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Far From Home

19 Dec

Homesickness (noun): experiencing a longing for one’s home during a period of absence from it.

me tam coc

Ask any expat in Vietnam whether they have ever experienced homesickness during their time here and, for the majority, the answer will be a resounding ‘yes’. The degree as to which individuals have been affected by this affliction, of course, varies greatly but it is something that most expats can relate to on some level.

Moving to Vietnam, I suffered from fairly severe homesickness. After travelling round South East Asia without so much as a backwards glance to the UK, it was upon settling in Hanoi that the longing for home soil hit me. Hard. Setting up a whole new life anywhere is a hugely daunting prospect and when in the context of such an alien environment, it can quickly escalate to a stressful situation. The intimidating language barrier, questionable local customs, down-right terrifying traffic and unfamiliar menus can quickly leave the hardiest of expats feeling overwhelmed and disgruntled. For most, over time these feelings mutate, fluctuate and progress through a series of highs and lows.

By definition, the very nature of homesickness is caused by spending time away from wherever you consider to be ‘home’. Therefore, while it cannot always be completely attributed to the environment of your host country, the two are closely linked. In Vietnam, a country evoking strong reactions from many, it stands to reason that homesickness can be related to the culture shock that many experience here. It is harder than, for example, relocating to Australia or a similarly Westernized country.

There are said to be four stages of homesickness.

Vietnam Traffic

Vietnam Traffic

The Honeymoon Period

As a new arrival in Vietnam, the initial feelings are those of euphoria. I felt as though I was part of a cheesy 80s movie montage, spinning around, eyes agog, mouth agape, soaking up the sights and sounds of the markets, hawkers, rickhaws and continual flurry of street life unfolding in front of me. Everything is exciting and during this phase, you generally feel a sense of wonder and intrigue for your new surroundings. ‘You have to walk on the road because pavements are used for motorbikes?! What a novelty! Oh Vietnam, you are funny.’

Irritation and Hostility

After a few setbacks these initial feelings of wonder soon turn to frustration and you become aggravated by the very same things which intrigued you at first. ‘Is it too much to ask to be able to walk down the street on a bloody pavement?!’ Near death experiences are no longer a novelty but frequent and frightening. This is often the worst stage of culture shock and often during this phase, expats will question their choice of moving to this new and alien environment. Whether a fleeting thought or a serious consideration, it has probably crossed most of our minds at some point or other when having a particularly difficult day in Vietnam.

Gradual Adjustment

This stage of the homesickness phenomena usually lasts the longest (hence the gradual part). Over time, you are able to control any underlying feelings of frustration felt towards the locals, other expats and the particularly irritating banking system. You start to accept your host county and feel guilty when feelings of resentment creep in. (‘None of us will ever be OK with the spitting but, well, the air quality is pretty bad so it’s kind of understandable, right?’) Fortunately for us, many factors assist the progression of this transitional phase. The wide-spread availability of free wifi means that keeping in touch with home couldn’t be easier. The internet also plays a huge role in the formation of expat circles and meet-up groups with foreigners and locals alike, allowing you to create groups of friends quickly.

Adaption and Biculturalism

While it is very rare that an expat will ever completely assimilate to living in Vietnam, this stage of homesickness sees you adjust to the culture and view it as ‘home’. Having managed to pick up some ‘Tieng Viet’ you can now bargain at your local market without offending anyone and, in fact, you have a vendor who you know will give you a fair price. It is now that you can appreciate the quality of your new lifestyle and feel warmth towards the country and the people hosting you. That said, certain things most likely continue to frustrate and perplex on a daily basis. The difference is, you now feel entitled to these opinions in the same way you would your home country.

A fifth stage that sometimes rears its head unexpectedly is that of reverse culture shock upon returning to your home country. You feel yourself yearning for the parts of your daily routine abroad that once got on your nerves. You almost get run over every time you cross the road using the South East Asian traffic stopping hand wave. (To be clear, this DOES NOT work in Glasgow. I have tried.) People stare upon taking your shoes off to go in to the local supermarket. The accepted custom of shouting ‘Oi!’ to attract the attention of a staff member in a restaurant is frowned upon. The feelings of longing that you once felt for your homeland are reversed. And it’s confusing.

I’m leaving at the end of the year. When I tell my expat friends they unfailingly ask me when I’m coming back. Every time. When I tell them the truth, which is that I have no plans to return, they all smile knowingly as if to say, ‘you’ll be back’. Maybe they are right. I can’t help but wonder what it is about this country, and its ability to evoke such strong reactions in people, that holds them here and entices them back, just when they thought they had enough?

