Tag Archives: living abroad

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?

What’s Next? An Ongoing Question.

31 Oct
Palm trees of Hanoi

Palm trees of Hanoi

I am the kind of person who finds it very difficult to just ‘be’. Just exist and be happy. It is a frustrating truth that I am always thinking, ‘what’s next’. In some ways, I suppose this kind of attitude can be attributed to successful people, always striving to achieve more. In other ways, it is the attitude of a perpetually unfulfilled person, always striving to feel content. Needing more than they have.

I am not sure which category I fall into.

If I’m honest, I have been planning my next move since I first arrived here. Not satisfied with achieving my long-standing goal of living and working in Vietnam, I have been guilty of trying to put time limits on everything from the start. “How long will I stay here for?” “When should I think about booking a flight to X, Y or Z”, and so on. This is something I have longed to do for years and now that I was actually here, living it, doing it, I couldn’t help but always be looking forward to the next thing.

The way my brain works, I always feel like I have to be planning my next move. Working towards something else.

I did consider leaving Hanoi earlier and going to Australia to pursue my current career in TV. But as I had finally come to a decision to book my flight to leave in August, I started to doubt myself and all of a sudden I was overcome with love for this city. The air seemed clearer, the traffic less dangerous, the people more friendly and the beer suddenly colder.

It’s a bad habit I have, and a common one I’m sure, to always wonder if the grass will be greener.

I wonder... Is the grass greener over there?

I wonder… Is the grass greener over there?

After lots of thinking and planning, I decided that I would stay in Hanoi to work as a teacher, rather than applying for an Australian working visa. I’m glad that I made this decision as I think that leaving earlier would have been a mistake.

Working here as a teacher, it is more than feasible to work very part time hours and still make enough to money to survive on comfortably. In fact, 20 hours per week is considered to be a ‘full time’ role. I work about 10, and that is enough to survive on.

Being here has given me the time and freedom to do things that I always wanted to but never seemed to get round to doing at home. I was always too tired to go to the gym and could never find the time to do any writing. Since arriving in Hanoi, I have taken up dance classes, pilates and started writing on a daily basis.

Yet, rather than fully immerse myself in this lifestyle for the duration of my stay, I have spent a lot of my time thinking about ‘what’s next?’ I have never had so much freedom and, just as I prepare to leave, I have come to realise that I will probably never have it this easy again. So, my time in Hanoi is now coming to an end and while part of me wishes that I had been more decisive in the start and spent less time planning my next move, I am mainly just very excited about the travel plans that await me.

So, what is next?!

Well, the timing has worked out perfectly and next week I will fly from Hanoi to Hong Kong where I will meet one of my very best friends, at Hong Kong airport. Our flights land about 30 minutes apart and it’s going to be an emotional reunion. I’m talking movie montage style: slow motion, arms spread, running through the airport towards one another and throwing ourselves dramatically into a long-overdue embrace. At least that’s what I’m hoping for. Something along the lines of this:


No pressure.

Anyway, after spending a few days in Hong Kong, we have three and a half weeks to travel China. From there, Laura is going to Australia to work for six months and I will go to visit for four weeks and do some traveling. After this part of the journey is over, I return to Vietnam to say my final goodbyes before heading back to Scotland.

As much as I will be sad to close the page on this chapter, I am incredibly excited to start the next. I have always dreamed of visiting Hong Kong and I can’t wait to cuddle some pandas in Chengdu! To visit the Great Wall of China will be incredible and driving the Great Ocean Road in Australia is one to tick off my bucket list. The fact that I get to do it with one of my favourite people in the world is equally amazing.

It will be strange to be on the road with a new travel buddy. John, my boyfriend, is staying here to finish up working in Hanoi. We have spent practically every single day together this year and it will be interesting to travel with someone else. I just hope Laura can put up with my sleep talking, ridiculously bad sense of direction and embarrassingly low tolerance of local spirits.

What not so long ago, seemed like an endless year stretching out in front of me, is fast coming to an end. But before then there will be lots more to come on the China and Australia leg of the adventure. Watch this space.

If anyone has any recommendations or suggestions for traveling in China and/or Australia, I would love to hear them! Are there any places I shouldn’t miss?

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

At Home in Hanoi

20 Jul

Hanoi is an exciting place. It has a lovely old age charm to it and feels like a quintessentially Asian city, full of Pagodas and street-side vendors. This traditional setting combined with the modern buzz of an emerging youth culture who are increasingly influenced by Western societies, creates a marvelous juxtaposition of old meets new. It is currently a city undergoing change and caught between two opposing generations.

flower lady 2

The older cohort are traditionalists, clinging on to their Soviet values and supporting the 11.30pm curfew (which is enforced reasonably rigorously by the local police – don’t worry, there are ways around it). Then there are the young Vietnamese, with their iPhones, skinny jeans and K-POP inspired haircuts. With a love of anything Western, they insist on eating KFC and any other kind of fried food in favour of traditional dishes such as ‘pho ga’ and ‘bun cha’.

young vietnam

It is an interesting time to be here, for sure. Over the last five years, most bicycles have been replaced by motorized Honda Waves and shiny new Vespas. There is increasing artistic freedom, with an emerging music and arts scene that is beginning to take off and become recognized out with the confines of Hanoi. There is more foreign investment in the country and new businesses pop up frequently. This has, in turn, led to a gradually wealthier population, an increased cost of living and subsequent changing values. The city now has an ALDO and a Louis Vuitton, something that would have been completely out of place a few years ago. Slowly catching up with neighbouring countries, the demand to learn English in Vietnam is currently massive and it is a fantastic time to be a teacher here.

