Thursday, September 29, 2016

My Hanoi Apartment

It has been getting tiring staying in multi-bunk dorm-style places for the past few months.  Don't get me wrong, the ready camaraderie is nice to have at one's hand, and it is cool to get perks like free breakfast and all, but the lack of space and constant interruptions can take its toll.  So I decided to seek out my own place for a while, especially since I am now planning to stay in Hanoi for a few months while I study French and Vietnamese.  Talking to some people around here, and checking sources online, it was apparent that there is a steady source of cheap furnished apartments that are available for foreigners who want to stay on a short-term basis, but longer than your average holiday stay.  Most apartments of that type here in Hanoi will rent month-to-month, asking a minimum of a three-month commitment, but people are able to leave early if they want by soliciting someone to take their place on one of the online forums devoted to Hanoi life. And that is how I got my apartment.  There was a guy named Christian from Ireland looking for someone to take over his apartment as he wanted to leave a little earlier than his commitment was for, and I jumped on it.  The apartment is four million dong a month, which translates to about $180 in US currency, and my only other expense associated with it is the electricity; the water, cable and wi-fi are included. It is on the third floor of the building.  The washing machine and clothes drying area are on a covered rooftop deck.  I have a lovely view of a tree-lined alley out my window.

But let me back up just an eence.  A few days before I moved in, I was staying at the Hanoi Central Backpackers Old Quarter Hostel.  This place is probably one of the biggest party hostels in Hanoi, bolstered by its nightly free beer and then pub crawls after the hostel bar closes. And it doesn't hurt that it has its own built-in travel agency that arranges tours to just about any other place in the country you could set your sights on visiting, and those tours are incredibly cheap by Western standards.  I took a couple of tours, and the costs to me were probably between twenty and thirty bucks a day.  And they are even tacking on a bunch.  But they took care of every detail.  During each tour, I was passed to multiple operators along each way fairly seamlessly.  Most, but not all, spoke pretty good English, and even with those who didn't speak English at all, there didn't seem to be any problems or barriers.

So I was in my hostel room, and for once, I was fortunate enough to get an underpopulated room.  When I came back from my trip to Sa Pa, I entered a room that only had eight beds but one other guy in it, so most of the beds were empty.  That was the first time that had happened at this hostel, since it is usually fairly full.  Alex was a vibrant guy from Atlanta, Georgia, with a bushy beard. He was only staying for another day because he had gotten an apartment in Tay Ho and he was super stoked about it.  He told me that he found it on a Facebook group called “Hanoi Massive – A New Era.” So I ended up joining the group and looking for housing opportunities.  It didn't take long at all for me to find something. Christian put up his post about the apartment he was vacating and I jumped on it.  But, the problem was, I was just getting ready to take a three-day trip to Ha Long Bay. I told him that I was interested, and if nobody took it before I returned, I would get back with him.

Luckily, after my trip, I checked in with him again and he said nobody had grabbed it.  So I met with him, looked at the place, and decided I would take it.  He already had another place to go to, so he said he could vacate it as soon as he got his stuff out. A couple of days later, I was filling out the paperwork with the landlord and moving in.  I don't have much stuff; just a big backpack, and also a smaller backpack that I can wear on my front with mostly food in it. I repacked my bags and took the big backpack from the hostel to the apartment on foot; it was about a four kilometer walk.  I just kept behind the stuff that I would need at the hostel overnight in the smaller bag, which I walked over the next day.

The apartment is basically a studio with an attached small bathroom.  For cooking, there is a hotplate with one burner, a rice cooker, and an electric kettle to boil water with. Not much, but it'll probably do me.  There are also a few dishes, some pots and pans, and eating utensils.  There is a dorm fridge, and a TV with cable.  I haven't watched much of the TV yet...the only two stations that I have watched are CNN International (which I watched the debate on the other started at 8 in the morning here), and a French channel, TV5Monde Asie.  There was only one desk-style table by the window, but Christian suggested that I ask the landlord for another one to put the cooking stuff on, because it was all on the floor...he said he never minded it, so he just left it like that.  So I got a second table to put the cooking stuff on.

Then it was time to unpack, or at least get out the essentials.  I was a bit worried because I had kept some fresh turmeric root in my backpack ever since I left the Philippines, which was almost a month ago.  It had just been sitting in my backpack the whole time, and I was terribly afraid that I would find a moldy mess having taken over my backpack.  But, apparently, the storage conditions were just about perfect for it in there, and some of the turmeric roots had even started to sprout a bit.  It actually thrived in there.

