Not So Lonely This Christmas

I actually felt pretty nervous about having Christmas over here in Vietnam. I mean, it’s just another day and all that, but it’s still Christmas, and I’d rather have been with my family.

Saying all of this, it wasn’t half as lonely and or as miserable as I’d anticipated, thankfully.

The countdown in school started at 20 days to go. Each classroom had the number on their door, just to rub in the face that I wouldn’t be at home. I think my mind refused to let me get into the christmas spirit. I didn’t want to accept that it was going to be Christmas and I was still going to be stuck here.

English teachers didn’t teach for two weeks on the run up to Christmas, because the rehearsals for their Christmas show were more important, apparently. I was very sceptical about this, as I was about everything around this point.

We had to teach War is Over and Joy to the World at the end of each lesson (before they cancelled them all), and once the English classes had been cancelled, all I could hear most of the day was the kids singing in the hall. I knew the song for each performance, though only knew a couple of the performances to match the songs from popping my head in the hall on the way past for lunch or dinner.

Christmas Eve came, and we didn’t have any commitments really until later on. Dinner was at 5.30 (so didn’t start for at least another 30 minutes). School had invited special guests, such as old teachers who used to work at the school and other people who work in education in the city/ province. Dinner was really nice, lots of veg and some really good meat. The kitchen had done really well. We even had some wine!

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I went and changed a little bit – to look slightly more acceptable in the millions of photos I was likely to be in with the kids. I headed downstairs and chatted to the kids and got some super cute pics of my age 3 class dressed as santas! I headed through to outside of the hall where I was beckoned in by the principal and placed next to her, at the very front – perfect for some pictures – no parents standing in front of me to take pictures of their little ones!

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The Christmas Show was just fab. It started with a performance of Cinderella (with a difference). This version had Santa in place of the Fairy Godmother, and a flashmob at the end which was fantastic.

Following Cinderella, there were performances from each class, starting from the very youngest (my favourite 2A), up to the older ones who combined age groups for different performances. It was really great. All of the kids came together and sang War is Over and Joy to the World at the end with some of the younger ones in shiny bright neon leotards and tutus, which looked excellent. Santa (the new (-ish) maths teacher) came on and handed out a little present to the kids on stage.

I didn’t hang around for long after, once the kids were changed they headed home.

I had a call from the son of the principal saying we should head out somewhere to chill out. I headed back downstairs and met him, plus another couple of staff members and the girlfriend of one. We chatted about where we should go and I joked/not joked the beach (20km away).

Well, we went to the beach! We drove there, stopping at a shop to get some beers along the way.  We found a place to stop and eat, after looking for a while (late night and off season – nowhere open!). There were two restaurants at that turn off along the beach and when they saw the car a guy from each came running and waving as if they’d been shipwrecked and could see a boat!

We sat and had some nice shrimps, squid and clams, and a couple of beers. I sat on the beach looking at the lights on the horizon, thinking about home and travelling – usually the two things on my mind! We chilled out there until past 12 and saw in Christmas day there. I wrote a message in the sand with some little shells around. I couldn’t find the nice long twisty shells like I’ve seen there before, it was too dark to go looking.

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We headed back, getting back to school around 1/1.30. I headed to bed pretty soon after.

I woke on Christmas morning with a slight christmassy feeling. My Christmas spirit had finally found me!!

I put on some christmas music, made myself a coffee, and began opening presents. Of course, there wasn’t a huge number to open. But a few little things from 3 or 4 family members was highly appreciated since the postage probably cost the same, or more than the actual present. So… thanks!!! 🙂

I watched a couple of christmas films that day and had a read/fiddle/doodle with some of the things that had been posted out to me which was nice. I also fitted in LOTS of Skype / Facetime chats with family at home, which was what really made my day I think.

Christmas dinner was in a semi-outdoor restaurant which cooks duck (known by me as The Duck Place). I’ve been there a couple of times before, but of course it was Christmas day, so wanted it to be special. I went with a friend who is one of the kindergarten teachers here, who’s birthday was that day too! It was a really nice evening. We had between us roast duck, salt battered duck and duck mint salad. The latter being seriously mouth watering.

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I had another Skype when I got back, then watched another film before going to bed.

It was a very different Christmas, but it most definitely wasn’t sad and lonely as I’d pictured it!

We had lessons again on Boxing Day, and the following Monday to Wednesday.

On the Tuesday the English department went out for a nice meal of Lau (vietnamese hotpot) in a restaurant near the river. We chose to have a chicken hotpot, but the tall chicken, like the type they have fighting outside our school. The restaurant was empty except for us (I think), so when the lady went downstairs to prepare the chicken for us we heard everything. Poor chicken didn’t put up much of a fight!! We had a nice evening drinking wine and fighting over chicken organs!

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The school cancelled evening classes on New Year’s Eve since most families would’t send their kids to class anyway.

The principal’s son was driving to Hanoi with his friend and another English teacher from school, and were staying with his godparents. I got a lift up to Hanoi with them, but stayed in a hostel at the edge of the Old Quarter. It took about 7 hours to reach the godparents’ house, (which was behind a big iron gate and a posh courtyard- just one house!) having left school after 5, we were cutting it fine to see in 2015 anywhere other than the car!

