AS A REMINDER, I LEFT MY LIFE IN THE UK TO START A NEW LIFE IN VIETNAM. I’M A 40 YEAR OLD WOMAN WHO IS FEELING THE FEAR AND DOING IT ANYWAY
When I first arrived in Vin Phuc, I felt incredibly relieved
I hadn’t realised that I’d been holding onto my body in such an uptight way, when I suddenly found myself with space around me I allowed myself to relax. It was an ‘Ahhhhh’ moment. My first impressions were that the air smelled sweet, there was lots of greenery and lakes, the roads were well looked after and quiet, and there were big wide pavements for me to walk on – what a treat.
On my first afternoon I ventured out of my hotel to the streets nearby. There was a typical Vietnamese park opposite, which comprises of kids playgrounds, small platforms (similar in shape to the bandstands we use to have in our parks in the UK years ago before the councils knocked them all down) and exercise machines.
We have these machines in our parks but they’ve never really taken off have they – perhaps it’s because we’re too self-conscious, and also because it’s mainly raining? Anyway, the parks in Vietnam are well used by everyone, not just families and children. It’s not uncommon to see big groups of men or women doing their daily workout at the park.
A fish out of water… again
There are no Westerners here. The following day when I ventured into town, I was greeted with strange stares and double takes. When I walked down a street filled with people outside cafes drinking coffee it was like a tumbleweed was passing through, the chatting stopped, everyone turned to look as I heavily put one foot in front of the other to get to where I was going – not that I even knew of course. It was very unsettling, once again I put my head down and felt like a fish out of water. What was I doing here again?
The hotel where I was to stay for five days turned into something similar to a satirical horror/Soviet spy film. It had such a creepy feeling about it. I’m not sure if it was because there was barely anyone there, or whether it was something more. The rooms themselves were really nice, spacious and clean and with enormous balconies. It was an architecturally grand affair with large pillars, possibly built in the eighties – it had an enormous banqueting room for around 300 people and a swimming pool overlooking a lake! Unfortunately the pool was empty and had been for some years I was told.
The first morning I wondered what to do about breakfast, there was no information in the rooms at all about anything, not even house rules. As usual I was starving, I hadn’t eaten since leaving Hanoi the previous lunchtime. I tried my luck downstairs. I walked into the banqueting room and it was completely empty.
The hotel staff spoke no English whatsoever – and why would or should they? But this is our conversation through Google translate.
“Please can I have some breakfast?”
“Hmmmm no we don’t have any.”
“But I’m very hungry.”
“Ok ok ok.”
He leads me into the banqueting rooms.
“I’m vegetarian.” (they have no word for vegan here)
“Ok we don’t have anything.”
“Don’t you have any bread?”
“Ok ok ok I’ll get you some bread.”
He walks off and comes back 10 minutes later
“We don’t have any bread. Would you like some chicken eggs?”
At this point I just though ‘yeah go on then’, I need something. Also, just to point out the hotel isn’t near any amenities or shops etc. I was desperate.
He walks off and comes back in ten minutes.
“We don’t have any eggs.”
Motivated by hunger I ran upstairs, grabbed my bag and got out of there. I had seen on Google maps that there was a vegan buffet half an hour away. I walked past many French colonial government mansions with trimmed lawns and guard dogs, and I came to a gigantic manmade lake. These are all over Vietnam. This one was much cleaner than others I’d seen and also the feeling that it was there for leisure, for entertainment, for fun. There were decrepit marble steps surrounding a good part of it, similar to those in an auditorium, a place to sit and watch, but it was all overgrown with weeds. In the distance I could see some bird shaped love boats on the water.
All of this puzzled me. There was nobody around, nobody anywhere, just the odd motorbike flying past – who sat on these enormous marble steps? Who used these love boats? It reminded me in many ways of Blackpool but without the melancholy, more just a feeling of historically good times.
Another day another vegan buffet
I arrived at the Vegan Buffet and what a sight to behold it was. The waitress showed me a text on Google translate which said: “Hello woman coming food first time – you are very welcome here.” Small little gestures like this mean so much in a foreign land. The buffet was amazing. It’s hard for me to describe as I’m still not sure what many of the things they are.
