The next thing I needed for my work permit application was to have my documents certified. Which, of course, wasn’t as simple as it sounds, just like everything else here! To have documents certified you have to visit the embassy. Lucky for me (ha) the nearest UK embassy is in Hanoi, ONLY a 6 hour drive away. In a bus. Overnight.
The principle wanted me to go as soon as we had agreed on a contract, but it wasn’t that simple.
To book an appointment at the embassy you have to send them a scan of each document needing certified, plus your passport, and some forms, and payment for them via email. Then, after five days processing this (actually was a bit quicker, but it said it could take five days) they will send you a reference number, and with THAT you can book your appointment(s). I sent all these things across but school was pestering me to nag the embassy. I’m sure that is never a good move. “Send them another email.” “Call them asking if they got your email.” “Email them again.” I gave in and eventually emailed them (on the first working day after I’d sent the original email), they hadn’t even received the first one, so back to square one! Anyway the lady from the embassy sent me the reference number to book my appointments, and there were none on the day the school wanted me to go. I couldn’t go on Thursday as I was going to the hospital that day (if you haven’t read my post about that then I recommend you do to get the full picture!), there were no appointments on Friday, so Monday was the day.
I would get the bus late Sunday night, arrive early Monday morning in Hanoi, do my embassy/consulate stuff, get the bus back Monday night, arrive at 4am and teach 8am Tuesday morning. All good. Nobody actually stopped to consider that having spent 2 nights in a row on a night bus that teaching on Tuesday morning would be horrific. Except one person. Lizzie of course. I said to the school office I couldn’t teach if I had been on a bus for two nights in a row and they offered to cancel all my classes. That really wasn’t necessary, but maybe the first two, so my day would start at 10.20am rather than 8am. Much better.
On Sunday night after a relaxed weekend doing not much at all, I met Mên (same girl who came to the hospital with me) at the school gate. She had a tiny bag with her. I had a school bag sized bag and my hand bag. Where did I really think I was going? Turned out I didn’t use half the stuff I took anyway. We walked (or limped, in her case – she’d come off her motorbike the previous weekend) the ten minutes to the bus station.
We were really early, like 45 minutes or so. But the time went quickly and the bus came and we got on. Not as traumatic as my previous experience at the bus station, looking for the right office in the torrential rain!
Because we hadn’t booked much in advance we didn’t have great seats. For those of you not familiar with Asian night buses, they’re quite cool. They have three rows of bunk beds, (two aisles) and then at the back they have five bunks all joined together. That was where we were, right at the back in a heap of sweaty bodies. I was 2nd from the window, with the aisle in front of me, so every time the bus braked, I had to hold on to stop myself flying down the bus. As on a bottom bunk there is another bed above you, but usually you can sit up (you can on the beds down the aisle). The beds at the back were a different story and you couldn’t even sit up. Bring on the claustrophobia.
I managed to use 3G and Skype one of my best friends from home. We don’t speak often but when we do it’s lovely and have good long chat. You know those really annoying foreigners on the bus or train at home? The ones that speak far too loudly on their phone? Yeh, that was me this time. Sorry.
After the two or three horrible night bus journeys of my life, a backpacker told me about the readily available Valium here in Asia. Now, I’m not stupid. I like to think I’ve got my head pretty firmly screwed on – most of the time anyway! But if this would help me sleep on these awful buses, then maybe it would be worth a try. I was wary. I’d asked around the backpacker circle (last trip – last year) until I was sure it wasn’t going to be dodgy. You can buy it over the counter in Asia for next to nothing so… I did. I had stocked up for this bus journey, and took one after I came off Skype. It’s a funny feeling it gives you. I’m sure some people would hate it. It makes you really relaxed, and, if you’re tired, you can get a good sleep with it. The only downfall with taking it is that it leaves you dozy for the following day – so forget having a busy and energetic day!
We arrived in Hanoi around 5am and searched for a taxi. There were hundreds, but next to none of the one taxi firm in Vietnam that’s reliable. I have to admit I was still half asleep and the early morning busyness of Hanoi surprised me. I had forgotten how crazy roads are in the big cities. Vinh is busy, but Hanoi is something else!