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Hidden Dangers of Cycling in Hanoi

8 Nov

The following incident took place a few weeks ago. I am only just recovering from the humiliation and so, it has taken me this long to post the story that I wrote some time ago. Enjoy.

Standard bicycle scene in Hanoi...

Standard bicycle scene in Hanoi… Taken from the back of our motorbike

Living in Hanoi teaching English, it is considered something of a crime not to drive a motorbike. A failing almost. Everyone has one. Seriously, everyone. It is just part of essential everyday life here, with the public transport system being practically non-existent and very difficult to figure out for non-Vietnamese. Truthfully, I’m too scared (don’t judge me). I will happily ride around as a passenger on the back of John’s Yamaha and have actually given it a try myself but I really don’t feel great about driving a motorbike with no insurance in the crazy traffic. I have resolutely stuck to my bicycle since I arrived here, stubbornly denying claims that it is too hot to cycle to work in the heat of Hanoi’s summer. The sweltering temperatures, combined with the fact that I generally have to wear smart black trousers, means that I consistently arrive to work clad in a suit of sweat. Lovely. Attempting to try and aid the airflow a little, I wore a loose, long flowing maxi-dress to work the other day. While aware that it wasn’t really appropriate cycling attire, I decided that minimizing my intolerable sweat situation was more important.

Mistake number one.

I was soon to find out that bicycles can, in fact, be even more dangerous than motorbikes.

As I cycled home from work that day, I was enjoying an unusual breeze as my dress floated around my legs in the light wind. Just as I thought to myself what a welcome respite this was from the usual stifling heat of my smart trousers, I heard a huge ripping sound and my bike began to skid to a stop. My dress had become caught in the back wheel of my bike. It felt like slow motion but in an instant my dress ripped right off from the waist down, causing me to topple off of my bike, on to the ground with only my underwear protecting my modesty. Kneeling at the side of the road, practically half naked, trying to untangle my dress from the wheel, a Vietnamese man stopped to help me.

Although touched by his kindness, I was far too embarrassed and over-exposed to want any help so I attempted to wave him away politely. He persisted in untangling the remains of my dress and, politeness prevailing, I let him.

Mistake number two.

Obviously encouraged by me allowing him to assist with the situation, he started rubbing my arm and gesturing wildly at me. Confused, it took me a moment to grasp what he was trying to say but I was soon able to work out what he was asking me. Wait for it…

He was asking if I would perform oral sex on him – FOR MONEY- all conveyed through the power of sign language.

Wow.

What was he thinking? He saw me topple off my bike. He saw the dress rip and so was aware that I was not just hanging around the street in my pants, waiting for business. What was it about the incident that made him think it would be an appropriate time to suggest I gave him a blow job?! Seriously. At least he offered to pay, I guess.

Anyway, after using some ‘sign language’ of my own, I made it very clear that this would NOT be happening. EVER. I then set off home with my underwear on display and my dignity (and dress) in tatters. Cycling home through Hanoi, I attracted a lot of unwanted attention and just as I was confident that the journey couldn’t get any worse, one of the very few people I actually know in this new city pulled up beside me at the traffic lights (on a motorbike of course, dammit). Noticing the horror on his face, I proceeded to make polite conversation while he awkwardly attempted to divert his eyes, speeding off before I had a chance to explain the situation.

I had no choice but to wave him goodbye and continue the journey home in my underwear. Despite being one of the most embarrassing journeys of my life, I did see the funny side and cycled home with tears of laughter streaming down my face!

I still haven’t graduated to my own motorbike yet but I have learned my lesson – maxi dresses and bicycles DO NOT mix.

Here is picture evidence from that fateful day. I can’t quite believe I am posting a picture of myself with my ass out on the internet but I feel it tops off the story nicely.

The grand unveiling...

The grand unveiling…

Making the Most of Rainy Season in Hanoi

10 Oct

“It was as if they turned on a faucet. One day it started raining, and it didn’t quit for four months. We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin’ rain… and big ol’ fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath.”

Quote from Forrest Gump, describing the rain in Vietnam during the war.

Quote from Forrest Gump, describing the rain in Vietnam during the war.

