Wednesday, 2 November 2011

How to appreciate Vietnam... while you're still here

This post first appeared as a column in AsiaLIFE Ho Chi Minh City magazine.

When I arrived in Vietnam, filled with notions of my imminent cultural assimilation and fluency in the native tongue, I looked at most expats who had been here for a while with outright disdain. Why had they moved to Vietnam, I wondered, to socialize only with other foreigners and eat pizza?

I am now that expat. I’m probably eating pizza right now. And it tastes like mozzarella and self-loathing.

While I have all kinds of excellent, convincing excuses for why I’ve become the exact stereotype that I so scorned, if I could have my time again, I’d do it differently. For example, rather than just learning the Vietnamese expression for “I am studying Vietnamese”, I would actually, you know, study Vietnamese.

It’s not that I think my life here is in any way deficient. It’s more that when I meet newly-arrived expats now, I can’t stand being on the other end of those disdainful looks. “You’re looking at your future, Sonny Jim”, I say. And then I take a swig of whiskey to hide the pain.

I have noticed another kind of expat regret too. It’s the one where the expat leaves Vietnam and then posts Facebook status updates from their home country like “Wish I was drinking a cà phê sữa đá right now!!!” or “Missing my motorbike ride to work!!! :(” Exclamation marks are compulsory; sad face emoticons are optional. 

That’s odd, I think to myself. I seem to recall that very same expat, when they were still in Vietnam, whinging about how they couldn’t get a decent coffee in this country, and how their motorbike commute was a daily near-death experience.

And so like the circle of life, and the turning seasons, and karma, and the cosmos, and that Justin Timberlake song “What Goes Around Comes Around”, I, the disdained, get to disdain again. Read my contemptuous lips: I will not become one of those rose-coloured regretters who use too many exclamation marks!!!

I’m not going to achieve this by being down on Vietnam. This column might make me sound mean spirited, but I’m not that mean spirited.

Instead, I decided to email everyone I know who had left the country and ask them, from the perspective afforded by being back in their homeland, what they now missed about Vietnam. I figured this was a way of averting the you-don’t-know-what-you’ve-got-til-it’s-gone syndrome and ensuring I appreciate the best things about Vietnam, while I’m actually still here.

The results are now in from my extremely scientific poll. And the number one most missed thing about Vietnam is the energy: the non-stop action, the excitement, the busy streets. 

My first response to this was “Pffffft! Won’t catch me missing what you’ve charmingly described as energy but which we all know means a chaotic, frazzling free-for-all.” Because I guess I am quite mean spirited.

But this is the exactly the point. In a case of the grass always being greener, when you’re in Vietnam you pine for footpaths you can actually walk on, an empty park to run through, and just some peace and quiet godammit. When you return home and get free access to all those things, it’s actually quite boring. The bustle of Vietnam, the unpredictability, the chaos, it all provides constant stimulation and invigoration. And you’ll miss it when it’s gone.

So now when I’m stuck in traffic, wedged between a bicycle vendor selling bánh rán and a motorbike laden with road-tripping chickens, the sun’s blazing down, and I just want to get home, I try to think to myself, at least it’s not boring. It might be frazzling, but at least it’s dazzling. That’s my new motto.

And the other responses to my survey? What else should I be better appreciating? Well, the spontaneity of social life, the lack of responsibilities and societal expectations, and the bountiful free time; the affordability of going out, the luxury of a housekeeper and the cheap travel opportunities; the storms, the fruit, the geckos, the colour, the flowers, the street food, the markets, and the trà đá.

When you look at it, you actually experience most items on this list in just your average, run-of-the-mill day here. This can mean only one thing: you should appreciate every single day in this country while you still can.


  1. Interesting fact: when i read your blog posts I read them narrated by Anthony Bourdain. Weird, but it fits.

  2. That IS weird. And probably a breach of copyright somehow. In my mind, I read them as Marge Simpson.

  3. How about Carrie Bradshaw :))

  4. Yes! My life is exactly like Carrie's. Only with more rats and fewer shoes.

  5. I'm the worst at this but what we all get wrong is thinking about Vietnam all the time. All our thoughts about this country are skewed because we keep trying to reassess our perceptions of this country.

    It's like a new job, you start out thinking...this is the best job ever, I'm doing this for life. Then, six months later when you find yourself bitching about the boss or nicking an extra 20 minutes lunch hour you realise you've already started on the slippery slope that ends with you being miserable in your workplace.

