Every so often I get asked by locals, “Stivi, why do you stay in Vietnam?” It happens so frequently that I wonder if they just want to hear, “Because it’s great!” Well, we do know and love our little slice of Vietnamese heaven, don’t we?
If you were to browse Facebook, you would get the impression there’s an amazing number of expats living here in Vietnam who absolutely hate the place. Every petty bad habit of the Vietnamese culture is nit-picked, argued about, insulted, joked about, examined and abused. Yet there isn’t a conga line of expats heading for the airport shouting, “So long! And thanks for the beer!”
The culture is exhausting. Mad traffic, no sense of time, lousy table service, constant headaches as plans are changed, forgotten and cancelled and the classic, ever prevalent wedding-karaoke-death in the family-shop opening music to contend with. You could also add to the list; blackouts, breakdowns, and bad timing!
So why do we stay? Surely, life in another tropical country would be just as good if not better and probably less demented. Certainly, life without loudspeaker awake-ups would add years to our lives…
I can’t speak for all expats. Yes, I can hear the sniggers. Some of us come to do great things. Others come to help. Some for the adventure. A few for the women. So what’s my excuse?
My little story goes back to when I was a teenager. Pull up a chair and make sure the popcorn and beer are ready! Angry, confused, lost, often lonely, I was quite an introverted lad. I hated growing up in Canberra, the capital of Australia, (a lot of people think it’s Sydney!) – cold, dreary, boring and uninspiring. I was a great reader of science fiction and one day I read a book called ‘The Door into Summer’ by Robert A. Heinlein. In the book, the hero’s cat, ‘Pete,’ is forever checking every door to the outside world in search of a summer the cat couldn’t find because the outside world was so terrible and destroyed, always looking for a place to lie in the grass under a cool tree and snooze. Cat heaven.
That story has stayed with me for nearly forty years as I constantly searched the world around me for a place to feel truly comfortable and relaxed. I never found it in a soul killing Australian office or the relentless routine of a South Korean ‘Hongwon’ (school) and surprisingly not in the deep, quiet western forests of cold Japan. Much as I loved each adventure and each love that went with it, something compelled me to move on, to keep looking… Where was my door into summer?
A surprise invitation to check three beaches – Malaysia’s Langkawi Island, Thailand’s Koi Samui Island and Vietnam’s Eastern beaches – was the beginning of yet another adventure in the northern spring of 2006. As I headed into the last third of the journey, I was still somehow disappointed. Langkawi’s sunsets are a photographer’s dream. Koi Samui was more fun – more a young man’s paradise of sun, sand and sex – not quite what I was looking for. Summer to me is relaxing and forgetting the stresses of ordinary life, not running around being busy.
On a small bridge on a bright summer early afternoon near Cua Dai beach in Hoi An Ancient Town in central Vietnam, I found that door. Staring northward across the palm trees, pale mountains in the distance, the glistening river snaking its way down across the coastal plain with green, thick, ripe rice fields on one side and shaded homes in many pale colors on the other. This was it, the one true place.
It simply felt right, the first time in nearly twenty years that I actually wanted to be in a particular location. It was a strange feeling flying back to Australia knowing that I didn’t really to stay in Oz anymore.
My family thought I was mad but supported me staunchly throughout these last six years here and it was not without failure either. A failed English school project that cost my family and me a lot of money. Dubious promises and back flips on other projects, not to mention the never-ending issues of domestic maintenance!
Many expats had similar experiences – falling in love with Vietnam without ever really being able to put their finger on what it was about the place that they liked so much. Quite a few met future wives by accident here. Others settled down simply to stop moving around the world.
Whatever the reason was, or is – we all came looking for a door into summer. And boy, Vietnam has provided it! So stick around for a while if you are not sure – you might be surprised by what Vietnam can offer…
Have you found your door yet?