Thankfully, rainy season hasn’t hit us that hard. (And we’re not fighting in the war like Forrest was, so actually there’s a lot to be thankful for). That said, the wet season is well and truly upon us in Hanoi.

It's times like this you need a submarine...

It’s times like this you need a submarine…

Considering that Vietnam is a country with a tropical monsoon climate and the rainy season officially runs from May to October, up until now, we had gotten off very lightly. The rain fall over the past few months (except from one particularly wild storm) has seemed to be almost considerate in nature; falling mainly during the night, leaving the air fresh and cool(er) for waking up in the morning. Showers have been intermittent and broken up nicely by sunny spells and even consecutively sunny days, with no rain to be seen.

When the rain has fallen, it hasn’t proved to be too much of an inconvenience for me. Usually miraculously stopping just before I leave to cycle for work and often falling lightly enough that it has still been pleasurable to walk to the nearest café or go for a swim outdoors. There is something enjoyably refreshing about swimming in the rain when the air is warm and tropical.

Yes, it’s fair to say that rainy season hasn’t been as awful as I expected. In fact, the first heavy rain storm that I experienced in Vietnam was nothing short of joyous. We were out on the motorbike when some particularly menacing thunder and lightning began to crash and roar above us, before the heavens proceeded to open up on to the streets of Hanoi. It was coming down in sheets; so heavy that we had to stop the bike but instead of seeking shelter, I laughed like a maniac and stood under the torrents of falling rain, mouth wide open, arms stretched out, looking up at the angry sky above us. It was magical.

John watching the storm outside

John watching the storm outside

The novelty has now worn off, although there is still something nice about walking about in the rain wearing shorts, T-Shirt and flip flops as opposed to the wellies and waterproofs of Scotland (flip flops are the only shoes that withstand the constant soaking, my gladiator sandals that I had custom-made in Hoi An have, sadly, been destroyed).

While there have been wet days from the beginning of June onward, August and September are officially the wettest months. August saw tropical storm ‘Jebi’ flood Hoan Kiem Lake and the neighboring Old Quarter. September has now arrived and the rain is here in full force. It is only six days in to the month but this week seems to have lasted forever. It has rained constantly and while the significantly colder air provides welcome respite from the usual humidity levels, I am starting to feel like it may never stop.

I can’t help but be impressed by how unfazed the Vietnamese seem by the rainy season. They are nothing short of resilient and continue about their day to day life as normal. Bearing in mind that over 90% of the population use motorbikes as their primary source of transport, there really isn’t any shelter available for their commute to work. But they wear their ponchos with pride and carry on regardless.

Going about daily life

Going about daily life

The Vietnamese way of life is very much an outdoors one. Everything takes place on the street, from food shopping, to socializing, to eating to rearing livestock. (Unfortunately, at times, this even includes going to the toilet. Something I dread to think about while traipsing through the flooded streets, blind to what may be floating about).  While the rain falls punishingly, day to day life generally goes unaffected. Aside from assembling some make shift shelters in the form of a tarpaulin on stilts to cover any seated areas, outdoor life carries on.

While this week has been particularly grim weather wise, rainy season isn’t all bad. In fact, there are some positive aspects of the wet weather; mainly revolving around the fact that it gives you an excuse to spend time doing things you would normally feel slightly guilty about.

Things to do during Rainy Season:

1. Eat cake. And lots of it.

tarte

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Hanoi, the colonial French influence on the food has left its mark and it is impossibly hard to avoid the numerous bakeries and pastry shops. Particularly when it’s raining. My body seems programmed to crave cake when it rains (well, not just when it rains but it kind of seems justified in the bad weather?). Chocolate tartes, cream donuts, waffles, baked cheesecake and perfect croissants are available all over the city and when the rain falls, I head instinctively towards one of the many delicious bakeries to eat cake. Lots of cake.

2. Drink beer.

247

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alternatively to eating cake (or indeed, before, during and after) drinking beer is an inevitable choice when it is too wet to do much else. Bia Hoi (locally brewed fresh beer) is literally cheaper than water here. It would be rude not to.

3. Read lots of books.

Photocopy, of course...

Photocopy, of course…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I love reading but somehow always manage to make myself feel guilty for spending time during the day just reading. For some reason, the rain makes it feel justified. I am currently reading ‘The Subtle Knife’, book number two in the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy by Philip Pullman. I can’t get enough and have got the third installment waiting to go when I finish this. Other books that have seen me through the rainy season include ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The Quiet American’ by Graham Greene (standard Vietnam reading), ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn (highly recommended – what a twist!) and ‘The Universe versus Alex Woods’ by Gavin Extence (brilliant, I cried and laughed the whole way through).

