With the new year just past, I find myself reflecting on 2011. It was a year in which Hanoi taught me many lessons, for which I’m truly grateful. I present for you some highlights of What I Learned In 2011:
1. Your eyeballs can sweat
A year in Hanoi can be divided into three parts:
a) Dreading the summer;
b) OMG IT IS SUMMER; then
c) Dreading the summer.
The Hanoi summer is so humid that your body enters a state of liquefaction. At one point while exercising this year, so much sweat collected under my nose (otherwise known as “a sweat moustache”) that I actually inhaled it through my nostrils and experienced the sensation of drowning in my own bodily fluids. This reminded me of an article I read about moose in Siberia that are known to actually suffocate in swarms of mosquitos so thick that the insects completely block their poor moosey noses and mouths. This made me feel better about living in Hanoi, but then my eyeballs started sweating and Novosibirsk began to seem quite appealing.
2. It’s amazing how hard it is to die of food poisoning
When I lived in Australia I was under the impression that if you didn’t regularly disinfect your chopping board then not only would Today Tonight come around to your house and test it for “germs” then feature you on a show called “Living In Their Own Filth”, you would also probably die.
Yet here in Hanoi, I have recently discovered that the fish in my delicious breakfast of fish noodle soup comes from nearby Trúc Bạch lake. To call Trúc Bạch a “lake” is stretching it. It is a fetid sewer, so polluted that all the desperate, gasping fish that live in it routinely all up and die, and float to the surface to rot in the sun. Not only is our sewerage and the sewerage of the surrounding houses pumped right into it, it is also plainly used as a toilet by the travelling hawkers, who crouch on the water’s edge.
The fact that fish can survive in this lake at all is mind-blowing; the fact that I have eaten those fish and yet I am not dead is a miracle. Next time I see tourists turning their nose up at the state of hygiene displayed by Hanoi’s street food proprietors I will shout, “It’s OK! I’m pretty sure it’s totally fine to eat human poo!”
3. Vietnamese bananas taste like vindication
This year I found my enjoyment of living in Hanoi was in direct correlation to the cost of bananas in Australia. Every time one of my Australian friends on Facebook complained about the ever-increasing price of bananas, I would cycle down to my local market and buy a kilogram of bananas for less than a dollar:
Just because I could. The more expensive the Australian bananas got, the more delicious the Vietnamese ones became. Soon I found myself having to Google queries like “What happens if you eat too many bananas?”
The Great Australian Banana Crisis of 2011 was like a banana from heaven for us expats. It was the proof we needed that we’ve made the right decision to leave home and live in a country where your eyeballs sweat and your fish is sourced from a toilet. Every time I peeled back a banana skin I had pause to consider how lucky I was to be living in Vietnam, and just how different — indeed, better — my life is here compared to back in Australia, leading me to the fourth lesson of 2011.
4. I’m really lucky to be living in Vietnam
After a difficult “settling in” phase, I am now well and truly bedded down in Hanoi. My love for the city and its inhabitants is such that I’m no longer dreaming of more liveable climates, or finding the need to regularly de-worm myself distasteful. It’s just part of the deal of living here. I think many expats stick to a carefully censored script of how idyllic their new home is to justify to themselves and others why they’ve moved there, but as far as I’m concerned, the greatest compliment you can make to your host country is that you love it, warts and all.
As the clock ticked over to 2012, there’s nowhere else I’d rather have been than on the banks of Trúc Bạch lake, knocking back a bowl of fish noodle soup. Happy new year.
Tabitha Carvan writes the blog The City That Never Sleeps In about the lighter side of living in Hanoi. She contributes to a number of publications and is a regular columnist for AsiaLife magazine and Vietnam’s largest news site Dân Trí. You can follow her on Twitter here.