By my reckoning, that’s the exact amount of time I’ve spent in Vietnam. I’ve been in and out of the country a few times since I first moved here in February 2013, but from the stamps in my passport it was easy to count the days and come up with 382 – and the number isn’t likely to increase by the time you read this, as I’m boarding a plane back to the UK this evening.
Ah, Vietnam. To many people, the name is still closely associated with a poorly-understood war that ended 39 years ago, and not much else before or since. Mention the country and the first, and possibly only, thing people picture will be camoed-up GIs sweating in the jungle, Huey helicopters blasting Ride of the Valkyries and William Dafoe throwing his hands in the air as he’s shot in the back.
Not too long ago, I was one of those people. The only thing I knew about Vietnam was that I barely knew anything about it, and I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I first stepped off the plane at Tan Son Nhat International Airport, Ho Chi Minh City.
Partly I was too busy reeling in surprise from the turn of events that had brought me here in the first place. I’d been making grandiose travel plans for years but never taking much action to achieve them, and Vietnam was never particularly high on my list of countries to visit. I ended up here pretty much by accident – but what an accident it’s been, and I wouldn’t trade the last 15 months of my life for anything.
After 382 days, I’m leaving for no other reason than I feel like I’ve been here long enough, and I fancy a change. After a brief visit home, my next destination will be Berlin – but it’s certainly not my last destination, and I’m excited about the future.
One thing’s for sure: I will definitely be back.
So in the vein of my 2012 and 2013 roundups, here’s another multi-thousand-word outpouring of all the things I want to say about this latest chapter of my life. May the brain-dump commence:
Sài Gòn đẹp lắm, Sài Gòn ơi, Sài Gòn ơi!
Ho Chi Minh City is the new name for Saigon (written “Sài Gòn” if you’re Vietnamese, or pedantic), and the old name is still in common usage, for example in the classic Vietnamese nationalist song “Sài Gòn Đẹp Lắm”, whose title means “Saigon is very beautiful”. I find this ironic, because for all of the city’s positive qualities, beauty is definitely not one of them. It’s a loud, dirty, polluted sprawl of concrete and chipped paint, full of potholes, flashing lights and tangled telephone wires, and not for the faint of heart. I love it.
And it’s big. Even from a mile in the air as you fly in, the city stretches to the horizon in every direction. 100 years ago it was just an insignificant little fishing town on the farthest reaches of the French empire, but today it’s the 44th largest city in the world, and its explosive population growth isn’t showing any sign of slowing down.
If you’re not a fan of big, bustling conurbations, then I wouldn’t touch Saigon with a 10-foot punji stick, but as someone who grew up in an uneventful market town in the heart of middle England, I can’t get enough of the big city vibe. Saigon is fast-paced, energetic and full of excitement, and those are three things I want to be myself, so it’s a good environment to be soaking up.
Vietnam has been through a lot of hardship since the war ended (not to mention during it), but things have turned around recently to say the least. After a disastrous decade of recession, stagnation and hyperinflation, in 1986 the Communist Party adopted its policy of doi moi (renovation) and set rolling the first few snowballs of growth that today have developed into an avalanche.
Much like China, but on a lesser scale, Vietnam has seen an explosion of development in the last few years, and we’re only at the beginning. It’s written on Saigon’s skyline. Parts of the city feel like one big construction site, and all the tallest buildings are only a few years old. I’d love to set up a timelapse camera in the empty land on the outskirts, come back in 2018, play the tape back at high speed and watch the fields erupt into skyscrapers.
Vietnam is still a poor country in a relative sense – I’m reminded of this when I get out of the big city and into rural areas – but the future trends are looking good. It’s just one part of the gigantic shift in power from West to East that’s going to define the 21st century, and it’s been exciting to be in the middle of it.
Of course, some would argue that the current growth is unsustainable. And the Communist Party might be doing a good job with the economy, but… well, as much as I’d love to carry on with that thread, I don’t want to harm my chances of getting back into the country one day, so for now I’ll keep my mouth shut.
(The book Vietnam: Rising Dragon is an interesting read if you want to learn about Vietnam’s uncertain future and the challenges that the Communist Party is going to face if it wants to keep its grip on power. But it’s banned in Vietnam so of course I haven’t read it. Ahem.)
