Saturday, June 30, 2012

Call Me, Maybe

In the last two months, I've watched SIX of my closest friends in Hanoi pack up their bags and leave this crazy chaotic city (and more selfishly-ME) behind. I know in the past I have spoken about this, about the transience and having to accept it as a part of the expatriate lifestyle, and while I do, a blow of six people in two months is a lot. Not to mention another one is leaving in July. Seven in three. The good news is that I have friends in lots of places, so anywhere I want to go in the world, I know someone. The bad news: the number of friends I have in Hanoi is dwindling.

When I first moved to Hanoi, I had the misfortune of making friends with people who were at the end of their time here. The misfortune was not being friends with them (obviously) but being shaken up so quickly after I'd "settled down." I then made a *rule* (or guideline/policy for those of you against the "R" word) of only establishing bonds with people who were here for the long term, whatever that is in Hanoi. It sounds a bit ridiculous, but I didn't want to invest all of this time and energy only to have to repeat the cycle a few months later.

The more I've had to forge into new friendships, the more I realize that making new friends is essentially like dating, and losing friends is like going through a break up. The former requires a lot of time, nurturing and effort. The past year and a half or so, I've had my established group, which was comfortable, dynamic and secure, so I never felt compelled to go out to meet people to have a social life, as I could just call people and we could hang out. However, now, the circle of people to call is getting, just like a breakup, I have to get back on the scene. Go out there and meet people.

I have to go out to parties, events, concerts, openings, gatherings etc, once I am there I have to MAKE AN EFFORT. Engage in small talk hoping it leads to something more stimulating and that I'll like this person enough to maybe consider hanging out with them again sometime. If things go relatively well, we'll exchange numbers and make plans to do whatever it is we bonded over, have coffee, go shoe shopping, eat street food.  When you do this, romantic or not, it's kind of like a date, because you're going out with someone with the purpose of getting to know them to see if you enjoy their company and want them to be a more frequent part of your life. It's almost weird the first few times (at least for me) because you're like, "What if we have nothing to talk about? What if that night at (insert bar name) was just a one off and I actually have nothing in common with this person/they're lame and I'm stuck" I find the whole process a little bit stressful, and honestly, exhausting. However, it's necessary.

*Not that I am by any means an expert in this but here are some tips to making friends in Hanoi:*

1. Remember that Hanoi is actually easy, warm and welcoming. We all have a kind of understanding of each other and camaraderie. You're not going to LIKE everyone, that's impossible, and also incredibly boring, but the point is, it's unlikely that an expat (that you'd be friends with---only referring to age factors) was born here so most people, do know what's it's like to be new here, or lose friends to another country.
2. Go out. A lot. Some people may argue that you need friends to do this, and while that makes it easier, it's not 100% necessary. First, check out sites like The Word, TNH, Hanoi Grapevine, Facebook and Twitter to see what events are going on, and just go to them and talk to people. There are also business networking events every month for all of the Chambers of Commerce. These all usually have things to do that won't make you feel weird about showing up solo. This is exhausting, I know, but after a month or so, the effort will have paid off.
3. Get involved. Hanoi is incredible in that it has a group/organization/interest group for almost anything. Some of my closest friends are people I met while performing "My Fair Lady." Theatre, opera singing, cycling, ultimate frisbee, cooking, running, yoga, books, board games...whatever you're into, there's probably a group...and if there's not, you can make one.
4. Avoid tourist and backpacker spots. With the exception of Maos, which is a unique blend of both, it's not the best idea to go to backpacker heavy places because you're not going to establish a connection for more than a night...which is maybe what you want, (hey snackpackers!) but this post isn't about that. There are some established expat spots where most people are open and friendly, and you can easily join conversations. I am only listing bars/restobars: (Tadioto, Hanoi Social Club, Southgate, ATK, Barbetta, Puku, Maos, Hanoi Rock City, Tay tap, 21 Degrees North, Commune, Red River Tea Room, Blue Note just to name a few)
5. Be friendly but not desperate. People in Hanoi are pretty approachable and welcoming, but if you try and engage yourself and get limited response, move on. As forgiving and lovely as Hanoi is, it's also small and gossipy, and you don't want to be "that weirdo" instafriending everyone in sight (like that girl semi-stalking my boyfriend) Just like dating, you've got to be able to take the hint if someone isn't interested in talking to you.
6. Follow up. One of the things I love about Hanoi is how quickly bonds can be formed and connections are made. In most parts of the world, people would think you're weird if you exchanged numbers and made plans immediately upon meeting them, but in Hanoi, it's par for the course. If you get along with someone, get their number, and shoot them a message in the next few days. It's normal here, in fact the longer you wait, the less normal it is. If you see someone out that you've met or recognize, go up and talk to them
7. Keep it Simple/Have an Escape Plan: Bad friend dates can be just as excruciating as bad romantic dates, so don't leave the day/activity too open ended. Start with something simple like having lunch on your lunch break, that gives you an escape route. Or do an activity (preferably one you spoke about) like going to listen to that band, or see that movie, or try that amazing bun bo nam bo place.
8. Join Twitter. There is a strong twitter community in Hanoi---all of Vietnam actually, and the users are all interacting with each other, whether it be answering questions, helping promote something, talking about what's going on in Hanoi, or arranging meet ups, Twitter in Hanoi is not a bunch of antisocials hiding in the virtual world.
9. Stay positive. People come and go, and that's difficult, but for every person who leaves, another 10 arrive. I'm not at all suggesting that friends are replaceable, but I can assuredly admit that saying goodbye to my nearest and dearest was slightly buffered because I'd met some great new people. Also, there is every type of person living here: corporate, artistic, teacher, diplomats, nomad, lifers, religious, athletic etc. You can find like minded people.
10. Remember that Hanoi is small. There is a two degrees of separation from everyone. This can be a blessing and a curse.