In the car we read some riddles (which we had to login to some random website for the answer – but we decided not to bother and think of as many possible answers as we could. Fun!), listened to music, slept, nibbled and stopped for some seafood. I felt a bit funny sitting in the back of a car, though not as bad as many people in Asia I’ve noticed who can’t travel at all without being sick, be it by bus or car. So many bus journeys I’ve been on now where I’ve had to put up with the sound of vomiting from near by, once my iPod has ran out of battery! We were pulled over by the police because he was speeding. Everyone was handing over money to give as a bribe. I decided I wouldn’t. It wasn’t my fault he was speeding and I don’t want to encourage the corruption of this country. They wanted a huge sum of money but he bargained with the guy and got off with a lot less of a fine.

FACT: Did you know that the police here have to pay something like $3000 USD to just get the job? It’s no wonder some people preferred life when it was a communist country. At least then everyone had a job without having to pay for it!

11.45pm came and we weren’t near our destination. We passed a couple of parks teaming with people having a jolly old time, but nowhere to pull over and thick traffic of people and motorbikes for us to plough though.

I spent New Year 2015 in a Hanoian traffic jam!! I counted down on my phone and we stuck our heads out of the sunroof. None of the passers by/traffic jam friends seemed remotely bothered that it was new year, though they were all out to celebrate it, as traffic is never that bad at that time of night. This picture was taken at exactly midnight. See how excited people DON’T look!!

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We finally got to the godparents’ house and parked up before catching a taxi to another friend of the son’s Bia Hoi stand. Bia Hoi is draught beer which is sold on the street in Vietnam for between 15-30p. His stand was just closing so he guided us to my hostel, which down a really dark looking street and all locked up. I had called ahead to say I’d be late but the man didn’t even speak to me he just handed me a key. I didn’t know where I was meant to go with the key though worked out that room 303 would be on the 3rd floor (which it was). Next annoyance was that the dorm was bolted from the inside and there wasn’t anyway to unlock it, without knocking. The girl inside wasn’t too impressed as you can imagine. I said I was going back out but wouldn’t be too late, assuming she wouldn’t bolt the door again and just leave it closed.

The five of us (four from the car and the Bia Hoi guy) walked a bit to find some beer and some food. We got some pho, which was a bit of a letdown, since the Pho I eat here in Vinh is really nice. This stuff was really greasy and I didn’t enjoy it much. My beer was nicer. After that the guys walked me back to the hostel, where I had to ring the bell to be let in, again, and then knock on the door to my dorm, to be let in, again! The girl was so angry “Excuse me, why are you so late?”. I felt like telling her that if she was staying in a dorm over new year then she should be prepared for people coming in all times of the night. Safe to say, after my desperation to stay at that hostel from all of the good reviews, my first impressions were not great.

The next morning I waited until grumpy girl was in the shower and slipped downstairs for the breakfast. They provided free breakfast and the greeting from the staff was completely different from the early hours of the morning. They were happy to see me and very welcoming. Breakfast was included in the cost of the hostel (£3.75 a night!), so I had some omelette while deciding what to do with my day. I got chatting to a Brazilian girl who works in oil in Indonesia. She was booking a day trip to Halong Bay for the next day. She was wondering if she should miss it, but I told her that she would really regret missing it!

We went to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum with another girl from the hostel. The taxi we got into went a different direction and the other girl (a hungarian) was really rude and snippy about it. The meter was going really slowly so it wasn’t a problem to me, but she insisted we got out to get another taxi. By that point we were already half way there, so we probably spent more, what with getting a second taxi and the starting fare of the cab.

I wasn’t completely blown away by the whole mausoleum complex but it was nice to see. The times I was in Hanoi in 2013 I didn’t do a huge amount of sightseeing, it was mostly passing through, and drinking the cheap beer!

We had a look at the mausoleum, and then saw the One Pillar Pagoda, which was pretty, though lots of people were there paying there respects and praying for the new year (since it was January 1st!). After that, we went into Ho Chi Minh’s Museum, which was interesting, though I still haven’t quite got the friendship with Russia and the conversion to Communism straightened out into order in my head. The Hungarian girl rushed off to get something from her hotel (which she’d moved to on the way to the Mausoleum) and planned to meet the Brazilian girl at Hoa Lo Prison later.

The two of us took a couple of hours to walk round the museum before walking back towards the centre of Hanoi, grabbing some lunch on the way. I was so excited to get a burger, but the place we went to wasn’t quite as good as it looked and my burger was a disappointment. She jumped in a taxi to meet the Hungarian girl, and I grabbed a taxi back to the centre to do some shopping. I hadn’t seen nice shops or decent western food for months so was so excited! Sad, I know.

