Travelling Homebody toured Ninh Binh aka Halong Bay on Land

My first week in Hanoi, Vietnam

I’m here in Vietnam for at least 3 months, volunteering for KOTO. For those of you who don’t know the story, when I was in Vietnam in 2010, as part of the tour I was on we visited KOTO Restaurant in Hanoi for lunch. KOTO (which stands for Know One, Teach One) was started by an Australian, Jimmy Pham, who—while working for Intrepid—started helping Hanoi street kids. To cut a long story short, Jimmy needed to find a sustainable way to help put these kids through school (he paid for it out of his own pocket to start, and then opened a sandwich shop) and KOTO was born some 16 years ago. KOTO takes street kids and trains them in hospitality skills: either as chefs or front of house staff. I was so blown away with this story, the restaurant and the work that KOTO does that I vowed to come back and volunteer.

So here I am, some six years later, volunteering at KOTO here in Hanoi. Dreams do come true!

What has this first week been like? I have alternated between sheer joy and absolute frustration mixed with a little What on Earth am I doing here? and Can I just go back home now?

The flights

The flights here (yes, I ignored my own advice and didn’t take a direct flight!) were remarkably uneventful, even though I was worried about a super tight connecting flight from Penang* to Ho Chi Minh City in Singapore. I must sing the praises of the AirAsia staff who moved me to the front of the plane so I was the first passenger to disembark. My luggage was there waiting for me and there was hardly anyone in the immigration queue, so even with the change of terminal (thank you, SkyTrain) I had my VietJet boarding pass in my hot little hand within 20 minutes.

My earlier flight to Hanoi from Ho Chi Minh City had been cancelled, so I had a long layover. I was tired from not having slept much the night before, so the almost fours hours hanging around the airport would have been interminable if a lovely young engineer hadn’t sat next to me and struck up a conversation. Before I knew it, it was time to board my flight to Hanoi. Flying in over both Ho Chi Minh City (during the day) and Hanoi (at night) put a definite smile on my face. I was happy to be back!

*I do have to say that the AirAsia check-in counter at Penang International Airport is one of the most chaotic counters I have ever experienced. Not enough staff, self check-in and baggage drop was not streamlined,  a gazillion people, and I was lucky to make my flight to Singapore even though I allowed a couple of hours. It was crazy times there!

The Old Quarter

I was picked up by my driver (again, I’m always grateful that I organise airport transfers. I would hate to be battling to find a taxi after a long flying day) and taken to my hotel, the Hanoi Street Hotel. I booked this hotel based on the reviews, and it is the first time I have been let down. I have no idea why there are so many positive reviews for this hotel EVERYWHERE. It was awful. Here is a summary of why:

  • It’s tired, old and shabby and felt dirty, even though my room was cleaned every day.
  • Lights were broken, light switches didn’t work, and the positioning of the power outlets made it almost impossible to charge my appliances.
  • The TV didn’t work.
  • There was water leaking all over the bathroom floor.
  • I was in a non-smoking room that stunk of stale smoke.
  • My door was difficult to both lock and unlock—from the outside and inside.
  • There was no information about the area in the room e.g. nearest supermarket, taxis, ATMs, public transport—or even who to contact in the hotel.
  • There was no bar or restaurant as per the pics.
  • The wifi was patchy at best.
  • The hotel is located in a side street that cars can’t access, so I have to do a bit of a hike with all my luggage to the main road.

The only positive things about this hotel is that breakfast was passable, it’s in a good location and the staff speak good English and try to be helpful. As soon as I found somewhere else to stay, I checked out—and I was slugged an early departure fee. I should have charged them a discomfort/pain and suffering fee!

Tours I did to pass the time

I booked myself on a couple of tours to fill in the few days until I started at KOTO. One was a food tour of the Old Quarter, which I did at lunch and it was fab. I was the only one on the tour—again!—and my tour guide was the delightful Thanh Huyen. She had no issue with my no pork or beef request, and we spent a wonderful few hours wandering around the Old Quarter, eating all the good food. I was particularly taken with the shrimp cakes, crab spring rolls, dry noodles and the egg coffee—talk about yummy! We even stopped off for bia hoi at the end of the tour.

