“My favourite ‘cultural learning’ so far has been discovering how hospitable and welcoming the Vietnamese people are. Despite the language barriers, it’s extremely common to hear a ‘hello’ and receive a friendly wave which is the perfect initiator for a conversation between two cultures. Also, witnessing the students’ english ability progress from week 1 till now has been truly a rewarding experience”.
The gladdest moments in human life is the departure into unknown lands”- Sir Richard Burton. Vietnam, the unknown land for me, has officially become one of my favourite places to explore after spending 4 weeks so far in this charming country. On the 16th of June I left Dublin airport and landed in Hanoi. High temperatures, insane humidity and mopeds swarming roads all welcomed me to the crazy city that is Hanoi.
Hanoi city is a great place to explore on foot or by moped, just be wary of the unwritten rules of road etiquette. Rule #1. Beeping. Perhaps the only rule ever obeyed and used strategically to inform other road users to move out of the way. This passive aggressive approach works surprisingly well as all road users have a silent agreement to obey the power of the beep and clear the way. This unspoken language between car, moped and pedestrian is what keeps the Vietnamese roads from collapsing into turmoil and detrimental chaos.
Rule #2: Ignore Western road rules. More often than anticipated you will see mopeds and cars whizzing through red lights or driving on the wrong side of the road in order to pass out slower road users. Vehicle indicators are only novelty and are rarely used when turning. Buses and trucks are the dominate power when it comes to road navigation. Consider them the God Father of Vietnamese roads, nobody crosses their path. Mopeds are next on the road hierarchy. Vehicle lanes are non existent in Vietnam so mopeds have this infinite ability to creep up either side of traffic (sometimes via footpaths: pedestrians be aware!!) and weave their way to the top of every traffic queue often causing bumper to bumper traffic jams.
Rule #3. Expect the unexpected. As a pedestrian I have seen moped drivers defying the laws of gravity whether it’s by carrying a family of 5 on the back of a bike or by slugging around large cargo that is literally 6 times the size of the moped. Thrill seekers, forget about skydiving and bungee jumping, crossing the road in Vietnam will give you the adrenaline rush you need. From my own personal experience, the best survival method for crossing the road is to keep moving forward. Once you have submerged yourself into the chaos, move slowly and steadily forwards and for maximal safety always obey the unwritten road hierarchy rules i.e rarely stand out in front of buses and trucks as they will be less likely to swerve and avoid you in comparison to mopeds.
In celebration of completing this death defying act daily I often treat myself to some Vietnamese street food. On many an occasion myself and other volunteers would stroll the streets of Hanoi in search of Pho, Bun Cha or Banh Mi. As a fan of street food it appears I may have left my mark on one particular Banh Mi food stand as every day I walk past I am greeted with a welcoming smile and a wave from the Banh Mi lady who undoubtedly serves the best Banh Mi in Hanoi. For an outsider it may seem intimidating approaching these stalls as workers often speak little English, but it can offer a great opportunity to test out any newly learned Vietnamese phrases such as ‘xin chao’ and ‘cam ơn’. The people here are undeniably friendly and love to share their culture and what better way to experience it first hand than tasting authentic Vietnamese street food. As for this blog post, I’m off to get Banh Mi but stay tuned for more posts showcasing the wonderful experience that is volunteering in Vietnam.