But recently I have been waking up and asking myself, why? Suddenly, with three weeks left to take in every inch of my wondrous Saigonese life, expat syndrome has subsided and I am appreciating every little thing. I’ve found myself sitting and smiling in traffic as I realise my commute is on a motorbike! Helmet hair, I honestly don’t care when I feel the cool breeze as I drive along the canal to the pool. An hour rain shower each day is better than an English summer with highs of 16. The curiosity of an 8 year old inspires me to question more things and far surpasses their badgering for stickers. I could go on but I think I’ve made it clear that the life this city has given me and the lessons it has taught me are something I won’t forget in a hurry. Most importantly, when you think you can’t do something, you absolutely can. Despite what we might be told as children, forcing yourself to do things you have reservations about can have a positive affect. I moved myself halfway across the world without thinking and I’m so grateful to myself that I told my brain to be quiet otherwise I might still be at home watching ‘Friends’ re-runs. Hmm not a bad life actually. Now leaving this amazing country feels like my life’s about to end. It’s the bad dream you have where you’re standing on a cliff edge and you don’t know if what’s below is concrete or water but you jump anyway. So I’m about to jump into the abyss, should be interesting…
This is something that I wrote last year trying to convince myself that Christmas was just another day in our calendar and anyway, different equalled exciting and new. However I still went to bed feeling somewhat unsatisfied at the events of my Christmas day. This is what I wrote and this is why it’s oh so wrong. (Disclaimer: it’s extremely cringe).
We all know we’re not at home, so why are we trying to act like we are? If you’re fiending for a few things to make this Christmas extra special, look around. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
- Don’t not celebrate Christmas
Yes HCMC is predominantly Buddhist which subsequently means they do not count Christmas as a national holiday, hence miss the celebration. Don’t be like that. Whatever you do, celebrate and celebrate HARD. Take note of places welcoming and spreading that good old fashioned Christmas joy and do the same. I’m talking fake snow, garish lighting and the half-heartedly drawn window art of frosty the snowman.
- cinnamon roasted toffee nut mocha latte thing
Starbucks, The Coffee House, Phuc Long tea- need I say more? You’ve guessed it. Get the Christmas drinks a-flowin’ or santa won’t come a-knockin’. Grab one on your way to work so you can flash your red cup and show your colleagues how it’s done. Give one to your favourite security guard or maybe try make your own? I have no idea how you’d do that.
Eat like you’ve never eaten before. Eat everything. Now is really not the time to be vegetarian so if you feel like you can morally surrender one day to gorge on meat filled dishes then I thoroughly suggest you do. Look for a hotel deal serving all you can eat and drink buffets for 3 hours, that’ll do the trick.
Sun yourself while you’ve got the chance because you know this would simply be a Christmas day pipedream back in freezing old England.
Assuming you’re drunk by this point.
Although there were obviously great aspects of the day, i.e. the cheese and cracker brunch and scenic outdoor pool (it’s a hard life), it was a far cry from the winter walk and Christmas dinner that defines traditional family festivities. My Christmas feast consisted of an evening (who eats in the evening?) buffet at the Intercontinental with near around 15 strangers, including a guy who pronounced ‘Vietnamese’ as ‘Vietmanese’, a loud American and an absence of sufficient gravy. All three equally disappointing.
This year was a whole other story. We had nothing less than a proper crimbo from Morning till the early hours of boxing day. A Gin fizz and croissant breakfast was followed by the exchanging of gifts, bucks fizz and a Christmas lunch complete with both chicken and nut roast (contrary to 2015 me, vegetarianism is for life not just for Christmas). A 3 hour game of drunken charades decided who would do the washing up,swiftly avoided by the loosing team. As if we hadn’t immersed ourselves enough in yuletide joy, off we went to town to throw some shapes to Christmas songs.
My advice to anyone having Christmas abroad would be to find yourself a little family and create a home away from home. None of this fancy shmancy hotel/pool lark will cut it when it comes to the big day.
Cambodia, a country whose troubled past is often overlooked, which more people should owe a deeper understanding of, myself included. My visit wasn’t exactly enlightening but it did spark curiosity and a desire to return.
