“You can go wherever you like” .. is what I told myself before I left the countryside in England. Before I moved out to Ho Chi Minh, I never referred to home as England, despite that being exactly where I was from; I’d say specifically Leicester, or even more specifically Market Harborough. It’s almost two years since I moved away now and for ease of flow in conversations with local Vietnamese, you begin referring to home by the name which they’re most likely to recognise.
‘I’m from England.’ or, now that my Vietnamese is picking up, ‘nước anh’.
Where did I like? I liked the idea of South East Asia, or South America. There were murmurings of Thailand, China, Japan, even Guatemala or Peru but I never really bothered to research much on any of these places. I didn’t have the traveler bug then, I couldn’t grasp the ability to mentally place myself in a foreign country I thought was too big to even begin to research.
So when Ellie, my dear sweet friend, pushed for us to both go to Vietnam, it felt like I didn’t have to do any more mental geographical self-placement tests. I didn’t know anything about the country other than the war and the traveling stories of people who’d managed to ‘squeeze it in at the end of their trip’. All I knew was that there’d be a teaching job lined up for me after a month of training there.
So there the journey began and today still it goes. I’ve been here in Ho Chi Minh now for a year and eleven months (một năm mười một tháng), and there are many reasons why that is the case. I’ve experienced the not so shabby life of an ESL Teacher (English as a Second Language) and I am now continuing to offer English Language skills in the exciting form of Advertising Writing. Life is great here. But if, like it was to me, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) doesn’t necessarily sound that appealing without any prior experience or knowledge on the place, how about reading up some reasons why you should 100% pack up your stuff and move on out here.
Reason 1. Widen your perspective.
When I was around the age of 20, I thought I was the most open-minded person there could be. I didn’t judge people based on appearance, I always thought fairly about situations and gave empathy to those who were in a disadvantaged situation. Though, I’ve learned that you are not always the amazing person you think you are until you are taken out of your comfortable surroundings. That said, I didn’t discover that I was this heinous individual, I just realised that my eyes could have been opened to so much more.
If you want to go anywhere for a ‘personal journey’, or an uplifting, life-changing experience (apologies for the cliche), then come to Saigon. It is truly humbling to be around people who work 80+ hours a week either for little money or purely for their families. I discovered that each day I spent here I was changing as a person and I put that down to the Vietnamese people.
Their hard-work, positive energy and welcoming nature towards foreigners is enough to make England ashamed of its border tensions. Albeit, Vietnam is a developing country, so tourism is generally encouraged, however you can’t fake the genuine smiles on locals’ faces when you start a conversation with them in the street, or the helpfulness of strangers who are trying to give you unexpected advice in an impossibly fast form of frustrated Vietnamese.
I met a guy here who I am still friends with to this day, who earns little over 22,000 VND per. hour. He works eight hours a day for six days a week. Incase you didn’t know (and why would you if you’re reading this), 22,000 VND is roughly 74p. You can do the math, but this guy was working for a world-famous American coffee shop chain. Obviously, in a developing country like Vietnam, things are considerably cheaper. If you’re a smoker, you can expect to get a pack of 20 for around the same price as what my friend earns an hour. It’s all relative, though. Minimum wage in the U.K. per hour is around the same price as a pack of 20 over there. But still, in a bustling city with lots to do and gradually increasing prices, it must be frustrating to earn that amount. This guy is genuinely one of the friendliest and most engaging people I’ve met here, which is why we still stay in touch. When we met, he wasn’t down and out about not having much money, or living with his parents in his 20’s (something common for a lot of Vietnamese until they go to University or get married). He was just a happy, chatty and intelligent guy.
Look around the city and see families of four sharing one motorbike. See the school kids faces when they get to play games with the fun English teacher and see their friends at the weekend. See a Vietnamese person’s face light up when you, a foreigner, start speaking to them in their native language. All these things enlighten the people of Vietnam and show their true colours. They are not all hard-done by, and yes they can moan as much as anyone else, but compare your life in the West and how comfortable you truly live there with these people who, from a young age, work so hard to make a better life for themselves and their families. Nearly every person you meet in Ho Chi Minh – who is actually from somewhere else in Vietnam but here for work – will tell you that they send money back to their families each month. Then, during Tet holiday (an annual holiday coinciding with the Lunar New Year), these people can go back to their hometowns to be paraded from house to house by their parents to show off how successful they’ve become and, thanks to all of the food, how fat they may’ve got.
