Confused, it took me a moment to grasp what he was trying to say but I was soon able to work out what he was asking me. Wait for it…

He was asking if I would perform oral sex on him – FOR MONEY- all conveyed through the power of sign language.

Wow.

What was he thinking? He saw me topple off my bike. He saw the dress rip and so was aware that I was not just hanging around the street in my pants, waiting for business. What was it about the incident that made him think it would be an appropriate time to suggest I gave him a blow job?! Seriously. At least he offered to pay, I guess.

Anyway, after using some ‘sign language’ of my own, I made it very clear that this would NOT be happening. EVER. I then set off home with my underwear on display and my dignity (and dress) in tatters. Cycling home through Hanoi, I attracted a lot of unwanted attention and just as I was confident that the journey couldn’t get any worse, one of the very few people I actually know in this new city pulled up beside me at the traffic lights (on a motorbike of course, dammit). Noticing the horror on his face, I proceeded to make polite conversation while he awkwardly attempted to divert his eyes, speeding off before I had a chance to explain the situation.

I had no choice but to wave him goodbye and continue the journey home in my underwear. Despite being one of the most embarrassing journeys of my life, I did see the funny side and cycled home with tears of laughter streaming down my face!

I still haven’t graduated to my own motorbike yet but I have learned my lesson – maxi dresses and bicycles DO NOT mix.

Here is picture evidence from that fateful day. I can’t quite believe I am posting a picture of myself with my ass out on the internet but I feel it tops off the story nicely.

The grand unveiling...

The grand unveiling…

What’s Next? An Ongoing Question.

31 Oct
Palm trees of Hanoi

Palm trees of Hanoi

I am the kind of person who finds it very difficult to just ‘be’. Just exist and be happy. It is a frustrating truth that I am always thinking, ‘what’s next’. In some ways, I suppose this kind of attitude can be attributed to successful people, always striving to achieve more. In other ways, it is the attitude of a perpetually unfulfilled person, always striving to feel content. Needing more than they have.

I am not sure which category I fall into.

If I’m honest, I have been planning my next move since I first arrived here. Not satisfied with achieving my long-standing goal of living and working in Vietnam, I have been guilty of trying to put time limits on everything from the start. “How long will I stay here for?” “When should I think about booking a flight to X, Y or Z”, and so on. This is something I have longed to do for years and now that I was actually here, living it, doing it, I couldn’t help but always be looking forward to the next thing.

The way my brain works, I always feel like I have to be planning my next move. Working towards something else.

I did consider leaving Hanoi earlier and going to Australia to pursue my current career in TV. But as I had finally come to a decision to book my flight to leave in August, I started to doubt myself and all of a sudden I was overcome with love for this city. The air seemed clearer, the traffic less dangerous, the people more friendly and the beer suddenly colder.

It’s a bad habit I have, and a common one I’m sure, to always wonder if the grass will be greener.

I wonder... Is the grass greener over there?

I wonder… Is the grass greener over there?

After lots of thinking and planning, I decided that I would stay in Hanoi to work as a teacher, rather than applying for an Australian working visa. I’m glad that I made this decision as I think that leaving earlier would have been a mistake.

Working here as a teacher, it is more than feasible to work very part time hours and still make enough to money to survive on comfortably. In fact, 20 hours per week is considered to be a ‘full time’ role. I work about 10, and that is enough to survive on.

Being here has given me the time and freedom to do things that I always wanted to but never seemed to get round to doing at home. I was always too tired to go to the gym and could never find the time to do any writing. Since arriving in Hanoi, I have taken up dance classes, pilates and started writing on a daily basis.

Yet, rather than fully immerse myself in this lifestyle for the duration of my stay, I have spent a lot of my time thinking about ‘what’s next?’ I have never had so much freedom and, just as I prepare to leave, I have come to realise that I will probably never have it this easy again. So, my time in Hanoi is now coming to an end and while part of me wishes that I had been more decisive in the start and spent less time planning my next move, I am mainly just very excited about the travel plans that await me.

So, what is next?!

Well, the timing has worked out perfectly and next week I will fly from Hanoi to Hong Kong where I will meet one of my very best friends, at Hong Kong airport. Our flights land about 30 minutes apart and it’s going to be an emotional reunion. I’m talking movie montage style: slow motion, arms spread, running through the airport towards one another and throwing ourselves dramatically into a long-overdue embrace. At least that’s what I’m hoping for. Something along the lines of this:


No pressure.

Anyway, after spending a few days in Hong Kong, we have three and a half weeks to travel China. From there, Laura is going to Australia to work for six months and I will go to visit for four weeks and do some traveling. After this part of the journey is over, I return to Vietnam to say my final goodbyes before heading back to Scotland.