*Authors Note: Despite the despair stemming from the departure of some of the most fantastic people I've been lucky enough to know...I wouldn't trade this life/experience for something more stable. I have crossed paths with inspirational, groundbreaking, and extraordinary people who have shaped my perspective and made my world a better place by simply being. I may never live in the same city as some of them again, but I am confident that the bonds we've formed will remain strong distance withstanding. I wanted to take the time to thank you for being such a significant part of my life here in Hanoi and also outside. It's never goodbye, it's always see you later. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Con Dao

I like to travel, a lot. Some people even joke that I'm out of Hanoi more than I'm in it. While this isn't exactly true, I admit that I have a good deal in terms of vacation time, and I utilize it as much as I can. However, I work hard for it, long hours, high stress levels, so when the vacation rolls around it's usually just in the nick of time. I grew up as a globetrotter, flying back and forth to Europe several times a year (on account of my mother's family) and my parents have never been interested in purchasing designer bags or clothes, rather opting to fly us all over the world during school holidays. I'm the same. I want to see and do as much as possible. I start planning my next getaway before I've even returned from my current one.

Sure enough, that's how this trip unfolded. Within minutes of touching down in Bangkok (after a week and a half in Burma/Myanmar) my boyfriend informed me that four days in Con Dao is what he wanted to do for his birthday, and so that's what we did.

To be honest, I am never overly impressed with beaches. I grew up on the southeast coast of Florida, a spot world renowned for its beaches, so I've often found places such as Bali, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia etc, nice... but not living up to the hype that surrounds them. In the weeks preceding this trip, I kept looking up images of Con Dao, hoping that the professional photographers hadn't airbrushed too much, because what is seen online is spectacular. When I arrived there I was shocked to discover that, in person, Con Dao is more breathtaking than any photo I'd seen (or took) of it.

This is what all of the beaches look like

The island itself consists of miles of deserted white sand beaches that lead in to the calm, warm turquoise blue ocean. Looking out across the ocean, you see endless stretches of ocean with a few other islands thrown in for good measure. Facing away from the ocean is lush green tropical landscape, all sloping upward. Green one direction, white and turquoise the other. Something you don't see? Buildings. Cars. Roads. Development. This is due to Con Dao's "national park" status...something I hope preserves it in the many years to come.

view from bedroom
Scenery aside, what makes Con Dao the ultimate getaway is everything about its condition. The island is tiny,  with one real main road. The town itself boasts one stoplight, one bank, one gas station. The roads are empty, we drove for over an hour and came across (maybe) two people. The air is clean and clear, the sound of horns honking and loud voices is replaced with waves crashing and the occasional bird chirping. (In just the amount of time it took me to write that paragraph, I counted 27 horns honked right outside my window)  The seafood and vegetables are fresh, the surrounding environment promotes tranquility and serenity. Within minutes of taking in what was around me, my body and mind let go of all of the stress and frenzy that is a part of my daily life in Hanoi (and believe me, I was at the end of my emotional tether before getting there)

Every trip I go on is unique and wonderful in its own way which is way it's hard for me when someone asks me to choose my favorite. For me, it's not really fair or possible to weigh them like that. I label my vacations differently "dynamic" "cultural" "active" as to properly define them. Aside from being the most stunning beach I've been to in Asia, my time in Con Dao, was hands down the most relaxing trip I've ever been on. I came back recharged and revitalized.