There is a supermarket about a kilometer away, so I set off to get my first bit of food for the apartment.  I have so far made three shopping trips, each time taking my small backpack to the store with me to carry my purchases in, in lieu of a bag.  Also, all the light fixtures (except for one long fluorescent tube), had incandescent, old-style filament bulbs in them.  So I picked up some LED bulbs at the store to replace them in one fixture; the other one has smaller candelabra sized sockets that I haven't found LED bulbs for yet.  The LED bulbs are incredibly cheap; they cost about a buck each. But the rub is, that to get to the store (or from my apartment to just about everywhere), I have to cross what is basically a freeway-style road packed with motorbike traffic that never lets up.  During rush hour this is super harsh.  And I don't even want to go into what this is like at night, in the dark, especially since many motorbikes don't have headlights, or often start by going the wrong way on the road until they themselves can inch their way over to the correct side.  Since the traffic will never let up, you just have to at some point just dive in to the morass (usually after a minute or two of “oh shit”-style contemplation), and make your way across, slowly, while keeping your eyes on every vehicle that is zooming around you.  Nevertheless, it takes a while to cross. You have to just look for the next opening and inch forward a few feet.  Hanoi drivers are at least fairly adept at moving around pedestrian (and other) obstacles, so they don't just purposefully or negligently run you down, as would happen if you crossed an interstate highway in the States.

After going to the store for the first time, I cooked my first meal in my apartment.  I made a mix of rice and split peas in the rice cooker, and after about ten minutes, I added a bunch of chopped vegetables, some minced ginger, garlic and turmeric, some chili powder that I had bought in China, and some really tasty hot curry powder that I had bought in Korea. I put in about a tablespoon of coconut oil, and a few minutes before it was all done, I put some chopped up tofu to steam at the top.  Once the rice cooker signaled that it was done, I mixed it all up together and made little nori rolls with the mixture in some nori sheets that I had bought in Japan. Man, it was good.  But, note to self, I gotta get more spices here.  Gotta have some kinda mix that includes coriander and cumin (though they might have been in the curry powder). And some hot chiles.  Gotta get hot chiles.

All the citrus here that I have seen has green peels.  It doesn't matter whether it is sold on the street, or in a store.  Oranges, lemons, and grapefruits all are green on the outside, but then when you open them, there is color on the inside. I haven't yet seen an orange-colored orange, but they are orange on the inside, just like grapefruits are yellow or pink on the inside, even though they are colored dark green on the outside.

The alley on which I am living comes off the afore-described chaotic freeway road, which is Au Co street; it has secondary access roads that run along side it on both sides.. The alley is big enough for cars for a couple of blocks, and then it gets too constricted for a car to continue on it, though there is motorbike traffic after this point.

As of this point, I have no idea yet how the trash collection works. I'm starting to think about that because I'm starting to generate some trash and at some point, I'll have to figure out what to do with it.  I don't generate a lot, but I've bought some stuff at the store that has wrappers, and had to throw them away.  Also minor things like toilet paper tubes, drink containers, etc.  And you can't flush your toilet paper here, you have to throw it away.  So I bought two buckets for trash; one is in the bathroom for the used toilet paper.  I lined them both with trash bags. I bought another bucket to use as a combination wash/mop bucket and laundry hamper.

The wi-fi in my apartment building is free, but is intermittent and janky.  For the past three days, I had almost no connection, but then it would sometimes kick in, at times just for a few minutes.  The only device I tried to connect with at first was my cellphone, and I din't have much luck.  There are three wi-fi points I can see on my phone in different parts of the building; two are password-protected, and one is an open connection with no security or password.  The open connection is the only one I have physically found the broadcast point for; it is in a tiny closet on the staircase up from the first floor.  Sometimes I can stand right next to it and get a connection, but sometimes I can't. And when I connect with a device on any of these connections (one of the secured ones seems to be the strongest in my apartment), my device will always tell me I'm connected, but then sometimes, it won't actually make the connection to the internet.  But, strangely, today my phone has suddenly been connected almost all day. But then I tried to connect my laptop, and it would not connect at the same time I was getting a connection on my phone.

Speaking of phones, since I had no data in Vietnam on my phone, and since my wi-fi connection at home is obviously going to be unreliable, I went to Viettel (which is the main cell phone company in Vietnam) and got a smartphone with a top-up SIM, so I can have some data.  The phone itself cost about 37 bucks, and it is not the greatest smartphone, but is still one hell of a bargain.  The top-up deal I got is about $2.50 for 3 gig of data for a month. Again, a pretty good deal.  So I won't use it for videos or much audio...I can hold out for wi-fi for anything more data-intensive.  There is a good wi-fi connection at the French institute, and many cafes also have it. And the new phone is just strictly for data at this point...I turned down phone and texting for this round, but if I top up again, I may look into it; I bet it is super cheap.

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