Our flight from Cape Town to Hanoi was tedious to say the least; we flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg to Doha to Bangkok to Hanoi in the span of twenty-four hours. Flying from South Africa to Qatar was quite an amazing experience, knowing that I was passing over dozens of countries that I’d love to visit. Our bus ride from the airport to the center of the city showed the progression of agriculture to urban density as rice fields were slowly taken over by homes and shops. I spent my first night exploring the area known as the Old Quarter, which was the original walled-in portion of the city. The nightlife is really fun and incredibly accessible. Shops and bars open up onto the street and a draught beer costs $0.25. My friend Chris and I went to the “oldest” bar in the city called Mao’s Red Lounge, which one could describe well with the stereotype “oriental.”
Mandeep is my homestay brother once again, which I’m very happy about. Our family consists of our brother (ainh in Vietnamese), a second brother, mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, and aunt. The home, which is narrow and four stories tall (typical for homes in Hanoi), is located in a nondescript alleyway in the midst of a network of winding side streets. We have class at a hotel that is a ten-minute walk from our house.
The city is amazing. Its heartbeat is palpable and the vibrancy and chaos of its streets create a consistent narrative. Hanoi is a welcome departure from the heavily divided (physically, socioeconomically, racially) cities of Cape Town and São Paulo. People here seem happy and as though they truly belong here. While that is a strange thing to say of one’s home, I really believe that Hanoians live in a city that reflects their own values and has been shaped by their presence in ways that other cities have not been.It has been hard to update this blog as much as I would like given how much has been going on. Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines during our first week and reached Hanoi by the weekend. Classes were cancelled since the typhoon caused flooding in much of southern Vietnam. Once school was back in session, I contacted Ngoc, a mutual friend from Hanoi. She works as an assistant at a photography company and was eager to show me around the city. She picked me up after class one day on her moped and took me on a three-hour tour of the city. Weaving through traffic, past beautiful lakes and markets and around towering temples, Ngoc gave me a firsthand look at the many elements and neighborhoods that make Hanoi such an exciting place. We ended up at her house on the north end of Ho Tay lake. There I met her husband, Ricky, who made an impromptu move to Hanoi from Texas. He now runs a dog training business from his home; upon arrival I was greeted by about ten dogs, from beagles to hounds, at the front gate. We went to a bar near their house and Ricky told me some pretty amazing stories of his travels through southeastern Asia. They included but were not limited to having his motorcycle break down in the middle of some random road in the countryside of Laos at midnight, arriving at the border of Cambodia without a visa but getting in because it happened to be their New Year and all of the border police were drunk, and getting kidnapped in Luang Prabang and managing to escape and ride back on the kidnappers motorcycle. All in all, this man has had some bizarre experiences.
The site visits in Hanoi have been good, but not amazing. What was amazing, however, were the weekend trips that we took as a group. On our second-to-last weekend in Hanoi, a group of about twenty of us booked a “junk boat” for the weekend in Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The bay, just off the northeastern coast of Vietnam, was completely indescribable. First of all, the boat was not what we were expecting. It could have easily been a four-star hotel thanks to its all-inclusive meals and proximity to caves, kayaking, beaches, and cooking class all for $90. I happened to be staying in the bedroom that Mark Zuckerberg booked with his wife; they allegedly bought up the entire boat for the weekend and had bodyguards stay in the rest of the rooms. Just a fun fact.
On our first day in the bay, we enjoyed a wonderful three-course lunch in the dining room followed by a cave exploration and hike. The views from the peak of one of the bay’s thousands of islands was unreal. The green mountainous islands dotted the horizon, emerging from the bright blue water like the spine of a massive sea creature. It was awesome. Waking up on Sunday morning and looking out of the window as we passed within yards of rocky cliffs and overhanging trees was an incredible feeling. I was awestruck the entire time.
Later that week, the entire group went to a retreat in a small village about four hours from Hanoi. The area where we were staying was clearly aimed at visitors, both foreign and domestic. The streets were full of two-story wooden buildings that served as hotels. The second floor of our “guest house” was just a huge room with about 35 mattresses lined up against the wall. It was quite the snuggle-fest, especially given that the temperature dropped into the 40’s every night. Most of the village was made up of shops that occupied the open-air first floors of each home. The shops boasted goods ranging from scarves to weaponry to artwork, and sprawled for streets and streets. I probably bought about 15 scarves and, with the help of my Vietnamese friends, was able to haggle down the prices quite a bit.
Today is my last day in Vietnam. Tomorrow I leave with Chris to fly to Bangkok. I will be traveling through Thailand for the next two weeks, staying with families via Couch Surfing. I can’t accurately explain how I’m feeling about this experience yet. It has been truly amazing and I have found a new family in the group of students with whom I’ve traveled. Once I am home, I think that I will have a better understanding of how I have changed and benefited from this experience.