As much as I will be sad to close the page on this chapter, I am incredibly excited to start the next. I have always dreamed of visiting Hong Kong and I can’t wait to cuddle some pandas in Chengdu! To visit the Great Wall of China will be incredible and driving the Great Ocean Road in Australia is one to tick off my bucket list. The fact that I get to do it with one of my favourite people in the world is equally amazing.

It will be strange to be on the road with a new travel buddy. John, my boyfriend, is staying here to finish up working in Hanoi. We have spent practically every single day together this year and it will be interesting to travel with someone else. I just hope Laura can put up with my sleep talking, ridiculously bad sense of direction and embarrassingly low tolerance of local spirits.

What not so long ago, seemed like an endless year stretching out in front of me, is fast coming to an end. But before then there will be lots more to come on the China and Australia leg of the adventure. Watch this space.

If anyone has any recommendations or suggestions for traveling in China and/or Australia, I would love to hear them! Are there any places I shouldn’t miss?

Making the Most of Rainy Season in Hanoi

10 Oct

“It was as if they turned on a faucet. One day it started raining, and it didn’t quit for four months. We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin’ rain… and big ol’ fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath.”

Quote from Forrest Gump, describing the rain in Vietnam during the war.

Quote from Forrest Gump, describing the rain in Vietnam during the war.

Thankfully, rainy season hasn’t hit us that hard. (And we’re not fighting in the war like Forrest was, so actually there’s a lot to be thankful for). That said, the wet season is well and truly upon us in Hanoi.

It's times like this you need a submarine...

It’s times like this you need a submarine…

Considering that Vietnam is a country with a tropical monsoon climate and the rainy season officially runs from May to October, up until now, we had gotten off very lightly. The rain fall over the past few months (except from one particularly wild storm) has seemed to be almost considerate in nature; falling mainly during the night, leaving the air fresh and cool(er) for waking up in the morning. Showers have been intermittent and broken up nicely by sunny spells and even consecutively sunny days, with no rain to be seen.

When the rain has fallen, it hasn’t proved to be too much of an inconvenience for me. Usually miraculously stopping just before I leave to cycle for work and often falling lightly enough that it has still been pleasurable to walk to the nearest café or go for a swim outdoors. There is something enjoyably refreshing about swimming in the rain when the air is warm and tropical.

Yes, it’s fair to say that rainy season hasn’t been as awful as I expected. In fact, the first heavy rain storm that I experienced in Vietnam was nothing short of joyous. We were out on the motorbike when some particularly menacing thunder and lightning began to crash and roar above us, before the heavens proceeded to open up on to the streets of Hanoi. It was coming down in sheets; so heavy that we had to stop the bike but instead of seeking shelter, I laughed like a maniac and stood under the torrents of falling rain, mouth wide open, arms stretched out, looking up at the angry sky above us. It was magical.

John watching the storm outside

John watching the storm outside

The novelty has now worn off, although there is still something nice about walking about in the rain wearing shorts, T-Shirt and flip flops as opposed to the wellies and waterproofs of Scotland (flip flops are the only shoes that withstand the constant soaking, my gladiator sandals that I had custom-made in Hoi An have, sadly, been destroyed).

While there have been wet days from the beginning of June onward, August and September are officially the wettest months. August saw tropical storm ‘Jebi’ flood Hoan Kiem Lake and the neighboring Old Quarter. September has now arrived and the rain is here in full force. It is only six days in to the month but this week seems to have lasted forever. It has rained constantly and while the significantly colder air provides welcome respite from the usual humidity levels, I am starting to feel like it may never stop.

I can’t help but be impressed by how unfazed the Vietnamese seem by the rainy season. They are nothing short of resilient and continue about their day to day life as normal. Bearing in mind that over 90% of the population use motorbikes as their primary source of transport, there really isn’t any shelter available for their commute to work. But they wear their ponchos with pride and carry on regardless.

Going about daily life

Going about daily life

The Vietnamese way of life is very much an outdoors one. Everything takes place on the street, from food shopping, to socializing, to eating to rearing livestock. (Unfortunately, at times, this even includes going to the toilet. Something I dread to think about while traipsing through the flooded streets, blind to what may be floating about).  While the rain falls punishingly, day to day life generally goes unaffected. Aside from assembling some make shift shelters in the form of a tarpaulin on stilts to cover any seated areas, outdoor life carries on.

