Courtney. September 9, 2010
Living in Hanoi - Ex-Packer Style
Our sexiest leg (Jacqui) has officially been amputated.So what do we do now?
Our initial plan was to extend our Vietnam visas by 1 month, rent motorcycles, bike down our detailed route from Hanoi to Hue (mapped out by the one and only Kiwi Tom from Hanoi Backpackers' Hostel), fly from Hue to Ho Chi Minh, and then finish the trip through Cambodia, Bali, and then Thailand for the 2nd time (can't get enough of that country!).
But our long-term plan changed drastically every 30 for the next five to seven days - not unusual for us at this point. I wont go into all the factors and thoughts that we went through, mostly because they were so chaotic and circular in their logic, but the original plan lasted about three days, while we ran around town trying to TCB (visas, maps, routes, time frames, etc).
At some point we decided it might be a good idea to look at our bank accounts before heading south.We looked…. and did not like what we saw.Where the hell is the Easter Bunny when you need him?I think every backpacker knows what I'm talking about.How are you supposed to know how much you're spending when a beer costs 75,000 anything? So we decided it was time to post up and work for a month.We had been at Hanoi Backpackers' Hostel for so long anyway (almost three weeks, I think), that this city which we all declared on day one to be "the most disgusting, annoying city we've been to yet" actually felt like it was somewhat our home.Our new Bangkok, since Nikki moved from there anyway.
We started with the house hunt: a hunt for a one-month lease.After a day or two we found out that you can't do that here and that it was stupid to think that we could.We talked to the staff at HBH / our friends and life counselors and found out that, if you're looking for anything less than a six-month lease, you're f***ed.However, our friend Vanny came through and found someone who was willing to do a two-month lease.As Walker was still ill with Pharyngitis, Kaberly and I went with Vanny to check out the potential pad. It was a two-bedroom in the Ba Dinh district of Hanoi, 20 meters from West Lake, which is beautiful.Knowing that it was difficult to find such a short-term lease we told Vanny that we wanted it and were going straight back to the hostel to sell it to Danielle.We decided that we could partition off the living room into a half living room, half bedroom deal, but would work out the details after we moved in.Danielle was on board, but we were all kind of uncomfortable with the two-bedroom/ three-person idea.We HAD been living four girls to one room for two months, but the whole point of settling down for a month or two was to allow some detox, personal space, and work time; and sharing a room with either another person or however many persons were in the common living area at any given time was somewhat unsettling to all of us.
Our appointment to sign the lease was noon the next day.Kaberly began to have an anxiety attack over the commitment we were about to make and Danielle and I were bothered to a certain extent, as well.At around 10:00 Kaberly yelled at us from the HBH kitchen area to come look at what she had found on NewHanoian.com.It was a four-story, four-bedroom, one loft (each with its own French balcony), four-bathroom, one large garden balcony, one-year-old French colonial-style 'mansion' that was built a year ago - IN OUR PRICE RANGE.Kaberly called the owner - basically to find out exactly how it was too good to be true.As in, 'what's the catch?' She explained that we were signing another lease in two hours so we were in a bit of a hurry.
This is where we first realized that our soon-to-be landlords are awesome people.Mr. Landlord came straight over on his motorbike and we hopped in a cab to follow him to what would soon be known as the Love Manch (short for Love Mansion).It's in the Tay Ho district, which is the opposite side of West Lake from Ba Dinh, and even more beautiful.He had a minimum of six months in mind for a lease, but offered to allow us two months in exchange for a slightly higher rent.We quickly agreed and broke the news to our old friend Vanny that we couldn't sign the lease with her guy.This place was just too perfect.She was upset, and still is, but it just didn't work out.
I fell that this is the moment that we began our transformation from backpackers to ex-packers.An ex-packer is a term coined by us when we saw the Love Manch and realized that Hanoi was our new home.CourtneyKaberlyDanielleWebster.com.edu would define an ex-packer as: 'a backpacker who has signed a lease, rented or bought a motorbike or bicycle, has a local mobile number, opened a bank account in the given country, and is working a job for 2 months or more, BUT is planning on continuing his or her travels within three months of the time of settling into the given city.'
Everything was happening so quickly that we had 26 different parties who wanted our passports at one time: 1) the landlords, 2) the motorbike shop, 3) immigration (we had to extended our one-month tourist visa to a four-month visa), 4-24) our 20 potential employers, 25) the bank, and 26) I cant remember, but there was someone else.Our passports were currently at HBH with all of our other 7 belongings, so we agreed to come back at noon the next day to sign the two-month lease and move in.
