When I first landed in Hanoi, I was fresh from 3 and a half months travelling around India. I was exhausted. Tired from the frenetic pace of India and seeking something a little easier. Hanoi was my antidote.
The first thing I did when I arrived was put on a pair of shorts (not something I was able to do in India) and sit on a tiny little plastic chair in the Old Quarter to drink a Bia Hoi (fresh beer). It was absolute bliss after spending more than a quarter of a year in a country where I felt I couldn’t show off my skin or drink alcohol in public.
After the initial euphoria of freedom had worn off, I wanted to explore the city a little more authentically. I didn’t want my time in Hanoi to just be about the beer (although that was a sweet part of it). I wanted to find the ‘real Vietnam’ by spending time with people who lived there day to day.
I came across this new site called Withlocals. Much like Airbnb allows you to rent out a room in someone’s house, this peer-to-peer service allows you to book an experience with a local person to see a side of a city you wouldn’t normally.
For me, a real draw of going to Vietnam was the food. I’m just totally in love with the rich and fragrant flavours. A steaming hot bowl of pho bo (beef noodle soup), a bowl of bun cha (barbecued pork with noodles) or bo luc lac (cubed beef with rice)… Food in Vietnam is just too tempting!
So I decided that the best way to really step into Vietnam was to have a meal with a local family. I scoured the Withlocals website and eventually settled on this home dinner, with Hannah and her family in the city centre.
We met Hannah at her home above a boutique store and immediately felt at home. She warmly welcomed us and even gave us a pair of sandals to wear in the house so our feet didn’t get cold.
We wandered with her down to the local market to pick up the food for dinner. As I’m allergic to shellfish, she had chosen to make some pork spring rolls (rather than with prawns), a hot, clear soup and a gigantic pile of noodles! As with a lot of Vietnamese dinners, we also got some cucumber and a tasty dipping sauce.
Despite it being dinner time and nearly dark, the market was still buzzing with traders trying to sell of the last of the day’s wares. Chickens hung from shop windows, and huge piles of meat simply lay out in the street, ready to be bought.
My favourite market vendor was a lady sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of a pile of noodles. Hannah chatted to her for a while, ordering her noodles, and the entire time this lady had just the widest smile on her face. She was delighted to see us, and even though we didn’t speak the same language, we were kind of bumbling through, pointing at things and laughing with her.
After we’d loaded up with pork mince, fresh vegetables and noodles galore, we returned to the house to meet her husband and kids, and to settle in for the night.
Hannah spread the food out in the kitchen and started to prepare the most delicious spring rolls. She showed us how to wrap the perfect one, but sadly mine looked more like a badly fitting sleeping bag! After a couple of tries, I left the cooking to the experts. Might as well let someone who knows what they’re doing take the reins hey?
We chatted to Hannah and her husband about life in Vietnam, about its terrible history and how things are today. It was lovely to hear that most people tend to look to the future rather than dwell on the past, and there’s a culture of optimism there. We chatted about politics and the education system in Vietnam, and asked us questions about how things are back in England too.
Once the food was ready, we sat around the table and talked more about cultures and traditions in our own countries, and Alex and I shared that it was our ‘anniversary’ that day. Not of marriage but of first becoming ‘official’. Hannah thought it was a little strange that we would celebrate that, and also that we’d been together for four years and weren’t married just yet!
The subject moved onto weddings (awkward for Alex, haha) and we were treated to a nosey through their wedding photo album! It was great to find out how things are done in Vietnam, with gifts of flowers and food given to the couple for luck, and with it being quite a somber family affair, compared to our raucous Western weddings with our free bars and inevitable hangovers.
Her children, aged 8 and 10 were simply adorable. As an anniversary treat, they played us a traditional love song on the piano, and let me tell you… These kids are talented! Not only is their English impeccable, but they played the piano like someone twice their age.
I learnt that they also take part in dance classes (for the girl) and maths competitions (for the boy) as well as learn several musical instruments and keep up with their schoolwork. I have to hand it to Hannah; she is doing an amazing job turning those kids into little prodigies!
With huge sadness, it was finally time to say goodbye to our hosts for the evening. We’d really felt part of their family for one night, and I don’t think there’s a better way to settle into a new country than this, don’t you agree?