Back to Vietnam: Life in Ho Chi Minh City

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Even though we didn’t enjoy our time in Hanoi, we decided to give Vietnam one more try. We had heard that Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon, as the locals call it) was much different than the North end of the country, so we booked a ticket and tried this whole teaching English thing one more time from March until this July. As of this post, we’re just getting ready to leave again after four awesome months here.

Saigon really is a lot different than Hanoi. Perhaps it’s just the fact that the South is much different than the North, but it seems that everything from the traffic, to the food, to the locals is much better. 

The traffic

The roads are better for riding a motorbike since they’re set up with bike lanes and one ways, creating a lot less congestion than Hanoi. The roads are wider, with many of the major arteries being 3 or 4 lanes in each direction, separated by medians. In Hanoi, it was often two cramped lanes only. The craziness level is (a bit) lower and it’s way easier to get around. It took us only about two weeks before we no longer needed Google Maps.

The food

While Hanoi was amazing for traditional pho and bun cha, Saigon has so many more options, and all for incredibly cheap. We eat for about $5-7 a day, and that’s eating out for every meal. For breakfast, we grab noodles with spring rolls anIMG_7957d pork for 75¢. For lunch, I usually get an omlette with pork on noodles for $1 and a bubble tea (my favorite) for $1. Then for dinner, we get a buffet style chicken, pork, or beef dish with rice and veggies for $1.50. Luke often gets a large meat and rice lunch for $1-2.

You can also get banh mi sandwiches at any street stall for 50¢-$1, and different kinds of soups and noodles are everywhere. I really love the ‘pho Hue’ in the alley near our house, which we get for $1.50. It’s a special pho with a red broth and rare beef. There are also juice ladies everywhere that will sell you a mango smoothie for $1, and/or a freshly juiced fruit or veggie drink.

I could go on and on about the food, but that’s for another post!

The people

The locals have a much different attitude towards foreigners here, and I’m not sure why exactly that is. We are greeted with warm smiles and people who chatter away at us in Vietnamese, always excited to meet us. When we’re eating, people are so helpful and really want to make sure we enjoy their food (which we do!). Even at the gas station when my bike got blocked in, a guy jumped off his bike to back mine out for me.

IMG_8124We have a tea lady in the front of our apartment and she’s always smiling and chatting away at us, even though we have no idea what she says. It’s nice to try charades-type conversation with her. She’s like having a watchdog grandmother always looking out for us. Another lady down our alley has the cheapest tra tac (a lemon oolong ice tea) for 25¢, and she loves asking me where Luke is when I’m alone. She makes sure to always smile and wave at us when we drive by. It’s very charming, and a refreshing change from the cold stares of the North.

It’s been nice to really settle in here. We have a lady who mends our clothes for us (and gets stains out of Luke’s clothes), usually for about 50¢ or so. We have friendly ladies who run a vegetarian restaurant, where they sell buffet style imitation meat and rice at $1 a box. We have mechanics that laugh at us every time we come in but never overcharge us, and we have a smiley doorman named Lin who watches over us. We also have three friendly neighbourhood ‘So dogs’ (alley dogs) that we love to pet and feed. The locals judge Luke a little for being so hands on, but he just washes his hands immediately after. It has really begun to feel like home.

The expat community in Saigon is also much different. Here, everyone hangs out and goes to the same few places. There’s more of a nightlife and community feel here. In Hanoi, everything shut down at around 11pm, whereas here, there’s no time limit. We’ve made friends easily, enjoyed the kind of music we liked, and we get to hit up events all the time.

Our life

We’ve been living in a small one-bedroom furnished apartment in Binh Thanh district, which is outside of the main District 1. We pay about $290 (not including electricity) for our place, which has washer/dryer, Internet, and cleaners who comes 3x a week (they do our sheets too!). It’s on a nice quiet alley and we have Lin, who provides 24-hour security and helps me take myIMG_8378 motorbike out in the morning. We never have to worry about our bikes being stolen, as they’re under lock and key, and there are about three locked doors and a doorman between our apartment and the city. It’s nice to not have to worry about break-ins or theft, which is a very real reality in Asia.

We bought second hand motorbikes for very cheap. My Honda Wave was $150 off some backpacker with a flight the next day, and Luke got his Yamaha Nouvo for $230. Gas is about $2.50 a week for me, and $5 a week for Luke (he pays extra for a little horsepower).

It took us both about a week to find good jobs. We work down the street from one another at Korean language schools in District 7. We’ve been very happy with both places, and I have a second job at night that I love as well.

All in all, I’m really happy we gave Vietnam another chance. The country is a little rough around the edges, but has such a soft side to it. We’re working a ton to save up for the next leg of our journey but for the last four months, this has been our happy home.

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Our life in Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve definitely been slacking on updating our blog, apologies for that! We’ve been extremely busy settling in and working. We moved to Vietnam to teach English and the job market in Hanoi is plentiful. We both got teaching jobs the day after we moved here and it’s been an adventure ever since. More on that later!

As one could imagine, living in Vietnam is quite different than Canada. Here’s a few highlights of our daily life here in Hanoi.

The traffic

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The traffic is insane here. With nearly four million motorbikes on the road, plus cars, vans, public transit, pedestrians, and cyclists it makes almost every journey to work a miracle that we survived. Our friends often joke about the road rage we’ve all developed over here. Some days on my way home from work, my jaw hurts from clenching my teeth. It’s pure insanity.

