Speaking English in Hanoi

I was not a happy camper this morning when I woke up to someone else’s abandoned alarm clock. It was ringing for a solid 5 minutes before they came back from wherever they were to turn it off. I’ll kill you.

Everyone in my dorm room is leaving to go to either Ha Long Bay or Hoi An today, and they’re all up early getting their stuff together to go. I try to sleep through it, but fail. Hostel life. I wake up with only a few mosquito bites, but I’m totally over heating. I want to take a cold shower but so does everyone else in the room, so I’ll have to wait.

My $4/night bed also comes with an included breakfast. If that’s not thrifty I don’t know what is. It’s a pretty good breakfast, too! Not just some toast and tea, but a menu of about 6 items to choose from, and tea or coffee. Actually, tea and coffee are free all day. If it weren’t for the bugs, I’d probably want to stay…but I don’t. I plan to do it the traditional, and most effective way, of just walking around and stopping in to check prices/ see rooms before committing to anything new. I also desperately need a pair of flip flops (as the floor in this hostel is sometimes wet without reason) and I need to pull more cash. I make these things my mission for the day. I also look into getting my legs waxed because I’m going to be hittin’ the east side Vietnamese beaches soon.

I bring a small black and white map of Hanoi, given to me by the front desk, and set out into the craziness of the Old Quarter. It’s so humid outside that it’s hard to breathe. I should just accept right now that I’ll be perma-sweaty for the next month and a half.

I somehow manage to walk in the right direction towards the popular Hoan Kiem Lake, where I can be sure to find shops and an ATM. I see a Bank of Vietnam and try to pull money but it doesn’t work with my debit card so I must use my visa once again. I don’t know how people travel without these, really.
I feel extra on edge as I pull my money because someone comes to stand behind me half way through my transaction. Please don’t rob me please don’t rob me please don’t rob me. He doesn’t rob me, he just wants to use the ATM too. Crazy.

One mission: completed. I’m close to a salon that I googled with a good reputation, so that’s my next stop. I walk into a very skinny lobby area with hundreds of nail polishes on shelves all along the walls. I am lead up three flights of a narrow, winding stair case to an air-conditioned room with calm Vietnamese music is playing.
There are two ladies in the room, not just one. Right away, BOTH of the ladies start waxing my legs! One lady per leg. They move super quickly and I can’t stop myself from laughing. Kinda weird at first, but just too funny! If I went to a salon in a Canada and asked to have TWO people wax my legs at the same time they’d probably just say no, or I’d be paying double. Here, my leg wax only costs me $25, and is done in half the time it usually takes. What service!

I walk back over to the lake so I can catch up on my writing. It’s a beautiful location to sit and relax on one of the many benches surrounding the water.
I have been sitting for maybe 10 minutes, when I am approached by four Vietnamese people about my age, two girls and two boys. One of the girls asks me if she can sit down and practice her English with me. Please don’t rob me please don’t rob me please don’t rob me.
I invite her to sit down, but I am clutching onto my bag for dear life. What is the catch here? What’s the scam? I’m pretty much prepared to run if something weird happens.
They ask me simple questions like my name, where I come from, and my age. I have to remind myself to speak slowly, which is not an easy task.
Over time I ask them some questions too, and find out that they’re all University students in Hanoi, who often come here to find tourists to speak with. I start to calm down a little. No one is here to rob me. The hype about Vietnam being so dangerous doesn’t seem to be true to Hanoi. Maybe Ho Chi Mihn?

The four of them have only met today, while wandering around the lake to practice English. What a fun way to make friends! After they sit with me for a few minutes, more and more people start to gather. Eventually the first four leave, but I am now speaking with a new group of 10 or so people, asking me the same questions.
“What is your name? Where do you come from? How old are you? Do you have any siblings? Tell me something about your mother. How long are you in Vietnam? Do you like my country? Tell me something special about your country. What do you study? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you like shopping? Why are you traveling alone?” Everyone is always sad that I’m traveling alone. “What music do you like?” They all love Taylor Swift. No one knows Macklemore.

The questions go on and on and I sit with them for hours, helping them with pronunciation and spelling. Some write down new words I say, and they all help each other translate if they are unsure of what I mean.
It’s a really really cool experience!
Some add me on Facebook or ask for the link to my blog so they can read about my time in Vietnam, which will be even more English practice for them!

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By 5pm I realize it’s been FOUR hours of sitting by the lake and chatting. I’ve missed lunch and I’m starving, so I apologize and say I have to go find dinner. One of the guys makes some suggestions for me on where I can go to find good Vietnamese dishes in the area. He even has a book about the food handy! Someone else gives me a map in colour and WAY better than the one the hostel has given me. Everyone I meet is so nice.

I also haven’t peed in four hours. I can’t wait until I get back to the hostel so I try to stop in a small cafรฉ but they tell me they don’t have a washroom. Nooo! I ask the shop keeper at an art store just next to the cafรฉ where I can find a washroom. She offers to let me use hers…in the scary dark back room behind the shop. Am I going to die? Please don’t rob me please don’t rob me please don’t rob me. She turns on the washroom light and here I am.

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In the scariest, most spider covered squatter toilet in all the land. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I try to find my happy place.

I leave and thank her a million times for letting me be in the scariest room I’ve ever been in.

I plan to go back to the hostel before heading out for dinner, but I get totally lost, even with my new map. The Old Quarter is like a big maze.

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A woman carrying a big basket of fruit approaches me in the street as I’m looking at my map. Please, for the love of god, don’t rob me. I don’t want to buy anything please go away. She offers to help me figure out where I’m going, and easily points me in the right direction. She doesn’t ask me for money, she doesn’t try to steal my bag. Just a nice lady.

I make it back to my hostel, take a cold shower and head back out for some Pho. I find a restaurant on a street corner with lots of other customers so I sit down at a miniature table (extremely popular here in Hanoi) and order one bowl of chicken Pho. I sit on the sidewalk and enjoy the people watching. It’s totally enjoyable until the rain starts pouring down. Like some serious rain. There is no awning to cover my head and no where to sit inside, so I follow suit with everyone else and push my table against the wall, huddled under a small roof overhang. I am soaked. Everyone is soaked, but no one seems to mind. The Pho is great, though.

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Lightning brightening the sky

I eat quickly and head back to my hostel where three American girls walk in off the street and join my almost empty dorm room. They invite me to go for a drink with them, so of course I agree and we find a cute restaurant close by with “Happy Hour Now, Buy One Get One Free Beer” permanently printed into the menu. I didn’t know discounts could be permanent. Vietnam has taught me many new things today.

2 thoughts on “Speaking English in Hanoi

  1. Hey Naomi it’s Kevin ECOH here. Your blog is totally awesome I have lots of fun reading it. I guess I should give you some tips for hotel search and map direction in Vietnam in case you need them:

    – For hotels with budget and foods, you can go to http://wikitravel.org/ and key in the destination city
    (Here is the link for Ha Noi: http://wikitravel.org/en/Hanoi)
    You can also book the hotel online by these websites (they have different price ranges which are usually very affordable and clean!)
    http://www.ivivu.com/en/
    http://www.agoda.com/country/vietnam.html

    – For map direction: it’s best that you use your Iphone GPS/map application, load the current map where wifi is available and just leave it there for later use (don’t close it totally, just escape the map screen). It would help a lot when you walk around when your map-and-GPS ready so you won’t be afraid of getting lost again (be careful when walking around and holding your Iphone though… just a quick peep is fine…lolz)

    Let me know if you need any help. I have all the network there!

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