In the evening, I met with the couple who I first met on arrival in Hanoi airport back in August. They’d been so welcoming back then and were just the same this time. Serena and Chris suggested an Indian restaurant called Foodshop 45 beside a lake. It was really nice to see them again. We had a really nice meal, and I ate so much that night. After the meal we had a couple of beers at a Bia Hoi stand near their apartment and then went to theirs where we had some jasmine tea and some of Serena’s first homemade Christmas cake and watched TV with them while playing with their crazy little toy poodle! Chris ran me back to my hostel on his bike.

The following day I wandered into the centre to find this egg coffee that I had read about. The place where I had it was a bit of a mystery!!Through the back of a silk shop and up some rickety metal spiral stairs, you come out to a view right across Hoan Kiem Lake. Even though it was smoggy, I still got a nice view for my coffee, which took about 30 minutes to come! Caphe Trung Da is iced coffee with a frothed egg white on top. It was interesting, not amazing, but not at all bad.

I met Serena and Chris for lunch for some crab spring rolls on a street in the Old Quarter. Chris went back towards their apartment and Serena and I went clothes shopping for her to find a dress for her friend’s wedding back in Ireland. She didn’t find anything. I bought a pork skewer and a pair of cute socks, so, still nothing really! We met Chris later on in a nice cafe where we had probably the best hot chocolate ever. It was really thick and chocolatey and had a shot glass of whipped cream for you to have with it. Dip the spoon in the cream, and then in the drink. I have been so deprived of these kind of things! We sat there for ages chilling out and chatting. They headed home to theirs and I headed to the hostel for a nap. We planned to meet later.

We met late in the evening at an Italian restaurant across town from where I was. It was worth the distance. I had a margarita pizza with slices of fresh tomato on it. It was just perfect. I didn’t realise how much I had missed nice food, I just knew I was bored of chicken and rice! We got the desert menu to “just have a look” and they had affogato! For those who don’t know what it is, it’s vanilla ice cream with an shot of espresso poured over the top, and you are all missing out! Of course, I had one. We walked back across town to my hostel first and then they continued to theirs. It was about 50 min walk from the restaurant to my hostel, and was still feeling full when I got there. I haven’t felt so satisfied from food in a VERY long time!

My final day in Hanoi I spent wandering the shops finding some presents for home, and for me too!! Serena had recommended a nice coffee shop called Cong Caphe. I headed along there to read my book for a while and have some coffee. I sat down and an American girl leant over and said I should try a coconut smoothie coffee, so I did. Well, WOW! That was a really nice surprise 🙂 I chilled out in a restaurant with my book and a pulled pork sandwich for a while in the afternoon, before heading back to my hostel.

Later in the afternoon, I headed back out to find a day bag for my upcoming travels and had my final cup of London Fog tea (see post Permission to Land for more information). I met Chris and Serena for dinner, back in the place where I’d had lunch. I had a massive meal that evening, starting with some rose wine, because they were running late. I had a chicken caesar salad, followed by apple pie and then some tea. All washed down with another 2 glasses of wine. Lovely!!! 🙂

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We went and found a tea stall beside the road and sat there watching the world go by. I wasn’t cold when we first sat down, but I did cool off once we started drinking our iced tea. The police had been closing down all the Bia Hoi stands because they don’t like people hanging around the street at night, so we had to be ahead of them to find some tea. We saw them make a road block on a road the other side of the park we were sitting at one edge of. We watched them pulling over cars and bikes for all different types of reasons, and some no reason at all probably! We also saw a really drunk guy fall over a wall and land on his face on the kerb. Amusing!! It’s ok, I wouldn’t have laughed if he’d been hurt. He just got up and staggered away. They walked me back to the hostel and we said our goodbyes. I hope I see them again, they are a really lovely couple!

I had a final walk down to Hoan Kiem lake the next morning, after my bus ticket had been brought to the hostel. I was sitting by the lake just enjoying the moment when a girl came up to me with her friend and asked if they could practise their English. I rolled my eyes, and agreed but made an excuse that I didn’t have long. I just wanted to chill out on my own. Turns out this girl was from Vinh, where I live and work. She wants to open an English School when she finishes her management degree and wants me to be a teacher. How’s that for trusting someone you just met?!

I went back to Cong Caphe for another coconut smoothie coffee before going to the hostel to check out and take a motorbike to the bus station, 7km away.

The bus went through some absolutely stunning scenery. Amazing limestone mountains jutting up from the paddy fields. The bus ride was long, but uneventful. I made up a game to play with myself. It was called Chicken Dog Buffalo and I had to guess which one of three I would see next. Yes, I can tell you are laughing, but long bus journeys do that kind of thing to you!

Christmas and New Year 2014 is a festive season I won’t forget for a long long time. Completely different compared to any other. I missed people at home, and I missed the feeling of being home, but… when in Asia!

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4 thoughts on “Not So Lonely This Christmas

  1. Hi Ruth, Very happy to learn that your Christmas turned out so well. Loved the narrative of your time in Hanoi, and ESPECIALLY loved the photos of the street scenes. I never had Caphe Trung Da, but I did have Biere va Trung (raw egg in glass of beer. Ever tried it?
    Have you yet found a magazine that will publish these lovely reports? L&K’s, F.

    Like

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