It included battered pineapple, baby corn and sweet potatoes. Ten different flavours of tofu. Bamboo shoot salads. Marinated aubergines and peppers. Five kinds of rice. Stews, soups and dumplings. The cost is 60K which is £1.90 – pricey for Vietnam actually.
Served alongside is soya milk or corn water, or you can buy non-alcoholic beers – something I’ve always considered completely pointless. If you’re going to have a drink that’s not alcoholic then make it something tasty surely? Corn water is surprisingly tasty, it’s made with sweetcorn and I’m not sure how, but it has a delicate sweetness to it that’s both wholesome and refreshing. I go to this buffet now most days – I mean what’s the point in cooking when I have this on my doorstep…
Is it the eighties?
When I arrived at my new teaching centre I was quite surprised, it’s at a mall. Malls are a very big deal in Vietnam. They are the place to be, and to be seen. Capitalism in Vietnam reminds me of the eighties in the UK and rest of the Western world – business is booming, upwardly mobile is the word I’d use for much of the population (in the cities at least anyway), and these guys want the brands and gadgets that reflect this.
Although, and this is where it gets complicated, in my inexperienced eyes as least anyway – there are really big super malls that are modern and clean and high-tech and selling all of the top brands, and then there are malls that are reminiscent of The Arndale in Manchester before it was rebuilt. Crumbling, filthy and selling second rate and fake goods, but these malls also seem to be equally respected, and by everyone – all classes. You guessed it, I’m working at the latter. Weirdly though, I really like it there. The other strange thing that I don’t understand is that a lot of these goods, for example fake Gucci watches let’s say, are clearly fake and made in China, yet they are really expensive – and people buy them. I’m wondering if people know they’re fake or not – anyway welcome to my mind….
Ups and downs
My first week of teaching has been a rollercoaster. I’ve had good days and I’ve had terrible days – when I thought about quitting. I’m teaching mainly 4-6 year olds and god they are so cute, but managing 16 children who don’t speak English is a real challenge. You’ve just convinced one boy to put his clothes back on and you turn around and two others are rolling around on the floor, another is eating crisps and spilling milk everywhere and another is boxing another one around the head – that’s while three other children are crying for no particular reason, and one has left the room without asking. Having said that, it is so rewarding to see them learn and know that you’ve influenced this. And small children are so funny, the things they say and the things they find funny, I’d kind of forgotten that. Anyway the journey continues.
And now down to business. The last few days here have been awful for various reasons…
I agreed to stay in the accommodation provided by the company that I work for, and I agreed to share it with another teacher, even though I’ve never house shared in my life and didn’t really want to. Anyway, I said I’d do it temporarily while I got settled.
As I packed my bags and ordered a taxi from my hotel to my new home I was feeling excited – the next step in my story, and after four separate accommodations over the last month I was looking forward to being able to unpack properly and at least start to (hopefully) feel a bit more settled.
Hmmm what do you sell exactly?
That excitement soon disappeared when we arrived at the accommodation. The only thing I can compare it to is like a scene from inner city Manchester, Moss Side perhaps. Lots of high rise flats, building rubble and rats on the streets, cockroaches in the stairwell, and weird filthy little shops selling a range of things that one would never need. Similar to the corner shops we used to have in the UK before supermarkets and online shopping took over. Musty shelves with out of date food and cosmetics and hundreds of bright coloured sweets and cheap plastic toys.
I should add that the weather had taken a turn and whilst it was still 26 degrees, it was very overcast, now reminding me of the UK at its worst. This cast a grey tinge over what was already a both physically and psychologically grey scene. “When we will see the sun again?” I asked a fellow teacher – ‘Oh not for a few months now’…
When I actually saw inside the apartment I was somewhat relieved. It was bright and spacious and modern, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like housing in the UK or could I ever compare it to my beloved canalside apartment, but it was OK. More importantly my new flatmate, Stephanie, is one of the sweetest people I have ever met. I’m not sure what I would have done without her over the past week, she has been so kind to me and helped me out whenever she could.
