Orientation? More like FOREIGNtation! My First Week As A Foreigner

Having concluded our four-day orientation in the capital city of Hanoi, I can confidently say that iced coffee, air conditioning, “having a rest”, and Bia Hanoi have quickly become four of my favorite things about Vietnam.

Orientation was a fantastic time meeting new people, exploring a new city, trying new food, and starting an already-immensely rewarding cultural immersion.

After an 11 hour rest on Wednesday night, Michaela (who arrived at the same time as me and is heading Thai Nyugen) and I decided to wake up early on Thursday and take on the winding and fast-paced streets of Hanoi.

My initial take of Hanoi: Imagine New York City. Now imagine Chinatown. Now imagine if New York City were 10% New York City and 90% Chinatown. (If you’ve never been to New York, stop reading this blog, get in a your vehicle of choice, and go. It’s wonderful. Then come back to your computer and finish reading.) A few observations:

-Vietnam is hot. Holy hell is this place hot. It is intensely hot all day. It is aggressively hot every day. According to the other teachers, it was cooler when I arrived that it had been since they arrived between two and six weeks ago. The oppressive heat is matched by the Vietnamese’s sharp awareness of the heat, so A/C is a way of life. Willis Carrier is the man.

Michaela having a rest in front of fan in the very cool and very warm Ethnography Museum
Michaela having a rest in front of fan in the very cool and very warm Ethnography Museum

-Nobody walks. We were the only people walking. Everyone else is on the (in)famous motorbikes or in taxis.

-Those who do walk do not do it on the sidewalk. The sidewalks are packed with storefronts, parked motorbikes, the occasional chicken cage, these:

Trash is placed into these bags, then thrown on the sidewalk. Sanitation crews clean them up throughout the day.
Trash is placed into these bags, then thrown on the sidewalk. Sanitation crews clean them up throughout the day.

Thankfully though…

-While traffic is crazy and the sidewalks are packed, drivers are acutely aware and very courteous. The constant honking serves in lieu of silly traffic signs and turn signals. Cross the street as you please; the motorists will (usually) swerve around you. This leads to the next point:

-People are so friendly. From the obvious things, like children screaming “Hello!” and running over to practice their English with us, to subtleties, like the hotel staff switching the fans on for our three minute taxi wait in the lobby and our taxi driver grabbing a bowl of pho with us, the people of Hanoi exhibited extreme kindness to us and, it would seem, each other.

A group of primary school students who wanted to practice their English with me.
A group of primary school students visiting the Ethnography Museum who wanted to practice their English with me.

After getting woefully lost (thankfully Hanoi is like one big Wi-Fi hotspot and Michaela’s skillful use of Google Maps saved us), we arrived back to the hotel late Thursday morning to meet two staff members and the four teachers I had yet to meet.

-Ngoc, our coordinator in Vietnam. Want something translated? Need to exchange money? Ask Ngoc. Having an issue with your school? Ask Ngoc. Don’t know what something is on a menu? Ask Ngoc. Ngoc was a saint, and she will be missed.

-Ally, the CIEE Teach in Vietnam program coordinator and something of a warrior. Ally takes no shit from no person, and knowing she’s in my corner supporting as I move along in this wild adventure is hugely comforting. I also would like to think that she has a newfound respect and, dare I say, love for the great state of Ohio after hearing my thrilling stories and fun Ohio facts (I know, it’s redundant to say “fun Ohio facts”).

-Stephanie, a fellow B1G graduate (Indiana U.) whose contacts and previous experience in Hanoi led to a couple fun nights out on the town

-Jeff, the fellow political scientist and from whose new penthouse apartment I snagged this panorama of the Hanoi skyline.


Jeff and Ally actually arrived later in the day, after having a harrowing airport experience that involved Danang and too many hours in the air travel industry.

-Mark, the avid cyclist who arrived 1.5 months ago to start teaching, providing me with numerous insights that will be sure to help and whose Google Translate abilities and desire to learn Vietnamese helped us on numerous occasions

-Adrienne, a fellow hiking, porch, and Taboo lover, fellow first time travel abroader, and the first person I’ve met from New Mexico. I also credit her with introducing me to Vietnamese coffee, which has forever changed my life.

-Michaela, my first friend in Vietnam and facilitator of my first selfie stick photo. We rode from the airport to the hotel, did some exploring (as mentioned), and went through the whole jet lag thing together.

It was then off to the IIG office, an organization works with CIEE to place us in schools and serves as an indispensable in-country resource, and to officially start our orientation.

Orientation schedule
Orientation schedule

This would become the routine for the next few days: mornings and afternoons were filled with classroom-style presentations on Vietnam and education. As you’ll see from the schedule, throughout these sessions was ample time for “tea breaks” and “hav[ing] a rest”. Oh, how we yearned to have rests. Having a rest meant getting food.

