I spent one week living with a local Vietnamese family in the beautiful capitol city of Vietnam, Hanoi.
I was introduced to Trang (pronounced ‘Chang’) via Workaway. Chang had created a profile so that native English speakers could come and help her and her and husband, Long, improve their English speaking skills.
After my last Workaway experience, which was a little rocky, I wasn’t sure what to expect at this one. I was nervous, slightly dreading it, and had actually considered just saying phooey on it and canceling – boy, I’m glad I didn’t.
The set up
In exchange for some meals and a room, I would practice speaking English with the family. This came in the form of English lessons for Long (he’d like to learn new vocabulary and better pronunciation for business), and general conversation with Trang while making dinner, playing cards or just hanging out.
My room was spartan, but enjoyable. It was so very nice to have my own space – and a space where I could spread my things out to boot! When home, I was invited to share every meal and snack they had, was welcome to food in the fridge, and use of the kitchen. I did use it once to make spaghetti for breakfast! The sauce was entirely improvised and homemade with ingredients from the market.
It was a highly educational experience for me, in many ways! The day to day Vietnamese life is very different from life in America – dare I say: ‘more enjoyable’. When I return to the states, I hope to implement some of these lessons back home.
5 things I learned living with a Vietnamese family
1. Sharing really is caring.
My week with Trang and her family completely redefined “Hospitality” for me. Look out Georgia, Vietnam can give you a run for your money! It wasn’t just in the way that they shared everything they had with me – but with other family members too. The house was consistently abuzz with people coming in and out, eating, visiting, sleeping.
On Sunday, we spent the day at her parent’s house – where her parents, sister, brother in law and their two children all live. During the hottest parts of the day, most people lay down for naps (I’ll definitely be bringing that home!) while the heat passes. Coming into the living room, the floor was filled with small piles of sweaty men laying down sleeping – they were construction workers that were building a house next door. The family had allowed them to come and sleep inside, taking a break from the heat and their work.
2. Happiness can be found at home.
Americans can have big families. My father, for example, was one of twelve. I have something crazy like 45 cousins – some that I’ve never even met! In Vietnam, not only are the families extensive, but they all live together. It’s very common to have multiple generations all living in the same household.
It’s been proven that connections with people are a key part to creating a deep sense of happiness. While you can find this in friendships, there’s a layer to family that you just can’t find anywhere else.
My best friend is like a sister to me. Our relationship is more intimate than that between myself and my blood sister, but she never played “flood” with me as a child, or understands about my dad’s toenails, nor does she know what “tingles” are. There are many things that can only be satisfied from my siblings.
The Vietnamese people focus highly on their families, keeping everyone together and moving forward. They acknowledge that not everyone gets along together all the time, and that it’s okay – because they are family. They are able to look past the rough times, and enjoy every moment of the good ones.
It’s quite moving to me when I see 10 people all packed around a TV enjoying each other, everyone looking out for the baby equally, and everyone knowing their role within the group. Why do they do it? Because they are a family, it’s that simple. What other reason do they need?
3. My body is a wonderful tool.
Coming to Asia, I knew that I’d be in for some discomfort, or rather, lack of comforts we take for granted in America. Despite the heat, air conditioning is very limited here. Furniture in Asian households is very functional – no cushy couches, no 8 inch thick mattresses, and many activities take place on the floor. Toilets can sometimes be of the ‘squat’ variety (pro: this discourages sitting in the bathroom on your phone for hours on end), and don’t always have toilet paper. Yes, that was a cockroach that just crawled over my foot.
My body has been an absolute super star adapting to this! I still get hot and sweat my cahones off, but hasn’t yet caused me to seize into one big ball of cramped muscles. My body sweats just like it should to keep me cool.
There was one day I was so hot and so sweaty I actually googled “how sweating helps keep you cool” to make me feel better LOL about the massive amounts running down my body. I asked Trang once if she still gets hot – because I’ve never seen the woman sweat! – and her face was completely priceless. Yes, she does, just not as much as those not used to the heat!
My bed was wooden slats with a bamboo mat – something back in America I would have said “I can never sleep on that!” Well, it turns out that you can. Adjusting to the environment, I’m now a pro at sleeping on my back, or even my side, and finding out how to make it comfortable. This means that next time I go to Burning Man, I won’t have to lug my air mattress around! I can totally sleep on the ground.
Currently, I still struggle with sitting on the floor for extended periods of time, but am getting much better! I can eat a meal, snack on snails at midnight, or play a few rounds of cards.
4. Try all the new things.
I’ve tried a lot of new things in one week. It’s like “new experiences juice concentrate” over here! Here’s just a few off the top of my head:
- Crab paste
- Sleeping on a wooden bed
- Riding bitch-bitch on a motorbike (as in, the third person on the bike)
- Taking a motorbike taxi
- So many new veggies
- Using fish sauce as a condiment and not an ingredient
- Tons of foods wrapped in banana leaves
- Some sort of drink made with black bean juice
- New card games
- Squid, straight up
- Sauces that look spicier than they truly are
I resisted some of these things. My bum and I were scared, but I’m glad I pushed through. I found that there is a veggie called “ekk” that I really like, and some sort of pork compressed meat that is delicious too! Squid straight up is just as good as calamari.
5. Take it slow.
Hanoi has twice the population of the city of Chicago – it’s a very dense city! Even so, life seems to run at a slower pace. Chicago is so very go, go, go! Life in Hanoi has some rush to it – in traffic, but everyone still seems to walk a little slower.
While time goes faster here, the minutes seem longer. People don’t have their phones shoved in their faces, and as the world goes by everyone is present in it. I think that’s what makes it all so different. People are engaged with one another, they are enjoying one another. The notes of the Vietnamese language are always singing around me, with real conversation – not just between friends and family, but strangers too. Everyone speaks so casually with everyone else.
How do they manage to not get caught up their phones and TV all the time? Honestly, I suspect from lack of resources. Americas once sat around on their porches talking about crops and playing cards too. Once the internet and cellular infrastructures catch up, and the country develops, they may very well be swept into the maelstrom of the non-stop, instant gratification lifestyles like the Americans have, but I hope not. I hope that, as a country, they realize how precious their little bubble of slowness is. I guess this means I’ll have to come back and check it out in a few years 😉 You know, for the blog, research purposes and all.
In the meantime, I hope that these lessons help to anchor me in this lifestyle, and I hope I don’t forget them when I come home!
Bonus lesson: You can learn the relationship between two people based on how they are riding the motorbike.
Generally, he drives.
Option 1: If she is sitting sidesaddle (scaaaaaryyy) or holding on to him, they are dating or are at least just more than friends.
Option 2: If she is holding onto the back of the motorbike, she is most likely a taxi passenger or riding with an acquaintance (this is how I rode).
Option 3: If she is riding close behind, not touching, but hands on her legs they are good friends or maybe have a family relation.
Fascinating, huh? 😀