As Cambodia is a part of the Indochinese path popular amongst travellers delving into South East Asia, I was inevitably going to draw comparisons between my own base of Vietnam and its unexplored neighbour. The first thing that caught my attention when pulling into Phnom Phen was it’s lesser sense of development than Saigon. Of course, polarised parts of Saigon exist; ranging from incredibly modern and commercialised to much poorer and undeveloped areas, often within the same district. To me, the capital seemed bare, almost as if its inhabitants were indoors waiting for a storm to pass. This being said, we did arrive during the most popular holiday in the Lunar calendar, Tet.
Dying for fresh air like our lungs depended on it, we wasted no time escaping the city. The longest taxi ride of our lives lead us to Kampot. One tube of pringles and a determined driver later, the sleepy riverside town served up with an XL pizza, was ours. We Spent our days meandering from deck to deck by bicycle, lounging in the pleasant sun accompanied by a cooling breeze and a dip in the Praek Tuek Chhu river. Bliss. The only exploration we felt necessary was an hour journey to the nearby province of Kep; equipped with beach and fresh seafood. Somehow our hostel booking was not received and we were turned away on arrival. Watching our tuk tuk splutter into action and disappear into the sunset, we missed care-free Kampot already. Luckily good karma found us as next door turned out to be an inconspicuous hostel, run by a lovely English woman who’d also been an English teacher in Cambodia for several years. Five dollars for a night with free use of bikes- better than a shrug of the shoulders.
Our spell of relaxation was over and it was time to go be the ultimate tourist. We broached Siem Reap with intrigue and excitement of being back in a bustling city. I’m almost ashamed that the first thing that comes to mind is to liken Siem Reap’s ‘Pub Street’ to Saigon’s ‘Bui Vien’ -both notorious for attracting wayward travellers who exchange gap year tales over 50p beer. However Pub street exudes less of a thieving prostitute vibe and more of a summer street party feel minus the strawberry tarts.
Of course the main attraction were the infamous temples of Angkor Wat. Arising from a deep slumber at 5:00am was a little inconvenient, yet the sunrise that followed was pretty cool. We rented bikes a cycled in the pitch black till we could see the temples’ peaks against the bluing sky. We covered the temples’ grounds in a day on wheel, the best way to get around and undoubtedly the highlight of the day, as we soon realised, once you’ve seen one temple, you’ve practically seen them all.
For an expat, nightlife wouldn’t be considered one of Saigon’s strong points. That is, if you assume nightlife to be a big night out in a decent establishment with reasonably priced drinks and music not of the k-pop/trance fusion variety. Upon arrival, everyone adopts a weekly ritual of plastic chairs on Bui Vien street, 15k Saigon reds and balloons with tattooed travellers. Before you know it you’re trying to twerk on a sticky floor in an atrociously named nightclub (‘apocalypse now’) surrounded by none of your friends. Once this novelty has run its course, many wonder where to turn next. Luckily, I’ve found some ways to rid the bad taste of BV from your mouth and enjoy some unseen Saigon spots.
- Roller Disco
Yep, Roller disco. Open every day 10am-10pm they’re ready when you are. Walking into the buzzing dancehall is intimidating at first, with pro- bladers whizzing about everywhere. But do not fear, many are amused at the sight of a foreigner and offer a sturdy hand to help you to your feet. With not a 60s tune to be heard, pumping trance and flashing lights really gives the disco that Vietnamese edge and for 30k a head, its a steal. Watch out for the speedy show offs otherwise you might have to pay a visit to a&e the next morning (left elbow trauma, speaking for a friend, true story).
Regardless if you are the next Tiger Woods or not, fun is had by all! Sân tập Golf Him Lam driving range located in Binh Thanh, offers three floors to putt from and absolutely stunning views of the city. I went after work for a colleague’s leaving party. We ordered beers and pizzas from Espy’s (best pizza place in town) to make it a real shindig.
3. Outdoor cinema
A screening under the stars is hosted by a little place called Saigon Outcast, an outdoor venue which throws different events such as markets, art workshops and games nights. Its actually great as there’s always something on during the week,appealing to those who work weekends. Thursday’s outdoor cinema is free and show under the radar movies often not shown in mainstream Vietnamese cinema. Find it on Thao Dien, D2.
