I’ve been living in Vietnam a while now, relatively speaking. Longer than I expected, in fact. When I tell anybody new to town how long I’ve been here for, they always raise their eyebrows and give me a suspicious look, just as I used to do when I first arrived. I never planned to still be here (over 6 years and counting…), though I have some friends who’ve stayed much longer. The first year here felt very long indeed. I did what most single foreign men do when they arrive in Vietnam. I became a sort of ‘playboy’. I thought it was cool then, but now I’m ashamed of that behavior, although it was a difficult habit to break.
Vietnamese women can be very beautiful but are not perhaps accustomed to the ‘ways of the west’, so it can be easy to take advantage of this situation. However, once I saw some other foreign men, who were typically quite charmless and unattractive, doing the same thing, I immediately stopped and threw myself into the gym instead.
But I wasn’t completely saved from that selfish lifestyle until I met my girlfriend. We made each other really laugh a lot, which is quite unusual I think with the culture barrier. Luckily her English was quite good too, because my Vietnamese skills are so horrible. I learn languages quite easily, and have never struggled anywhere else. But Vietnamese is so utterly dependent on accurate tone, it drove me mad (I often say beware of anybody fluent in Vietnamese, they must be either perverts or spies!). I even started to suspect, in my expat paranoia, that locals were pretending to misunderstand my words just to annoy me!
Expats often complain about Vietnam and the way it’s different from their home countries. But it obviously makes life easier to just accept any differences and remember the many positives (no country is perfect anyway). You only need one type of wardrobe in Vietnam, there is much less crime, it is cheaper (unless you shop at Vincom Center or something), scenic, and the cities have a frantic yet laid back atmosphere that I feel is unique to Asia, if not the world (and I’ve travelled most of it).
Zooming around on a motorbike can be dangerous but I’ve seen more accidents in England than here and it gives a real sense of freedom. Ho Chi Minh City in particular has a ‘small town’ feel (even though it’s huge) which I love. It’s like a friendly village but with millions of people you can bump into. My friend once likened hanging out here to being in prison (but in a good way), in that “nothing ever happens, but anything can happen!” I want to.
Being an expat, it’s easier to make a good life for yourself in Vietnam. I have almost too many friends, a nice apartment, a good job (I’m a ‘travelling teacher’, rather than a ‘teaching traveller’), lots of hobbies and everything feels quite easy. However, one thing I probably lack, and it’s a big thing, is a strong local connection. Even after all this time, I find the cultural divide quite exhausting to overcome, at least compared to other countries I’ve stayed in. I have very few Vietnamese friends and I am now living the lifestyle I used to frown upon, that of the ‘expat bubble’. Can I just blame my battle with the language for this?
But as far as bubbles go, it’s a great existence, and I have Vietnam to thank for that. To be honest, one of the only things I truly dislike about life here is some of the expats! That might appear somewhat ironic, but the neo-colonial attitude of some foreigners here angers me, especially as many of them were clearly not ‘cool’ in any way before they came out here. Now suddenly they can be seen strutting about, taking advantage of local hospitality and often looking down on a culture that they don’t even try to understand.
Perhaps it is a feature of expat life to become more selfish or disconnected from ‘reality’, as most foreigners living here are away from family and other responsibilities or restrictions of home. It can take some effort to ‘give a little back’ and not just always be ‘taking’ from Vietnamese society, but in my own personal experience anything I have tried has been well worth it. Skyping my critical mother once a week has also helped keep my feet on the ground a little more!
Vietnam deserves the respect of every visitor and we shouldn’t forget that we are guests in this beautiful place. This country has overcome the most incredible hardship after the apocalyptic American war. To think how far it has come in just a short time, with such a friendly population (especially in the countryside), well, it makes me wonder if some other nations could have recovered so well by comparison.