We eventually got a taxi, and we went to a hotel, where I got an hour and a bit sleep and a shower. We then had a bowl of pho for breakfast and got a taxi to the embassy. Arriving a bit early at the embassy we found a coffee shop round the corner. It stank of stale cigarette smoke, but coffee is coffee, and I needed some. Like I’ve said before, the coffee here is great.
The time came and Mên and I headed round to the embassy. I felt really nervous for some reason. Mên told me that the last time she had come to the UK Embassy she hadn’t been allowed in, so she would just wait outside. That worried me for some reason. I was scared to go in myself! It was all okay though. The man at the front door let us both sign in and sent us up to the 4th floor (where the embassy is).
Coming out of the lift we were faced with an airport security type body scanner. We had our bags searched and all electronics taken from us. They looked at our ID and asked for confirmation of our appointment, which I produced. We went and sat in a waiting room which had a London panorama as wallpaper. I really liked it there!! A little bit of something home-like, so far away from the real thing. The lady who I’d spoken to via email explained about the certification process and stamping etc. Her English was really good, though I guess it has to be to work in the UK Embassy?! The process went smoothly. She asked about school. I told her. They had a charity box there with poppy pins for Remembrance Day in November. I don’t usually buy a poppy to wear but this time I did. Another nice touch of home. I got one for the two others Brits at school too.
The nice lady sent us to another place about a ten minute taxi ride away. She said we didn’t need an appointment but that we should go now because they close for lunch. I didn’t REALLY understand what the place was that we went to, a consulate of some sort. I don’t even know the different between an Embassy and a Consulate. Is a Consulate only in its own country? Who knows.
Everything there was in Vietnamese though so luckily I had Mên there to help me. We had to fill in some sort of form on a computer which was a pain in the back-side. I felt pretty unwell and was getting a sore stomach. Some girls on a computer next to us explained some of the unclear things about the form. We printed it off and waited to be seen. We were told that my documents would be ready at 2pm. At that point it was only about 10.30am. I had already ran to the toilet 3 or 4 times while in the consulate. Not that I’m boasting, but I’ve been here 11 weeks and that was the first time I have a dodgy stomach. Proud.
The pair of us took another taxi to a part of the city near where she had gone to uni. We got another hotel. I was speaking to another teacher via text back in Vinh and she said that they had only stayed in one, the one early in the morning. Maybe it was because I wasn’t well or something. I don’t know. But I slept yet again. Mên’s friend rang her and was waiting outside on a bike. I felt a bit annoyed. You know, like, she had come to Hanoi to work, not hang out with her friends. But whatever, I wasn’t going to argue.
We sat and had a smoothie under some parasols round the corner from the second hotel. Another friend arrived on a bike. Neither of them spoke English, and Mên didn’t introduce either of them to me. I may as well have been a fly on the wall. It wasn’t great, and I felt crap. Partly the stomach, partly the Valium hangover I guess. They wanted to get lunch. I wanted to sleep. I said I would go back to the hotel but it seemed to be a problem so I went with them and ate some bun cha.
After another (very short) nap (see – this is the Valium hangover I was talking about) Mên and I headed back to the consulate to collect my documents. She headed out-of-town afterwards to meet her friends again and to collect the bus tickets from the bus station. I took a taxi into the part of Hanoi I know the best, the area of the old quarter round the cathedral and Hoan Kiem lake.
The taxi dropped me next to one of absolute gems of my travels last year, a coffee shop called Joma. Now, that may not seem like such a big deal to all you people who go to Starbucks each morning on the way to work or whatever (yes, I do that at home), but, when you have been slumming it from a backpack for endless months, when you find a place like that… words can’t describe. There are three Jomas, and I have been to them all – Vientiane, and Luang Prabang in Laos, and in Hanoi too. It was here that I first discovered the delight of a London Fog. “Ew”‘ you may say. So did I when I first heard of it. Try it. There is NO ‘ew’ anywhere in it. Earl Grey tea, with steamed milk and vanilla syrup. Yup, told you. I had a cup and drank it slowly, savouring every sip. I ALSO had a cheese and chive scone with real butter. WHY is there not a place like that in Vinh?