    But...we all know that we are happier when we think that this is the best job, even if we're sadly deluded. Once the questions start then all you are doing is sitting round hoping that something better will come up.

    Bitching about something never made anything better but we're all still likely to do it from time to time.

    I may have got off point there.

    I think my point is - it's up and then it's down and then it's up again and then, when you're down somewhere else you'll wish you were up and back here.

    The grass is always greener on the other side but that's only because we have given ourselves an other side. I often think that realising I could live in another country was a blessing and a curse. It just opened up new options that I could think and then overthink about some more.

    But I think you can get through that roller coaster to the point where it's just home. Then the highs and the lows level out. But I'm not sure that happens till you stop thinking about Vietnam as anything but your default setting.

    If you *have* to live in Vietnam then you're likely to be miserable about it. If you *have* to leave that can be a bummer too. But if you could leave but choose to stay - I reckon then you're most likely to enjoy it.

    Or maybe I am just telling myself that.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Steve. I absolutely agree on all fronts. The day I stopped testing Hanoi - "Prove to me today why I should be living here and not somewhere else" - was the day I got a lot happier about living here. Nothing - no city, no job, no relationship - could stand up to as much scrutiny as we tend to give this town. I think it does very well, considering.

    And yes, I'll back you up on your last point: really CHOOSING to stay is the clincher.

  7. Hi Tabitha,

    the 'engery' (or whatever one might call it) is exactly what I miss about living in Mumbai, too. And I can tell you from experience that you will definitely notice the absence of that constant stimulation and invigoration. I remember arriving here in Singapore and scoffing at all the escalators and elevators .. I'd often be the only person going up the stairs because I just couldn't cope with all this CONVENIENCE :)

    Of course, in the meantime I can't even be asked to walk up the stairs of an escalator, it's just too much effort.

    And I must say, since the arrival of our daughter I see everything in a different perspective yet again, I really do appreciate parks and sidewalks now, life is wonderfully convenient here and I'm glad for it.

    Whenever we go back to India I still get it - the energy, the excitement, and I can see how one can miss it and sometimes I even do when we return, but just briefly.

    I dare to say when you have kids, you'll feel better about living somewhere less 'energetic'.

  8. Thanks for your comment Christine. I'll try to soak up as much of that energy as I can. And yes, I can completely imagine that the "dazzle" pretty quickly reverts to "frazzle" when you've got a screaming child under your arm!

  9. Read this first in AsiaLIFE, and completely agree. I'm sure I complain about something in Saigon at least 3 times a day; whether its the neighbors using power drills on the wall connecting our houses, or the motorbike running me over on the sidewalk, etc., but whenever I travel to more modern cities - Singapore, for example - I wander around thinking "This is...boring!"

  10. Give 'em the old frazzle dazzle, frazzle dazzle 'em (Chicago, via Hanoi... or vice versa)

  11. I definitely miss friends in Hanoi and those lovely summer thunderstorms (but not the flooding).

    But I wouldn't have have wanted to bring up baby there... despite the convenience of a high chair on the front of my motorbike.

  12. Michael: On the subject of Singapore, I find it both alarming and completely understandable that this seems to be the country Vietnam most aspires to emulate. On the one hand, who wouldn't want the wealth, cleanliness and convenience of Singapore, but on the other, it would be sad for Vietnam to lose one of its greatest assets, its ramshackle character.

    Laura: Ooh, now this is stuck in my head. Forever. I will have to dance it out.

    Lani: I'm surprised by this, since you seemed disappointed to be leaving Hanoi - and by extension Hanoi baby rearing - at the time. You should check out this blog post btw:

  13. Hi Tabitha,
    I'm vietnamese and had a period of living far away from my contry, but i'm very interested in reading what you written.
    It's exactly the commun mindset of a lot of my foreign friends when they leaved this contry.

    Wish you every day living in VN is a new one.

    From :Ngan Son (HCM city)

  14. I can relate in a slightly different way. Moving from the city (Sydney) to the country (gorgeous North Coast NSW) means that I miss plenty about city living - food, entertainment, family to name but a few. But would I move back? No. Do I miss what I don't have? Of course. But I can live with my choice. I consider myself lucky that I have the choice! Cheers.

