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.