The expat experience

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The expat experience

We’d planned to go to Hanoi to visit our friend Tatch. He’s lived there for the past three years working as an English Teacher.  For us, this meant no thinking, no researching the best places to eat and not having to worry about finding accommodation. We were having a luxury experience – a tour guide without the awkward conversation.

It all started with a game of scrabble and a nice cup of coffee. Hanoi was freezing when we arrived (apparently it has three cold months a year, England cold!) so we were pretty happy at the suggestion of a nice hot coffee.         And it was hot. The coffee arrives on a little stove to keep it warm and it has sweet milk in it (so stirring is imperative, otherwise it will burn). The stove which is powered by a tea light candle not only keeps the coffee warm but it heats it up, so whilst it keeps your hands really warm, it becomes really difficult to drink after a while. I lost the game of scrabble (thank to my letters: UIIIIII) but I feel like I won a cultural experience. I win…

In fact the rest of the trip was a cultural and culinary wonder. Here are a few of the highlights…

  • Hopping on a motorbike and driving to a barbecue restaurant. The restaurant was a collection of tiny plastic tables and tiny plastic stools gathered in an unassuming yard. The walls were gratified and it wouldn’t have been out of place in trendy Shorditch, London. Best of all though, the food was amazing. Each table was provided with a hot barbecue and utensils along with platefuls of marinated meats, fish and vegetables. Of course you had to cook it yourself but due to the marinating you couldn’t go wrong. And you didn’t get cold either – the beauty of having a fire in the middle of the table.
  • Sampling Bun Cha, an amazing soup based dish that comes with pork and vegetables as well as a big plate of noodles on the side. It has a tangy, almost pickled flavour and it is the perfect dish to warm your cockles.
  • Pretty much every good restaurant in Hanoi is situated outside, or in draughty open buildings. Fortunately they know just how to thaw you out and our third dish was no exception. One of our favourite dishes was a hot soup that came filled with different cuts of pork, vegetables, noodles, wontons and egg. In fact just thinking about it is making me hungry…
  • Heading to a drum and base night at a newly opened bar. Now whilst this may not seem all that cultural, it is central to the expat culture we were exploring. The place was packed full of English Teachers, in fact I think there were only about four people there who weren’t and 50% of those were me and Tim. Although we are also qualified TEFL teachers too so I guess technically that makes two non teachers.
  • Meeting a pet hedgehog. I don’t know what culture decided to capture the hedgehog and make it a pet. I can’t think of many animals less cuddly. But one of Tatch’s housemates (an Englishman who’s lived in Hanoi for four years or so) had a pet pigmy African hedgehog. I didn’t know they existed either…

Hedgehog

  • And whilst I’m talking about animals. Meeting the house’s new kitten was also a massive highlight. This also meant we learnt about the pet thieves. Dog meat is a delicacy in Vietnam, it’s ‘wedding food’. This means it’s an expensive commodity and rather than farm them they are often pets that have been snatched off the street. The same goes for cats.
  • Another soup based dish and another complete surprise. The variety in each dish is almost as pronounced as the differences between marmite and vegemite. They all look pretty similar but they are each so different. Our third soup came with the usual meat, veg and noodles but it’s also full of nuts and seeds. Scrumptious.
  • Restaurants in Hanoi (of the non tourist, blue stool variety) tend to only serve one meal. And the time came when we needed to hunt down the Pho shop. Pho is the most famous dish in Vietnam so we had to have it. Whist we did enjoy it, it wasn’t half as good as the majority of other dishes, so try it once by all means but then get stuck in to the proper stuff.
  • Riding a motorbike/scooter. I didn’t actually do this but I sat on the back whilst Tim drove and it was great fun and the best way of getting around Hanoi.

We had so much fun in Hanoi that we missed our plane. So perhaps one of the best moments was the one where Tatch and his housemates agreed to house us for one more night. To celebrate, we drank many beers and plotted a new plan in case we didn’t make our flight from Bangkok to South America the next day: riding motorbikes through Vietnam. We were almost disappointed when we got our second plane with no problems…

It all ended with a game of scrabble. This time my letters were a little more forgiving. I win… though not the game of scrabble – that I still lost. But I won an amazing experience that began and ended as all good experiences should – with a hot cup of coffee and a good game of scrabble.

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