4. Kiss a stranger*

The Notebook (worst film EVER)

The Notebook (worst film EVER)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’ve always wanted to re-enact a dramatic kissing scene in the rain, now is your chance. Chances are, it will be dramatic. Possibly not in the way you dreamed of.

*Disclaimer: this may, or may not, get you arrested.

5. Watch Breaking Bad.

bb

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was my ‘go to’ activity but I am now up to date with Series 5 and have to wait a week for each episode to air. Alternative box set recommendations for a rainy day include: Game of Thrones (obviously), Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Boardwalk Empire and Dexter.

6. Go swimming. Outdoors.

See above. It feels amazing.

7. Listen to music.

One thing I really miss about Scotland is the music. While the Vietnamese government does its best to ban social networking sights and BBC News, You Tube seems safe enough. For now. Thank the lord.

Here’s a song from one of my favourite new Scottish acts.


8. Take up a new hobby, or rediscover an old one…

While in Vietnam, I have rediscovered my love of writing, something I never seemed to find the time for at home. Rainy season comes complete with stints indoors and this is the perfect time to learn that language you’re always talking about, hone your guitar playing skills, start practising yoga  or take up candle making (probably not this one…although it is a handy skill for power cuts).

(Reminder to self: online shopping doesn’t count as a hobby).

9. Go to an indoor water park.

????????????????????

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vincom Royal City shopping mall has just opened up in Hanoi and it comes complete with cinema, ice skating rink and indoor water park. There are also lots of cafes providing plenty of opportunities to fulfill number one on this list. Mmmm cake…

10. Go surfing. Yes, you heard me.

Making the most of the rain!

Making the most of the rain!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11. Go fishing in the street. That’s right.

Fishing - just be careful, you never know what might be floating in the streets of Hanoi....

Fishing – just be careful, you never know what might be floating in the streets of Hanoi….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12. Take a leaf out of Gene Kelly’s book.

Embrace the rain!

Singing in the Rain!

Singing in the Rain!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12. Rain? What rain?

Learn a lesson from the locals’, suit up in your finest poncho, tie stools to your feet (bear with me…) and continue with your life as normal. A little flooding never hurt anyone.

It can be very difficult to locate wellington boots in Hanoi... never fear! This man has the answer!

It can be very difficult to locate wellington boots in Hanoi… never fear! This man has the answer!

Don't let a little rain stop you from playing local game, 'Co' tu'o'ng'... with a few beers of course!

Don’t let a little rain stop you from playing local game, ‘Co’ tu’o’ng’… with a few beers of course!

Pretend it isn't happening and carry on regardless!

Pretend it isn’t happening and carry on regardless!

Now that is dedication!

Now that is dedication!

Teaching English in Vietnam: A Guide

2 Oct
Students in Vietnam

Students in Vietnam

Teaching English in Vietnam is fantastic and I would recommend it without hesitation. There are an abundance of jobs and the standard hourly rate is $20 per hour, often higher. In a country with such low living costs, this sort of wage can provide you with an excellent standard of living.

Despite this, when first arriving in Vietnam, I was worried that it wasn’t for me. Being honest, it can be a bit of a culture shock initially and despite loving the country, I was skeptical about actually setting up a life here. It seemed unthinkable that I would be able to find a job, flat and new friends, all in a culture so very different from home.

I can now honestly say that I have fallen in love with the place, warts and all. There are so many different opportunities that I truly believe there is something to suit everyone. Whether you are looking for short term work to extend your travel in South East Asia, or want to set up a long term career in teaching, you should definitely consider Vietnam as a location.

Practising for the school show!

Practising for the school show!

Interested, but still not sure if it’s for you? Have a read of this guide I wrote, for TEFL Jobs World.

http://www.tefljobsworld.com/country-guides-and-advice/asia/vietnam/everything-you-need-to-know-about-teaching-english-in-vietnam/

If you have any questions, please do leave a comment.

Has anyone reading taught English in Vietnam? Have you had a similar experience? Would you recommend it to others contemplating taking the plunge in to South East Asia life?

Me with one of my cute students

Me with one of my cute students

How Much is that Doggy in the Window?

