(With advance apologies for the world’s most obvious blog title ever…)
On 4 August 2013 I boarded a train at Liverpool Lime Street station. Last Tuesday, 10 long weeks, 9,800 varipaced miles, a few dozen excruciating train journeys, several borderline tantrums at various Chinese people and at least one disconcerting camel ride later, I arrived at my destination: the capital city of Vietnam, Hanoi.
For those of you who don’t know, I’m now planning on making Hanoi my home, at least for a little while. In a fortnight I will begin studying for a CELTA English language teaching certificate. I then plan to get a job as an English teacher here in Hanoi, to find myself an apartment, and to fulfill a lifelong ambition to live and work overseas.
This is what I left home to come and do. Sure, I still want to complete my journey to New Zealand. But for now, I’m unpacking my backpack, stowing my guidebooks, and finding things at the bottom of my bag which I haven’t seen for weeks (like the LeatherMan Phil and the guys at Clarity bought for me, which I’m afraid has so far only been used to pop a few blisters in Russia. I’m sure it’ll come in handy soon though guys…)
When you’re moving to a new city, you do some research, right? So did I. I wanted to give myself a head start getting to know Hanoi and Vietnam, so I took a few basic steps to acquaint myself with my new home before arriving. I started to gobble up news articles about Vietnam, and to read websites like the English daily Vietnam News. I read books about Vietnam, fiction and non-fiction – Bill Hayton’s Vietnam: Rising Dragon and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. I joined Vietnamese social networking communities – the frankly astonishingly useful classifieds website The New Hanoian, and Facebook’s occasionally hilarious but invariably handy Hanoi Massive community page. I watched and re-watched the Top Gear Vietnam special. All of this in an effort to prepare myself, and through it all I gradually constructed a mental image of what Hanoi was going to be like.
Well… What can I say, other than that I failed with admirable plenum. Frankly, having now spent a week in Vietnam and having been bewildered by the pace of life in Hanoi, immersed in the bewildering and endless energy of this city and its people, found myself repeatedly surprised by the amaranthine variety of food on offer, and on at least a few occasions been left stranded and helpless in the middle of busy roads swarming in every direction with scooters, I’m fairly sure no amount of research could ever have prepared me for what I’ve found here. Its addictive, adrenaline fuelled, hypnotic, crazy and chaotic, all at the same time, in countless different ways.
I’ll be honest – I’ve never been so excited in my life!
This is a city where the local beer – bia hoi, as its known – is served on street corners, freshly brewed the same day, with customers sat on small plastic stools paying 30p a glass. This is a city where many restaurants serve only one dish, but where they’ve become masters at preparing said dish and do so to utter perfection – and still rarely charge more than £2 a pop. It’s a city where streets become known for the rows of shops selling the same gear that line them: Shoe Shop Street features dozens of shoe shops; Chicken Street is home to a string of vendors serving fried and barbequed chicken; Mannequin Street sells… Well, mannequins, as carefully documented in this very funny blog at The City That Never Sleeps In.
It’s not a ‘nice’ city. It lacks the grandeur of other major capital cities, and somehow doesn’t have the same sense that you’re in the heart of a country. Don’t come here and expect fine dining and trendy wine bars. Too often it even appears shabby.
But what Hanoi lacks in bling, it makes up for in character. Other capital cities can quickly lose their identity as they become international hubs. Hanoi has identity in bags and bags and bags, and you’ll find it as intoxicating as the bia. This is a city which seems to have escaped mass commercialization. I’m in the first city on my journey where Starbucks is nowhere to be seen – and the unique and independent coffee shops that line the roads instead are much more welcome than Starbucks, with its £3.50 vanilla lattes and its identikit hyperexpensive ciabattas.
If Starbucks ever opens here, I hope there’s a protest. I’ll join in.
So, here I am, in Hanoi, at the start of a new life. It’s a new life with an indefinite end point. Adam’s Grand Tour will continue, and I’ll continue to write about my life as it unfolds over the next few months, an exiled scouser living in a stunning city. I’ve got big plans here. I’m going to learn to be a teacher. I’m going to find a band to join. Rent a flat. Keep up my golf. Get fit. Make friends. Read, write, and everything in between. This is still only the very beginning.
But for now the tour is taking a pit stop. My life in Vietnam has begun. There’s no knowing quite where it might take me, let alone where it will end…