I have finished my university semester in Hanoi. Over five months I've saddled more people on the back of motorbikes than I feel is appropriate to number, accidentally used skin-whitening shower gel, changed my iPhone language to Vietnamese and narrowly escaped death multiple times on Vietnam's hectic roads.
Hanoi has certainly been unforgettable.
I can now add a couple more items to the 'Never have I ever... except in Vietnam' list:
- Changed footwear three times to get to the bathroom (living room, kitchen and bathroom sandals)
- Been obsessed with condensed milk (fresh milk is hard to come by)
- Sang 'Thank you I love you' after every yoga class
- Been told to put banana on my skin to get rid of my freckles
- Drank snake's blood (see proof above)
Top Lessons Learnt
1. Time is a construct
Expect everything to start early, but also expect delays. For example, one of my lectures started at 6:45 am every Monday morning. However, the 2 pm bus may come anytime from 1:50 -- 3 pm.
2. Make the most of what you have
If you only have a concrete court to play volleyball on, train on it and train hard. If you spend too much time thinking about what you don't have, you are wasting the potential of what you do have.
3. I am really obvious
I hear 'cao quá' (so tall) or 'hai mét' (2 metres) at least three times a day. Strangers will often run up to me laughing their heads off to measure themselves against me.
I can't go far without a Vietnamese child, extremely eager to practice their English, shouting at me "Hello! What is your name?! What are your hobbies?!"
I rarely spend a whole day at uni without someone asking me to join their English club or talk to them for a few minutes. White skin, freckles and 'yellow' hair have been a fascination for many.
4. Generosity never goes unnoticed
Vietnam's culture forms relationships through giving and receiving. Inviting people over for meals is a great sign of respect to your guests and the relationship you share. When I was invited to people's houses I often pathetically pulled out the Australian delicacy Vegemite, however it was appreciated. Whether it's time, money or energy, generosity is always noticed.
5. Worry less because things will (more or less) work out
You can't plan everything. In Ninh Binh my friend and I hired a motorbike for the day. On the way home it suddenly broke down and we had a train to catch in less than an hour. It felt as though we had half of the small town help us make that train. After a call to our homestay we had two strangers turn up with another motorbike for us, then a taxi met us on our way home with our bags already in the boot, and another man met us on the side of the road with our passports. Although we missed the train by three minutes and I definitely hit high-pitched panic mode, I learnt to never estimate the power of local connections.
6. Nap more: manage your time rather than your energy
Vietnamese people wake up at the crack of dawn, but midday napping is common practice. At 12 pm you will see people sleeping everywhere: in hammocks, on motorbikes, on mats rolled out on the streets, in luggage storage areas of buses. Productivity is not measured in time, but outputs, so conserve your energy to maximise efficiency.
7. Our world is so closely connected
One long weekend I stayed in Dẹ 2, a rural farmer's village 40km West of Hanoi, with my friend's family. Here we watched Sydney tourism clips on YouTube, discussed North Korean politics and FaceTimed with Vietnamese family members all over the country. Globalisation and technology has connected us more than ever before. This is making our international network increasingly dependent on, and responsible for, each other.
8. The paradox of Vietnam's obsession with 'sạch' (clean)
Coffee shops are named 'clean coffee' and food is often described as 'clean' rather than 'fresh'. The slogan 'Green, clean and beautiful' is all over the city. Yet, the streets are strewn with rubbish and public rubbish bins are almost non-existent. Whilst this paradox seems illogical to a Westerner, it is a social norm in Vietnam.
9. Traditional gender roles are still very much in play
There is evidence of a gradual shift to more equal gender roles, however at present, they are very traditional. This stems from Confucian ethics where ritual, ceremony and social roles are reinforced. Vietnamese women have a lot of household responsibilities and are also expected to work. You will rarely see a male in the kitchen, and you will rarely see a female drinking alcohol. At large gatherings men and women eat in separate circles, however, in my friend's home town I was invited to drink with the men. Without letting the rice wine get to my head, this was highly unusual (wearing men's clothes helped).
10. Cut the small talk
Upon first meeting you, Vietnamese people will immediately ask for your age, profession/major, whether you have a boyfriend/girlfriend, your parents' age and your parents' professions. This is all before they know your name. It can come across as blunt but it's a great way of cutting the small talk short and figuring out whether a potential love match could be made between yourself and one of the family members. Plus, the ages are used to identify what personal pronoun should be assigned to each person. Compliments are given out in the same blunt manner. My friend thought 'đẹp trai' meant 'good morning' because people kept on calling him handsome.
11. If there's a will there's a way
I admire Vietnamese people for their tenacity and creativity. A small section of footpath can be a motorcycle parking area, a food store, a bike shop, a mechanic's workshop, a karaoke stand...this makes walking down the footpath difficult but entertaining. I constantly admire the plus 60 year olds competing against the traffic on their bicycles (with all their market goods strapped onto the bicycle). Motorcycles are in fact god's gift to Vietnam as they can carry anything: a 5 person family, a couple of pigs, 10m long steel bars, a washing machine, a fridge and countless goods.
12. What doesn't challenge you, doesn't change you
I admittedly took this quote off the wall at the gym, but I couldn't help being inspired when watching old women workout in their pyjamas. It's true that I have learnt the most from the more confronting situations. Living in Hanoi has not always been easy but it's been unforgettable. I have learnt more than I ever thought possible in five months.
Here's to the next Vietnamese adventure.
This post first appeared here.
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