I’ve been living in Ha Noi for two weeks. It feels really weird, but also awesome, to say (write?) this. And while this isn’t enough time to have an adequate understanding of what it’s like to live in a new city, it has definitely been an experience so far.
On stepping back from the backpacker point of view
I can’t say that I’ve fully committed to this lifestyle as we did head out to backpacker street last Friday for a fun night out, but, where we live is definitely a step up from staying in the Old Quarter. Living in Cầu Giấy has been a local experience to say the least. While “cam ơn” and “xin chào” worked really well last year, few people speak english where we currently live and learning a few more key phrases will be necessary and key to spending a little less time trying to purchase or find things in the area.
The most fun thing about living here has being growing accustomed to the motor bikes and using them for taxi services instead of cars. Cars, busses and trucks take 3x as long as scooters do to navigate through traffic and ride-share services like Uber offer a ‘motto’ option that is less than 1/2 the price of a car and 2x as fast. And did I mention they are WAY more fun?
On Culture Shock
The first trip I ever went on ‘alone’ was a volunteer trip in university to Guatemala when I was 19. I was briefed on a phenomenon known as ‘culture shock’ which is the idea that being exposed to a different culture can cause you to be uncomfortable or disoriented and essentially have some kind of reaction to being in a situation for the first time. With two Palestinian parents and spending lots of my young adulthood between Jordan, Palestine and the US, I didn’t really feel these feelings, because I already knew what to expect. Only having spent a week in Guatemala, I didn’t experience culture shock in the way some of my team members did.
Now, living in Ha Noi, I figured it would be the same deal. You get used to showing up to a new city, finding yourself fascinated with the way things are done and barely noticing that you are ‘uncomfortable’ or confused. After two weeks, I’ve realized, the emotions of culture shock are slowly creeping in. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not some ground shattering observation where you all of a sudden realize, “Wow, things are REALLY different here.” It’s actually quite subtle and creeping up on me more and more each day. I’m beginning to realize that is more about the small things I never realized were particular to growing up in North America that I just don’t have access to and are just a bit annoying to get have to get used to living without. For example, I never thought of lettuce or salads as something that was of extreme importance to me. Well, not only is it extremely hard to find a decent salad at a restaurant near where I live, maybe even in all of Ha Noi, but buying lettuce on your own has the restriction of not being able to clean the lettuce well, as it’s unsafe to use the water directly from the tap in Viet Nam. So now, eating a salad entails boiling water, washing the lettuce in the water (making sure it’s not too hot or you burn your hands) then putting the lettuce in the freezer until it cools down. I’m not sure if this is the most efficient way but it’s what we have figured out so far so we’re doing it. To be fair, though, we’ve given up on this tactic in a few instances of extreme hunger (dramatic, i know), resorting to just washing the lettuce in tap water, which probably wouldn’t work for people with sensitive stomachs.
Another example is appreciating clean surroundings and air quality. As a backpacker, it’s easy to ignore these things because you move on quite quickly from dirty places. On the other hand, when you spend more time in a not-so-clean city you pay more attention to the garbage, dust and thick smog more frequently, and while this isn’t surprising, it’s a lot different to experience it then to imagine what it would be like to live in it.
Finally, and probably the most important, is the lack of appreciation I had, until now, for being familiar with where to find things, and if not WHERE to find them, HOW to find them. This might be me having a “#firstworldproblems” issue, but being able to google a product, a type of shop or a website that delivers it, and have it be communicated back to you in your language, rarely comes easy here. That’s not to say that services don’t exist to help with these kinds of things (Chameleon is a service that connects ex-pats looking for a specific service with an “expert” ex-pat in your area who can advice you on where to find it), but it can be frustrating when you spend an hour (or more) on a task that can usually be completed in 5-10 minutes.
But, I do want to say, not having these services has made exploring a lot more fun. Buying groceries in from a small local stand, eating dinner in the small plastic chairs they love so much (sorry Doug!) and having cheaper priced goods outside of the Old Quarter have all been super positive experiences.
On being injured
For anyone who has been to Ha Noi, we can all agree that crossing the street here is no easy feat. Mopeds speed by, weaving through each other, cars, cabs, vans and busses almost completely cover the pavement. Crossing with a pair of feet that can support themselves is scary in itself, considering you can get clipped by any of the mentioned vehicles above pretty easily. With crutches, it has been… exciting to say the least. If you’ve had crutches, you know the slow clicking sound of the crutch as you put your weight on it and it hits the floor. It’s a process, and trying to efficiently get across a busy Ha Noi street is exhilarating, but also terrifying. A lot of living abroad short term is centered around walking, so it can be tiring to have to use a crutch to buy groceries (or a chocolate bar from the convenient store next door.
So far so good Ha Noi, excited to be here. Only major qualm is that the weather here hates consistency with a capital H (for both hate and humidity). It’s not even the most humid time of year yet and my hair is truly out of control. Experimenting with new hairstyles as we speak. xx