4. Rum bar and Malt
Yes it’s a bar but it’s special. On the corner of Mac Thi Buoi, D1 you’ll find plastic chairs aplenty and tables topped with bar nuts, kumquats and special brew rum. It’s worlds apart from Captain Morgans both in quality and taste but does the job if you feel like letting loose. With both Vietnamese and expats scattered on the corner, there’s a good vibe all round and feels a lot more upmarket than the hovels of BV. Once you’ve enjoyed the 100k bottle with a coke and kumquat concoction, stumble over to Malt bar directly opposite. Sip some real ale and have a bash at table shuffleboard!
This delicious Korean desert makes for an interesting change from your after dinner ice cream. Think a frozen milk mountain topped with anything you like; fruit, chocolate oreos, cheesecakes bites and more. Creamier than a slushi but lighter than frozen yogurt, this decadent treat is best when shared between at least two people, unless you plan to eat for a small family. Many establishments around the city serve this frozen delight but Ice Flake cafe on Ham Nghi, D1 has to be one of the best. Evening cafe trips are the most popular here so get there early for a seat!
It’s been my birthday, Christmas, New Year, 3 holidays, one new apartment, one motorbike and a trip home since I last divulged any juicy gossip about life in the big hcmc. So sorry to have kept the fans waiting, it’s been a real whirlwind these last six months what with the book deal and multiple worldwide signings…
Since the fam visited a lot has changed. I bought a Honda Cub 50cc, Sally, that I’m in love with. I will be absolutely devastated when I have to sell her. If I could I’d take her home and put her in my front room and look at and stroke and polish her everyday. Maybe I could look into that…. I’m living in district 4 now in this stunning apartment on the 17th floor with my two teacher pals. The pic at the top ^ is actually the view from my bedroom window! Look to the right and Bitexico tower is right there! Still teaching and enjoying it probably more than before I went home. Its that time of year again (summer s-cool) so I’m sure by at least mid- July I’ll be having those tri-monthly quitting thoughts when really all I’ll need is a massive holiday.
Home was great. So amazing to see everyone and do normal things like drink tap water and go for a run outside and shop! But it somewhat made me appreciate my life here a lot more than I previously was. I suppose, like with anything, you become complacent when you are used to something. Just have to remember to step out of your body, look where you are then carry on with a new sense of perspective. God I should really be a life coach shouldn’t I.
I’ve got a bone to pick with these nomadic travellers. So inflicted with ‘hashtag wanderlust’ they nonchalantly hop from place to place, their only concern being which waterfall they’re going to frolic in next. Often when asked what they miss most about home you would expect a typically superficial answer relating to food and/or drink of their home country. For example, ‘a good cuppa’, ‘a bacon sandwich’ or more broadly, ‘M&S food hall’ (tell me about it). But sometimes one surprises you; ‘I really miss my friends, it can get lonely’, ‘My mum- she’s a babe’, ‘my dog/cat’ (sorry, really can’t relate to this). Hearing this, you simultaneously agree yet also slightly resent them. Their impending journey home can fill you with jealousy, even though your perfectly content. Half of me laughs in the face of outbound flights, the other half’s a bitter old hag.
For a down and out teacher oceans away from home, the feeling of having visitors is indescribable!! You?? in Asia?? With me? Where I live?! Truly a match made in heaven. The month of September was spectacular for this. A double whamee with the parents and best mate crossing borders to say hello. Their arrival was bizarre. Catching a glimpse of my mum and stepdad looking out into the sea of bikes trying to spot the white girl driving to meet them cracked me up no end. And I’ll never forget the night Tess arrived; the wettest night Ho Chi Minh had had for years. You could practically swim in the streets. I stood at arrivals sopping wet holding a bunch of drooping flowers and a welcome sign- a hopeless romantic.
Seeing them experience your new home first hand is even stranger. What you long ago deemed culture shock is now whole-heartedly greeting them with open arms. Crossing the road, hassle from hawkers and the delights (and consequences) of street food are as fresh and daunting to them as they were to you the day you landed. Yes, watching your mum tenaciously attempt to pick up the same slice of carrot with chopsticks for minutes on end is eye-wateringly agonizing. Yet its struggles like these that really confirm that you’ve not only survived, but utterly flourished in another continent- bravo.