While this week has been particularly grim weather wise, rainy season isn’t all bad. In fact, there are some positive aspects of the wet weather; mainly revolving around the fact that it gives you an excuse to spend time doing things you would normally feel slightly guilty about.

Things to do during Rainy Season:

1. Eat cake. And lots of it.

tarte

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Hanoi, the colonial French influence on the food has left its mark and it is impossibly hard to avoid the numerous bakeries and pastry shops. Particularly when it’s raining. My body seems programmed to crave cake when it rains (well, not just when it rains but it kind of seems justified in the bad weather?). Chocolate tartes, cream donuts, waffles, baked cheesecake and perfect croissants are available all over the city and when the rain falls, I head instinctively towards one of the many delicious bakeries to eat cake. Lots of cake.

2. Drink beer.

247

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alternatively to eating cake (or indeed, before, during and after) drinking beer is an inevitable choice when it is too wet to do much else. Bia Hoi (locally brewed fresh beer) is literally cheaper than water here. It would be rude not to.

3. Read lots of books.

Photocopy, of course...

Photocopy, of course…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I love reading but somehow always manage to make myself feel guilty for spending time during the day just reading. For some reason, the rain makes it feel justified. I am currently reading ‘The Subtle Knife’, book number two in the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy by Philip Pullman. I can’t get enough and have got the third installment waiting to go when I finish this. Other books that have seen me through the rainy season include ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The Quiet American’ by Graham Greene (standard Vietnam reading), ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn (highly recommended – what a twist!) and ‘The Universe versus Alex Woods’ by Gavin Extence (brilliant, I cried and laughed the whole way through).

4. Kiss a stranger*

The Notebook (worst film EVER)

The Notebook (worst film EVER)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’ve always wanted to re-enact a dramatic kissing scene in the rain, now is your chance. Chances are, it will be dramatic. Possibly not in the way you dreamed of.

*Disclaimer: this may, or may not, get you arrested.

5. Watch Breaking Bad.

bb

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was my ‘go to’ activity but I am now up to date with Series 5 and have to wait a week for each episode to air. Alternative box set recommendations for a rainy day include: Game of Thrones (obviously), Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Boardwalk Empire and Dexter.

6. Go swimming. Outdoors.

See above. It feels amazing.

7. Listen to music.

One thing I really miss about Scotland is the music. While the Vietnamese government does its best to ban social networking sights and BBC News, You Tube seems safe enough. For now. Thank the lord.

Here’s a song from one of my favourite new Scottish acts.


8. Take up a new hobby, or rediscover an old one…

While in Vietnam, I have rediscovered my love of writing, something I never seemed to find the time for at home. Rainy season comes complete with stints indoors and this is the perfect time to learn that language you’re always talking about, hone your guitar playing skills, start practising yoga  or take up candle making (probably not this one…although it is a handy skill for power cuts).

(Reminder to self: online shopping doesn’t count as a hobby).

9. Go to an indoor water park.

????????????????????

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vincom Royal City shopping mall has just opened up in Hanoi and it comes complete with cinema, ice skating rink and indoor water park. There are also lots of cafes providing plenty of opportunities to fulfill number one on this list. Mmmm cake…

10. Go surfing. Yes, you heard me.

Making the most of the rain!

Making the most of the rain!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11. Go fishing in the street. That’s right.

Fishing - just be careful, you never know what might be floating in the streets of Hanoi....

Fishing – just be careful, you never know what might be floating in the streets of Hanoi….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12. Take a leaf out of Gene Kelly’s book.

Embrace the rain!

Singing in the Rain!

Singing in the Rain!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12. Rain? What rain?

Learn a lesson from the locals’, suit up in your finest poncho, tie stools to your feet (bear with me…) and continue with your life as normal. A little flooding never hurt anyone.

It can be very difficult to locate wellington boots in Hanoi... never fear! This man has the answer!

It can be very difficult to locate wellington boots in Hanoi… never fear! This man has the answer!

Don't let a little rain stop you from playing local game, 'Co' tu'o'ng'... with a few beers of course!

Don’t let a little rain stop you from playing local game, ‘Co’ tu’o’ng’… with a few beers of course!

Pretend it isn't happening and carry on regardless!

Pretend it isn’t happening and carry on regardless!

Now that is dedication!

Now that is dedication!

Teaching English in Vietnam: A Guide

2 Oct
Students in Vietnam

Students in Vietnam

Teaching English in Vietnam is fantastic and I would recommend it without hesitation. There are an abundance of jobs and the standard hourly rate is $20 per hour, often higher. In a country with such low living costs, this sort of wage can provide you with an excellent standard of living.