12 Aug

dog meat

As a Westerner moving to Vietnam, I was very apprehensive about arriving to the country and being confronted with caged dogs on every street corner, awaiting slaughter. I also had a fear of being served dog meat by mistake or, even worse, as a cruel substitute to whichever meat I thought I was eating. While it remains popular, it is not as prevalent in day to day life as I had envisaged before arriving here. And there is certainly no chance of being served the meat ‘by accident’ or eating it unknowingly, as it is arguably the most expensive meat in Vietnam, with one kilo costing at least $10.

It isn’t illegal to eat dog in Vietnam and, actually, traditionally it is believed to bring good luck and virility to men if eaten at the end of the lunar month. In order to live in a different culture, it is imperative to accept alternative traditions and beliefs. I do understand that.

What is difficult to comprehend is the popularity of dogs as pets here in Hanoi. Throughout the city there are vast amounts of families with healthy, well looked after dogs. A popular choice is the Chihuahua – they are everywhere and can often be spotted perched proudly on the back of a speeding Honda Win. It is extremely unnerving when restaurants selling ‘Thit cho’ have three little pink-collared Chihuahuas running around on site.

dog

As a Westerner, it feels morally wrong to mix your pets with your dinner and I can’t help but shudder every time I pass a restaurant displaying barbequed dog carcass, with teeth and features still intact. However, while I won’t personally be chowing down on hind leg of dog any time soon, it is something that I must learn to co-exist alongside while living in a different culture.

That said, there is unfortunately a more pressing issue than my personal beliefs that dogs are ‘mans best friend’ – the supposedly booming trade in illegal dog smuggling, coming across the border from Thailand into Vietnam. Animal rights activists say as many as 200,000 live dogs are smuggled per year, each destined to end up on a plate in a Vietnamese restaurant.

caged dogs

Reportedly the dogs are held in inhumane conditions with up to 1,000 at a time squeezed on to the backs of lorries. Even more horrifically, a common belief suggests that fear stimulates a hormone in the dogs which improves the taste of their meat, meaning they are often intentionally held in stress cages with restricted movement. Often the dogs are bludgeoned to death and even skinned alive.

This news makes me feel significantly more justified in my feelings of physical repulsion every time I see a dead doggy for sale. It is no longer about my sheltered Western beliefs and whether it is wrong or right to eat dog meat. This is a brutal and illegal trade worth millions of dollars per year and something must be done to stop it.

Sources:
CNN World News
Soi Dog Foundation
Aljazeera News

Earning a Living in Vietnam

4 Aug

Last week, I was offered a job at a Vietnamese television production company. As I work in TV at home, I was obviously thrilled by this prospect. I hadn’t considered that there may be alternative ways to earn a living in Vietnam, other than teaching English, and was hopeful that this would open up new doors for me. Upon receiving the good news, I was very excited to accept the offer. It almost seemed too good to be true…

Then came the bad news:

‘First we need to talk to you about money…’ the production manager had said, in a leveling manner that made my heart sink a little.

Aware that the average wage in Vietnam is reported to be $185 per month (that’s around 120 English pounds) I wasn’t looking forward to the conversation regarding salary.

DONG

Explaining that all of their current staff are Vietnamese, the PM tried to soften the blow of their pending offer by padding it out with lots of explanation about pay rates in Vietnam. They made it clear that their proposal was very much a compromise – I was being presented a greatly inflated rate as a Westerner with native English speaking skills.

$300 (approx. 190 pounds) per month to work 8.30 – 5.30, 6 days a week.

That was the offer. Genuinely, it was a generous one when you consider that it is probably almost twice as much as some of their current staff. But, I couldn’t afford to accept a job that would equate to working for around $1.50 per hour (that’s around 90 pence); no matter how interesting it would sound on my CV.

This experience caused great reflection on my part about the huge pay divides between Westerners (working for Western companies or working here as native English teachers) and local Vietnamese. As I had been offered a job at a Vietnamese company, the offer was reflective of their salary budgets for the local workers. Thus, the reason why Westerners are generally not employed by local companies. Ever.

Native English teachers in Vietnam are paid a minimum wage of $20 per hour. It is no secret that foreign teachers are paid generously, earning up to ten times that of Vietnamese teachers. As the country becomes increasingly globalized, English is in huge demand and work is plentiful for foreign teachers with a face that fits. By this, I essentially mean a Caucasian face. I have seen numerous job adverts in Vietnam which state in no uncertain terms that the applicant must be of ‘European appearance’. 9 times out of 10 you are asked to submit a photograph along with your application. In fact, when offered my current teaching job, the employer was not shy about admitting they ‘liked my appearance.’ I don’t think they meant my outfit.

