Why Vietnam?

I was asked this question many (many) times when I found out I was moving to Vietnam for work and in the first year or so of living there. Admittedly, the majority of people who were asking me were loved ones and so the thought of a few thousand miles between me and them was probably at the forefront of their minds. It was, in fact, an uncle and aunt on my mother’s side who both said to me separately that they could ‘see’ me there. I know that they didn’t necessarily mean in Vietnam per se but just somewhere outside of the UK and probably Europe as well.

Close friends were also more in line with the view presented by my aunt and uncle, they knew that I had wanted to work abroad for some time, and some were, probably frankly sick of me talking about it but with no action (although I was living in Spain at the time). And for me, prior to seeing the job advertisement, I had never thought to myself, ‘I must simply go to Vietnam’. It seemed exotic and too far away to even comprehend. And if I am honest, all I knew about Vietnam was related to the war.

My previous knowledge of the war was extremely limited and focused primarily on the ‘American angle’, i.e., it was seen as a war that they had lost. One of the first museums that I visited upon arriving in Ho Chi Minh City was that of the War Remnants Museum located near the heart of the city. The museum had been previously called the ‘Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes’, so this gives you an indication that the curators wanted to provide the ‘Vietnamese angle’ to the effects of this devastating conflict, of which some effects are still evident. To illustrate this, the Vietnamese generally refer to the war as the American War rather than the Vietnam War, this not so subtle change of country indicates, at least to me, that the Vietnamese wanted to ‘own’ the war. Perhaps to act as a reminder that it was the Americans who invaded their country (in an act to prevent the spread of communism), and not the other way round.

Once I had visited the museum as well as explore much more that the city had to offer, I found myself understanding a great deal more about the country and a little about its people. And I found myself asking ‘Why not Vietnam?’

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A Love Letter to Vietnam

There is an undeniable spirit about Vietnam, whether you are in one of the sprawling fast-paced cities, trekking in a rural wilderness or relaxing on one of the many stunning beaches that the country has to offer. In the three years I lived in Vietnam, I witnessed this spirit within its people and their approach to everyday life, but I would also argue that I only scratched the surface with what the country has to offer. To that end, it would be utterly impossible for me to condense three years of living in this remarkable country to one post, so, I have summarised a few of my experiences here and I hope to write more in the future.

If I had to describe Vietnam in a few words; aspiration, vitality and warmth (and not just in terms of the tropical climate) would be some of the words that first spring to my mind.

In contrast, it took me a few months to warm to Vietnam when I first moved to Ho Chi Minh City back in the summer of 2014. It wasn’t as though I hated my initial impressions by any means, but I had completely underestimated the culture shock I would experience. I had gone from living in the UK, then Spain and then upping sticks to move to the other side of the world. To a large extent, the culture shock stemmed from fear. When I initially moved to Spain, it felt ‘safe’, what with relatively quick and cheapish flights to and from the UK and additional comfort provided in that many locals (at least where I was living) and amenities provided assistance in English. I hasten to add here, it was a priority of mine to integrate into the local community and so I did take Spanish lessons both in the UK prior to the move and once I arrived.

In comparison, moving to Vietnam meant that I was required to stand on my own two feet and here I was, an early 30-something-year-old woman who had actively chosen to leave her then partner for a job pretty much on the other side of the world. Part of me wonders if perhaps consciously or not, many of my decisions up till this point had largely been based on what was deemed ‘safe’ or not.

For the first few months, I found myself conflicted about the move to Vietnam. Work was busy, having received a promotion early into my contract together with planning new courses. I was also struggling to establish and foster new friendships (partly because I was stressed from work), my then partner was based in another country and I was miles and miles away from family and friends. I was lonely and felt as though I had made a terrible decision.

However, much like my initial feelings about when I went to university where everything is SO BIG and SO SCARY at first (well, that might have just have been me), once I started getting out there and exploring, I began to find my feet. Thrown together through the same circumstances, I connected pretty quickly with another newbie at the school and we would regularly explore restaurants and coffee shops at weekends with her partner. Slowly, other new friendships formed and, although I enjoyed being able to investigate on my own, sharing these experiences helped provide me with the grounding that I needed to feel more at home.

It was only when I opened my eyes and started to look outside of the walls of the school and head into the metropolis that is Ho Chi Minh City, that I felt drawn in by the vitality and warmth of the Vietnamese people and its culture.

I have read in a few travel guidebooks that Thailand is known as the country of smiles, but I would argue that Vietnam is a strong contender for that crown. One of my lasting memories will be the kindness of the vast majority of people I met. Even if words failed both parties (I did learn some basic Vietnamese, but gave up after six weeks as I found it incredibly hard to get to grips with the different tones…), a smile, a brief nod together with various hand gestures and my basic Vietnamese, usually meant we could all be understood, plus a great deal of patience from my Vietnamese counterpart.

I recall thinking early on about how different my previous life had been in Spain to that of being in Vietnam (as if I thought they could in any way similar!). When I had first moved to Spain it was still suffering the effects of the economic crash in 2008; such as high unemployment rates and a high demand of people seeking social support. Another noticeable facet of this in the coastal area where I lived, were the countless abandoned building sites in which companies had either gone bust or had chosen to cut their loses. Concrete shells dotted the landscape that originally had been intended for residential use but now acted as a graffiti artist’s paradise.