Despite this, when first arriving in Vietnam, I was worried that it wasn’t for me. Being honest, it can be a bit of a culture shock initially and despite loving the country, I was skeptical about actually setting up a life here. It seemed unthinkable that I would be able to find a job, flat and new friends, all in a culture so very different from home.

I can now honestly say that I have fallen in love with the place, warts and all. There are so many different opportunities that I truly believe there is something to suit everyone. Whether you are looking for short term work to extend your travel in South East Asia, or want to set up a long term career in teaching, you should definitely consider Vietnam as a location.

Practising for the school show!

Practising for the school show!

Interested, but still not sure if it’s for you? Have a read of this guide I wrote, for TEFL Jobs World.

http://www.tefljobsworld.com/country-guides-and-advice/asia/vietnam/everything-you-need-to-know-about-teaching-english-in-vietnam/

If you have any questions, please do leave a comment.

Has anyone reading taught English in Vietnam? Have you had a similar experience? Would you recommend it to others contemplating taking the plunge in to South East Asia life?

Me with one of my cute students

Me with one of my cute students

Happy Birthday Granny

14 Sep
Glamorous Granny and Grandad

Glamorous Granny and Grandad

Today is my Granny’s birthday. And her death day. Last year, on this day, she left her body on this earth, after managing to make it (just and no more) to the grand old age of 88. Like other distressing events, such as 9/11 or the news that Michael Jackson had died, I’ll never forget where I was when I found out. It was completely unexpected. I was on a shoot with work, staying alone in a hotel in London. I had an early start ahead of me and my alarm was set for 6.30am. When I awoke to the sound of my phone ringing my first feeling was that of panic, I assumed I must have slept in for my shoot. After I managed to focus my bleary morning eyes on the screen, I realized it was my Mum calling. Before 6.30am. My initial feeling of panic manifested itself in a sinking lurch in my stomach. Of course I knew straightaway something was wrong. My Mum would never call me at that ridiculous time. Nobody would, unless it was a Sunday and some of my friends were still up, having life changing discussions after a particularly heavy night out.

For a split second, I thought about not answering, knowing deep down that something terrible had happened and wanting to protect myself from whatever news was about to be bestowed upon me. Honestly, I didn’t expect that it would be about my Granny. Despite being 87 years old and having taken a bit of a downturn with her dementia recently, I still thought of her as being the strong willed, hilarious, lively woman, full of life and a passion for fashion, that she’d always been. Of course, she was absolutely still this woman but perhaps with me living in Glasgow, being very busy with work and my selfish twenty-something life, I had missed how bad her dementia had got and turned a bit of a blind eye to the decline in her general health. I have a tendency to bury my head in the sand and pretend nothing is happening when it comes to things like that. Now, as so often is the way in this life, I wish that I had confronted the facts at hand and made the effort to go and visit her more often than I did, while I still had the chance. That’s not a nice feeling to address.

So, as I write, around this time, a year ago, I answered that phone call from my Mum. I immediately asked what was wrong and after a brief pause she just came right out and said it. “Granny died last night.” She had a stroke and it would have been fairly instantaneous with little or no pain, she reassured me.

They were words I hadn’t expected to hear for AT LEAST another five years and it took my brain a few minutes to process the information. I didn’t even cry at first. My throat ached and my head spun but I couldn’t quite translate these feelings in to physical tears. Embarrassingly, it wasn’t until I was leaving a voicemail for my boss, letting her know that I wouldn’t be able to make it to work that day, that the sadness was able to express itself in physical form. The tears started to flow and once the floodgate had opened I couldn’t stop. I can’t remember if I even made it to the end of my message but my work were completely lovely about the whole situation and arranged to get me on to the next flight back to Scotland.

Strangely, while on the Heathrow Express going to the airport, I ended up sitting across from a tiny, elderly lady who was sobbing uncontrollably, in complete silence. She looked heart-breakingly sad and usually, I would have been compelled to ask what was wrong and tried to comfort her. But on this same day last year, the tiny, upset lady and I sat across from one another in simultaneous silent tears, with only a brief single glance of understanding exchanged between us. I hoped she was OK but in a strange way, I felt that we comforted one another a little with our mutual sadness.

So, that’s how I spent this day last year.

This is a travel blog, you may be thinking. Where does the travel part come in? Well, one thing that makes me swell with pride when I think about my Granny, is how much she loved to travel. Alongside poppies, fashion and my Grandad Arthur, it was one of her long-term loves. At just the age of 28, her and my Grandad (30 at the time) packed up their lives, including a two year old Joyce (with a baby Bette soon to be on the way), and moved over to New York where they lived and worked for a total of five years. Back in the 50s, this was a completely unheard of thing for a couple of twenty-something’s from the small town of Brechin, Scotland to do. But they went and they did it. They defied the odds in pursuit of adventure, something they both sought out their whole life.