For about a month Ho Chi Minh was our base whilst we flittered off to a new destination each week. The first was Nha Trang, a coastal resort known for its water activities and raucous nightlife. Despite it’s sleepless reputation, we found this wasn’t the case at all and that most bars closed early in the evening. Nonetheless our days were jam packed with holiday fun. One day was dedicated to a boat trip; swimming and snorkelling to our heart’s content. I had a new-found appreciation for ocean sealife afterwards- spotted some absolute beauties! We visited the obligatory sleeping Buddha and the Po Nagar Cham towers to get our culture fix then indulged ourselves in Thap Ba hot springs and mud baths; what a treat!
The second week was spent exploring the hidden treasures of the Mekong Delta via bicycle. Our five day trip was spent with Loc from the company Sinhbalo. He was an absolutely superb guide who spoke excellent English and being his hometown, had vast knowledge of the Mekong. I really can’t praise him enough. After a bumpy start (a collision with a stationary motorbike) the ride got better each day. Leading without a map, Loc took us off the main road and down hidden paths lined with banana trees and houses of locals, through rice fields and quiet villages. The scenery was totally unreal as were our experiences. On day one we were able to take a canoe deep into the delta surrounded by trees so close to us we could touch them. At the crack of dawn we visited the floating market and climbed aboard a pineapple seller’s boat, eating pineapple and watching the whole market operate. We cycled through villages and saw locals hand-crafting the goods they sold. Women dyed reeds to make sleeping mats and men skilfully carved rowing boats. We were even able to speak to some who had never seen foreigners before. They gave us a bag of oranges and sent us on our way. I’m so grateful to have seen such an untouched and significant part of Vietnam, just amazing!
Hoi an was our final destination. This ancient city has all the peace and charm you expect from Vietnam and was a welcomed change from the hustle and bustle of Saigon. The streets are dotted with architectural delights such as the famous Japanese covered bridge and Quan Cong Temple. We found the city looked most beautiful at dusk; as the sun sets the obligatory hanging lanterns show the butter-yellow buildings of French colonialism in all their glory. Tailors and Leather shops are in abundance here, available to custom make anything from a three piece suit to a winter coat or a solid pair of shoes! Me and Tess got dresses made at an absolute bargain- 15 quid a pop! In the evenings we sampled Hoi an’s delicacies at Miss Ly’s Cafeteria. Cau Lau (flat noodles with pork and croutons), White Rose (shrimp dumplings) and Fried Won Tons (a taco like crisp topped with spicy salsa- delish). Post-dinner, the Blue Dragon, a restaurant that donates money to children’s charities across Vietnam, sorted us with beers to wash it all down.
After a beautiful month of dossing off with the loved ones, it was pretty devastating to wave farewell and get back to teaching the future of Vietnam. So devastating that it was necessary to book a holiday to get through it.
In attempt to communicate with actual words rather than jazz hands and the odd nod, me and my friend started learning Vietnamese. It has to be said that, although this was a short-lived effort, I’m now basically fluent in the eyes of a local.
I became bilingual from the comfort of my own sofa, where only passing housemates could laugh and judge. Lesson 1 was a real shocker. My brain refused to digest these new, unusual sounds which entered one ear and left the other. I thought the alphabet would be easy enough. How wrong I was. Food, colours and clothes followed in a range of tones, but all I really wanted was ‘how much for this?’
Suffice to say, my poor fluency probably wasn’t helped by the fact that use outside the classroom was minimal to non existent. Surrounded by all the Vietnamese speakers in the world, somehow we just couldn’t find the time to practise. Of course the obligatory ‘xinh chào’ and ‘cam on’ were part of my everyday repertoire but I feared anything else would be a laughable offence. At best, when a native speaker asks if I can speak Vietnamese, I simply order a coffee. And I don’t even like coffee. They are too busy pissing themselves laughing to press me for more- phew.
My shocking and quite frankly, pathetic attempt at language learning has enlightened me to the fact that no matter how hard I try, I’ll always be a boring monolingual. It is my biggest regret that my tiny infant brain wasn’t exposed to two languages growing up. Thanks mum. For now I think I’ll just stick to Duolingo, adios Vietnamese.