By Cassandra Bangay, MIPP student
Often when you live abroad, friends and family back home ask what stands out to you most about the country you are living in. What is different, new and exciting about being away?
Living in Hanoi, I get asked questions about communism and the war. “What does it feel like to live in a communist country?” they ask. “Can you see the effects that the war had on the city?” I try my best to answer: “There is a one-party system in Viet Nam, but economically it’s quite capitalist”. “The military is still fairly conspicuous. There are army hotels and guards stationed all over the city, particularly in the diplomatic district where I work”.
The truth is though, that when you live in a city day-to-day, the little differences stand out a lot more than those bigger themes we North Americans often revisit when we think about Viet Nam. Things like the number of times you see Hello Kitty in a day, for instance, the sheer amount of focus it takes to walk down the obstacle course that is my street, or the way some Vietnamese men grow their pinky nails long as a status symbol. The habits of the cast of characters I see on a daily basis also stand out. The way the guards earnestly salute us as we enter the office in the morning, the wizened roadside fruit sellers that reach out as I walk past, and the waste collectors making their slow procession down the street during my evening journey home from work have each become a feature of my day. Noticing these little quirks about a place is what makes it begin to feel like home.
Speaking of which – I live at a homestay run by two power women, one 28 years old and the other only 18. Their family comes over regularly for meals, and we gather around the kitchen table for some homemade fresh spring rolls, or a rooftop seafood barbeque. There are two other long-term guests – an Indian Civil Engineer who works for the Ministry of Transport, and a Chilean pilot who flies with a national airline. Because of the homestay’s location (in the diplomatic district of town) people who travel through tend to be looking for work rather than backpacking. There have been two other UN consultants who I have crossed paths with while I have lived here – one working for IFAD, and the other for UNHCR.
When we are in town for the weekend we often hangout together in the old quarter – near Hoàn Kiếm lake – a picturesque inner city pond surrounded by bagotas and gardens that has become a hub for travellers.
On a less positive note, another thing that grabbed my attention quickly in Hanoi was the air pollution. On my second day on the job at the United Nations Development Programme Climate Change Unit, our whole office got an email asking us to measure our faces for pollution masks. There had been a fire at a light-bulb factory in Hanoi a few days before I arrived. The city had issued a contamination warning due to high levels of mercury, and this was the UN’s recommended safety precaution. Masks and air purifiers were common here though, even before the fire – so common that the UN’s air filtration system is a bragging point on tours of our office. It certainly brings home the relevance of the work that we are doing here!
So far, I have been quite busy. My role spans three portfolios: chemical waste management, biodiversity preservation, and energy efficiency. I have been assigned a great diversity of tasks – everything from working on major reports (one for the Convention on Biodiversity and another on Agricultural Waste Management), to creating an infographic about the LED lighting market in Viet Nam, to mapping UNDP projects related to plastic waste management, writing project success stories and Op-eds. I have also carried out hiring processes for both international and national consultants, and attended some cool events on behalf of UNDP – one on Energy efficient buildings, one on energy access in rural areas, and another on coral reefs. I’m looking forward to learning more as the months progress – stay tuned for blog #2!