Welcome to Hanoi!

July 19, 2019 | Genevieve, International Development and Globalization, Vietnam, Uniterra, Hanoi Open University (HOU) - Youth Engagement Officer

My three weeks in Hanoi had been wonderful, a constant mix of calm and chaos. At first glance, everything seems out of control; the traffic, the mismatched buildings, the old and new side by side. It is a unique kind of beauty that can only exist in a place like Vietnam. The long and complicated mix of various colonial influences is apparent: French style apartment buildings stand right beside Chinese style temples. The traffic, a constant stream of motorbikes driven by “Sun Ninjas”; women covered head to toe in special suits, no matter what the temperature, blaring their horns and weaving in and out of cars. Anything can be carried on a motorbike, from fish tanks to couches to newborn babies. Chaos. But, it all just works. After you get used to it, it is easy to spot the quiet moments. The young couple taking selfies on a park bench, the elderly bicycle lady singing songs as she pedals through narrow alleyways and shop owners napping on the floor of their stores to relieve themselves from the unique heat of Hanoi afternoons. These little moments of peace and beauty make it all worth it.

I have fallen in love with my studio apartment and the traditional vibe of my neighbourhood. I have befriended the children of a local fruit vendor whose stall sits just outside of my apartment building. The children have an insatiable fascination with my curly hair and eye colour. They always run to meet me and offer hugs in the morning before I leave for work. Usually, while I am busy playing with the children, their father has taken to snatching my phone out of my hands and shouting instructions at the confused grab drivers (Vietnam’s equivalent to Uber – but on a motorbike) on where to find me. It amazes me that despite a total language barrier, I look forward to seeing their smiling faces everyday.

The other WUSC volunteers in Hanoi have been amazing. We have already developed a close relationship, and being able to share our experiences with one another has made adjusting incredibly easy.

One of the biggest struggles that I have faced so far is the perception Vietnamese people have of white Westerners. People will stop me to take my picture, or more often, just snap one of me without asking. It is deeply uncomfortable for me. Maybe I am being dramatic, but the idea that photos of me just exist in the world without my knowledge is unsettling. With that comes constant stares and unwanted attention, particularly from Vietnamese men. I can’t walk down my street without being jeered at by men lounging at the Bia Hoi’s that are scattered throughout the alley. I have been reassured that it is all-harmless, but I can’t help but feel irritated. The influence of colonization is still so apparent. Vietnamese women go to extreme lengths to maintain white skin. Billboard ads are heavily (and obviously) photoshopped and the grocery store aisle are lined with products that promise to lighten and whiten your complexion.

My work as a Youth Engagement Advisor has been incredibly rewarding. I am lucky enough to get to work directly with 18-20 year old Tourism students. Not only have I been blessed with a wealth of knowledge on all of Hanoi hot spots, but I have also been welcomed with open arms and they feel more like friends than recipients of my mandate. I look forward to getting to know these students better, and finding out how I can serve Hanoi Open University and its students to the best of my abilities.

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