My Mum and Auntie Joyce in New York

My Mum Bette and Auntie Joyce in New York

Grandad and Joyce

Grandad and Auntie Joyce in New York

Throughout both my Granny and Grandad’s lives, they traveled a lot. A lot by anyone’s standards but particularly so for their generation, when it was still considered wildly exotic to cross the border in to North England for your honeymoon.

From the legendary road trip from Scotland to Majorca with five children, ranging from 3 months old to 13, crammed in to the back of a tiny Hillman Minx; to the round the world trip they took upon retirement which saw them conquer New York, LA, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and Singapore; to everything else that came in between, their passion to see the world and everything in it was nothing short of inspirational.

Road trip to Majorca in the Hillman Minx!

Road trip to Majorca in the Hillman Minx!

Some of the other countries that they travelled to (the ones I am aware of) included France, Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Holland, Austria, Turkey, Egypt, Florida, Canada and the Caribbean, where they indulged in a fantastic cruise, worthy of a place on any self-respecting bucket list. My Grandad also saw a lot of the world during the Second World War, when he was placed on various ships in the Mediterranean and spent time in South Africa. Playing in the forces football team, he would often travel wherever the team was summoned for matches. He was once almost adopted by a South African, department-store owning, couple and I’m pretty sure he probably came close to adopting a couple of African children himself (that postcard is another story….).

Yes, it’s certainly fair to say that neither of them were ever short of a story or two. Their passion for travel and zest for life is something that will never be forgotten by me, my family or anyone who knew them.

What I’m trying to say is that, although I’m over here in Vietnam, while the rest of my family goes out for a celebratory happy birthday meal, I feel as close to my Granny as I ever could. As much as I wish I could join them and raise a glass of Baileys in memory of her genuinely inspiring life, I know, more than anyone else I have ever met, she would understand the need for adventure and my desire to travel. I just wish that she could have been here to hear my stories. I can only hope that they will live up to hers.

Happy Birthday Granny. I hope you guys are having the biggest adventure yet up there.

On the beach

On the beach

Road trip!

Road trip!

Family camping trip

Family camping trip

Holidays

Holidays

New York

New York

Granny with Mum and Joyce

Granny with Mum and Joyce


Despite the ever present passion for travel, she was always a huge part of all her grandchildren’s lives! (That’s me playing it cool back right!)

Despite the ever present passion for travel, she was always a huge part of all her grandchildren’s lives! (That’s me playing it cool back right!)

Travels with my Mother

8 Aug
During one of our more 'swanky' evenings

During one of our more ‘swanky’ evenings

When my Mum told me she was booking flights to come and visit me in Vietnam, my first reaction was one of sheer elation. I literally did a dance. I have always been extremely close to my Mum and Sister and the thought of not seeing them for a whole year was one of the main contributing factors towards the tears streaming down my face as I traipsed through security in Glasgow airport, with the demeanor of someone being sent off for a jail sentence, rather than the trip of a lifetime.

After my initial excitement at the prospect of a visit from my Mum, the secondary feeling was one of worry. This may sound strange but after first settling in Hanoi, it had taken me some time to get over the feeling of intense homesickness I experienced most days.

In the beginning, while traveling round SE Asia, every day was so action packed and full of new experiences that I had no time to worry about what I was missing at home. Upon our return to Hanoi, it really hit me that we were going to be away for a long time. Trying to find an apartment and a job, in this crazy city, was difficult and I started to wonder whether the experience was right for me. It took time but upon finding a nice room and a job that I gradually felt decreasingly nervous about with every lesson, I managed to stop missing home every day and really began to enjoy living in Vietnam.

However, this control over my homesickness was a fairly recent development with my emotions generally seeming to teeter on a tightrope, easily tipping over and falling back in to remission if missing a particularly exciting event or occasion at home. I worried that this small slice of home, in the form of my beloved Mum, would set me back a few stages in the homesickness chart (FYI. There are five official stages). Despite this worry, I was obviously completely thrilled to have her come and visit me and started planning what we should do during her 14 days in Vietnam. How exciting!

Alas… this planning led me to my second set of trepidation. I began to question whether she would enjoy the country and its strange ways. It’s a very long distance to come for a two week holiday and the flights were by no means cheap. What if she didn’t like it? Although she assured me that she was primarily coming to visit me and would be happy sitting drinking cups of tea in my kitchen every day, I couldn’t help but feel responsible for her enjoyment of the trip.

