Finding Home in Hanoi : Samantha McKay

When I moved to Hanoi, Vietnam two and a half months ago for a research internship with Uniterra, I was not expecting the city to start feeling like home.

The constant honking that characterizes Hanoi has become the background music of my life. The locals nod approvingly when I cross the street unscathed and unfazed. I can say xin chào (hello) and cam on (thank you) and hai-hai-ba Đội Cấn (my address) and most of the time, people understand me.

My friend Hannah crosses Kim Mã Street, Hanoi, Vietnam at rush hour. We learned to hold up our hands in a “stop” motion at oncoming traffic from our Vietnamese co-worker, Linh. It is surprisingly effective. Photo by Samantha McKay.
My friend Hannah crosses Kim Mã Street in Hanoi, Vietnam at rush hour. We learned to hold up our hands in a “stop” motion at oncoming traffic from our Vietnamese co-worker, Linh. It is surprisingly effective. Photo by Samantha McKay.

I breath a sigh of relief when I return from a weekend away and Hanoi embraces me with its humid, smoggy arms – yes, I’m back.

Now, I have a little more than two weeks left living in Hanoi, and it feels like I’m getting ready to leave an old friend, uncertain if I’ll ever see her again.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped off the plane was the unfathomable heat. The second – how alive the city felt. The sea of speeding motorbikes, screeching taxis, and couples and families and friends enjoying dinner at tiny blue plastic tables on the side of the road, old ladies peddling fruit, and the karaoke clubs en masse all overwhelmed me with their life, their energy.

As soon as I moved into my apartment on Đội Cấn (the only way to pronounce Đội Cấn is with a deep-voiced “Doy Guun”) I started carving out a home in the city’s bustling streets, picturesque cafes, and restaurants with plastic chairs too tiny for my Western-sized body. I could write an entire post about all of my favorite places, but instead, I want to share my experiences from my new home that are so drastically different from Canada – the good stuff, the very different stuff, and something that changed my perspective.

The view from my apartment on a typical rainy day in Hanoi. Photo by Samantha McKay.
The view from my apartment on a typical rainy day in Hanoi. Photo by Samantha McKay.

THE GOOD

Vietnamese Coffee

Traditional Vietnamese coffee makes the journalist in me infinitely happy. It’s strong and it tastes so much better than any coffee I’ve ever had, and it is typically accompanied by a healthy spoonful (or two . . . or three) of condensed milk. I think the fact that I no longer worry for my health when I drink a cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with condensed milk) speaks to how at home I feel here.

One of my first cups of cà phê sữa đá, enjoyed beside Hoàn Kiếm Lake in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Photo by Samantha McKay.
One of my first cups of cà phê sữa đá, enjoyed beside Hoàn Kiếm Lake in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Photo by Samantha McKay.

Much to my delight, the coffee options do not end there. One of my favorites is cà phê sữa chua, or yogurt coffee, which is exactly what it sounds like–iced coffee mixed with yogurt. Another popular drink is cà phê trứng, or egg coffee. I’m not exactly sure what this one is made of, but it is usually served hot and resembles both liquid tiramisu and a really, really good eggnog latte.

Poolside yogurt coffee in Hanoi. Photo by Samantha McKay.
Poolside yogurt coffee in Hanoi. Photo by Samantha McKay.

Anything is Possible in Vietnam

In so many instances that I did not expect, there are no rules in Vietnam. Want to rent a motorbike, but have absolutely no experience driving one? No problem. Need to squeeze six people into a four-person taxi? Easy. Thinking of opening up a phở restaurant in an alleyway beside your house? No permit necessary.

On one of my first days, I saw two men fixing some telephone wires. One man stood on a bamboo ladder that was leaning against the very wires he was fixing, while his friend stood at the bottom keeping watch. No need to block off traffic, no need to support the ladder. Though this is obviously not safe, they both were fine in the end. Something I started to consider was how uptight we are in Canada about our rules and regulations in every area of life–this isn’t to say they are pointless by any means, but it opened up my mind to the reality that there are many ways to do things, despite what our rules and regulations have led us to believe.

At first, I feared for his safety. Now, I know this is just how they do it in Vietnam. Photo by Hannah Bayoumi.
At first, I feared for his safety. Now, I know this is just how they do it in Vietnam. Photo by Hannah Bayoumi.

