A few years ago, I decided to quit my 9-5 and move halfway around the world to live in Vietnam. I did a little bit of research and signed up to be an English teacher volunteer. I had no idea what to expect, but as soon as I landed in Hanoi, the hustle and bustle drew me in. They were the best months of my life.
As I walked through Hanoi, a city of 8 million people, I immediately noticed the rush of motorbikes and the sounds of people talking and yelling through the streets. When I crossed the street, I learned how to dodge traffic, dancing my way through as motorbikes zoomed past me. Full families sit on top of motorbikes and drive up on sidewalks when the street is too full.
One of my favorite pastimes in Hanoi, was simply walking through the streets to take in my surroundings and shop at the local markets. I lived in a group home in an area of Hanoi that was 30 minutes from the center and most of the people who lived in this area were Vietnamese. This meant that we had the chance to live like the locals. I bought most of my groceries from the local market, haggling with the vendors over prices. I loved walking around the market and seeing all of the native fruits and vegetables and trying new things. I looked forward to going to the market every week.
Every week I bought a huge bag of passionfruit (my favorite) and it would cost less than 2 dollars for twenty passion fruits. As an American, if you go to most countries in Southeast Asia you will be extremely pleased by the prices. An uber ride from my house to the center of Hanoi, a thirty minute ride, cost less than a dollar. You can explore the whole country on the budget and it is truly amazing. I budgeted a large amount for my time in Vietnam and I came back to America with money to spare.
Volunteering in schools was an immensely valuable experience in learning how different education is around the world. The school I taught at had two English courses for each student, one where they focused on grammar and vocabulary and another where they practiced conversations. I was in charge of teaching the conversational English classes for students from grades 6-10. Students at the school were very well behaved and when they disobeyed their Vietnamese teachers would bang on their desks with rulers.
At lunchtime, students would get nicely prepared meals of Vietnamese meats, vegetables, and of course, a nice helping of rice. Immediately after lunch, the whole school had a collective time to rest and nap, including the teachers. I loved this time of the day, because it really gave you the opportunity to recharge for the rest of the day. If I had it my way, American schools and workplaces would have this custom as well. I really believe that it helped my energy and productivity last for the day.
One thing that really stood out to me was the fact that there was a large divide between female and male behavior. I noticed how women were often the ones doing the hard labor like farming, while men were more likely to be sitting at beer joints playing games and hanging with friends. I learned that this large disparity was due to the past conflicts in the country. When the men went to war, the women had to take over the work. Now you will see plenty of women cooking in restaurants, farming rice paddies, and selling food at the markets.
I often wish that I could transport myself back to the streets of Hanoi, driving on the back of a motorbike as others maneuvered around me. This city and the people there are extremely special. I hope that one day I will get to go back and visit one of my favorite places in the world.