The next day, through the hotel, I booked myself on a tour to Ninh Binh aka Halong Bay on land. It was a bit of a drive there and back (three hours each way) and the bus was shabby and tired, but it was a pleasant afternoon. We were taken to the two ancient temples of King Dinh and King Le, then to a buffet lunch, and then we took our boat ride up the river. It was quite lovely and very relaxing, and the boat rowers weren’t too pushy with regard to the tips they were expecting. Then it was back on the bus for the return trip. I did take my good camera, so I did take some fabulous pics.

Starting at KOTO

I started at KOTO on Thursday, and after corresponding with Leanne the volunteer co-ordinator since July, it was awesome to finally meet her. The training centre is located out of Hanoi, so we took the shuttle bus from the restaurant at 7.30—I joked that I never get up this early for work! I had walked to the restaurant from my hotel (I left at 7am) and it was lovely to be in amongst the hive of activity that is Hanoi early in the morning.

Leanne took myself (and Xavier, another new volunteer) to meet the staff and gave us a tour of the centre, as well as an excellent induction (one of the best I’ve ever had in my working life) and then we went to our respective areas. I will be in the Training Department, teaching a couple of English classes and helping out with curriculum, systems and other processes. I’m there three days per week and I know I’m going to be very busy!

After my first day, I can say that KOTO is an impressive organisation and the students are lovely. I sat in on one of the English classes, just to observe and see how they do it here, knowing that my style will be a little different. My focus will be on building vocabulary and correct pronunciation rather than grammar. There are a lot of teaching resources, so I won’t be stuck for inspiration, although I am slightly nervous about being in a classroom* again… it’s been a long time!

*On my second day in Hanoi, I scored myself an English teaching job, which fell through a few days later. In hindsight, I’m glad because I already have enough on my plate. It fell through because the centre manager wasn’t happy with my lesson plan. I submitted it, and she wanted more detail, and I said “No thanks” because it had already taken me an hour—unpaid. I refused to spend any more time on it.

Moving to an apartment

I had found an apartment yesterday, thank God, but not without a couple of false starts. I thought for a nano second that I might like to go into a shared house, but after checking one out, I decided against it. I’m much too old to be sharing my space, and it worked out that for an extra $50 per week, I wouldn’t have to. Money well spent, I say.

My process for finding an apartment meant following a bunch of Facebook groups and keeping up-to-date with the postings, but that became hard work, particularly from a screening perspective. Then I put out a call on Facebook and was pleasantly surprised by the number of people who had properties to rent. In the end, I went with Leanne’s option (she had a guy, Mr Tuan) and a company I found on Google—Westake Housing Group—who specialised in rental properties in the area I was interested in (Tay Ho—a lot of expats live here, so it’s easy). Mr Tuan took forever to get back to me, and in the meantime I organised to meet with my guy.

My guy, Johnny Tran, turned out to be an absolute gem. His English was impeccable—he had lived 8 years in Canada, and had gone to university there—and nothing was too much trouble. He organised with me to met him in Tay Ho, and his colleague Tony (who told me he loved my soft, unAmerican accent) showed me a number of places. I think I saw around seven or eight in my price range, and ended up going with the first apartment he showed me because it had a separate kitchen, a bath, a balcony, lots of natural wood and 24/7 security. The whole thing went very smoothly and I moved into my apartment next day, with Johnny overseeing everything.

It’s lovely having a kitchen and even though this is a one bedroom studio apartment, there’s a lot of room. And it’s quiet. And I’m out of that bloody awful hotel. I got sick of the Old Quarter very quickly, and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone stay there for more than a few days. It’s noisy and crowded, and after a few days becomes almost unpleasant. And I kept getting lost, even with my CityMaps2Go app. Here in Tay Ho, it’s quiet and refined and civilised… well, more so than the Old Quarter. I haven’t gotten lost… yet! And there’s an 18km lake practically on my doorstep where I can run.

Then and now

Six years have passed since I was last in Vietnam. In 2010, there were fewer cars and you couldn’t access Facebook without a VPN. English was not widely spoken. Now (apart from the taxi drivers, which is one of my major sources of frustration) almost every second person speaks English, or good enough English. Cars are choking the streets of Hanoi, and you don’t need a VPN to access Facebook. It’s still scary trying to cross the roads, although the cars make it even more scary!

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1 Comment

  • Wouter May 19, 2017 at 11:57 PM

    Looks like the best you can do … i am really dreaming of this too. Hope i can start it in 2018 … the year i will quit my job (sorry boss ;-))


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