One of the quieter crossings we had to navigate together!

One of the quieter crossings we had to navigate together!

The whole time I have been travelling and living in Vietnam, I have kept in regular contact with my friends and family (particularly my Mum, speaking regularly on Skype and daily on whatsapp and email). She has been kept informed of my impressions, descriptions and feelings towards this country, the food, the people and the scenery. After building up an image in her mind, based purely on my experiences, it became a concern to me that perhaps it wouldn’t quite live up to her expectations. In no way is my Mum a fussy or judgmental person, but living here has been something so separate from anything or anyone back home that the thought of someone from ‘real life’ sampling it for themselves made me start to analyse everything. What if she hated the local food stalls that we eat lunch at? What if it isn’t quite as hot as I had made it out to be? Does it rain more than I’ve articulated? Is it as charming as I have described it as being? Maybe the traffic will be too much for her to handle? Or perhaps, I have built it up to be worse than it actually is? Is it really THAT bad crossing the road in Hanoi?

Living in Vietnam, and this whole journey, has always been a completely separate world from my life back home. And now the two were about to meet. I desperately hoped they would get on.

Enjoying beers in the 'gutter' in Saigon - getting on just fine!

Enjoying beers in the ‘gutter’ in Saigon – getting on just fine!

Arriving off the plane, my Mum looked surprisingly fresh and awake after her impressive 30 hour journey. It was wonderful to see her and it felt completely surreal as we took the taxi ride from Noi Bai airport to Tay Ho, where we live in Hanoi. After lots of hugging, the first night was spent catching up and showing her around our local area. We went for some food nearby and then disaster struck – her Wontons were BELOW ROOM TEMPERATURE. And CHEWY. Oh god, I was getting nervous. Maybe the food in Vietnam is rubbish? Why did I tell her it was good!? Have I just gotten used to it? (Of course, she wasn’t bothered about this in the slightest but I was so focused on showing her the best of Vietnam that I genuinely felt distraught at the substandard wontons.)

One thing that soon became apparent was that I needn’t have worried that I had built the insanity of the traffic up too much – she was terrified every time we crossed the road. In the beginning, I was quite seriously concerned that she might have a nervous breakdown every time I had to physically drag her across the road, in front of oncoming cars, motorbikes and lorries. I tried not to get frustrated, after all we have been in Asia for 7 months now and it really takes some time to get used to the differences in day to day life.

After the first day exploring the Old Quarter and surrounding areas, it was clear that I perhaps needed to rethink some of the activities I had lined up for us. It turns out that, what I hadn’t accounted for, was what a ‘swanker’* ( see definition below) my Mum is! Here was me, visualizing things to do each day that involved drinking 5 pence beers at the side of the road (or the gutter, as she jokingly (?) liked to refer to it as) and eating food sloppily served to child size plastic chairs and tables, when all she really wanted was to frequent swanky roof top bars for cocktails! Living in Vietnam has really skewed my perception of what is expensive. On her first day, we sat down at the Metropole hotel in the French Quarter and looked at the cocktail menu. I almost vomited upon looking at the prices of drinks and reassured her that we could just make a break for it if she wanted (even though we had already used their freshly steamed white face towels, presented upon arrival). My Mum looked at me as though I was insane and reminded me how much the drinks actually cost in pounds.

More 'swanky' cocktails in the roof top bar of the Sofitel Hanoi - magnificent view

More cocktails in the roof top bar of the Sofitel Hanoi – magnificent view

When you are used to living here, eating local food and drinking local beer, you can’t help but compare everything to these ridiculously low prices. In comparison to local bia hoi, yes the cocktails were expensive. In comparison to what you would pay in the UK for a cocktail in a five star hotel, it was nothing short of a bargain.

As well as seeing the sights of Hanoi and nearby Halong Bay, we traveled to centrally located Hoi An, and Saigon in the south. This was the second time I had made these journeys south of Hanoi but the experience was a very different one. The thought of getting on a Vietnamese night bus with my Mum did actually enter my head at one point. I quickly (and wisely) dismissed it at an early stage. The experience of flying around the country was such a massive improvement to the hideous night buses that we had to endure when we were backpacking through the country. I felt like a real person, as opposed to an unwashed and sleep deprived traveler. And it felt good.