I almost don't want to talk about Con Dao, because I want to keep it a secret, I want it to remain in the pristine condition in which I found it. I don't want what's happened in other stunning locations to occur here, the idea of the beaches becoming overcrowded and commercialized is not one I even wish to think about. That being said, I want to share this secret with everyone so that they can experience a piece of heaven for themselves, because that's what Con Dao is...
*note: If just chilling out is too mindless for you, there are other things to do. We spent some time touring the historic prisons, driving around, and there are also day trips available for diving.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Mirror Mirror (My Tuoi Tre News article)

Authors note: I was asked to write an article for the Tuoi Tre news about cultural differences I experience as a foreigner. This is the topic I chose. The article can be viewed here: though it's in Vietnamese. Below is the English version that I sent to them. 
Update: june 11th, article now on the English site but also still below:

“Mirror Mirror on the wall…”

When I left my 26th birthday dinner I went home and cried. Not because it wasn’t fun, but because my Vietnamese friend remarked that I must have had a good holiday because “you look quite fat now.” I’d only been in Vietnam for two months and it was the first time anyone had ever said anything like that to me. Her British boyfriend had immediately jumped in, telling her, “You can’t say that to a western woman!” but it was too late, the damage had been done and my fears were confirmed: the fried food I’d eaten for two weeks did, in fact, have an effect of my body.

Since then, I’ve had the way I look be the subject of scrutiny many times. I’ve had coworkers inform me that I should ALWAYS wear makeup, comment on my too tan skin, or remark on my big nose. I never have to weigh myself because I am always told when I’ve gained or lost weight. I’ve also been witness to people asking (not pregnant) women when their baby is due. When it’s revealed that they aren’t pregnant the asker just laughs like it’s the funniest thing (whereas in the US, Europe or Australia they’d be very embarrassed and apologize profusely) When I explained this to my Vietnamese friends and coworkers they were surprised that such a thing would be offensive, “But if someone doesn’t tell you, then how do you know?” one asked me incredulously.

In Vietnam, uncensored remarks are normal and not considered rude, as they are purely stating an obvious fact. Since many Vietnamese share first names, deciphering adjectives act as identifying nicknames, like tall Hoa, fat Hoa, or smart Hoa. In my culture, such comments would be deemed as the ultimate insult, and wouldn’t be said to someone unless you were trying to hurt their feelings.  In the western world, we are so conscious of being polite and complimentary; if someone complains that they’ve gained weight we tell them they look beautiful, if they ask us how an outfit looks, we tell them they look good even if we don’t like it.  When asked to describe someone, we focus on their generic features (hair and eye color, skin tone, height) and leave out anything that could be considered mean (big nose, fat.) Anything “negative” is either not said at all, or said behind the persons back in a mean way.

It’s been almost two and a half years since my 26th birthday dinner, while I’ve not yet been able to adopt the Vietnamese way of telling things like they are (probably due to my 25 years of pre-Asia preconditioned “politeness.”)  I’ve come to accept and even appreciate the honesty, finding it refreshing.  It’s made me realize that foreigners are sensitive to the point of ridiculousness, getting hugely insulted by the smallest thing.  Offending a foreigner is easy, just say something that isn’t a compliment.  We need to be coddled, told that we’re wonderful, beautiful, and smart. We even have to use words like “feedback” instead of “criticism” and start sentences with compliments before we approach an unpleasant subject. Example: “You are such a hard worker, with a lot of enthusiasm but your writing needs improvement.” Or: “I like your dress, I’ve just seen you look better.” Even showered with compliments (and still not staying what we really mean:  why can’t we just say, “Your writing is boring” and “your dress is ugly?”) a lot foreigners will still think you’re being “mean.”

Perhaps we foreigners are too concerned with things looking nice or sounding good, rather than the truth. We ask each other how we look to feel better about ourselves, lapping up compliments even if they’re insincere, knowing full well that if someone told us something we didn’t like, that’d we’d be upset and angry with them. However, the fact is that sometimes we DO look ugly, or HAVE gained weight and we need to be able to accept these realities.  Maybe we are afraid of the truth and prefer to pretend like things are how we want them to be, rather than how we are.  As tough as we think we are, we crumble too easily.

Even though I have embraced the Vietnamese straightforwardness, valuing it greatly, it still, at times, can hurt my feelings. No matter how much I understand the cultural differences between my country and Vietnam, I will never be happy to hear that I look “much more beautiful with makeup” or that I’ve put on a few pounds…(however I am grateful to my friend Ha for informing me that I should never wear a certain pair of jeans again. I gave them away immediately.) Living in Vietnam, we don’t need mirrors. The people around us act as our mirrors, always telling us EXACTLY how we look, whether we like it or not.