IMG_3863First of all, there are no laws. Well there are, but with so many people, good luck. People drive on the sidewalk, run red lights, drive in the opposite lane, you name it. During rush hour, traffic cops stand in the middle of the road to try and keep
some order to everything and keep two lanes of traffic flowing. It’s a cute attempt on their part but unfortunately, not too effective.

Luckily, everyone is driving at a max speed of about 30 km/h if you’re lucky and  it’s often stop and go. Most days I’ll bump (or be bumped by) a bike or two. You get used to it. We even had our bike knocked over once, but the slow city speeds meant there was no harm done.

Luke got himself a Yamaha Nuovo for about $250 USD and I got myself a cute little red Honda Wave for $270. We should be able to sell these to other foreigners when the time comes. Gas costs us about $2.50 a week, and our helmets cost us $5 each. Mine got stolen recently (a common thing here) and I had to buy a new one, so I’m at $14 total for brain safety.

We have been pulled over by the police once for accidentally driving in a “car only” lane. Luke slipped the police officer 500,000 dong ($25 CAD) — sorry mom! — with his license and he let us go, no questions asked. Getting pulled over by cops can be quite tricky, since foreigners don’t have the right driver’s license and cops in Vietnam can pretty much do whatever they want. We were worried our bike would be impounded, so we were happy to pay the bribe and move on.

All you can hear all day is car honking. From about 6am till 11am, the honking is constant. Also, it’s extremely polluted here. A good long drive will gift you with a nice pounding headache. We’ve invested in these fancy hospital mask things (reusable!) which most people wear. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than breathing the smog directly.

The food

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Not only is the food here in Hanoi incredible, but it’s dirt cheap. A meal will cost you anywhere from $1-5 USD for a huge portion. The key is to find the right places that don’t charge foreigner prices!

We live near the Old Quarter in Hanoi, which is home to so many great places to eat. Around the corner is a Phở place we love which serves us a heaping bowl of beef soup for $2.50 (50,000 dong) each. We also love the Bánh mì sandwiches at $1 (20,000 dong) a pop. Actually, we’re a little bit addicted to the sandwiches. They often come with some sort of slow-roasted port, a pork liver pate that’s to die for, and fresh veggies like cilantro, cucumber, and tomato. We also found a delivery place that brings them right to our house. Mmmmmmmm.

On the other hand, we love to cook as well. Vietnam doesn’t do the whole oven thing, so we just have two gas stove-top burners. I can honestly say I haven’t missed having an oven. You really can make do with just a stovetop, aside from a good homemade pizza, we’re doing alright.IMG_4220

We go to the market down the street from us where we buy chicken breast off a butcher for $2.50 (50,000 dong) for two big boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Then, we visit our favourite veggie lady and usually end up with a bag of veggies that includes red and green peppers, two onions, cabbage, garlic, broccoli, bean sprouts and cilantro (depending on the day). We’ve never paid more than $3 for everything (60,000 dong). We come home and make a meal for about $5 total that lasts both of us for about two days.

Last, I can’t forget to mention the sweets. I think deep down I was born Vietnamese, because their sweet tooth matches mine. There’s an ice cream place around the corner from us that sells ice cream with chocolate chips and coconut milk for 15,000 dong ($0.80 CAD) and a tea place I love, Feeling Tea, which sells bubble tea for 20,000 ($1 CAD). Also, we get huge bags of kettle corn to feed my popcorn addiction off street venders for 10,000 dong ($0.50). I’m in love.

One of the hardest adjustments food wise has been the milk. Vietnam kind of does milk, but not in the way we do back home. First, it isn’t “fresh” milk. They put sweetened condensed milk in their tea and coffee. The milk we eat in our cereal comes from boxes of milk that can last on the shelf for a long time. Cheese is also a no-go here. If you find some, it’s usually tasteless. Think, ‘white spread’. The rest of the milk they use is powdered milk or soy. We miss our chocolate milk and cheese, that’s for sure.

The people

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While we have our ups and downs here in Hanoi, I think it’s safe to say that the people in Vietnam have been a treat to get to know. One thing we’ve found is that they’re extremely eager to help.

For example, every night we need to bring our bikes inside a locked area so they don’t get stolen. I have a hard time with my bike, since it’s quite heavy. There is rarely a night were a stranger doesn’t see me attempting to get my bike up the ramp and instantly jump to push the back for me. The other night, I watched as two guys from next door helped Luke push his inside without him even noticing. One night, we forgot to bring our bike inside, but the guy who works next door remembered it was our bike and locked it inside the karaoke bar for us. He wouldn’t even accept a thank-you from us the next day.

Another time, Luke’s bike broke down outside a fast food place, Lotteria. I texted my student, and she wrote me a message in Vietnamese to show the parking guy. As he was trying to help us, a woman with her two kids stopped to help. She spoke some English and spent at least 15 minutes with the parking guys trying to help us. One of the guys biked to see if a mechanic was open, but it was too late at night. So, she went in and got the manager of the place and he came out, all smiles, and said of course we can leave our bikes there overnight and the guys would bring it in for us and back out in the morning to pick it up.

The next day, Luke called a local guy we met when we first moved here, because he’s the only local person we knew. Instantly he told Luke not to worry, that he’d pick him up and they’d get it sorted. He grabbed Luke at 8AM the next morning and drove him 20  minutes to the place we left the bike and then helped him get it to a mechanic. In the end, he wouldn’t accept any form of payment for his entire morning of work and the drive.

Like I said, it definitely has it’s ups and downs. Not knowing the language can be tiring and not everyone is as patient as others. But, the one thing I’ve noticed is the kindness of strangers.

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