‘The school is over the bridge’ she told me. My hands suddenly felt a little clammy.
‘Over the bridge?’ I gasped.
If you look at a map of Hanoi you will see two large bridges at the north east corner of the city. They traverse the Red River. I had absolutely no idea what was on the other side. But I assumed a place of darkness and unspeakable evil. Mordor basically. Possibly worse. This would be a quest.
‘Long Bien’ she responded brightly .
‘Here are your books, and your schedule – thanks for helping’. I was covering for a teacher the following morning at some far flung primary school. I was not at all thrilled by this, but I could do with the money.
I woke at 5.45am. The rain outside was torrential and it was still completely dark. This was supposed to be my day off. I hid under the covers for a ten minutes pretending this wasn’t happening. When I finally managed to re-attach my testicles I got up.
The rain was easing up. I just had to find a taxi. Not the easiest feet at this time. Despite the weather, the early start and the location– I was strangely excited. It felt like an adventure. As if on cue a taxi drove past. The driver stared at the address in much the same way I would have. Then gave a thumbs up
‘Ok, OK’ he cheered loudly
‘Ok?’ I queried
‘Ok, OK’ he laughed. My head hit the back of the head rest as the taxi rocketed forward. The address was too far away to get wrong. I looked at my new friend, who appeared to still be cackling to himself, and prayed hard.
I underestimated him. We were soon thundering over the bridge. It was a strange sight. Looking down river either way the country side opened up but up ahead the urban sprawl continued. We entered Long Bien. Everything looked conspicuously normal. No orcs, no dragons. I was slightly disappointed. I needn’t have brought that sword.
The address I had been given was conveniently wrong. I spent ten minutes doing my best to not look like an idiot with a map and find my own way; but conceded and had to ask multiple people for directions, I suspected looking like an idiot with map.
A strange white person walking around a Vietnamese primary school, especially one that is on the outskirts of the city must surely be comparable to what the Beatles experienced in America. I felt like a rock star. Smaller children stopped dead in their tracks. Their faces fixed somewhere between confusion, terror and fascination. The older kids go wild. Everyone says hello. Some follow you. If I ever need to raise a child army; I will come back here.
The classes were easy and straightforward. What struck me today was just how different children can be. Take these two for instance. Both the same age. Both born in the same area: Linh is a wonderfully smart and on the ball seven year old girl. A real joy to teach. Little Minh is sitting next to her. I’m pretty sure he’s just eaten an entire pencil. Looking at the carcasses around him, he is possibly making his way through the whole pencil case. He looks at me in an impressively blank way. It’s not even that he doesn’t understand English. I don’t believe he is yet to understand life. In fact he might not even be looking at me but at the paint on the wall behind me. I honestly have no idea what to do in this situation. I do hope it clicks for little Minh, hopefully sooner rather than later. I move on to Bao.
‘So what is this’ I ask pointing down at her page. She giggles for a few second then pinches the end of my noise.
‘Yes. It’s a dog. I respond hopefully. More giggling.
The end of a class in England is signaled with an almost offensively shrill bell. In Vietnam it is done with the use of an enormous drum. As the children attempted to sprint out for lunch I barged past them to catch sight of the wondrous instrument. I stood in front of it; drooling. It was the greatest thing I had ever seen. I felt my entire childhood had been a fraud. The drummer was nowhere to be seen but the stick, or whatever you drum with, was just sitting on top. I wanted to hit it more than I had wanted to do anything in my life. I looked around and caught sight of a detestable witch looking women staring at me. She knew what my plan was. Our eyes met. I could possibly get off one hit then run like hell? But she had ruined the moment; I slumped back to my classroom. How does one get the job of school drummer? The thought remained with me for much of the day. One day I will hit that drum.
The lunch break was 2 hours 45 minute. Why anybody needs this astronomical amount of time is beyond me. I ate lunch in a Bia Hoi. A fantastic Hanoi institution. Think a German beer hall, add noodles and your there. The food is cheap, the beer is cheaper and freshly made daily.
‘Bia?’ the waiter asked. My backside still hung expectantly above the chair.
‘Um, no thank you’. It was 11.45am. I settled for beef noodles and began planning my afternoon classes. The Bia Hoi provided wonderful people watching. Especially the man at the next table who was struggling with the enormous distance between mouth and glass. I suspected his Wednesday afternoon would not be a productive one.
‘Bia?’ the waiter was back. Approximately six minutes after he had first asked. I looked at my neighbor and now I understood.
Before heading back to the school I walked down to area of open grassland. It was the first time since arriving in Hanoi that I had seen something like it. It was fantastic to see some countryside. I walked along a rice paddy enjoying every second of it. Laughing at the dogs playing on the other side. Then realizing that they weren’t friendly looking puppy’s at all, but in fact wild, half starved looking beasts – I hurriedly made my way back to school. imagining the schools conversation with my mum.
“I’m sorry Mrs Guiberteau – but your son was eaten by dogs on his lunch break”.
I spent the rest of the afternoon teaching a few classes and flirting with my teaching assistants between the lessons. All in the name of improving our professional relationship – of course.