When I consider that I am working alongside teachers who are being paid up to 10 times less than me for their time, it makes me feel a little uncomfortable. In fairness, it’s not just my white face, I am a native English speaker which is a specialist skill in this country. Nevertheless, there is just something that doesn’t feel right about the set up. It is also a concern that this obvious pay divide strengthens the preconceptions that Vietnamese have about ‘rich foreigners’ and leads to a lot of resentment from Vietnamese teachers towards foreign teachers. In fact, I fear it leads to resentment from locals towards foreigners in general.

money

Even the best paid jobs in Vietnam still barely cover what a Westerner will pay for rent here. Workers in the finance and insurance industries have the highest average salary, at around $260 per month. Admittedly these are averages,and CEO’s of some Vietnamese companies are reported to earn around $900, but this is barely even representative of a minority of the workforce and is a very unusual salary to earn. Interestingly, large pay divides can also be found within these companies and while the CEO earns this respectable wage, administration staff in the same company will often be paid around $100-125 per month.

These low averages raise questions about how the local people afford to live. I am at a loss to understand how they fund their brand new Vespas and smart clothes. What I am perhaps not grasping, is the extent of the hugely inflated prices that we, as foreigners, pay for everything.

market

This ‘foreigner tax’ is one of my main gripes about living in Vietnam (and most who visit the country, I suspect). Westerners are charged grossly increased prices for most things here including food, taxi fares and accommodation. While I can’t help feeling cheated knowing that I have been a victim of severely hiked prices, considering the huge pay gap between Westerners and locals does soften the blow somewhat. Despite this blatant over charging, the cost of living to pay ratio still sits well in our favour. You can rent a nice room in an apartment for 200 dollars per month and a bowl of delicious street food will set you back two dollars, where it might cost a local one dollar.

Another consideration is that most young Vietnamese will stay in the family home long after they are married and have children of their own so, in actual fact, living expenses are fairly low. In no way am I advocating the huge gap in salaries, as I’m sure that living with 10 people in one home isn’t an ideal situation, just trying to get my head around it. Low living costs combined with largely deflated prices obviously serves to make living on these low wages feasible. Unfortunately feasible does not always equal comfortable.

Perhaps I am giving it too much thought. Society here has always been more focused on family than material goods. Vietnam was recently voted the second happiest country on the planet while the UK came in 41st, so something must be working. It only goes to prove that money doesn’t buy happiness.

Fishing by the lake - a nice way to earn a living

Fishing by the lake – there are worse ways to earn a living

Sources:
CNN
Report by Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs
Thanh Nien News
Happy Planet Index, New Economics Foundation

Understanding Fashion in Vietnam – Pyjamas, Ponchos and Pale Skin

26 Jul

Apart from the obvious family, friends and scampi fries; there are many other things that I very much miss about home.

I miss fashion. I miss the physical act of going shopping for clothes. I have been wearing the same six outfits for the last five months and I am beyond sick of them. I will admit that there is something enjoyable about not having to decide what to wear when you get up in the morning – at the moment, it’s a case of whatever is clean will do. But my email inbox is constantly updating with newsletters from Topshop, Urban Outfitters and ASOS and while I find it’s easier not to open them, I can’t resist torturing myself by having a look.

While trying to adopt an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude to trends back home, I couldn’t help but notice that two piece printed items are in fashion this summer. I love this look and if I were at home, this style would be a definite addition to my wardrobe.

2 piece
It turns out, however, if patterned two pieces are my thing then I have most certainly come to the right place. The Vietnamese actually have their own long-established version of this trend. The infamous Vietnamese Pyjamas.

Vietnamese PJs - Often teamed with conical hat

Vietnamese PJs – Often teamed with conical hat

Except here, it really cannot be described as a trend. Residents of most Vietnamese cities and towns have been rocking the pyjama look for years. And I’m sure they will continue to do so for many more. It is a strange sight when you first arrive to the country and the majority of women are going about their daily business, clad in what is clearly a pair of pyjamas. Admittedly, they do come in varying styles ranging from full length ‘button ups’ to matching shorts and T-shirt sets but there is no denying they are all very obviously pyjamas. Curious as to why the style is so popular, I asked a local friend and she informed me that these sets aren’t really considered to be bed wear and fall more in to the lounge wear category. I suppose they are almost the equivalent of a ‘Juicy Couture’ tracksuit back home. Oh, but wait – they DO actually sleep in them as well? So they are pyjamas? No. I’m confused.

