Expat Tales: Chapter 1- Vietnam
“The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams.” – Oprah
On March 1, 2013 I quit my job. On the way home from my last day at work, I stopped at a local bar for a glass of wine, relieved that my 7 years at a slowly sinking company was over and excited for the next chapter. People called me brave. It didn’t feel brave, it just felt right. Others called me crazy. (Maybe just a little?)
Then I stored my stuff, packed up my car, and drove north from Tampa to Minnesota. A few days later I flew to Bangkok. My friends and former co-workers may wonder what happened next. (Or maybe not.)
“Expat Tales” is an attempt to connect the dots; what REALLY happened after I walked out that door on March 1, 2013. These “tales” will also talk about the realities of being a foreigner in a strange land that has now become home.
And so it begins…Vietnam
“I’m sorry, Maam, but your visa isn’t valid until March 12th. Today is only the 10th.”
After spending 4 days relaxing in Bangkok, I arrived at the Bangkok airport to check in for my flight to Hanoi feeling rested and ready to begin this journey into the unknown. These words shocked me back to reality…I was such an idiot!
I had planned a few days in Bangkok to recover from the jet lag and 12-hour time change, and also to give myself time to reflect on what I had just done. On my second day in Bangkok I wandered into a nearby temple and found a quiet spot in the corner. Surrounded by Buddhist chanting and the smell of incense, I finally exhaled. The past six months had been a whirlwind of organizing, planning, and plotting my departure. Finally, I could just sit still and breathe…so I did.
So, after achieving a certain level of zen while in Bangkok, that peace was suddenly shattered by my Vietnam visa issue.
The supervisor was called to the scene and offered two options – change my ticket to the 12th or fly today after signing a waiver form, relieving the airline of any responsibility for fines (or imprisonment?) imposed by the Vietnamese government for flying into their country on an invalid visa. I chose to sign the waiver and the helpful airline agent suggested flashing the Vietnamese immigration agent a few USD and maybe shedding a few tears. I spent the 2-hour flight to Hanoi wondering if my 3-month Vietnam chapter would be over after about 3 hours, after they threw me in prison or deported me on the next flight out of there.
Tears and bribes?
Arriving in immigration, I studied the faces of the immigration officials, trying to decide which one might be a sucker for a tearful blonde flashing a few crisp US $20s. I picked a line, mustered a few big tear droplets in the corner of my eyes in case they were needed, and arranged the crisp 20s neatly in view. My heart was pounding while the tears started streaming on cue. The immigration agent glanced at my passport, barely glanced at my invalid visa, stamped it and I was through!! I would not be doing time in a Communist prison! And the journey began…
I chose to volunteer in Vietnam for a couple of simple reasons; I wanted to learn to speak French, I loved the food, and was fascinated by the history. I had visited the country for a few weeks in the late 90’s and had great memories from that experience. This volunteer gig was scheduled for 3 months and organized by International Volunteers Headquarters (IVHQ), which provided room and board and arranged volunteer placements. Volunteers shared a large house (“Peace House”), very basic accommodations but comfortable…well, except for the rats.
My first impression of Peace House: “…it feels like summer camp for philanthropic adults.” The Peace House volunteers worked in a variety of placements, some taught English, others worked in homes for disabled kids, and a few volunteered directly with local NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations). My housemates all had interesting stories and reasons for being there. We bonded over the shared experience, became weekend travel buddies, and are now lifetime Facebook friends. We will likely bump into each other again someday, somewhere in the world.
Facing my fear!
My volunteer placement was at Hanoi’s “High School for Gifted Students”, teaching the smartest kids from all over northern Vietnam. I had no previous teaching experience and suffered from a total fear of public speaking, so I asked for a few days of observation before diving in. My first day on the job I arrived a few minutes early, waiting anxiously for the teacher to arrive, the faces of 25 curious students staring at me. A few minutes later someone popped in to announce that the teacher would not be coming, she was in a scooter accident! Suddenly I was thrown into the deep end of the pool and facing my biggest fear – public speaking! I wanted to just curl up under the desk in the fetal position and cry.
It was a sink or swim moment. In order to survive my relocation to Asia, I HAD to face my fear. Teaching English would allow me to support myself; I had no other marketable skills. Fortunately, the previous evening I had scanned through a few lesson plan ideas and one of them stuck in the back of my brain. I pulled it out and made it work. Walking out of the classroom that first day, I felt that I could do anything since I had just overcome my biggest fear without crumbling.
My time in Hanoi was also spent studying in the cafe down the street, sipping on avocado smoothies while getting an online certification allowing me to “officially” teach English and eventually make a living. I chose a 100-hour online course and, along with my Bachelor’s Degree, this opened doors to actual teaching jobs all over the world.
Why NOT Vietnam?
In the end, Vietnam was a great experience but it wasn’t a good long-term fit for a few reasons:
Spying. Communist eyes watched me, in person and online. I felt it. Kind of creepy.
Spitting. Men spit. Everywhere and all the time. I don’t know why, but it was disgusting.
Fighting? Vietnamese language sounds angry to me, like people are always fighting.
Honking.The noise in Hanoi was deafening. I needed more calm and quiet.
After my teaching gig was over, I had the opportunity to travel from the northern border town of Sapa all the way down the coast to Saigon. Vietnam is a wonderful country with incredible beauty, friendly people, and delicious food. I had over-indulged in the food, immersed myself in teaching, and had totally ignored my goal of learning French. I just knew it was time to move on. To where? Cambodia was next…up the Mekong River.