In contrast, the building sites I saw in Vietnam were enormous and appeared never ending. High-rise luxury apartments cover swathes of land, and in the south, these are predominantly built on swampland. A concern certainly for the future if sea levels rise as they are expected to with climate change. And of course, with an average Vietnamese person receiving a salary of less than USD$7000 a year, I wonder who is going to be living in these luxury apartments… but despite this, I can’t shake the feeling that Vietnam has ambitions to ‘go somewhere’ after nearly a century marred by war and conflict, and this boom in construction is one way of illustrating this.

Where do I go from here?

I finished work last week after what has at least felt like a long term since Easter. So much so, that I sank into a period of what I can only describe as utter exhaustion once the final bell rang for the school day and for my career at the school.

The last few days of work were a whirlwind of events; including graduation and award ceremonies, talent shows and also farewell assemblies for those who were leaving this year. I was one of those members of staff leaving for pastures new.

I wrote in my previous post about some of the wonderful students who I have had the privilege of working with over the past three years. But I have also worked with some colleagues who have opened my eyes to new experiences and caused me to challenge some of my own preconceptions in the teaching bubble and outside of it.

So in my next post, I am going to explore some of those experiences, now that I have the energy and space to reflect on the ride that has been living and working in Vietnam for the past three years.

Moving On

Two years ago I wrote a post with the very same title as this one. Although the content between this post and that are vastly different, the theme, however, is the same – change. As over the next few weeks and months, things will change for me in a number of different ways. I am not only moving house, I am also moving for work and to be in the same country and city with my partner of 18 months.

As I sit and write this post I am sat on my sofa occasionally glancing up from the laptop screen to take stock of the four walls around me. Above the TV on the opposite wall, there used to be a large map where I had placed stickers of the various countries that I have visited. Around this I had stuck photos and postcards from some of these travel destinations; some were of landscapes, and many contained images of family and friends.

Looking at it now the bare wall reminds me that I the life I currently lead is, and always has been temporary.

As I write those words, I feel a wave of sadness wash over me as if to encourage me to hide away, to try and pretend that things aren’t changing around me. But if there is one thing that I have learnt over the past three years it is this, although we may not have control over a lot of things that may happen, we do have some power over how we respond to the change. And at least for now, I want to face this change that conjures anxiety and uncertainty and try to embrace it.

A JOB OFFER AND AN ITALIAN WINDOW

I have just returned from a short vacation where I was originally hoping to carve out some time to write this post earlier. But the tourist bug caught fast and my days were mostly spent touring temples and seeing the sights in the wonderful city that is Seoul.

My head was full of trying to navigate my way around the capital of South Korea and nail some of the basics of the language, so I was grateful that the day before leaving I had made a decision about what to do about an offer presented to me a few weeks ago.

I said no.

No to the offer of a role that could have shifted me in a whole new direction that of a website developer and contributor.

My reasons for declining were built on a multitude of factors, but my main recurring thought was that I wasn’t hungry for it. To be more specific, hungry for that particular position at this point in time.

Fear did play a large part in my decision, but not in the perhaps obvious reason that I was scared to take a chance on something unknown to me. But rather it was the fear that was in my gut of ignoring what I truly feel inspired doing – writing that has meaning to me. There is a strong possibility of sounding arrogant here, as though my writing is ‘better’ than the website I could have been writing for. But this couldn’t be further from reality. Having taken the time to consider the offer actually made me acknowledge the cold hard truth, I have been skirting around what I enjoy doing for some years now.

AN ITALIAN ADVENTURE

A little under ten years ago I went on holiday to Italy and spent nearly three weeks touring some of its great cities such as Rome and Florence and then switching to a car for a journey through the magnificent countryside of Umbria and Tuscany. The trip left a lasting effect on me in more ways than one; it certainly affirmed my love of Italian food, art and culture. Those were given. But it was when I was staying in a relatively remote village near Perugia, Umbria where I would say that I received one of the loudest calls to arms I have ever received in terms of inspiration. Through the haze of my long-term memory, I’ll paint the scene:

I am sat leaning over a circular wooden table with what was a cumbersome and impractical laptop. It was heavy, bulky, and took up the vast majority of my day rucksack, but I had been determined to bring it with me on my travels.

I was doing some work for my relatively new teaching position (only one month before I had completed my teaching training and I was due to begin my first job in the forthcoming September). Academic books were spread out around me like a fan, covering the table and chairs and I was dipping between them trying desperately to focus on one thing and failing miserably, I had a great deal of work to prepare. Initial visits to the school had been exciting, I had met new colleagues and seen what was to be the classroom where I would spend most of my day. But I was also left with a large ball of anxiety in my stomach; brand new courses needed to be planned, existing resources needed updating and I couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps I was in a little over my head. I was keen to be prepared or least to obtain a degree of preparedness, hence the reason my laptop had originally come on holiday with me.

