Serendipity In Hanoi

December 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

Recently, I spent 10 days in Northern Vietnam, most of which I was helping to manage student volunteers at a local orphanage. After my responsibilities were done, I was most lucky to spend time with Vietnamese friends in the beautiful highlands of Sapa.

Hanoi in the fall certainly feels different than when I was here last summer. It is 21 degrees Celsius. I am wearing jeans, t-shirt and a sweater, instead of t-shirt and shorts, and flip-flops. Instead of blue skies I get mostly grey. But everything feels much more at ease than in summer. I can stroll along Hoan Kiem without breaking a sweat, keep hands in my pockets, sit down on a nearby bench to people-watch. Even Fanny’s ice cream tastes unique in the fall. No thirst to slake, no heat wave to cure. Just simple enjoyment of frozen Franco-Viet delight.

It is during this fall in Hanoi that my thoughts do ramble to many who say that “one week in Vietnam and you’ve seen it all.”

This is a city where you will be punished with frustration, confusion, disappointments, dissatisfaction, dry mouths, and god-forbid, boredom.

All you have to do is be impatient.

If you have a checklist of things you want to do, see, and buy in Hanoi, you will not leave here feeling happy and satisfied with your holiday. Even if you’ve managed to tick off almost everything on your list. Simply put, this is not a place for you to “get things done”. And that is a good thing. Because it means serendipity has a greater chance of befalling upon you.


1. An unsought, unintended, and/or unexpected discovery and/or learning experience that happens by accident and sagacity.

Serendipity is god’s gift to the routine-weary, to-do-list tied, 9-5 grounded life of any aspiring traveller.

Hanoi is not Singapore. Hanoi is not Bangkok. Hanoi, is Hanoi.

If you want a different experience from what you’ve been having back home, you have to live the Vietnamese experience. The overused but somewhat appropriate cliche here is “When in Hanoi, do as the Hanoians do”.

That means taking two hour lunch breaks (includes one hour of siesta), spending forty five minutes with your iced drip coffee while you amaze at the shoe-shining skills of street shoe polish-guys, who are masters at the art of making your shoes shine as bright as mirrors.

I don’t want to lose my national identity and cultural habits of a Singaporean. I only ask to become self-aware of them. So that I can shed them when it’s beneficial to do so. After all, aren’t I here in Hanoi for some rest and relaxation?

The mind must not be kept continuously at the same pitch of concentration, but given amusing diversions. Our minds must relax: they will rise better and keener after a rest


Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher was a great critic of mindless wanderlust and hurrying from place to place, however. That the drifting from location to location in pursuit of various sights and experiences is a sign of a hunted mind, weighed down by emotions and troubles. One is still harassed by the tossing and waves that hit us from the daily routines back at home. So instead of putting our burden down, we carry them wherever we go. It is something worth noticing in ourselves, when we travel.

Of course it sounds easier said than done, and the ideal form of travel (with the intention of relaxing) would of course have a deep immersion into land, people and culture. In fact not many of the tourist trails can provide this. One must then choose his travel companions carefully. Will my fellow traveller remind and reinforce habits and trappings of life back home? Will I be harangued by things I want to put down, even if just for fourteen days? How can I have a tranquil mind if at all times of the day my manner of action, speech, and thought is no different from what I experience back home?

“But I have no friends or family in these places I visit!” you say. Ye of little faith in Serendipity, I reply.

What’s the worst that can happen if you’re alone in a foreign land? That you may spend the entire trip alone? There is much that you can experience yourself in a place you don’t know. After all, the joke goes that if you can’t stand the company of yourself, how dare you inflict “you” upon others? Be prepared to be alone most of the time. Love companionship, but be at ease and be prepared to do without it.

Yet no one is truly alone in a foreign land. You will have to sharpen your senses of empathy and social being to look for directions, buy necessities, and find a restaurant. With experience, you will make new friends and acquaintances. Can you withhold judgment on others’ practices and habits? Would you be curious about them instead? Why aren’t men usually seen in the kitchens of Vietnamese households? Why are the streets of downtown Saigon eerily quiet on a Monday between 12 to 2pm?

Earnest curiosity and an appetite to learn from locals brings rewards in spades most of the time. Maybe you’ll receive warm hospitality beneath apparent wariness and coldness from locals.

Serendipity came knocking when I had no plans for my weekend in northern Vietnam, when I couldn’t help but notice the dedication of a few local volunteers who helped out our group of students, who were volunteering at a local orphanage. Serendipity knocked thrice when curious conversations and genuine attempts at friendships ultimately gave birth to a weekend with guided locals in her beautiful highlands hometown of Sapa.

Serendipity also made sure it was more than an amusing diversion or relaxing trip: the time in Sapa became an unforgettable dream.


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