Notable attractions in Saigon include the Reunification Palace (untouched since NVA tanks came crashing through its gates in 1975), the Cu Chi tunnels just outside the city, the hilariously one-sided War Remnants Museum (which was originally called the “Museum of American Atrocities”, and contains plenty of information about the My Lai Massacre but not a whisper about the Massacre at Hue), and, just down the road from my house, the Thich Quang Duc Memorial – constructed on the spot where the Buddhist monk and noted Rage Against the Machine fan Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death in protest against the religious persecution of his people. (Although I like to think it was because he’d seen a vision of Tom Morello’s guitar playing while meditating, and the sheer badassery of the riffs made him spontaneously combust.)
I’d set myself on fire for the chance to be on a Rage Against the Machine album
As a British man, it’s not often that I can travel to the developing world and be in a country that was fucked up by someone other than my direct ancestors. I used to think Vietnam would be one of those rare places, but then I picked up a history book. Turns out that, while we weren’t the lead villain in the story, the UK wasn’t exactly a neutral bystander either in the tumultuous history of 20th-century Indochina.
As Nazi troops were rolling into Paris in 1940 and hanging a Swastika flag from the the Arc De Triomphe, the Japanese were busy smashing their European enemies in Southeast Asia – driving the British out of Malaysia, the Dutch out of Indonesia, and the French out of Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina, the three territories that roughly cover the area of modern Vietnam.
Five years later, after inflicting untold suffering on their new subjects, including facilitating a famine in the north that killed as many as 2 million people, the Japanese were vanquished at home, and in the power vacuum that followed, many among Vietnam’s burgeoning independence movement reasonably believed that their time had come.
Sadly, the old powers of Europe weren’t so keen on that idea. After losing so much in their home terrorities, they’d be damned if they were going to let their foreign possessions slip away too, and if French Indochina gained its independence, what kind of precedent would that set for the rest of the colonies? But the French army was too crushed to take back Vietnam on its own, so it fell to the British and Chinese to restore order, setting back Ho Chi Minh’s ambitions of independence by another 30 years (which, incidentally, was six years longer than Ho himself lived to see).
It’s been interesting to learn that Allied heroes like Churchill and de Gaulle, at the same time they were fighting valiantly to protect Europe from the conquerous ambitions of an aggressive imperial power, were also expending a lot of energy on protecting their own countries’ imperial interests, apparently without seeing any double standard. The hypocrisy is staggering, and it’s added new colour to my ever-developing understanding of World War II.
In fairness, I suppose that criticising men from the 1940s for being imperialists is like criticising men from the 1640s for having bad teeth. I wonder how many of the things we all believe unquestionably today will be seen as barbaric by our own great-grandchildren? Probably most of them, assuming that we don’t manage to wipe ourselves out in World War III or IV before our great-grandchildren have a chance to be born.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I immersed myself in Vietnam’s history in the last year, and I’m extremely glad I did. I’d view the city and the country so differently if I hadn’t taken the time to learn as much as I could about what made things the way they are. Like learning the language (much more on that later), it’s been a lot of effort but the payoff has been huge.
The main reason I learned all this is because I couldn’t bear not to. Saigon is dripping with history, and living here made me acutely aware of my ignorance in a lot of important areas. There’s just no way I could have spent 15 months here without working to fix that ignorance.
My friend James wrote a very cool blog post about this, seeking out the locations of iconic photos taken in Saigon and finding out what they look like today. When it comes to everything I’ve learned about Vietnam and the world in the last year, I can’t put it any better than his final paragraph:
There are many places in Ho Chi Minh City which make me think about what these streets have seen. And there is not a day that goes by when I don’t think about how easy my life is.
It’s all Jon’s fault.
I’m talking about Jon Myers, former punk rocker, current web designer, friend of mine and all-round badass. About two years ago, he posted a piece on the DC, followed by a post on Medium, about why he loved living in Saigon, inviting his fellow entrepreneurs and nomads to come and check out the city for themselves. A few people took the bait, which turned into a few more people, which turned into an influx of entrepreneurial expats by the 747-load, and now Saigon is bursting at the seams with MacBook-wielding weirdos (I mean that in a good way) seeking to conquer the world over coffee shop WiFi.
At the weekly “Paleo Power Breakfast”, one of my favourite staples of Saigon life.
