Saturday, April 24, 2010


It’s only my fourth day in Hanoi and already I feel quite at home. I’m staying in a small, dingy room with a bed, a fridge, a telly and an ensuite bathroom (so not much different from London, then). I’m spending the day watching DVDs of films I would have seen on the big screen in England if I‘d had the chance. And it rained heavily yesterday afternoon, forcing me to dig an anorak out of the bottom of my bag (it’s like a second skin to me).

I’m staying in the capital’s Old Quarter, a distinctive maze of shopping streets dating back to the 15th century. Because of inheritance issues and taxes on frontages, most of the shops are narrow and stretch a long way back, hence the name tube-houses. You also find that retailers specialising in particular items are clustered together so that if, for example, you want to buy a pushchair, then you can shop around without wandering very far.

Yesterday I stumbled upon the shops that sell CDs and DVDs and learnt that movies cost 15,000 dong each. That’s about 75 cents or, in proper money, 50p. They’re about as legit as my Lacoste T-shirt and yet there are shops in Hanoi that stock thousands of them.

Of the four discs I bought, two actually work.

You can also buy box sets with numerous episodes of your favourite TV series crammed on to each disc. These are slightly more expensive at 25,000 dong/$1.25/80p a disc. I was sceptical about how the manufacturers managed this so I tentatively bought season one of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse on two discs. Here’s the good news: there must be a good eight hours’ viewing on each one. The bad? They’re off-air recordings from America's Fox network.

I guess that means I won’t be buying the Doctor Who series 1-4 set, “starring:David Thennant & Freema Agyeman”. Not even for a lark.

I haven’t done that much of note in Hanoi, not least because my first day was spent recovering from a 14-hour overnight bus journey. After that I had a morning of getting contentedly lost in the Old Quarter, with all of the candid photo-ops that implies, and an afternoon walking round the edges of nearby Hoan Kiem Lake, which my guidebook informs me is the soul of the city.

Yesterday was for mooching around some more, buying DVDs, sheltering from the rain and taking photos of the lake at night.

Today, as I say, I’m spending some time indoors. Visiting Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, where he lies in a glass coffin, can wait till Monday as I was reading that at weekends it’s open only in the mornings and attracts huge crowds of Vietnamese.

And then? Well, apart from a couple of tours of the far north I plan to do, I really haven‘t a clue. Nearly every teaching job I see advertised here requires at least one year’s experience. The job applications I have made have produced practically no response. I worry that as a 41-year-old newbie, I’m at a distinct disadvantage in an industry that tends to favour twentysomethings. I’ve also read that the immigration authorities are cracking down heavily and from July will deport long-term expats who haven’t got a work permit.

My three-month tourist visa has nearly two months left to run. On arrival in Hanoi, I asked about extending it for another three months and was told it would cost an outrageous $260 (about £175). In truth I can’t blame Vietnam for not wanting to become another Thailand, with the scum of the earth living here like kings for years on end. But if it succeeds in driving away EFL teachers, I don’t think it’ll be doing its people many favours.

The upshot of all this is that I will stay a bit longer and try to find a job with a respectable employer that can get me a work permit. I don’t hold out much hope, but there you go. If that doesn’t happen I’ll fly to Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok and take things from there. If I’m to use my return flight ticket, I’ll have to be in Bangkok in early July anyway (when with any luck it won’t be like “the last days of Saigon” - although, since this is a Daily Mail story we‘re talking about, I‘m willing to bet there‘s some exaggeration involved).

It’s occurred to me that if I could fill July and August with subbing shifts in London then I could save enough to pay for this six-month trip I’m doing. Then I could maybe get a year’s teaching experience in China, where they’re still desperate for English teachers and don’t give a stuff about your age. I’m not short of savings, so I have plenty of leeway.

Until now the main thing putting me off was internet censorship - the ‘Great Firewall of China’ - but from what I’ve been reading, most Chinese people under 30 are expert in getting around it with a virtual private network (VPN). That’s immensely reassuring to me. There are many things I can live without but YouTube isn’t one of them.

Then again, there’s always Korea…

ADDENDUM: Up in the Air froze after five minutes. That just left The Hurt Locker, which to my mind was two tedious hours of: "The bastard towelheads keep planting bombs and shooting at us."

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