I don’t yet have a motorbike yet and this a massive cause of frustration for me. Places are walkable, but it’s boiling, it’s hard to cross the road, and there’s stray dogs everywhere so I’m not really inclined to walk. In the UK if you want to buy something you can just go and buy it, well that’s not the case here. There’s nothing online advertising anything, not even shops, you have to go to a shop and kind of work out what they sell. Anyway, I’ve been taking taxis everywhere.
Not a nice experience
A couple of nights ago I flagged a taxi down after work to take me home. I knew something was up as he shouted the name of my apartment to other taxi drivers and also called someone on the phone and I heard him say it again. He also drove like a lunatic, with no respect for other drivers and honking his horn the whole way (in a horrible decaying gold tiny rust bucket), it was really stressful. When we got to my apartment I looked at the meter and paid him.
“No you must give me more”
I pointed at the meter
He then turned the meter to zero and locked the doors. He was shouting at me.
No give me more..
I was trying to ram the door open but there was nothing I could do.
I started to panic
I started shouting ‘Stephanie’ really loud out of the window and I told him I was going to phone the police.
A man came over who could hear all of the commotion and they both started laughing at me.
At this point I went nuts and started crying, I felt really unsafe.
I didn’t know what to do.
I would have paid him the money just to get out of the car, but I didn’t have it on me.
I told him this he just kept saying ‘no, no, no’.
I was in a real panic, I felt so vulnerable and outraged and in disbelief.
I rang stephanie and asked her to come down and pay him.
He kept turning around and continued shouting, and laughing, and waving money at me.
This went on for about ten minutes.
Superwoman Stephanie turned up on a moped with the money and a Vietnamese man and woman. They challenged him about what he was doing and he said that he’d never had the meter on and that we’d agreed that price.
He still wouldn’t let me get out of the car but I could see that he was beginning to feel shifty and a bit nervous now that these other Vietnamese people were involved.
He opened the doors.
I almost fell out of the car and walked over to the building rubble and rats (there are massive rats everywhere) and just sat down on a bench in the squalor that surrounds my apartment and cried, and I couldn’t stop. Tears streaming down my face
‘I want to go home’ I thought, ‘I really want to go home. I hate this place, so uncivilised, so tedious, so pointless’.
Not the norm
I don’t really think any of those things. I was just in shock at being locked in a car, something which has never happened to me before, I’ve never been locked in anywhere. I felt so oppressed and powerless and vulnerable. I’ve heard about these taxi experiences before, they’re not uncommon in Vietnam with expats. I got over it eventually. This is the only experience of this nature that I’ve had since I’ve been here, sure I’ve been ripped off a few times with purchases but I’m not really bothered as whatever price I pay for things it’s still cheap to me, it’s to be expected in a poor country. Generally Vietnamese people are, as I said in my previous post, gentle and kind and all have shown me kindness since I’ve been here.
The hospital beckons
The following morning when I woke up I couldn’t see through my right eye. I looked in the mirror – damn my whole eye was swollen and it was tender and it looked horrible. It felt like the last straw – I couldn’t take any more. The lump in my throat returned. I went to the hospital (again taken by Superwoman Stephanie) and apparently I had been bitten by something, they said a butterfly but I think not, the translator couldn’t actually speak much English. They prescribed me some antibiotic eye drops and it now seems to be clearing.
Some thoughts this week have been that I just want to buy a bike, rent an apartment, top up my phone, and I can’t do any of these things without help. It’s a very strange situation for me as I’ve always been fiercely independent throughout my life and it takes some getting used to. Of course, when I learn Vietnamese everything will get easier and I’ve already asked someone to tutor me so will see how that goes.
I’ve been here a month now, I expect for those in the UK it will feel like I’ve only been gone a few days, for me, I feel like I left a lifetime ago.
My thoughts this week have been: ‘I don’t want to be here, I do want to be here, I don’t want to be here, I do want to be here.’ Everyday is different. I never think about returning to the UK, my thoughts turn to India and Rishikesh.
Who knows where this story will go next – today is a good day and I feel like I will stay here, but who knows what tomorrow will bring…
Much love to you all – each and every single person who reads any of my posts – I’m eternally grateful and humbled xxxxx
P.s Generally our apartment doesn’t have cockroaches, although last night one which was the size of a small mammal was waiting for us in the bathroom when we got home. Superwoman Stephanie comes to the rescue once again!