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The slow wind-down in Vietnam

Tuesday, December 20, 2016, 18:02 GMT+7

Strange how the stress levels increase as the nation slows down.

Vietnam will slow to a crawl (apart from the traffic!) across Christmas and the New Year heading towards Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. 

As the twinkle of Chrissy lights switch on across Vietnam, the bedroom lights are also on late into the evening as senior students prepare for their final exams and others, their mid-terms. Luckily, electricity is cheap in Vietnam.

I’m already receiving those frustrated, anxious late night Facebook messages from students freaking out, looking for reassurance and someone to off-load their angst on. Oddly, at the same time, class attendances are falling as my students begin the annual round of school and work parties, not to mention compulsory family get-togethers.

Almost nightly, my students repeat those same old modal verbs of obligation. ‘Hey, Stivi! Can I be absent because I have to/must/should/need to...’ You get the idea...  Sigh... Even my IELTS students are abandoning study for the more serious family demands to help out with the shopping or to prepare for their final tests. I’ve never seen so many bags under young eyes before...

I was intrigued to learn that some exams were going to be delayed because the Christian students would be attending church. Maybe they’ll secretly study physics during the sermon. I get the impression it’s all rather metaphysical.

This time of year can be a very distracting time, with all those parties. It can be easy to forget to stock up for Tet, with shops and banks shutting down for at least the last four days of the traditional rituals of holiday.

This year I’m working on the day Australia celebrates Christmas, the 25th, however our students will have a mini-feast. Hopefully there will be lamingtons, a combination of sponge cake, chocolate and coconut that’s never failed to cheer up a stressed student. 

I highly recommend anyone reading this who doesn’t know about lamingtons, an Australian invention, to find the recipe on the Internet. They’re incredibly easy to make.

This year I’m planning to enlist the skills of Da Nang’s catering maestro, Tony Hill, to whip up a batch of brownies and lamingtons. As I teach my students; they are ‘delicious, yummy, awesome, irresistible’ and ‘to die for’. The last adjective always gets a look of shock.

Unfortunately due to Vietnam’s incredibly silly visa rules, I’ll be travelling overland to Cambodia on another visa run around the Western New Year. I like Cambodia. It’s a weird breath of fresh air after a year or two of dealing with Vietnam’s labyrinth layers of business permits, contracts and registering a business.

Even getting a Cambodian visa takes ten minutes compared to Vietnam’s slow, time-consuming, crowded, bureaucratic land border procedures. And why, oh why, dear Vietnam, do you have to fill up a whole passport page with a Vietnamese visa? Is it some form of punishment?

As I return in early January, my little school will grind to a halt, as family obligations ahead of Tet demand housecleaning, food preparation for dozens of relatives, gift shopping and pre-Tet parties. I’m kinda envious, but it’s very cool that the Vietnamese will celebrate four events; Christmas, the foreigners’ New Year, a pre-Tet warm-up and then Tet!

For the world-weary, grumpy, old expat the ‘slow wind-down’ is part of the culture we have learned to snuggle into. Having said that, it’s the most intense two-month period of the annual intake of fresh-faced, enthusiastic new expats - all wanting to teach English, find accommodation and start a yoga studio, gym class or gluten-free shop.

I’m sure it will be chaotic at the airport as I set out on my voyage of discovery soon. The bus to Cambodia will be exhausting. The running around in the pot-holed tuk-tuk in Phnom Penh will damage my back and the return journey will be just as infuriating. 

Yet the slowdown is a great time to be in Vietnam provided you’re not trying to make money or trying to get things done in a hurry. It’s an excellent time to catch up with long lost friends, think about what you’ve accomplished (or successfully avoided...), savor the warmth of close friends in our drizzly, supposedly chilly winter - that or a Vietnamese hot pot - and simply put off everything until mid-February.

So go with the flow... Slow down yourself and take the time to chill out and look around the world you occupy and the people that you helped, encouraged and loved. Put off the chores for a while and decorate your space. 

You might be wearing a big jacket to keep the chill outside, but you’ll feel warm and fuzzy inside. And if that doesn’t work, I do recommend a cold Larue.

Stivi Cooke


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