By noon the next day, our plan had changed again.We decided to sign a three-month lease.Danielle and I decided that we wouldn't be able to make it home for Christmas, because it would be too difficult to find jobs for only two months, but we still had three to six more countries that we needed to see in southeast Asia and, after our lease was up, we would only have three weeks before we had to be home.So we made the decision to extend our six-month SEA trip to seven or eight months. When I reflect on that tiny decision I cant help but see us in 20 year with the same story only longer…
Our friends Rian and Tom B from HBH offered to drive us over to the new pad and double check that it was a good spot and everything was okay.We had been in Hanoi for almost 3 weeks but when you stay at HBH, you isolate yourself because everything you want from Hanoi is there.So we still had no idea what Hanoi was all about.They took us on their motorbikes to meet our new landlords and have them rewrite the lease agreement to three months.On the way over, Rian showed me where I can buy cheese.I don't know if it's an Aussie/ Northern Irish thing or what, but Rian and Ciaran from HBH really fancy their cheese.I've witnessed first-hand each of them go on cheese runs.Separate from each other.If you're American, imagine a beer run, but for cheese.
The landlords (husband and wife) and their friend were at the house.They are all three animists-turned Buddhists and have gorgeous paintings from their artist friend (cant remember the name but Ill write the link when I get it), plants, French and Buddhist furniture all over their house.And a giant Buddhist shrine in the loft on the fourth floor.They built the house themselves and weren't expecting to be renting it out so soon so all of their belongings were still there - it was a fully decorated and fully furnished house.We explained to them that we had one backpack each and that anything and everything they wanted to leave in the house (including the Buddhist shrine) would be welcomed with open arms and kept in perfect condition.They moved a few of their belongings to one of the rooms that night so we could move in the next day.
Being Buddhist, they went with their 'trust and feeling' about us, rather than our appearance and credentials (three homely backpackers with a gangrene toe, tattoos, pharyngitis and no passports).They gave us the tour and showed us the lease, while their five-year-old taught us our first few Vietnamese words.Damn that language is difficult.The lease was about a page long and very simple.It seems to me that Vietnamese people, and especially Buddhists Vietnamese people, operate more on trust and intuition than the law, whether by choice or lack of other option. The only thing that I found odd was the clause about how the girls and I still had to abide by the lease agreement if the house was 'bombed or destroyed.'I might have to scan the lease in so that no one thinks I'm making that up.That's exactly what it said.I asked them who was going to bomb us, "the French or the Americans?"They laughed (genuinely, not an uncomfortable, courtesy laugh), and that's when I knew we were going to be friends.They told us a little about their religion, and they are going to show us how to cook Vietnamese food and do their Buddhist rituals, (in my bedroom), which are based around the lunar calendar.The American war is over in this side of town.
Floor plan:Each of us has our own floor.Ground level is a giant living room with a couch and two couch-chairs (all white), a large cable TV, a large kitchen and dining area, with a fridge, full cabinets with glass doors and lighted interior, full bathroom, and all the common living amenities we could ask for.The lords don't want us to put any holes in the walls but they agreed on the one decoration that we wanted to hang, which is a giant communist flag that I bough on the way back form the first time we saw our new house.
Someone from home mentioned to me the other day that my purchase, or the fact that I mentioned it on facebook, may have alienated some people, especially those who grew up when communism was their 'axis of evil.'I would like to explain to any aliens that the people of Hanoi still love Ho Chi Minh, and you will see a red flag with a yellow star with every ten feet that you step in this city.Also, Ho is embalmed and on display at the Mausoleum about 3 miles from our house.We bombed the s*** out of this country.But I have met hundreds of Vietnamese people who are extremely welcoming to us, even though we are American and killed off a large portion of their population, not long ago.As a traveler, I would like to experience as much of the local culture as I can.I'm just putting the flag in our living room, not changing my voting registry to communist or hoarding food from the countryside to the city center.All of our neighbors, whom we have met and adore, have the flag in their house so I want one in mine.'When in Hanoi…"
Back to the floor plan.Level two is Walker's level.She has a bedroom that looks like a perfect cross between a bourgeois-style French room with maroons, golds, and plenty of pillows.She also has an Asian lounge, with an entire corner dedicated to relaxing with her shisha, laptop, and books.It's a maroon and gold Asian floor matt, surrounded by 10 pillows and 6 sarongs of the same colors and theme.The lords' best friend is an artist and Walker has 6 of his French-style paintings in her room, leaning on the wall.Sounds weird but totally fits the low furniture Asian theme.Unlike Kaberly's and my beds, Danielle's has a frame, but it is only 4 inches from the ground so its still very Asian looking.Her closet is a combo between an arched metal hanger rack (like you would see in a boutique) and a metal coat hanger with about 10**** on it.She spent more money on her room than Kaberly and I, so her room is flush with Asian silk bedspreads and other décor.Across from the bedroom is her bathroom.It is fully equip, with everything except a bathtub.The room across from her was supposed to go to Jacqui, but our little Jax had to stay in the states and finish college. We still knock on the door every night and say, "goodnight, Jax!"Just like the good ol' days….