THE VERY DIFFERENT

Sidewalks Are Not For Walking On

Walking down the street in Hanoi is an expedition in itself because Hanoian sidewalks accommodate a multitude of activities and purposes, including, but not limited to: motorbike parking, fruit stands, chicken slaughterhouses, trash burning and collection stations, board game tables, toilets for children, and restaurant patio seating.

This makes the sidewalks akin to obstacle courses. Avoid the small boy’s puddle of urine! Don’t get flattened by the woman pulling her motorbike onto the road! Weave through the maze of trees that are inexplicably planted literally in the middle of the sidewalk!

Walking down any street in Hanoi is seldom boring and often frustrating. My five-minute walk to work is, without a doubt, the most chaotic commute I’ve ever experienced. As much as I miss the tranquility of the Canadian sidewalk (there’s a phrase I never thought I’d write), I’d take the pandemonium of Hanoi’s “sidewalks” any day.

The Politics of Photography

A few weeks ago I was sitting beside my friend on a bus when I noticed that one of the men in the seat in front of us was attempting to take selfies with us without us noticing. Given that this was the umpteenth time we had been in a situation where someone was trying to take our photo without permission or even a simple hello, we were annoyed, and did our best to hide our faces from the camera.

I have so many stories about Vietnamese people taking my picture without asking, taking selfies with me and my friends when they thought I wasn’t looking, or even people overtly taking photos of me as if I were a tourist attraction myself. And then there are always people who will stop us on the street and ask to take a photo with us, which is significantly less weird. I know there are bigger issues in the world, and my annoyance is surface level, but I think these instances provide an interesting insight into the way Vietnamese people view foreigners, generally speaking.

My friend Hannah posing for a picture with a Vietnamese woman she just met on one of the Marble Mountains in Da Nang, Vietnam. Photo by Samantha McKay.
My friend Hannah posing for a picture with a Vietnamese woman she just met on one of the Marble Mountains in Da Nang, Vietnam. Photo by Samantha McKay.

 I asked one of my Vietnamese co-workers at the WUSC Vietnam office about why people keep taking photos of us, and in essence, she said she suspects that the Vietnamese people who take these photos may seldom come into contact with Western people, and so they see us as “exotic.” She also suggested that it has something to do with the Vietnamese preoccupation with fair skin. In Hanoi, many women will wear long-sleeved, hooded jackets and long pants or skirts in order to shield their skin from the sun as fair skin is considered the epitome of beauty here, and so seeing someone with white skin is “exciting” or something they want to document and show their friends later on.

On the flipside, when I have tried to photograph Vietnamese people (I ask first) the answer is almost always no. On a few occasions, I thought that it might be okay to take a photo of someone from a distance, or while their hat was covering their face, and it did not go over well. Needless to say, taking photos in Vietnam has been a learning experience in ways I was not expecting.

THE PERSPECTIVE CHANGER

When I Get Home, I’m Going to be a Vegetarian

I recently went on a motorbike tour through the mountains from Hoi An to Hue. On the way, we passed some mountain goats, and my guide asked me what the English word was for them. When I told him, he cheekily replied, “In Vietnamese, we call them barbeque.”

When I eat meat in Vietnam, I am always hyperaware of the fact that I am eating an animal. At one restaurant in Hanoi that is famous for its buffalo meat, there is often a water buffalo tied up just outside the restaurant. You cannot walk down the street without seeing a restaurant with entire roasted and deep fried ducks hanging by their necks from hooks in the window, or a woman cutting up any kind of raw meat on the side of the road. Once, I was walking down Đội Cấn with my friend, and she gasped and said, “Did you see that?” Thankfully, I missed seeing a chicken getting its head cut off on the side of the road. More than once, I’ve seen half a dead cow strewn across the back of a motorbike as it zipped by.

This is all a stark comparison to how we interact with meat in Canada–cut up and cleaned in neat packages in organized rows in our grocery stores and butchers, so processed by the time we purchase it that the only way we can discern that those pink slabs are chicken breast is by their expertly printed label.

I am by no means trying to say that the way meat is produced in Vietnam is wrong. What I am trying to say is that eating meat in Vietnam has made me acknowledge that I am eating an animal on a level that I was never able to in Canada, and I’m grateful for that experience, because I can now say it is something I no longer want to partake in.

I met this water buffalo in Sa Pa, Vietnam. We had a moment. Photo by Hannah Bayoumi.
I met this water buffalo in Sa Pa, Vietnam. We had a moment. Photo by Hannah Bayoumi.

A writer with depression, what else is new. Passionate about feminism, and making the world a better place.

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