Becoming Hanoi, losing myself

Editor’s note: This is an almost live update (I left Hanoi 1 week ago), and as I was thinking about the words, a soundtrack was playing in my head. If you want to experience this post as I did, click on the video below and then read.

I wake up. Light is already trickling through the parting between the thick curtains of my hotel room on the 5th floor, but I know that it’s not yet time to wake up. It’s not 7 am yet, which is when, roughly, the honking starts and all the motorbikes start purring down on the streets below. Shortly after that, even from 5 floors up, I am able to hear the news announcements and the music coming from the loud speakers installed on the streets. The two lovely receptionists at my hotel have told me that that’s the government’s way of making sure that no one oversleeps or is late for work. Both girls, when asked why they are always working, say that they have only 2 days off per month, as seems to be the case with every Vietnamese I ask.

I notice that they are always working because I myself am in Hanoi for one month, a fact which amuses all the locals I tell this to. Am I crazy? No, I am simply doing a CELTA in Hanoi (Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults)


Hanoi is what I’ve read about it tens of quickly written blog posts where the writer has stayed in the city for only a few days. It’s noisy. The streets are clogged with traffic, and crossing the street is an adventure. There is, admittedly, not much to do from a tourist point of view. It’s slightly cold and quite grey in Winter.

And I love all of it, in a weird way, but it’s because I’m not being a tourist. I meet young, energetic and enthusiastic Vietnamese people in my classroom, and beyond teaching them, I get to know their hopes and dreams. I catch a local bus back from school, where students, house wives and business men alike mingle for a few minutes, then I walk a stretch of Hoan Kiem lake, watching students walking arm in arm and couple after couple posing for pre-wedding pictures in the prettiest of local traditional clothes.

I learn to have my wits about me on the streets. One absent-minded moment and I may well forget to look both ways and be hit by a motorbike. I learn to cross streets without breaking into a sweat. I try street food a few times and get stomach problems twice, then settle for eating in local restaurants, which are pricier but equally authentic. Everywhere I go, I am surrounded by locals. Hanoi belongs to its people.

At first I say I couldn’t live in Hanoi. Then, the friendly locals, the easy-going lifestyle and the throbbing pulse of the city makes me fall in love.  In one month there I also develop a routine, a lifestyle. Having been pretty much a loner for three years in Switzerland, I am reminded of how wonderful it is to have people to talk to and laugh with everyday. My CELTA classmates are a wonderful mix of weird and ordinary. My students are a pleasure to teach.

When my CELTA is done, and it’s time to leave, I mourn as if a dear old friend has died, and I don’t know why. The city is not beautiful. The streets of Hanoi are not a pleasure to stroll along. But I mourn nonetheless, and I feel lost. Maybe I’m frightened of what’s coming up next. Maybe, I am terrified.

I am living such a full life. What I feel right now is at the same time sublime and heart breaking.

-Text and Photography by Denise Pulis All rights reserved.

9 thoughts on “Becoming Hanoi, losing myself”

  1. That was really nice. I enjoyed it with the music. Vietnam is such a great place. The people are so wonderful. I would definitely be homesick after being there for 30 days!

  2. Great Soundtrack. Matches the text amazingly. Goose Bumps. I love Hanoi as well. I was only there about 5 or 6 days. I did not hear the walk up propaganda, although I had heard about it previously. Hate missing out!

    1. Hi Jan,

      I believe you can hear it around Hoan Kiem lake but I’m not sure. It starts at around 7 am and it was my alarm clock. Even at the weekend, I couldn’t sleep through it. There was also often music in the evening, but the annoying thing is that it was the same song over and over again…and I could hear it from my hotel room! Got a bit on my nerves after 1 month there!

  3. The music is such a nice touch to this piece and really gave me a fuller sense of your feelings about Hanoi. Although I’ve never been to Hanoi, I’ve certainly felt much the same way about other places. Nice post.

  4. Enjoy! Fabulous city, spent two weeks based there in October 2010 and not a day goes by that I don’t think about those two weeks. Don’t forget to take a cooking class!

  5. Just read your post and added the music…really nice touch! I have a friend that just moved to that area from the states and we all thought she was “unique” to settle in a country that our generation only heard about from the war. She is loving it!!!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.