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.

Transitions

Depression is a strange beast. It fascinates me as much as it frightens me with its ability to influence my life.

As my last post indicated, I have recently moved countries for work and to live with my partner, so you’d think that I would be over the moon. That’s inaccurate as I am over the moon; having gone from seeing one another every four to six weeks to every day is wonderful and I am truly happy with the move.

But the transition with moving countries, soon to be work and settling in generally has meant that somehow and somewhere along the line I managed to slip into a period of blackness that I cannot wholly understand or explain.

When I have gone through periods like this before there are rough indicators that have led me to recognise what I am experiencing, so I am able to put some things into perspective. For instance, if work is particularly stressful I will ask myself if deadlines need to be met at a particular time, and if there is some slack I make the most of them. Simply, I have some things in place for when/if shit hits the fan.

Although a part of me feels that this particular bout of melancholy has come from nowhere, the one thing I do realise now with experience is that this isn’t really the case. Depression seems to enjoy creeping up on you. I recently said goodbye to a country that I have lived in for three years and to people who I have formed strong bonds with. The final week or so of being there I had this almost constant nagging feeling that I had forgotten something, but I couldn’t pinpoint indeed what ‘it’ was that I was forgetting or why I was experiencing that sensation. It was only when I was literally leaving the country a little over a week ago when it dawned on me; I was leaving something behind, a part of me. I know that sounds terribly silly and even a little pretentious but recognising this caused me nearly to cry in front of the poor taxi driver as he drove me to the airport.

I know that my experiences of depression are nothing like those what some other people experience, where they require daily medication, regular therapy or in the more extreme cases, hospitalisation. But I would argue that, as much as depression exists on a spectrum, I am on the thin end of the wedge, i.e., depression in its ‘mild form’. I am not rendered debilitated by its grip, but when it does pass by and stop for a while I am a shadow of who I believe I really am. It is as though I am wearing glasses or better yet, contact lenses that are permanently smudged. I am observing life part squinting and part physically and emotionally drained from the energy trying to interpret the world around me. And no matter how much I try to clean them, the effort is pointless.

I am fortunate, for the next few weeks I am able to rest and recuperate until the term begins for my new position. At least for now, I am going to spend some time exploring my new home and rekindle the enjoyment I have with some of my hobbies such as photography, travel and writing. And just the mere thought of being able doing these things is stoking a fire in my belly to get started.

TAKING A SEAT AT THE TABLE

My first tentative steps into the blogging world was five years ago and looking back I can barely recall what the hell I was writing about, probably nothing much of note, although I am pretty sure that the blog and the accompanying writing was pretty ‘undeveloped’ to say the least.

I didn’t really know what I was doing and so would post sporadically and when I did click ‘publish’ I would be so eager to simply get something out there that I wouldn’t necessarily stop to perform a simple spell-check. Jeez… Particularly in those early days of blogging, I didn’t really consider the reason why I wanted to publish certain personal stories online or even the quality of the output. I just knew that I wanted to write.

Therefore in a bid to develop my blog and to take more consideration into the direction in which I want to take my site, I have decided to register with WordPress Blogging University 101 (again!) The first time I did this was in a different blog’s past life about three years ago. I met some wonderfully supportive fellow bloggers coming from a vast array of fields; photographers, novelists, chefs, fellow teachers, poets, students and many more.

At the time I had recently moved for work and found solace in the awesome community. But in all honesty, I lost direction with the blog itself after six months or so. Once again I had failed to consider what I was doing and why and so that early enthusiasm* dwindled into once again sporadic posts. Every time I even so much as looked at it, I felt despondent and frustrated, that was until I finally closed the site.

And the worst part? I don’t think I even graduated.

Ok, so perhaps there are worse things than not graduating from Blogging University 101. But in this case, there is, I stopped writing. And for quite a while. My job was busy and draining and when I tried to get stuck into something, I felt completely void of ideas.

So here is my commitment: I am going to post at least once a week.

Small steps and all that.

* I recall once challenging myself to a commitment of posting at least twice a week, something that at the time was unrealistic considering the demands of my job.

WEBSITE REVAMP

I recently followed through with something that I have been reminding myself to sort out for a while now… a website revamp.

It has been a long time coming.

Although I loved the simplicity of it how my site looked previously, where the landing page consisted of bold featured images, after some time of trying to figure out why it just wasn’t working anymore for me, I realised that the images took centre stage more than my writing. It was more ‘style than substance’ in terms of first appearances. Plus I was ready for a change, I think that is one of the wonderful things about creating content and finally hitting the publish button, you are releasing a little of yourself out there, into the world and that includes how the content appears.

So the overhaul included a biggie – a change of template.

I believe that my site now appears fresher, bolder and I, myself am feeling reinvigorated by the revamp and ready to crack on with producing more content 🙂

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.

THE COSTS OF AVOIDANCE

I like avoiding stuff.

Difficult stuff, like about what things hurt and upset me. For instance I love to avoid those conversations that you know are going to be tough, but sometimes need to be had, whether it is with yourself or someone else.

I tend to put a smile on things in public, feign happiness and acceptance. But then who doesn’t?