If you want to meet people and hear stories that will move you, stop at a coffee shop when you have some free time and talk to people. You’ll be surprised how many people can speak enough English for a nice chat. Engage with the people on your street, try to remember their names, try to join in with Vietnamese culture. It will change you as a person and even though that sounds awfully cringeworthy, it wont change you for the worse.
Reason 2. Gain skills you never thought you could gain.
I remember my biggest fear about moving abroad was having to start afresh and meet lots of new people. Would they not get my sense of humour? Was I too lazy to socialise all the time with people I barely knew?
In the end, I didn’t have a chance to be afraid of meeting people. As soon as I arrived, I was thrust in to bar crawls, day trips, meals out etc. I was lucky enough to have a close friend with me, which did help, but it turned out it wasn’t even that difficult to meet new people from all over the world. Because they are all in the same boat as you.
Besides that, I was nervous about learning to be a teacher within one month. Did I do that? No. It probably took me about three months to actually know if what I was doing was right and if I was any good at it. But no-one judged me for learning in my stride, because the objective was for the kids to have a good time and engage with the English Language, which they did. Yes, you are being paid a lot of money compared to locals, but you are also giving a lot back. I can’t even begin to describe to you how satisfying it truly is when children who don’t have a lot of English skill begin to articulate themselves through words you have taught them. Every day I went to school I got a bit more comfortable, and each week I managed to think of new games for them to play. I like being creative, so making games was the best thing ever: they didn’t all work, but a lot of them did, and in the end I could come up with new games on the spot when I hadn’t prepared anything for the class.
You don’t need to know Vietnamese to do this job, nor a lot of the jobs available to expats in Ho Chi Minh. But I’m afraid you can’t help but pick it up, and if you are a weird person who is against learning another language, then you will hate Vietnam. For sure, you will pronounce words wrong, mistake a tone for another tone or just generally offend everyone around you with what’s coming out of your mouth. But, it’s fun. When I was in school I hated learning German and French, so much so that I literally burned my exercise books when I’d finished GCSE’s. What a fool I was, looking back. Learning another language is one of the best things you can do, because you automatically open yourself up to so many more conversations. Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way fluent in Vietnamese – I don’t think I ever will be. But I can have conversations, I can eavesdrop on people around me like a ghost, I can surprise people in public, or in restaurants when I converse and order in Vietnamese. It’s great to know another language, and if you are really dedicated, you could be nearly fluent in a couple of years.
Besides language, another thing that sort of surprised me was riding a motorbike. Obviously, in Vietnam there are motorbikes everywhere you look. Scary to see when you first arrive, of course. However, once you notice the traffic is rather beautifully chaotic, like the slipstreams of fish in Finding Nemo, just with a lot of noise and air pollution, you realise it’s not that bad. Riding a motorbike is very easy and literally anyone can do it. You can choose whether you have a scooter, a semi-automatic or a manual. I went from scooter to manual because I did a bike trip around the mountains and had no choice in the matter. Manual motorbikes are fun, safe and look cool. You get even more eyes gawping at you in the street when you’re on a proper bike.
Having a bike just makes everything so much easier, though. You can get around the city in ten or twenty minutes depending on traffic. Everywhere you park, there’s a security guard already writing your reg. no. on a ticket as you pull up. Parking is never more than 30p wherever you go. Fuel for me is roughly $5-10 a month, so nothing really. And because it’s a busy city, don’t be too afraid of having a high-speed crash, because where there are quiet residential roads in outer districts, the contrast is slow-moving traffic. So, there’s not that much opportunity to crash.
Reason 3. Toughen your skin.
Vietnam is one of the places people can be completely themselves, and explore new choices with their appearance and personality. This is because Vietnamese people outnumber foreigners by tens of millions (obviously). You can choose to stand out, or choose to blend in. People don’t seem to judge here. They will, however, comment on it.