Mum enjoying the sights for Halong Bay

Mum enjoying the sights for Halong Bay

What is key here is that holidaying and traveling are two separate entities. As a backpacker, great joy is found in spending as little as possible on beer and street side food. The joy of coming on holiday here is perhaps different. Don’t get me wrong, we did our fair share of street food and cheap beer but, understandably, when coming to the country for two weeks it is desirable to live a bit of the high life in rooftop five star bars and stay at hotels that would be out of your price range back home. By paying a little more, you can have some fantastic experiences at a fraction of the price in more developed countries. Another factor I often overlook is that my Mum is actually a ‘Mum’. As well as being a great friend she is a parent, with a good few years on me and differing priorities. As we are so close, it is easy to forget this and assume that she wants to go to full moon parties and drink buckets with the best of them. Enjoying cocktails with a nice view is generally more appealing to a parent than the satisfied feeling of only paying 7pence for your beer. (It should be noted that said beer usually comes in a glass of questionable origin and one of the perks is having to stand up and move your chair off of the road every ten minutes, when the police patrol past. Inconvenient? Slightly. All part of the charm? Absolutely.)

View from the Sheraton, Saigon

View from the Sheraton, Saigon

Anyway, after managing to get my head around this I was able to embrace it fully, believe me. I was perfectly happy to be hanging out at five star bars, drinking cocktails and going for massages and manicures. (I think I must be the only female to travel SE Asia and not have a single spa treatment done, up until now – thanks Mum!) Oh, and taking taxis. What previously had seemed like an expensive luxury, was put firmly in to perspective for me and we started getting taxis everywhere. As much as I love a ride on the back of a scooter, or even a walk along the death-trap roads, there is nothing like good aircon and leather seats. The initial idea that myself, my Mum and John would all navigate our way around Hanoi on the back of our Yamaha Nouvo was a ridiculous one and it is a blessing for our safety that this didn’t go ahead.

Strolling in Hanoi

Strolling in Hanoi

It was interesting to hear someone else’s comments and first hand views on a country that is very full on. From talking to many travelers and people passing though, it is a country that many either love or hate. Vietnam tends to evoke strong reactions from people. During my time here, it must have grown on me more than I realized because I could feel myself becoming defensive in response of the smallest criticisms from my Mum. Of course, this was absolutely ridiculous as they were the exact same criticisms as I myself had made when we first arrived. There is no doubt about it, the toilets ARE disgusting.

My Mum loved her time here, particularly our trips to Halong Bay and Hoi An, which is just impossible not to love. My initial worries were completely unnecessary and overall, I think we managed to find a nice balance of sampling the local street food and beer that Vietnam is famous for, while allowing ourselves to enjoy several luxurious drinks and views over the bright lights of the city. And, my Mum helped me regain my love for shopping! (Something that she was later to regret when packing her case to go home…)

Shopping in Saigon

Shopping in Saigon

It was amazing having her here, it really was. I was worried it might cause a regression in to feelings of homesickness but, in the end, I was so grateful that she made the tiring journey all the way out to see me and felt nothing but happiness that I had been able to see her during my year away from home. Most people aren’t given that opportunity when on a trip like this.

I had to give myself a stern talking to after waving her off at the airport. I allowed myself to have a small cry and then pulled myself together as I walked past the throngs of tourist taxis and made my way to take the local bus back in to Hanoi.

Thank you for a lovely holiday Mum.

* Swanker (def): ‘Hilarious’ term that we coined for my Mum when it transpired that she was apparently only interested in visiting the bars of 5 star hotels, as opposed to the ‘gutter’ joints I had lined up for us. Oh, how we laughed.

Halong Bay cruise - fantastic!

Halong Bay cruise – fantastic!

Kayaking in Halong - in the POURING rain. Amazing.

Kayaking in Halong – in the POURING rain. Amazing.

Pagoda at Truc Bach Lake, Hanoi

Pagoda at Truc Bach Lake, Hanoi

Mum's photo of speeding motorcycle and grafitti in Sigon - love it

Mum’s photo of speeding motorcycle and grafitti in Saigon – love it

Hectic Hanoi

Hectic Hanoi

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At the 'Hanoi Hilton' aka Ho Lo Prison

At the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ aka Ho Lo Prison

Views over Hanoi from the Sofitel Rooftop

Views over Hanoi from the Sofitel Rooftop

Hoi An wet market

Hoi An wet market

Beautiful lanterns of Hoi An

Beautiful lanterns of Hoi An

A little bit of luxury, Hoi An

A little bit of luxury, Hoi An

...finely balanced with dirt cheap beer, Saigon!

…finely balanced with dirt cheap beer, Saigon!