Vietnamese PJs hanging out to dry

Vietnamese PJs hanging out to dry

The appeal of the Vietnamese pyjama set is fairly widespread but it is an even more more common sight in rural areas. The cities in Vietnam, are globalizing and developing at a fast rate and the fashion sense of the inhabitants is modernizing with it. That said, it is still very popular here in Hanoi. Generally, it is women in the ‘over 35’ age bracket that can be seen sporting a pair of jazzy nylons but it is not uncommon for younger Vietnamese to be spotted running a quick errand in a pair. The main area of difference is apparent in the socio-economic divide. Street hawkers and women working in typically lower paid jobs wear these pyjamas almost as if it were a uniform. One obvious selling point is that they are practical and comfortable and actually, the longer I spend here, the more tempted I am to indulge in a pair…

lady

Another common style favoured by Vietnamese women is the floral ‘sun jacket’, worn to shield skin and prevent it from being exposed to the sun. Since arriving here, I have learned that the most insulting thing you can say to a Vietnamese woman is that she has a nice tan (oops, made that mistake… did NOT go down well). Pale skin is considered to be of the utmost beauty and I often have people stopping me in the street to tell me how lovely my white skin is. (‘White?! How dare you. I have been working on my golden tan for weeks!’) Before buying any sort of beauty products, shower gels or face creams, you should check that they don’t have whitening agents in them. These products are everywhere. Pale skin has long standing connotations of coming from a poor background and so, women go to great lengths to avoid developing any sort of a tan. The distinguishable ‘sun jackets’ provide a capped hood and sleeve that cover the lengths of your hands, to minimize any expose to UV rays. This look is always teamed with the mandatory face mask and sunglasses. On a sunny day, literally every woman you see will be wearing a variation of this combination. How they can bear the heat is a question that begs to be asked.

This jacket, mask and glasses look is everywhere

This jacket, mask and glasses look is everywhere

Clothing and fashion customs in Vietnam can be difficult to get your head around. As the country modernizes and takes increasing influence from the West, a lot of the younger women have started to dress in very revealing outfits. They can often be seen riding around on a shiny Vespa, in patent leather stilettos and figure hugging shift dresses. Hot pants, body con mini-dresses and chiffon shirts are very common. Yet, traditionally, to wear something which reveals the tops of your shoulders is often perceived as disrespectful and this custom is often still adhered to. Confusing.

The shopping scene in Hanoi is actually becoming quite stylish but the physical act of buying clothes can be difficult. I tend to find the feeling of the sales staff literally ‘sizing you up’ to be particularly off-putting. Entering a shop to be welcomed by several employees shouting at you encouragingly – “we have big sizes!” – is not my idea of an enjoyable shopping experience. (I have also made the mistake of venturing in to a ‘locals only’ clothes shop where the owner point blank refused to serve me but more on this attitude later). The shops themselves vary in quality and style. There are some very cool boutique shops with vintage style clothes in the window but when you actually pluck up the courage to go in to the shop, the garments inside often don’t quite live up to those on the mannequins. Or even if they do, they usually only have one size available in each item – tiny size. This all leads to a fairly stressful shopping experience and therefore, I have been avoiding a big shopping trip since I got here.

The traditional 'Ao Dai' are often worn by Vietnamese women on special occasions, particularly weddings


/>Despite the modernization of fashions in Vietnam, it is still a common sight to see women wearing the traditional ‘Ao Dai’, usually for special occasions such as weddings and family parties.

Difficulties aside, it is interesting to observe how women dress in different cultures and the way in which perceptions of beauty can vary wildly from country to country. In the West, it is considered far more provocative to expose your legs in a mini skirt than your shoulders in a sleeveless T-Shirt. Similarly, while I am desperate for a tan, the women here suffer the sweltering heat in extra layers rather than have their skin go even a slight shade darker. Vietnamese women are beautiful and I wish that they would embrace the lovely skin tone that they have, rather than focusing on trying to lighten it.

One fashion item that we do agree on is that of the Poncho. It’s an essential item for RS 2013 (that’s Rainy Season 2013) and a look that, as you can see, I have embraced with open arms.

Poncho and bike helmet - It's a strong look

Poncho and bike helmet – It’s a strong look