So much has been written about this already and I can barely add to the tons of great articles already out there. The short version of the story is this: if you want to start on online business, join the ever-growing ranks of Four Hour Work Week-reading lifestyle entrepreneurs and “digital nomads” (a term I hate but have yet to find a better alternative to), or just generally be surrounded by cool and inspiring people who are doing interesting work that matters, you can hardly pick a better place to be than Ho Chi Minh City.
I’m writing this from the top floor of a café overlooking a busy intersection 5 minutes from the city centre. I’ve spent hundreds if not thousands of hours over the past year holed up in places like this hacking away on my laptop, trying to create something I’m proud of. Many of those hours, I’ve been sat a table full of my fellow workaholics, all slogging away on our various projects, helping each other out and keeping each other in check. It’s a self-help cliché that if you want to make a change in your life, you need to surround yourself with people who are on the same path, but it’s a cliché because its true, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of it in the last year.
Saigon coffee shop, or Apple Store? Sometimes I can’t tell the difference.
My entrepreneur friends are all extremely unusual people, but that’s not a criticism. What’s funny is that, despite being several standard deviations away from the norm, we’re mostly all weird in the same ways. If you like to read about offshoring and sleep hacking over a cup of bulletproof coffee whilst waiting for your IF window to open so you can eat some paleo food, then doing a speed test in your coworking space and writing an SOP for your VA – and if the previous sentence made any sense to you whatsoever, you’re going to fit right in here.
After my last post about dropping out of uni and moving to Vietnam became somewhat of a hit, plenty of people have emailed me wanting to know more, and asking questions. My answer is always the same: if you’re thinking about moving here and getting involved, just do it. It’s easier than you’d believe, and if you’re seeking what I’m describing, it’s practically impossible to hang around here and not get involved in the scene. Hell, I’ll put you in touch with some friends if you want. I’m sure they’d be happy to help; in fact that’s how I ended up here myself.
I shouldn’t single out the entrepreneurs. They’re actually the minority here; most expats are English teachers or work for foreign corporations. Expats are a diverse group, but the one thing they have in common is that they tend to to be pretty cool people, and that’s saying nothing of the 99.9% of Saigon’s population who didn’t grow up in another country, and who have just as much you can learn from as your fellow globetrotters. The community here is fantastic and it’s what I’m going to miss the most.
Above all, if there’s one thing I’ve gained from my time here, it’s a sense of opportunity, possibility, and excitement. I still don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life, but the picture it’s the clearest it’s ever been, and I’m feeling optimistic.
My time in Saigon has been one of growth, education, adventure, exploration, mentorship and freedom.
In other words, it’s been everything that university should have been but wasn’t.
And as I pack my bags, I dig my old student card out of a drawer and notice that it expires on June 6th, 2014 – tomorrow. In other words, I’m (completely unintentionally) returning home from Vietnam on the exact same day that I’d be graduating if I’d stuck it out with my bachelor’s degree. Which of those two experiences would have been the most valuable? It’s not even close.
After I accepted the offer to come to Vietnam, the first thing I did was to open up my laptop, type “learn Vietnamese” into Google and start teaching myself some basic phrases. (Here’s the first video that I ever watched, if I remember correctly.) In the weeks before I left, the language became an obsession.
I studied from a textbook I bought off Amazon, downloaded a ton of audio courses, and installed Anki on my phone for memorising vocabulary. I had a few lessons via Skype with teachers I found on iTalki, and I even managed to meet up with some Việt Kiều in Manchester who graciously taught me some of their language for free. (Thanks guys!)
So by the time I arrived, my Vietnamese level was low, but I had a solid grasp of the fundamentals and could communicate in basic situations.
Turns out that this meant I spoke better Vietnamese before I even arrived in Vietnam than most foreigners who’ve lived here for upwards of two years.
I gradually lost my interest in studying and haven’t made active effort to improve my Vietnamese for months, although I still use it often enough to maintain the level I have. These days, my Vietnamese is still very far from fluent. By the CEFR ranking system I’d say I’m an A2.
That being said, I still speak better Vietnamese than almost any other foreigner I know. I say that not to brag about how smart I am, but to illustrate how low the bar is set. If you can count to ten, know the words for “big”, “small”, “hot” and “cold”, and know what “nguoi nuoc ngoai” in the title of this post means, you are easily in the top 5% of Saigon expats.