Earning a Living in Vietnam

4 Aug

Last week, I was offered a job at a Vietnamese television production company. As I work in TV at home, I was obviously thrilled by this prospect. I hadn’t considered that there may be alternative ways to earn a living in Vietnam, other than teaching English, and was hopeful that this would open up new doors for me. Upon receiving the good news, I was very excited to accept the offer. It almost seemed too good to be true…

Then came the bad news:

‘First we need to talk to you about money…’ the production manager had said, in a leveling manner that made my heart sink a little.

Aware that the average wage in Vietnam is reported to be $185 per month (that’s around 120 English pounds) I wasn’t looking forward to the conversation regarding salary.

DONG

Explaining that all of their current staff are Vietnamese, the PM tried to soften the blow of their pending offer by padding it out with lots of explanation about pay rates in Vietnam. They made it clear that their proposal was very much a compromise – I was being presented a greatly inflated rate as a Westerner with native English speaking skills.

$300 (approx. 190 pounds) per month to work 8.30 – 5.30, 6 days a week.

That was the offer. Genuinely, it was a generous one when you consider that it is probably almost twice as much as some of their current staff. But, I couldn’t afford to accept a job that would equate to working for around $1.50 per hour (that’s around 90 pence); no matter how interesting it would sound on my CV.

This experience caused great reflection on my part about the huge pay divides between Westerners (working for Western companies or working here as native English teachers) and local Vietnamese. As I had been offered a job at a Vietnamese company, the offer was reflective of their salary budgets for the local workers. Thus, the reason why Westerners are generally not employed by local companies. Ever.

Native English teachers in Vietnam are paid a minimum wage of $20 per hour. It is no secret that foreign teachers are paid generously, earning up to ten times that of Vietnamese teachers. As the country becomes increasingly globalized, English is in huge demand and work is plentiful for foreign teachers with a face that fits. By this, I essentially mean a Caucasian face. I have seen numerous job adverts in Vietnam which state in no uncertain terms that the applicant must be of ‘European appearance’. 9 times out of 10 you are asked to submit a photograph along with your application. In fact, when offered my current teaching job, the employer was not shy about admitting they ‘liked my appearance.’ I don’t think they meant my outfit.

When I consider that I am working alongside teachers who are being paid up to 10 times less than me for their time, it makes me feel a little uncomfortable. In fairness, it’s not just my white face, I am a native English speaker which is a specialist skill in this country. Nevertheless, there is just something that doesn’t feel right about the set up. It is also a concern that this obvious pay divide strengthens the preconceptions that Vietnamese have about ‘rich foreigners’ and leads to a lot of resentment from Vietnamese teachers towards foreign teachers. In fact, I fear it leads to resentment from locals towards foreigners in general.

money

Even the best paid jobs in Vietnam still barely cover what a Westerner will pay for rent here. Workers in the finance and insurance industries have the highest average salary, at around $260 per month. Admittedly these are averages,and CEO’s of some Vietnamese companies are reported to earn around $900, but this is barely even representative of a minority of the workforce and is a very unusual salary to earn. Interestingly, large pay divides can also be found within these companies and while the CEO earns this respectable wage, administration staff in the same company will often be paid around $100-125 per month.

These low averages raise questions about how the local people afford to live. I am at a loss to understand how they fund their brand new Vespas and smart clothes. What I am perhaps not grasping, is the extent of the hugely inflated prices that we, as foreigners, pay for everything.

market

This ‘foreigner tax’ is one of my main gripes about living in Vietnam (and most who visit the country, I suspect). Westerners are charged grossly increased prices for most things here including food, taxi fares and accommodation. While I can’t help feeling cheated knowing that I have been a victim of severely hiked prices, considering the huge pay gap between Westerners and locals does soften the blow somewhat. Despite this blatant over charging, the cost of living to pay ratio still sits well in our favour. You can rent a nice room in an apartment for 200 dollars per month and a bowl of delicious street food will set you back two dollars, where it might cost a local one dollar.

Another consideration is that most young Vietnamese will stay in the family home long after they are married and have children of their own so, in actual fact, living expenses are fairly low. In no way am I advocating the huge gap in salaries, as I’m sure that living with 10 people in one home isn’t an ideal situation, just trying to get my head around it. Low living costs combined with largely deflated prices obviously serves to make living on these low wages feasible. Unfortunately feasible does not always equal comfortable.

Perhaps I am giving it too much thought. Society here has always been more focused on family than material goods. Vietnam was recently voted the second happiest country on the planet while the UK came in 41st, so something must be working. It only goes to prove that money doesn’t buy happiness.

Fishing by the lake - a nice way to earn a living

Fishing by the lake – there are worse ways to earn a living

Sources:
CNN
Report by Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs
Thanh Nien News
Happy Planet Index, New Economics Foundation