Happy New Year Blog Readers!
Many of you will have noticed my quiet withdrawal from social media and the online world recently, at least on my official "Laura J P Richardson" platforms. This is with good reason: I have moved countries!
Where in the world am I?!
I am now staying in a crazy little city home to 7.5 million people: Hanoi, Vietnam.
Not only is it the first time I've been to Vietnam, but it's also my first time living in a city and the first time in 6 years that I haven't lived near the sea.
Here are just a few of my initial thoughts, experiences and observations of city life.
Nature in the City
Unsurprisingly I had a few concerns about moving to Hanoi since I often credit the natural world with keeping my physical and mental health in a good place. Would this reduce as suddenly as the amount of wildlife and greenness?
After only a few days in Hanoi, I definitely noticed the differences in wildlife and nature, but that was always going to be the case when comparing to a Southern Thai Island! That said, there seemed to be even less than say London.
I am seeing more now that the weather is warming up. But with an entirely unfamiliar landscape and culture to get used to it's highly likely I'm just not in-tune enough with the sounds and sights of this city to be able to easily pick out a bird shape or bird call. I've at least seen a large peregrine falcon flying above the motorways - a good sign. Photographically, I'm excited by the opportunities this city could present. What wildlife survives where little else does?
*Not Hanoi, but Bangkok on the way here!
Community, on the other hand, is thriving. Hanoi feels like hundreds of small cities or large towns all stuck together, with pockets of people that seem to know each other very well. I've been delighted to discover so many independently run shops and cafes including one that sells cameras and film alongside its coffee (the same building is home to art studios and a second-hand vintage clothes shop. Every person had a camera in their hand and most were doing photo shoots right there, so basically I found photography heaven). It's this feeling of closeness that probably makes up for the lack of natural scenery. Being part of a community is also an innate need.
In my last home in the South of Thailand, most locals spoke at least some English and after a few lessons and a lot of practice with Thai friends, I could speak to local people in most situations. Right now I feel like someone has pressed the reset button as quite often neither I or the person I'm speaking to have any idea what the other is saying. Learning English does seem to be a priority for younger generations, and learning Vietnamese is up there on my list of things to do. "Hello", "Thank You" and "How Much?" is the extent of my vocabulary so far. Though the latter doesn't work so well when I have no knowledge of their words for numbers!
Despite the odd cons of this language barrier, I love it. It feels like I really am in a new place. It is making me appreciate all over again that no matter how different we think we are from someone or something, it's always easy to find some familiar ground. I can't explain how many times I've had conversations with cashiers, taxi drivers and people I live near where neither of us understood the words but both of us understood the conversation.
That said, body language and tone of voice will only get me so far. The quest to learn day to day Vietnamiese continues.
What I call an alleyway, they call a road. What I call a pavement, they call a road. What I call the inside of a shop, they call a parking space. What I think needs a pick-up truck, they see as a just-strap-it-to-the-moped job.
Bikes are the main method of transport here and can be driven anywhere, with anything on the back of them. Literally.
While on the back of a bike taxi, waiting in a traffic jam, I was shocked to see people skipping the queue by overtaking onto the pavement. If one person did that in London there would be outrage. But here? Not an issue! Not a blink of an eyelid. The same can be said for any accidental bumping of tyres or being cut off, or anything where someone from another country would raise their clenched fist and utter some sort of insult. Nope, not here. That's just how to get around, why get mad over something so normal? There are of course rules on the road. Marked lanes, traffic lights, the side of the road you're supposed to drive on. All of which are completely optional. As are wing mirrors - usually taken off since they just don't look cool.
Due to the amount of traffic on the roads the pollution levels are high. Extremely High. Travelling by bikes leaves lungs more exposed and so a mask has become the latest addition to my wardrobe, initially alongside hoodies and a coat due to the temperature - it was freezing! While my first few days allowed me the luxury of wearing shorts and t-shirts, winter certainly hit Hanoi and I found myself wearing jeans for the first time in over a year, sleeping in a hat, and constantly re-washing my handkerchiefs... It may not be the coldest place in the world but 9°C from a minimum 25°C in Thailand was for sure a shock to the system. The temperature is now back up to 25°C and growing... The most changeable climate I've ever experienced.
Hanoi first impressions
So, that about sums up my first impressions of Hanoi and some of the city and culture that really stand out to me. Since starting this post in January a whole month has passed including the holiday of Tet - the Chinese Lunar New Year that is a huge part of life here (that will have to be a blog all of itself!). Amazingly the things that stand out to me are still the main points I originally wrote about. I'm so happy to be back to blogging, it feels so good. If you did get this far reading, then thank you for sticking around! More posts to come soon.