Vietnamese plums and pastries. (I ate the whole plate of plums. No shame.)
More pastries, grapes, and longans. Kind of looks like a grape when peeled.

More importantly, having a rest meant getting iced coffee.

So dark. So strong. So cold. So damn delicious.

How do I love you, Vietnamese coffee? Let me count the ways!


My first sip of Vietnamese coffee was like the first time I heard the Beatles. I knew nothing would ever be the same. Served in small cups for a couple bucks, this drip coffee tastes like insanity and became our lifeblood. It’s that take-your-breath-away, soul-punching, dark-as-the-hole-where-my-heart-should-be taste that has few equals. Ally made sure we were well caffeinated at all times.

When our in-class orientation finished up for the day, we would have a rest (I cannot overemphasis my adoration and reverence for the rests!) and head to dinner. Vietnam is known as a foodie’s haven, and Hanoi did not disappoint. Of course we ate pho. I’ve six bowls of pho in five days and nowhere in the foreseeable future will I be aiming to reduce that ratio (let’s call it PDR: Pho-Day Ratio. I’ll try to track and update it as often as possible). But we also ate mushrooms, cuttlefish, prawns, and lots of food made from unrecognizable ingredients combined to create unquestionable tastiness.

Mango smoothie with a carrot garnish
Some sort of mushroom hot pot that was delicious
Cha ca La Vong, a famous fish dish. Cooked in front of us, and the servers refilled the pans until we had enough.
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Mark showing his chopstick skills
We ate at this place a few times. All the prices are the same (around $3.50 USD). Servers bring your menu, then they stand at your table and wait for you to make a selection.
Note: Spaghetti Bolognese
Tastes of home (don’t worry, we didn’t eat here)
One of several KFCs in Hanoi. Not pictured: Burger King and Domino’s Pizza down the street.

We also drank Bia Hanoi, something of a national beer in Vietnam. Oh boy, did we drink Bia Hanoi. Bia Hanoi pairs with anything, as our thorough and scientifically necessary research proved. Dirt cheap (especially when CIEE is paying, as they did for all of our meals, taxi rides, and the entire Hanoi excursion) and served over ice (settle down, beer snobs. It’s so damn hot all the time that ice was a welcomed addition to anything, including this beer), Bia Hanoi quickly became our social lubrication of choice and a cornerstone of my Hanoi experience.

IMG_2770 IMG_2758

After finishing dinner and our Bia Hanoi, it was off to see Hanoi’s nightlife. We walked around Hoan Kiem Lake, clapped confusingly at the Water Puppet Show, wandered around the Night Market, strolled through Old Quarter to see dance aerobics in the park, closed down the bar (the police come at midnight to clear everywhere out!) and, of course, drank much Bia Hanoi.

Screen_Shot_2015-08-24_at_7 (1)
Hanging out by beautifully lit Hoan Kiem Lake. From left to right: Mark, Stephanie, Jeff, Adrienne, Michaela, Ally (CIEE Coordinator), me.
Tiger Beer, another great choice for a hot night.
In the Old Quarter, a popular place for tourists and backpackers to hang out at night.
These little blue stools were all over the city as open seating for folks to relax and sip Bia Hanoi.
One of the many street vendors. She let us take a picture of her, then she hustled Adrienne into buying a bag of donuts.
The city was full of gorgeous temples.
Fifty person racing boat at the Ethnography Music. Trying coxswaining this bad boy, Uje.
A stadium we found wandering around Hanoi (we were wandering. The stadium was in one place).
My first selfie stick photo!

Sunday morning brought a surprisingly sad end to what were five wonderful days in Hanoi with seven wonderful people. Around 2PM, Ally caught a flight to Shanghai for more orientation (she has seriously like the coolest life ever), Mark and Adrienne hopped in a car to head back to Thai Nguyen and Bac Giang (they’ve been here for 1.5 months and 2 weeks, respectively), Stephanie and Michaela hopped on a bus also bound for Thai Nguyen, and Jeff signed for an apartment in Hanoi. A few hours later, I found myself waiting at a bus stop to head to my new home in Dong Hoi, about 12 hours south of my new friends. Six strangers, bonded over continual sweating, Bia Hanoi, the constant search for air conditioning, and a newfound love for taking rests. After spending every waking hour in Vietnam with them, it was with profound sadness that I had to say my premature goodbyes. I suppose all good things must come to an end, but, like, why?

I type this now on the bus to Dong Hoi. The ten hour trip from Hanoi is giving me lots of time to reflect and digest my first few days in Vietnam. I reiterate my distain at having to unfairly say goodbye to the other teachers in the program, but my spirits are lifted by the hope that we will reunite for more adventures farther down the proverbial road. After five days of laughing, confusion, and immense fun, I can’t help but feel earnest and burning joy that I am in indisputably right place at the right time. It’s a fun thing to feel.


3 thoughts on “Orientation? More like FOREIGNtation! My First Week As A Foreigner

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