I don’t mean this a criticism; I’m just telling it like it is. Everyone has different priorities, and it’s so easy to get by here without learning Vietnamese that I can see why so many people do just that. If there’s anything I feel towards Saigonese Anglophones I guess it would be sadness, because they don’t know what they’re missing.
My low level of Vietnamese has completely transformed my time here, and I can’t imagine how differently I’d see Vietnam if I hadn’t made the effort. It’s opened up the country and its people to me in a way I couldn’t have got anywhere else, and has led to more memorable experiences and conversations than I can count. I have no idea why anyone would want to live somewhere without making an effort to learn the language, and I don’t plan on doing it for any future countries I spend more than a few weeks in.
Out in the middle of nowhere with my Brazilian buddy Felipe, our mutual friend Dang, and her younger sister (or cousin? I don’t remember). Felipe and I are possibly the only English speakers in a 100-mile radius.
This was really hammered home for me when I left Vietnam – to Thailand and Cambodia, twice each – and had to start using English again for everything. I hate speaking English when I’m in a non-English-speaking country – it feels like a there’s an invisible barrier between me and everyone I talk to, dehumanising our interaction and blocking our chances of making a connection. If you think this barrier exists only in my head, and is only there because I expect it to be, you’re probably a monoglot.
People ask me all the time how I managed to learn Vietnamese “so quickly”, which baffles me because I’ve easily been living here long enough to become fluent and my level isn’t impressive in the slightest. My answer is always “because I actually studied it,” which most people haven’t, and which doesn’t seem like much of an “a-ha!” to me, but apparently it’s a revelation to some people.
99% of discussion about Vietnamese is about how “difficult” it is (the Vietnamese themselves are very proud of this and happy to remind you of it), which means that beginning learners usually receive nothing but discouragement. I always try and provide some of the opposite. Really I don’t think Vietnamese is as difficult as everyone keeps saying. The only difficult thing is the pronunciation – everything else, especially the grammar, is laughably easy.
With six tones and a plethora of strange consonants and vowels that aren’t close to anything we have in English, the pronunciation is challenging at first, and it stops most people dead in their tracks. But the fact that it’s seen as such an insurmountable barrier says less, in my opinion, about the inherent difficulties of Vietnamese itself than it does about the disastrously broken way that languages are taught in school, where they’re treated like academic subjects (presented in the most boring manner imaginable) instead of what they really are, which is a physical skill. I’ve never taken a single classroom lesson in Vietnamese and would never waste my time with them for any language. But I’ll save the rest of that for another post.
Speaking good Vietnamese is so rare among foreigners here that it can actually get you on TV – as is the case with Canadian Joe Ruelle (aka Dâu Tây), who’s been living in Vietnam since 2002 and (so I’ve been told) speaks Hanoi Vietnamese indistinguishably from a native. I actually met Joe randomly in a café in Saigon a few months ago, which is a pretty weird coincidence when you consider that he’s literally the only remotely famous person in all of Vietnam whose existence I’m aware of, or who I’d have recognised if he sat down next to me.
This was one of maybe only five times in my entire time here that I’ve spoken Vietnamese with another white person. It always feels a little bit surreal.
I must confess though, if there’s one thing I did that accelerated my language learning it was, clichéd as it is, to date a Vietnamese girl for five months. She spoke fluent English, but for some reason we almost never used it, and communication was not a strong point in our relationship. My Vietnamese certainly improved though.
Disclaimer: This worked for me but I make no guarantee that it will work for you, because pretty much all my straight male friends here have dated local girls, and none of them speak any Vietnamese.
My coworkers have been a big help too, and at this point I’d like to publicly thank Hien, Trung, Khoi, and the rest of the gang for all the useful vocabulary and phrases they’ve taught me, including but not limited to “shut the fuck up”, “fuck off you cunt”, “I don’t give a shit”, “I hope you die of lung cancer” and, of course, “you were born because the condom broke.” I’ll miss your banter, you wordsmiths you. Á đù!
It’s not just my non-native languages that have been affected by the past year. My native one has been shaken up too, mainly as a result of spending too much time hanging out with Americans, Canadians, Australians, Irishmen, New Zealanders and South Africans, or with non-native speakers who learned American English in school. Most of them don’t understand me if I ask where the bin is, if the post has arrived, where I put my mobile or if anybody has seen my trousers, so the American alternatives have been gradually infecting my speech to a point which would really irritate my grandparents.
