Hanoi, Vietnam: Virtue and Talent

The Temple of Literature, Hanoi

Getting to Hanoi was frustrating and expensive. Vietnam is a country that requires e-visas for Canadian citizens. To obtain said visa, there is a long and arduous online application that involves uploading pictures of your passport, head-shots for every member of the family, and solving integral calculus problems. The instructions are obscure; the cost is high ($25 USD each); and the processing time is three days.

I applied five days before our flight but by the time our departure date had arrived only Lindsay’s e-visa had come through. Not one to panic, I printed off the confirmation numbers and receipts for the other five, packed up our things and went to the airport. Worst case scenario, I would have to pay again on arrival in Vietnam.

A positive attitude is not a panacea

Wrong. In fact, the worst case scenario is that the airline won’t let you fly. “It’s impossible,” was the line that was repeated over and over.

“We followed the instructions . . .”
“It’s impossible.”
“We can pay when we get there.”
“It’s impossible.”
“Can you call immigration?”
“It’s impossible.”

I bristled. I breathed. Then I gave up. Sometimes there is no immediate solution to a problem. Eight o’clock at night with no accommodations booked, we sent a message to the Airbnb we’d just left to see if they had room for us. They did (Angkor Dino B&B in Siem Reap – we love you).

Side story (aren’t they all side stories?): In the cab on the way back into the city, our situation came out in a broken-English style conversation with the driver. I thought the talk was over when he started dialing a number on his phone. He said a few words, then passed it to me. “Here – it’s my friend. I think you can stay with him.” By that point we had already made arrangements, but the thoughtfulness of this stranger brought tears to my eyes.

Getting past first impressions

The best thing about our first Airbnb was the view

Long story short, the $800 we spent on the plane tickets was gone and we had to spend an additional $300 USD on “rush e-visas” through a third party. Finally, we had to book another flight ($800). All of a sudden, the “cheap” phase of our travel in Southeast Asia wasn’t so cheap anymore.

In fact, the tragic comedy continued once we arrived in Hanoi. The Airbnb we had booked that advertised a pool, gym, super-fast internet, and fully stocked kitchen had none of these things. And it was dirty. And the sheets smelled like feet. For the first time in seven months, we canceled our reservation after the first two nights and found an alternate.

Settled, finally

View from the new place

Now we’re at a new Airbnb just on the edge of the Old Quarter of Hanoi. The place is great – even though it’s right beside the railroad tracks and sandwiched between two busy streets with constant revving of motorbikes and incessant honking – they do it so much, I’m pretty sure it’s an official language here. Still, through the chaos and sleep deprivation, we are working on finding the great parts of Hanoi – and there are lots of great parts.

Food and friends

Banh Cha heaven

Hanoi is famous for it’s food – and for good reason. Unique, delicious, and affordable cuisine is everywhere. From Pho to Banh Cha to Banh Mi, we are loving the culinary adventures this crazy city has to offer. Sitting on tiny plastic chairs on a sidewalk or in an alley slurping up the most delicious broth you’ve ever tasted is a memorable experience.

Eating out is great, but we also wanted the experience of cooking a Vietnamese meal. Our Airbnb host delivered on this request in the best way possible. Thanh and her mother took Linds and I on a guided tour through the street market, buying all kinds of vegetables, pork ribs (chopped in front of us on a sidewalk cutting board), pork belly, and rice. We returned to the apartment with bags of food and all crowded into the small kitchen to prepare a five course family-style meal.

When it was ready, even Thanh’s father came up to join us. As we gleefully devoured the delicious food (sweet and sour ribs, garlic morning glory, stewed tomatoes and tofu, crispy pork belly, and zucchini soup), we talked about politics, economics, and the history of this fascinating little country. It was a great night.

Walking with the locals

Quyn and Jing from Hanoi Kids spend an afternoon walking and talking (and eating icecream) with us

We also got to know a few locals by signing up for a walking tour with “Hanoi Kids“. This is a non-profit group that matches university students who want to practice their English with tourists who want to see Hanoi.