Over a year ago I felt deeply let down by one of my closest friends. Instead of addressing my upset with her about how I had felt treated, what did I do?

I bitched and moaned about her to mostly mutual friends and even some people I didn’t even know that well. I was left (and still am) feeling incredibly guilty, as I had opened up a fragile part of our friendship into the public sphere and permitted others to comment and pass judgement.

But my reason for not speaking to her directly was simple. I didn’t want the confrontation because of the potential explosion that it could cause. So I tried my hardest to avoid it all costs, despite deepening the scars associated with the issue for me. It seemed easier to brush things under the carpet than face them.

Another common avoidance strategy I have is related to my family. Growing up I often felt quite removed from my parents. We clashed over values and how we related to one another, and in turn how love was expressed. Mostly we were a unit of familiarity, which consisted of us getting on with our daily lives, only coming together for dinner and sometimes at weekends for rare trips out. Love was not something easily given and expressed. I knew I was loved, but there were many times when it felt like the love was held at arm’s length or it came with conditions. 

I know that I am being unduly hard on my parents. At times I was challenging, spiteful, I questioned their authority on many unnecessary occasions causing upset not just for me but also between them. Many times I was frankly irritating. So no wonder they wanted to avoid dealing with me. But I found it so difficult to express myself that I turned inward and to writing.

SAFETY NET

I can rationalise my preference for avoidance; it’s a self-preservation thing. If you avoid doing something in the first place, then you won’t be disappointed or you won’t disappoint others. It keeps things safe. It keeps you safe.

But always trying to stay ‘safe’ isn’t always the best way to live.

When I made the decision to move abroad for work, my mother’s first reaction was, ‘Why would you want to do that?’

It has taken her nearly four years and finally a visit to the country that I now call home for her to realise that by staying in the UK, (working and living where I did) was probably the biggest avoidance strategy I could ever make – I was avoiding living my life.

I was living in the shadow of what I thought I was expected to be. The same shadow prevented me from questioning the status quo. I avoided taking my degree choice seriously as it was easier not to, so I opted for something that I thought would bring me success, whatever I believed that was at the time, but it only made me poorer for it (financially but also creatively). I avoided asking myself what I wanted out of a relationship before finding myself a few years into two separate romantic relationships during my twenties and early thirties, before it dawned on me how unhappy I was. And throughout it all I avoided finding out what I am and what I can potentially be.

So I am about to challenge some of the status quo a little more and for the first time in ten years I am going on holiday, alone. I will be travelling without the aid of a friend or partner and only have my mobile phone as a support network.

Saying that I am nervous would be underestimating it.

Why am I doing this? That’s exactly what my mother commented when I told her. In fact anticipating her response, nearly led me to lie and tell her that I was going with Daniel or a friend. But then I would be heading down a well-trodden path right into another circle of avoidance.

I don’t want to keep hiding in the shadows forever, I said to her. And I meant it. 

SPARKS

So I have sat down to write.

I have no formal plans (i.e., I am definitely not at work today), no social engagements, nothing that could and should distract me. I have even turned off the internet so that I don’t feel the urge to check Facebook, the news or my email. Yet, after an hour or so I am tinkering with the structure of sentences rather than actually writing anything new; flicking between ideas for some blog posts and then a couple of other fiction pieces.

In effect, I am procrastinating.

I don’t want this to happen. I want to be productive.

I have lots of things that I want to be doing. I want to complete the plan for a story idea that I have. I want to make a proper start on the story that I had months ago that I have completed a plan for.

I don’t want to be sitting here wasting time.

I feel a familiar sense of frustration bubble away inside of me, but the bubbling never reaches boiling point. Time to write and to be with your thoughts is so precious that I want to make the most of it, savour every little second.

I get up and make a drink, perhaps that will help. I wait for the kettle to boil and wipe around the kitchen surface, noticing specks of dust. I should really give the kitchen a thorough clean. One where each room is disemboweled of objects and scrubbed clean of dirt and grime. I have all the cleaning products ready to go… then the kettle boils and I tell myself to sit at the desk.

It’s as though the ideas could burst out of me sometimes, and I cannot write fast enough or for long enough. It’s these times that I try and focus upon when I’m struggling, praying for a window of inspiration.

But then writing isn’t always about the inspiration, those sparks; instead, it’s reminding yourself that you are letting yourself be one with the words forming in your mind. The images conjured need to be instructed to pause for a moment so that they become clearer, tangible.

The sentences, the grammar don’t always make a whole heap of sense at first, certainly not to others if they were to read them. More often than I wish, sentences are left dangling in mid-air, unfinished or not started. But I can’t bring myself to hit delete, in case they form something more coherent later on, so I hit return and push them further down the page out of sight. For now.

Sometimes when a spark does strike and I am writing fast and loose, I find that a part of my mind wants me to become distracted. It dares me to stop, to check my email or just to take a break. Because doing this, listening to that part of myself, the doubt, allows the insecurities that I have about what I want to say take precedence.

I sit back and allow myself to daydream and for my mind to wander, the cooling tea in my hands.

The sparks will come, I know it. I’m ready for them.