(Incidentally, where in sod’s name are my trousers? I think I left them with my trainers in the petrol station next to the dual carriageway on my way from the chippy to the offy. They had my fags in the pocket. Bollocks!).
I wasted my childhood watching Cartoon Network, so I thought I was pretty clued up on all the, like, totally awesome ways Americans, like, speak differently, dude, but there have been more than a few times this year when I had no idea what the other person was saying. Memorable head-scratchers include “having a conniption fit”, “we got dipped”, “clutch” used an adjective, “a game of telephone” (turns out this is the American name for Chinese Whispers), and “erb”, which I eventually realised is how Americans pronounce the word “herb”. Bloody hell mate!
In the opposite direction, words and phrases I have confused people with recently include “done and dusted”, “I can’t be bothered/arsed/fucked”, “taking the piss”, “taking a slash”, “I’m not too fussed”, and my personal favourite (or should that be favorite?), “Bob’s your uncle”. “Who’s Bob?” was the reaction I got the first time I said that. I had no idea how to explain.
And no, when I say something “isn’t my cup of tea”, that doesn’t mean I’m literally searching for a cup of tea. Stop overthinking this.
Anyway, two weeks from now I’ll be in Germany. Time to lernen some Deutsch!
Every teenage boy has at some point asked his parents if he can get a motorbike. As the son of two medical doctors – one of whom works in a spinal injuries unit full of former bikers in wheelchairs – I never had much chance of my wish being granted.
Well, Vietnam is possibly the most two-wheeled country in the world, so four years out of my teens I’ve finally scratched the motorbike itch. And to any teenage boys reading this, I have a message your parents don’t want you to hear (actually, I have several of those) – motorbikes are awesome! They’re dangerous, reckless, stupid, and potentially catastrophic, but, like guns, that doesn’t make them any less fun to use. Try this at home, and while you’re at it, run with scissors and stare directly at the sun.
But definitely wear sunscreen.
Like the language, you don’t need a motorbike if you live here, but you’re missing out if you don’t have one. I walked or got taxis everywhere for my first three months, but when I finally got around to renting a bike, I immediately regretted not getting one in my first week, because the city suddenly quadrupled in size.
Everyone’s first comment when they get here is how crazy the traffic looks, but once you’re out in the middle of it, you find that there’s a method to the madness. Saigon is actually an extremely easy city to get around – one of the easiest I’ve been in. The traffic is always flowing, and I can usually get on my bike and be anywhere I need to go in under ten minutes. That’s just one of many freedoms I’ve found in Vietnam that are hard to find back home, and I’m going to miss it.
(Also, if you think the air in Saigon is polluted, wait until you get into the middle of a crowded highway and you’re surrounded on all sides by rickety old rustbuckets blowing carbon monoxide in your face! No wonder everybody wears face masks.)
Last July I got invited on a road trip to the mountain town of Da Lat, which is possibly the only place I’ve been in all of Vietnam where I can remember feeling cold. From Saigon it’s an eight-hour drive, but we stretched it out to a day and a half with frequent stops and sightseeing:
Not to mention occasional roadblocks:
Taking a long trip by bike is a completely different experience to taking the same trip on four wheels – there’s no more vivid way to soak up your environment and the countryside. One of my few regrets from Vietnam is that I didn’t explore the country more, and at some point I definitely want to come back and make a longer motorbike trip. Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh sounds like a reasonable goal. Looking forward to it.
Tạm biệt and hẹn gặp lại
I’ve just written 4,500 words on Vietnam and I could probably write another 4,500 more, but I’ll save that for my next visit. I have no idea when that will be, but fingers crossed, it will happen. (Just don’t cross your fingers when you’re in Vietnam, because the gesture is considered offensive here.) I could happily stay here longer, but when I think long-term I know it’s time to move on, and I’m feeling pretty ready to leave.
Two weeks from now I’ll be in Berlin; in August I’ll be visiting Lithuania and maybe some of the other Baltic states, I imagine I’ll be back in the UK for Christmas (just as long as I don’t have to give or receive any presents), then who knows? If all goes according to plan though, my travels are very far from over, and Vietnam will have been just the first in many chapters. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my adventure, and I can’t begin to express the gratitude I feel to those who made it possible.
Now, off to catch my flight!