It’s been two months living right next to this beautiful World Heritage site, and now it’s almost over. Where have the days gone? I have been so busy with teaching that I have not had time to really explore Vietnam. I am all right with that. In my time here, I feel that I have truly abandoned the tourist mentality. I have gotten to know Ha Long City very well, much more than I knew Casablanca. Of course, in Casablanca, I didn’t have a moped (they call them motorbikes here, much more dignified). I have explored the entire bay area thoroughly, teaching in, at least, a dozen different schools, kindergarten through junior high equivalent. I have been warmly welcomed into a large Vietnamese family, celebrating birthdays and holidays. It’s been everyday, Ha Long life, and I’ve loved it.
I have been extremely lucky living with Quynh Nguyen and her 14 year old son, Hieu (now 15). Every morning, I walked out onto their 15th floor balcony to take in the wide southern exposure of the giant, karst monuments and fishing boats that dot the bay. Its very easy to spend hours staring out across the seemingly infinite limestone islands, jutting up out of the water, pondering on the eons of vertical geological developement. Not once have I been able to spot the open South China Sea beyond these natural monoliths.
The bay is why I initially came here, but I never knew what I was getting into with Quynh and her family. They took me in as their own, sharing everything selflessly, to the point of making me question my strict sense of western, material ownership. Americans are selfish compared to most people in this country. Her extended family visited often and we visited them, all of Quynh’s five sisters and one brother, and their families, including “Ba” (Grandma), her eighty seven year old mother. Out of all of them, only Quynh and Hieu speak English, but this did not seem to diminish the connections I had with many of them, and it was also a great opportunity to work on my very weak Vietnamese.
I think the first day I was fully indoctrinated into Vietnamese society was when I learned, “the hard way”, about how traffic here works. I mentioned that Quynh shares everything she has selflessly. Well, her motorbike was handed over to me for the duration of my stay. Now, it must be known that this was my first moped experience, and I did have a shaky start, but with the help of Hieu, I got over my first few bumps to the point where I felt confident enough to head out on my own. That’s when it happened. Things don’t work the same way on the road here the way they do in the western world. I experienced a little of this in Morocco as well, but you do not necesarily have the right-of-way over on-coming traffic turning left across your lane. You have to simply slow down or get the hell out of the way, especially if your on a motorbike… so much for higher dignity. A couple of skinned knees and elbows later and I learned my lesson well.
Another thing that took some getting used to was the fact that the Vietnamese have no concept of personal space. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t feel this is a bad thing. It just took me by surprise in the beginning. If you are teaching a bunch of young students, they will touch you, and hug you, and play with your hair. If you have a beard, like I do, random women in the street will want to come up to you and touch it. You have to remember, there’s not a lot of facial hair around these parts.
Being an English teacher has been the best best way to immerse myself into the culture. As I said in Casablanca… “Who is teaching who?”, but the Vietnamese classroom setting is a little bit more different from what I remember back home. Before you know it, things can get way out of hand. The Vietnamese child can be just as distracted and unruly as the rest of the youth around the world, and that has happened quite a bit, but that is not what I’m talking about. I have never seen children so enthusiastic and lively about a game or activity. They can be absolutely ravenous about learning, and if you’re not careful, or fast enough, they will slowly begin to take over. It is not so much, “Who is teaching who?”, but more like, “Who is running the class?”
Everything I’ve talked about are good examples of how fearless I think the Vietnamese people are. Inhibitions, self-consciousness, and falsehoods are not huge issues here. As a foreigner and the extreme minority, I have had to let these things go. There is no blending in here. You never know when someone on the street will randomly call you out, practicing their rudimentary English, and yelling, “Hallo!”, or honking their horn in passing. This may seem very intrusive from the western perspective, but trust me, they mean well.
The people here are truly great, but where they live is what makes them who they are. I did manage to take time out from my busy schedule to do a little exploring, and aside from the wonders of Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island, Hanoi has tons to offer, a gorgeous city in many different ways, but aptly named the “Garden City”. I also had the opportunity to take a train to Sa Pa, deep in the northern mountains near the southern Chinese border, land of the rice terraces. The landscape is a tapestry of layered greens and browns with rice patties stacked one on top of the other, stretching up the mountainside. I hiked eleven miles of these slopes in the rain and mud, across streams and waterfalls, and through emerald bamboo forests, loving every slippery step. Our guides were just as amazing. One of them had carried and infant on her back the entire way. Life up in the mountains is often difficult for these villagers, but it never diminished their healthy, smiling faces.
The best example of Vietnamese fearlessness is that they are not afraid to admit that they are afraid. There is much to admire about these people, and I will miss them dearly. I will continue working on my Vietnamese, for I would very much like to return some day.