I decided I was going to send home souvenir type gifts for people’s Christmases, but in the end didn’t get anything. I got a couple of pirated books (completely obviously photocopied from page to page) and walked down to the lake.
Lizzie had told me that there was a building with an H&M and a Gap at the side of the lake so I walked the whole way round. One building had Cartier and Burberry and other shops like that. It seemed too posh to have high street-y shops in but I walked round the outside incase it was round the other side, and to see if there was a list of the shops inside. Neither. So I carried on walking round the lake with no luck in finding either shops. I got a smoothie (mango, of course) and got a taxi to the bus station which is miles away from the centre.
The taxi dropped me at the edge of a highway. The driver kept pointing to the bus station, but I couldn’t see any way to get in. There were men waiting to give lifts on their motorbikes and they started hassling me. “Motorbike? Moto? Motorbike?” I was feeling annoyed at the taxi driver and Mên wasn’t even at the bus station and was surprised that I was there so soon (even though I was half an hour late because of traffic!) so I got really annoyed with these men. I shouted at them “Why would I want to go on your motorbike when you just watched me get out of a taxi?” They kept on, so I walked away to try to get into the bus station and find a seat.
Mên and I had decided to go to a mall to find some clothes for me, but when she met her friends she then said it was too far away from the bus station. The bus was at 9.30pm and it was only around 5/5.30pm. Why she wanted to meet me at the bus station this early I had no idea. Neither did she apparently. We went to the ticket office to pick up our bus tickets. I said that I thought she had to pick them up before 4 (just repeating what she had told me earlier). “Oh, why?” she said. What is it with
people telling me information and then not remembering the information themselves? I’m sure it happens daily here. She had checked into yet ANOTHER hotel near the bus station. These hotels were all pay by the hour it seemed, and none of them luxury. The second was a bit of a dive to be fair. But they all had a bed and that was the important thing.
After she’d got the bus tickets she asked me if I wanted to stay at the hotel or in her friend’s room. When I realised that she had already been to the hotel I said that we might as well just go there. I’m glad I did say that, because we visited her friend’s room and it stank of who knows what. I think it was an out building of some sort. The bed was a low and hard wooden structure similar to a table, with a bamboo mat on it. Mên’s old room was up a very rickety looking metal spiral staircase in the roof of a neighbouring building. Slightly different from student accommodation in the UK. Now, I really don’t think that I’m a snob. But if we were going to be there for the next few hours then I wanted to sleep, and I wouldn’t be able to. I didn’t feel comfortable or relaxed at all. Yes, I know, that’s how the other half lives and all of that. I fully appreciate that. But when school was paying for a place for us to stay I wasn’t going to turn down an actual bed was I?
Mên went back out with her friend once we had gone to the hotel (very close to her friend’s) to find some glue for one of the staff in the English Department. As an arty kind of person I really struggle with the minimal resources that Vinh has that I can buy for use in the school. All art materials have to be bought by the teachers, not supplied by the school.
I went back to sleep for an hour and bit – see, the Valium stays in your system for hours and hours. Worth it for the bus, but not for the next day. Mên still wasn’t back when I woke up, but came back soon after with a bánh mì for me for dinner. A bánh mì is a Vietnamese sandwich in a crusty french baguette. One of the better things left from the colonial times. It has meats, herbs and sometimes some cheese in it. They usually use a sauce of some sort, like chilli or mayo. Seriously good.
We headed to the bus station a while later. We weren’t ages too early this time and got straight on the bus. I was glad to see that I wasn’t sandwiched in the back but was on a bunk at the side of the bus. I spoke to my Mum briefly then tried to sleep. That wasn’t hard, despite sleeping all day, I was still tired. No Valium needed for the way back. At 4am the bus arrived in Vinh and we walked back to the school. Mên stayed in the boarding room with the kids, but only for an hour until they got up. I flopped into bed and woke up to my alarm at 9.40am – very glad that I’d cancelled the first two classes of the morning.
Don’t forget to check the “My Instagram” tag for regular photos 🙂