When I moved here I was not overweight, but I wasn’t slim. I’ve always been broad and big – but a Vietnamese diet and climate does wonders for weight loss. So, having lost a bit of weight and feeling good I started not worrying about what I ate. It was only when I started to gain weight again that locals started commenting on how I looked. The best thing about living here is the honesty. It’s true, I did start to gain weight, but living back at home in England, no one would have pointed that out apart from maybe my mum. It’s not only that; I have friends who some days did not have time to apply make-up before teaching, and Vietnamese co-workers would ask: ‘are you sick?’
As days, weeks and months pass you develop the tough skin you never thought you’d get, and that’s not just your skin drying out from the sweltering sun. It’s life-altering in that sense, because it’s sort of like a new-found confidence that you didn’t ask for which helps you in many ways. You soon learn not to put too much effort in to ‘beating around the bush’ in social situations, and you also begin expressing yourself bluntly. As you adjust to the lifestyle here, you care less about the meaningless things that would wind you up back home.
You stop caring that your hair will get wet in the rain, that you don’t have the nicest seating arrangement in restaurants, that you have to have a couple of showers a day. All these things become insignificant in comparison to your growing experience and knowledge of a new culture.
Reason 4. Ode to the Chị ơi.
Because you are reading this, you probably don’t know that much about gender and age in relation to Vietnamese culture. Age is as important a thing here as it is in other cultures around the world. In England, we respect our elders by letting them take our seat on the bus if it’s busy, or helping them with their bags if they’ve got a lot of shopping to carry home. In Vietnam, taking into account someone’s age translates not only to these things, but also to the way in which you address them socially. If you are addressing someone, male or female, who is younger than yourself, you refer to them as ’em’. So when addressing a waitress in a restaurant, you’ll say ’em ơi’ to get their attention. If it’s an older man, you’ll use ‘anh ơi’, or an older woman would be ‘chị ơi’. The last one here brings me to my final and most important point.
Vietnamese Chị ơi’s: older women in Vietnam who are the backbone to all communities here. Chị ơi’s can absolutely make your day, no matter how good or bad it may already be going. When you’re in Vietnam, you quite often get into some inconvenient situations; whether your bike has broken down, you’re sheltering from a torrential downpour or you’re just struggling to cope from an early start in the humid heat. All of these situations can be resolved by stopping at a street cafe and conversing with a friendly Chị ơi.
When I first started working in Vietnam, I used to sit at the cafe outside of work on my breaks, smoking and drinking cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with condensed milk). From the first day I started working there, a woman named Ngan ushered me to sit, speaking the language I’d not yet started to grasp, smiling and generally making me feel all warm inside. From then on, every day I would sit there, and every day she would continue to speak to me, help me if she thought I was confused and point me out to someone she knew if they walked past. It made me feel so comfortable and relaxed that it was sad when I left for a different job.
But, wherever you go, there’s a Chị ơi. They wave at you in the street, even though they have no idea who you are. They say offensive things about you to their friends whilst you are standing there, then laugh out loud and shake your arm like you’re in on the joke. They remember what drinks you like to have, where you work, who you’re usually with and they always remember your name.
To me and probably to a lot of others, it’s like having a mother or grandmother around you everyday. A lot of older women in Ho Chi Minh don’t speak English, from what I’ve seen, so they’ll love you even more if you make a conscious effort to try and converse with them in their native language. From conversations I’ve had, I’ve noticed that they are elated when you give them reasons why you love their country, or if you comment on something that’s a well recognised annoyance to Vietnamese people (such as the traffic).
Expats here like that Saigon is under the radar in comparison to living in Europe or big-developed cities around the world. We almost don’t want to share it, because soon it’ll cause prices to go up and things become less special when everybody’s doing it. However, I’ve developed such a warm affection for this country that I’d feel like a bad person for not at least offering my opinion on it. I know a lot of people like home comforts and everything, but so do I. I can enjoy them even more when I go home to visit my family and friends, and in doing so I appreciate them a whole lot more. But being here is the best thing I’ve done.
You can learn a language, save a tonne of money, make a positive difference in your job, meet so many people and all the while become a more humble and socially outgoing person. Why wouldn’t that make you want to move here?