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 smaller...so, 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.