Crossroads in Hanoi

Crossroads in Hanoi

Having identified Vietnam as our chosen destination to teach English before actually visiting the country, I was anxious as to how we would find it. Having heard mixed reports from fellow travellers and claims that the country can be very racist and unfriendly, I was on edge as we took our taxi from Noi Ba airport into Hanoi. I needn’t have worried and after our first few hours in the Northern capital, I began to breathe a sigh of relief. Despite the craziness (or perhaps because of it?), we loved it here as soon as we arrived. The people of the North are reputed to be less welcoming than those of the South. In my experience, this is true to a certain extent. Saigon has flung open its arms to tourism and Western development while Hanoi is keen to maintain its identity. This can make the residents tougher nuts to crack and less accepting of foreigners.

Local vendors - as a foreigner, you WILL be charged a 'tourist' tax on anything you buy off of the street stalls

Local vendors – as a foreigner, you WILL be charged a ‘tourist’ tax on anything you buy off of the street stalls

Hanoi is a continual flurry of fruit vendors, bicycles, flower sellers, pyjama wearing women in conical hats, dirt cheap beer (bia hoi), street food, rickshaws, motos, street hawkers, helium balloons, windmills, bird cages and motorbike fumes.

Bia Hoi in the O

Bia Hoi in the Old Quarter

The legendary Old Quarter is a winding maze of 36 streets, intrinsically linked together and impossible to get your head around in less than a few weeks. Each street has a specialty. My particular favourites are aptly named ‘shoe street’ and ‘jewelry street’. These streets do what they say on the tin and you will find shop-front after shop-front all displaying identical wares. This theme continues throughout the city and venturing out of the Old Quarter, you can find ‘chicken street’. Yes, you guessed it – a whole street dedicated to selling barbequed chicken. All glazed with the exact same sauce and served with the exact same side of potatoes and ‘ban my’ (delicious honey glazed bread). Welcome to Asia. Whole streets of shops and stalls, steadfastly selling the exact same product. Other streets in Hanoi include guitar street, bathroom street, phone street, book street… I could go on…

Quiet Hanoi Street!

Quiet Hanoi Street!

After a couple of weeks living in a hostel in the Old Quarter, we realized that this is essentially the tourist part of town. There is so much more to Hanoi! If you come here for a limited period of a couple of days, I guess this is the place to be. But on exploration, the city just has so much more to offer. There are an abundance of lakes, parks, museums and art galleries. Each district offers something a little different to the residents.

sleepy flower

We are currently living off a main street called Au Co, in Tay Ho district. A five minute walk takes us to an array of lovely shops, delis, street food places, bia hoi stalls (organically brewed beer selling for 10p a glass) and the biggest lake in Hanoi, West Lake. When it’s not too hot, you can cycle round the lake, stopping off for lots of tra da (iced tea) on the way round. It’s about 16km in circumference and showcases a lovely side to the city.

West lake

West lake

It is difficult to find peace and quiet in Hanoi – impossible some will tell you. West Lake offers a fairly relaxed setting, in a city where it can be difficult to hear yourself think. Although, even beside the more relaxed setting of the lake, there’s no getting away from the incessant beeping of motorbike horns. It is deafening at times and I still find myself losing my temper at the occasional innocent passers-by.

Sometimes it is necessary to escape the constant craziness, the threat of death from oncoming vehicles and simply breathe air that isn’t thick with motorbike fumes. The beauty of Hanoi is that it is possible to do this quite easily. There are lots of national parks and areas of outstanding beauty within a couple of hours drive out of the city. Recommended trips include Mai Chau and Ba Vi National Park, both of which can be reached in a few hours.

Road trip to Ba Vi

Road trip to Ba Vi

There are lots of things about Hanoi and its people that I don’t understand and probably never will. But, I am OK with that and have learned to accept the city for what it is. I have even managed to master crossing the road which basically requires you to walk in front of oncoming traffic at an even pace and watch them miraculously shape shift around you. I still can’t help but shudder when I pass ‘Thit Cho stalls’ (barbequed dog meat) and I shake my head in disbelief every time I see a family of five whizz past me on a motorbike at break neck speed, with only the children wearing no helmets. But this is Hanoi, and the longer I spend here, the more I grow to love it… the more it feels like home.

Hanoi Photographs

Our street

Our street

Hanoi roadside hairdresser!

Hanoi roadside hairdresser!

Hoan Kiem Lake (or 'sword lake') by night

Hoan Kiem Lake (or ‘sword lake’) by night

John having a bia hoi in the Old Quarter

John having a bia hoi in the Old Quarter

Me by Hoan Kiem Lake

Me by Hoan Kiem Lake

Trip to Mai Chau

Trip to Mai Chau

Old Quarter

Old Quarter

M

New friends!