For three hours yesterday afternoon, Jing and Quyn walked around the city with us, chatting about the various sights – and anything else that came to mind. We told them about our trip and how the kids are still learning without formal school. They told us about being students (they don’t like dorm life), their hopes for the future (travel), and even a little bit about what dating is like in Vietnam (shocker – they actually respect their parents’ opinions)!

Kickin’ it old school

Our activity today was the Temple of Literature – which is a 1000 year old Temple to Confucius in the middle of Hanoi, and the country’s first national university. We bought the audio tour headsets and walked the grounds as the voices of historians talked to us through the headphones.

Ben learning about the “stellae”

There were many fascinating things to learn – from the giant stone “stellae” which were carved with the names of the graduating classes, to the fact that food allocation for the students was often based on academic performance. But the most interesting to me was about the philosophy of education itself. Right from the beginning of the tour, it was made clear that students were expected to learn two things: virtue and talent.

Virtue, then talent

Virtue to the left, talent to the right

Virtue. And talent. In that order, regardless of age. There were even separate doors for students who were on the virtue vs talent path. Industrialized nations stress knowledge and skill, injecting and imprinting these values onto children at the earliest stages possible. The assumption – that I have shared – is that the earlier you start teaching these things, the smarter your little human will be.

But what if we’re wrong? What if virtue has to come first? What if it’s more important to ensure a foundation of work ethic, integrity, resourcefulness, and honesty before the development of knowledge and skills.

I had never framed my thoughts about education in this way, but it makes sense to me – and it’s a big part of the reason we’re comfortable taking our kids out of school for a year or two. Even if they are missing lessons on how to multiply fractions or when the British North America Act was signed, by traveling, we have an opportunity to share experiences that will build their character.

  • Adventure fosters courage and curiosity.
  • Interactions with different people encourages patience and communication.
  • Lack of a curriculum prompts resourcefulness and self-motivation.
  • Being together all the time exercises empathy and tolerance.
  • Struggles like being turned away at an airport challenges our self-control and resilience.

These things are the reality of daily life for us, not subsection 8C in a course manual.

And, of course, this is also a reminder for me. As a traveler, husband, parent or professional, I could have all the knowledge and skill in the world, but if the “talents” I’ve developed are not based on virtue then my efforts will always be misguided. We need both – but virtue first.

There is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents.

Thomas Jefferson


I wrote this blog post in the afternoon, then we went out for dinner (fried noodles with bok choy and chicken, in case you’re wondering) – A little time for the words to simmer in my subconscious, the biggest literary weak spots bubbling to the surface to be skimmed away.

But something happened while we were out. After dinner, a craving for ice cream struck a particularly influential member of our family so we hunted down the nearest ice cream shop, narrowly averting a very serious case of dessertopenia.

While we were eating our sweet treat on the sidewalk, a Vietnamese woman squeezed by and started to mount her motor-scooter that was parked beside us. We were moving out of the way when she said to Linds, “Four boys! You have a beautiful family.”
“Thank you,” she replied, smiling. It’s not uncommon for us to get comments like this, often followed by a chuckle and, “Now you try for a girl??”

We went on eating our ice cream and were about to leave when the same lady appeared with four containers of caramel popcorn in a bag.
“This is for your boys. Please, take it.”
Linds tried to politely decline.
“No, I want to buy this for you. I have three children and two are studying in America. I miss them so much. This makes me happy.”

Knowledge . . . skill . . . talent?

Virtue first.


  1. Love this. Virtue first. Lots to reflect on in this post. And again I say your decision to take your children out of our school system was not a mistake. There is so much for us to learn and we definitely don’t have it all right. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I think there was something lost in the walking tour translation. Vietnam certainly does have a very vibrant public education system with more than 15,000 primary schools. 5 years is compulsory, and enrollment and literacy are almost universal. Secondary school enrollment looks like around 50%. See; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_Vietnam http://uis.unesco.org/country/VN https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000232770 http://datatopics.worldbank.org/education/country/vietnam

  3. Great post! I was just saying to my husband that I want to go to Vietnam (as we were eating Pho! :D) and your post inspired me. Im going to look into some details.

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