Hanoi – Part 2


I’ve been in Hanoi for three months now. A quarter of my contracted time. It’s strange how quickly you become wrapped up in a new place. Even when I’m thinking of new things to write about; everything begins to blur together. The last three months have flown by. Rocketed by even.

The teaching, especially in the last six weeks, has been crazy. Teaching my normal classes and covering at primary schools across the city. I would say that 90% of my students are great, well meaning  kids. The other 10% are made up of future delinquents, those with quite severe personality issues, and a small percentage who are – and I’m not going to sugar coat this – just complete shits. There is one class in particular which I always approach in much the same way I would if they were all lepers and I, a doctor. The mere thought of going in there horrifies me, but it’s my job. In most classes you have a bad student, maybe even a few;  occasionally you have a deeply annoying one too. This class seems to have assembled the best of the best. It is the Top Gun of annoying brat children – quite astonishing. I really must congratulate our customer service officers for this cataclysmic fuck up.

On the whole you can place the bad kids into five broad categories of my disdain – I have also included their likely future profession:

1)      Too Good. Above average intelligence, and is well aware of it. Looks that will open up all kinds of opportunities when they are older – Corporate witch/Gold digger housewife

2)      Empty Space – Nothing going on. Doubtful if it ever will. Some are not made for education – Possibly the man you see on a street corner with an advertising sign hung on them. If he really puts his mind to it he might one day be able to dig holes – in the middle of know where; for no reason what-so-ever – but this would take extreme dedication.

3)      Coffee – Too many espressos before class. Predictable outcome. Occasionally has to be chained to the floor – Coffee induced nervous break down at 21 ensures that they will be unemployable for the foreseeable future. Might be able to stack shelves at 40 when they’ve calmed down.

4)      The Shit – Just a shit. Place reserved in Hell at birth – Criminal (unsuccessful one)

5)      Brains – Similar to the shit. But clever. Might take over the world one day – Bond Villain.

But I don’t want to leave talking about my students on a bad note. The vast majority are fantastic kids, and often a real joy to teach.

The weather when I arrived was unbearably hot. I’m sure I resembled a heroin addict going cold turkey for the first month. It was a deeply sweaty period of my life. How anybody can take a teacher seriously who has enormous wet patches covering most parts of their upper body – and who, I’m sure, smells like a rotten fish – I do not know. Since then the temperature has plummeted. You would think that Vietnam is about to to be relocated to the Arctic the way you sometime see people dressed. On the 7th January the temperature dropped down to 7c. Everybody in the city shivered and shook their heads.  Primary schools across the city were closed. Considering I remember sitting shivering in a horribly dank, dark school in the middle of Britain’s winter; jostling for position next to the only hot water pipe, I had to chuckle. The temperature has now began to slowly rise again.

The traffic which once shook me to my very bones has become an act every day insanity. You learn to barely blink when a motorbike shoots through a red light and is missed by mere inches by oncoming truck. You learn that when you approach an incoming junction and you see a bus hurtling into your path, there is actually an astonishingly high probability that it is not going to stop and you better get out of the way, quickly. You get used to it but it’s still absolutely exhausting. The Vietnamese seem to have put their faith in a higher power to keep them safe on the road. I witnessed two motor bikers get into a minor accident a few days ago.  It was quite comical seeing them dust themselves off and look at each other in complete bewilderment as if to say ‘How the hell did that happen’. It seemed groundbreaking to them that if you take one idiot swerving violently across the road without the merest of looks and add one idiot driving with his eyes glued to his I-Phone there might be some grain of possibility that there might be an accident. How surprising. I always find incredible how nobody seems to get angry. I can pull blindly into a road cut somebody up horribly and they will just calmly swerve around me. If it was the other way around I would be frothing at the mouth, screaming at the top of my lungs and generally considering if I have time to take two minutes out of my day to chase you.  They are a very passive aggressive group of drivers. They enjoy the horn. Some (I), would say excessively.

The food has been quite the adventure. There’s the good; Pho, bun cha, dumplings, bo bia, I really could go on and on. Then there’s the bad –  But before I go on, an important point to set the tone; I don’t do egg. It started as young child and continues to now. If you sit next to me with a huge plate of steaming scrambled eggs; you better hope I honestly like you. Many people have urged me to try it at least – it’s honestly not going to happen.

A balut is therefore, quite literally, my worst nightmare. The mere thought of it makes my insides tighten and anything I’ve eaten in the past few days threatens to be seen again in spectacular fashion. A balut is a fertilized duck embryo that is boiled and then eaten in its shell. This is a must for Google image. Link below.  It is quite simply the most stunningly revolting, and disturbing, thing  man has ever chosen to put in his mouth.  As if a pinch of salt and some lemon juice can remedy the fact that you have a fucking embryo in your mouth. It has eyes, it has wings, it has a beak. It’s so big it probably has kids of own.

Food production can also provide its daily cringes; and was brought to a stark reality a few weeks ago.  As I turned into my road, late at night,  I came to a sudden halt. Next to a small white pony tied to the fence. The whole image was quite surreal – I don’t think I’d ever seen a pony in Hanoi, let alone a few doors away from my house.  I had just watched Life of Pi so obviously my first thought was that I had slipped into some kind of animal Twilight zone. I half expected it to begin speaking to me. Something along the lines of “get the fuck off the motorbike and help me”. I was quite disappointed when it didn’t. Instead we just stared at each other. The poor thing was shivering constantly, its white tail hanging limply and sadly. It was obviously terrified being so close to a big road. I slowly made my way home, dragging my heavy conscience with me. I felt terrible for it. I sat on my bed thinking; in the end I decided the very least I could do would be to take it some water. I didn’t have any carrots – so I took a banana. It made sense for some reason. The poor animal backed away in terror when I approached it so I left the water and banana and quickly left.

The next morning I went out for an early run. As made my way down the road I could see that the pony was no longer there. The brief moment of happiness was quickly blown apart. Where the pony had been last night, now stood piles of meat, stacked up by the wall. My mouth dropped open and remained there motionless – surely not. I stared at the meat trying to find something distinguishing. Then I saw the same white tail hanging nonchalantly from a hook on the door. At the same moment the door opened and a man stepped out, leaving a crack open. Inside looked like a torture chamber. Something out of Saw, or even Hostel.  Two people were busy inside cleaning the blood from the floor and piling indistinguishable parts of the pony into a pile; I stumbled away in a daze.

It played on my mind for much of the day. Was it the fact it was a pony? Would it have been better if it was a cow? Or not near my house?  Initial horror gave way to acceptance. I told myself to stop being so fucking stupid. I’d began to feel foolish for thinking that this could ever be so strange. People do what they have to do to survive. How can I judge that. I think it was just the personal involvement in it that felt so strange. As a westerner I’ve grown up far too removed from the reality of food production, so much so that it was quite shocking to see it up close.

Whether it’s things like this, or puppies crammed into cages, or the small birds hurling themselves against their ever present cages – Hanoi certainly isn’t for the animal lover. It can be hard to witness sometimes but gives a timely remainder in the differences in attitudes between East and West.

On a more positive note. Tet (Vietnamese New Year) is almost upon us. A week off work up in the mountains around Sapa. On another sour note,  I seem to have been conscripted into taking part in our centers sing a long at the big company party. This will involve me on stage singing Vietnamese. First rehearsal sounded like a drunk under water. I doubt the second will show much of an improvment  I feel the fact that I was bullied into this while I was unwell and too weak to fight back was deeply unfair.


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