Kaberly has floor three, which is the master floor, where the lords were living just a week ago.Her room has the only air con, her bathroom has the nicest black and white tile, and she is across from our guestroom/ tutoring classroom.I walked into her room on the second night here and asked what her theme was going to be for her bedroom.She looked around, shrugged, and said, "orange?I bought an orange sheet…." Indeed, she had bought an orange fitted sheet that day and, although that is the only thing she has bought for her room, it looks great.She has a bamboo lounge chair, a wooden bedside table, and a wooden coat hanger where she keeps her entire wardrobe - all taken from other places in the house.Her bed is on the floor and the simplicity of her room is serene.
Floor four was the Buddhist shrine loft and garden balcony.But now it's my bedroom.My 'closet' is exactly like Danielle's: metal rainbow shaped clothing hanger in conjunction with a coat hanger for clothes that can be wrinkled, as well as a wooden coat hanger for hair wraps, bras, and water-panties.The lords left the shrine so when I'm lying in my monk-orange floor bed, I look across to a Buddhist ancestral shrine.Since it is a loft, I don't have a door, but you really don't need one in this house.Each floor is divided by a staircase that goes straight up, half way to the next floor, turns 180 degrees, and then goes straight up the other half.This house is so sound proof that Danielle and I (second floor and fourth floor, respectively) cannot hear each other, even when we yell.We've all gotten lost on the staircase because it is surprisingly difficult to figure out which floor you're on sometimes.It feels like a tiny apartment complex that is occupied by only the three of us (plus Jacqui in spirit or on Skype). I don't have a bathroom door, and don't really care, but I found a set of gorgeous red and orange silk panels for $4 USD that I hung in front of the bathroom entrance to act as a door.If you walk past my bathroom, I have a garden balcony.Out there we have a clothing hanger for our laundry (we have a washing machine, but a dryer would be absurd in this oven of a country), a huge jungle-looking plant, 4 smaller plants, and a huge purple hanging lantern - you know, those Asian-design ones you see at sushi restaurants.I'm going to the local market tomorrow to buy about 10 pillows (probably for $6 USD all together) so that we can relax out there, drink wine and smoke our shisha. We also have a foldout mossie net in case we have too many guests for our guest bedroom and someone wants to sleep on the balcony.Ill probably do it just for fun.
We've been here for about 5 days now, we're fully moved in (unpacked our one backpack each), and we love it.Although we all have our own floors and are isolated form each other, we have some other roommates.We have about 5 gecko roommates each, and we know them by name.They're nice to have around because they eat the mossies and other insects that try to squat in the Love Manch - although the jungle spider that keeps sneaking in here is about 3 times as big as Frank, the gecko patriarch.My roommate Frankie Jr. is only about ½ centimeter long and sleeps in my bed with me.I don't want to squish him and I don't appreciate him barking in my ear at night, but that little b****** is quick.He is also illiterate, so I cant send him an eviction notice.The other harmless roommate that I don't care for is The Moth.I know moths don't bite or anything, and its not that I am afraid of him, but The Moth is apparently a narcissist because he is on my mirror everyday.I can still see my face when he is on my mirror, as he is also only ½ centimeter, but every morning on my way out the door I hear, "have the lambs been silenced yet?" in my head and it's quite creepy.We're in the middle of an ex-packer rat race right now (interviewing, decorating, tutoring, writing, etc.), but I'll post photos in a week or so.