When I had been in Hanoi for about six months, I was asked to speak to the next group of volunteers after us, who had just arrived in Vietnam. Another person had also been asked to speak, a man who had lived in Hanoi for many years, and had a Vietnamese wife and child.
The sum of my advice to the new arrivals was that they should just relax and have fun, ride bicycles and make sure their house isn’t near a community loudspeaker. The other guy presented a half-hour-long list of fearful warnings: attach your wallet to your jeans using a chain, street food will make you sick, apartments are less likely to be robbed than houses, never trust your maid.
I was horrified, and also outraged, because I had lived in Hanoi for six months and nothing bad had happened to me at all. This guy was clearly just paranoid.
Fast-forward a couple of years, and now I am TOTALLY THAT GUY. I fret about personal safety and being left to die on the road, and more than anything, I obsess over all the deadly toxins and gross pathogens I’ve undoubtedly been exposed to here. If I could have my time again, I would tell those new volunteers to invest in a full-body HAZMAT suit.
Paranoid Guy probably hadn’t only built up his horror stories from years of living here, but also from his Vietnamese family. Middle-class Vietnamese people are the most paranoid/sensible people in Vietnam, much more than foreigners. My Vietnamese friends thoroughly wash fruit they eat, even if they’re going to peel it, like apples or mango or limes. When you’ve seen fruit rolling off a vendor’s bicycle and into the gutter, you understand why: if you touch that fruit then eat it with your hands, you are basically eating poo. Same story for pesticides, used heavily on fruits like lychees and rambutans that you manhandle while peeling. Vietnamese people even wash and peel grapes, which I always thought was ridiculous, until a friend who works in agriculture here said he would never touch a Vietnamese-grown grape, peeled or otherwise, because of the undoubtedly carcinogenic chemicals on them. Awesome.
When cooking a meal here, half the time is taken up with washing and soaking and scrubbing all the vegetables, everything washed with three changes of water and using special “veggie wash” detergent. I actually add my own chemicals to my food now. I think it’s pointless anyway, since the water is laced with heavy metals.
On the subject of water, my water bottle is one of those metal BPA-free branded ones from Australia, and yet, all my drinking water here is delivered in big plastic bottles probably made from 100% pure cancer. Why do I bother?
Vietnamese shampoo made my hair fall out at a terrifying rate, so I switched to buying imported expensive Pantene, and it only got worse. My friend pointed out that the imported expensive Pantene was likely just an imported expensive Pantene bottle, filled with God knows what, that I had been rubbing all over my head for weeks.
Did I tell you that the disgusting pus-filled staph infection I had in my armpit was likely contracted from the local beauty salon? The one where they dip the same spatula into the same big pot wax over and over again, one customer to the next? The same spatula and the same wax that gets used for a Brazilian wax and then is wiped all over someone’s upper lip?
Have I told you about the time I was cycling along and then the road was shrouded in a huge cloud of mysterious mist emanating from a construction site, which left my eyes and mouth stinging for 30 minutes afterwards?
My poor ears, left ringing from countless bus horns; my poor, poor lungs from just trying to breathe in one of world’s top 10 most polluted cities; my poor insides, lovingly gifted with so many organic foods, now poisoned.
It’s lucky we’re leaving soon, because I don’t think I could stay here much longer, fighting against an environment that seems out to get me, and food that seems barely deserving of the name. I dream about eating a piece of sourdough toast with slices of gorgeous organic avocado and tomato, or biting into an apple, grabbed straight from the fruit bowl. I will be doing just that soon, and I hope each time, I remember to be grateful.