At one point, I stood frustrated and decided to take a short break. White-washed walls gave the kitchen the illusion of space, but in truth it was tiny. Adjacent to a metal sink and drainer was a tall corner cupboard that was in turn next to the only window. I went to grab myself a drink and when normally, well at least for the past few hours I would have gone to sit straight back down this time, I took the few steps to look outside. The image was a mirage of green rolling into the distance, the colour varying in intensity as fields were divided by roads and cultivated land. The scene was occasionally interspersed with buildings with some obscured by trees and the hills beyond.

It was as I stood here, that I felt like my brain had been struck with a burst of energy that I had never experienced before. The image that I was looking at was also somewhere else. I was still standing in that kitchen but the scene that played out in front of me and the sensation of standing there conjured a vivid scene in my mind. A male, a boy, an explorer, lost? They were the first things then; adventure, a family member could have gone missing? His father perhaps? As I write those words, they appear abstract and but loose threads of an idea. But for me at the time, as cliche as it may sound, it was as though I was seeing the world around me with eyes that possessed a whole new vibrancy. For the next couple of days, I was lost in a world of my own with a view out of that window writing furiously on my laptop.

The Italian countryside was the inspiration for what came to be my first book. Now I say ‘first book’, as though I am a published author. I am most definitely not (for the moment at least) and I would say that I am also very far away from being anywhere near that. But that feeling of inspiration made me realise that I absolutely LOVED writing stories and in turn, it also made me hungry for more of those moments of absolute clarity and conviction over my creative thinking.

So the offer presented to me a few weeks ago, as amazing in its own ways as it could have been, ultimately deep down wasn’t right for me. I had to sift through a lot of my mental clutter to find the answers, but I knew I had made the right decision when I thought of how much of my time would have been spent doing the job, whilst also working full-time and therefore sacrificing precious time to write for myself. The hunger and the drive both weren’t there in the same way that writing fiction is for me or even the feelings created when I write posts for this blog.

So it was a no for now for a small career shift, but a big step in reminding myself of what I want to do in the long-term.

BIRTHDAY TRAVEL

I am on holiday – yippee!

I am also alone on holiday and it’s my birthday.

I am sat in a cafe that my boyfriend told me about when he visited this city, this was before we met. He has just text to ask how my morning has been and I have checked in with a few friends, family, my emails and I have turned to writing.

The cafe itself however is gorgeous, a small colonial style house with moulding exterior yellow walls that has been converted into a three floor eatery, with tiled floors and peeling paintwork. A mish-mash array of wooden furniture with a large bookshelf made of bamboo and Chinese lanterns provide the only internal light. Equally, with the heavy leaden clouds outside, you could be mistaken for thinking it is the nighttime.

So why have I chosen to spend my birthday on holiday and alone?

I have moments of pondering that very question. And this is certainly one of them.

The last time I did this, that is solo travel, was around eight years ago and I took myself off to the south of France for one week, specifically Nice, Monaco and Cannes. I was in the midst of a difficult period with a boyfriend (we hadn’t actually broken up but it was evidently on the cards) and my response to the difficulties we faced was to leave the country, naturally. My soon-to-be ex-boyfriend at the time hated the idea of me off on what he believed to be a jolly holiday whilst he wallowed in frustration and angst, but there had always been something niggling away at me throughout our relationship, certainly in the last few months. It wasn’t working and I felt trapped.

There were periods whilst I was away where I almost felt trapped again, but in a very different way. Trapped with myself and with only my thoughts for company.

We as humans are naturally (and evolutionary) for the most part social creatures. A degree of solitude may be good for the soul, but for me I find myself craving some social interaction after a while, which you could argue is equally good for the soul.

If I had stayed in a youth hostel I perhaps would have made some connections which may have led to some evenings out, but my shyness and introverted nature (which at the time I had not realised or certainly appreciated) resulted in me spending my evenings alone, usually at the hotel with a glass of wine.

In amongst the trips to Monaco, Cannes and wandering the narrow streets of Nice I had moments of utter contentment; why had I not done this sooner? I fell in love with the south of France and for the freedom it gave me for those seven days. But likewise there were periods of darkness where my inner voice criticised me and made me question what the hell I was doing.

When I was waiting for my return flight to the UK, I had one of those epiphanies that can arise from periods of quiet, something so vivid and clear. Despite spending the week alone, I had never felt lonelier than when I was with my boyfriend at the time.

The irony of the situation was that my boyfriend and I actually stayed together for a little longer, another year in fact! To him, it was as though I had never been away and whenever I tried to talk about some of our issues or even the trip he would shut me down. This of course led me to shut down even further and which led inevitably to another contributing factor of our break-up. 

This time, I am a little older and hopefully a little wiser in more ways than one. Firstly, my trip is more adventurous in nature involving some time in a big city, moving onto a hiking tour and then a few days excursion on a boat. Secondly, emotionally I am in a far better place.  In the past I was made to feel guilty if I wanted some time alone – even if I wanted to visit friends. Now I feel quite the opposite. My boyfriend and I are supportive of our mutual desire for space and time alone and if that includes a holiday then it includes a holiday.