  15. Bah, you probably eat pizza as often as a middle class Vietnamese student or yuppie.

    which society are you trying to integrate into again? ;)

  16. I remember when you came to Canada and convinced us to stay there longer when we were thinking about coming back. I'm very grateful for that. Being open to every moment, not appreciating every moment necessarily, is a lesson that applies anywhere and anytime. Big love to you.

  17. Ngan Son: Thanks for your comment! I hope your foreign friends made the most of Vietnam while they were here.

    Buster: Yeah, I think there are some pretty universal truths when it comes to shifting homes, no matter where that may be. I'm glad you made that choice btw - would never have been to Bellingen otherwise!

    Patrick: True, true. A Spaghetti Box restaurant is about to open on our island - I'm fearful of an imminent inundation of pizza-munching teens.

    Beth: Bullying people into doing things they don't want to do is one of my fortes. I should contract myself out. Love to you too!

  18. Hi Tabitha,

    My name is Lâm and Hanoi is my hometown. I lived there in 23 years old and it's a part of me. So I'm very happy when read this blog, your thought and your view about Vietnam as well as my hometown. If you still stay in Vietnam, I hope I can have a chance to uống cafe sữa đá with you and your friends. Now I study in Korea but I will come back to visit my family in Lunar New Year. Where do you live in Vietnam at the moment ?
    My email is If you have any concern, comment, question or complain about Hanoi or Vietnam, just tell me. I will listen and help if I can.


    Thieu Mai Lam

  19. HI Lam, thanks for your comment and your kind offer of help! I hope everything is going well for you in Korea. I'd love to know if Koreans love Vietnam as much as the Vietnamese love Korea!

  20. "This can mean only one thing: you should appreciate every single day in this country while you still can."

    I particularly enjoy reading the conclusion - very well said, and which is also how one should live in order to not regret anything anyhow :)


  21. Phuong: Thanks for your comment: I'm glad you liked it. And yes, this is the kind of attitude that reaps rewards even when you're at home, I think.

  22. Hi Tabitha - couldn't agree more! We were posted to Hanoi first for 18 months then to HCMC. While in Hanoi I was had major culture shock and bitched and whined about the place. Now I am away I can appreciate the city for what it is and I miss it. I also love Saigon (sorry to the northerners but my heart does lie here!) but I do find myself on occasion raving on about the frustrations, traffic etc. Now our time here is coming to end and I don't want to leave this amazing country that has been home for the last 3 years! Australia will indeed be boring and I am just starting to appreciate what I have now that it is almost gone. Thanks for the post!

  23. Team Somerville: I'm not leaving Vietnam for a while yet and I'm also doing the panicky it's-all-about-to-end countdown. Maybe there needs to be motto for when you're back in Australia and missing Vietnam too. How about: it might be dull, but at least it doesn't smell of sewerage and my eyeballs aren't sweating. Hmm, not really as catchy as my other motto...

  24. Hm I really do not miss living in Hanoi at all, except for the crazy parties, but I guess it's just part of my college student life style here. If I were to really live here as a real person and not a student, maybe I would go out to drink more often than once every month or two.

    Oh but there's one thing definitely missing: the expats. Back to the West, all the people I have around me are either locals who never leave the country, or academic people, who may travel a lot, but are all THE SAME, no matter who they are and where they're from. Living in academic institutions all these years, I notice everyone behaves the same way, think the same way, share the same culture and beliefs. Both of my schools in the US have impressive numbers of international students (around 25%), plus a large percentage of students of colors as well, but ironically, I never feel like living in a very diverse place. The first time I encountered diversity and cross-cultural conflicts was in Hanoi this past year. Expats there are world-travelers with different cultures in their backpacks, refusing to melt in any new environments they go to. It was a rather colorful picture. Fun time.

    Sometimes I wish people around me at school here are a little more diverse and well-traveled like the ones in Hanoi. It was truly an expat culture we share wherever we may roam in the world.

  25. Hi Nga, and thanks for writing. It's really refreshing to hear such a positive comment about the expat community. It's true that I've met a whole range of people here with whom I would never normally come into contact, and have really appreciated that. Hanoi does seem to have more than its fair share of "colourful characters", which is a bit greedy really.

  26. Hello Tabitha,

    I'm a Vietnamese who lives in Hanoi, i'm not quite sure that your topic is a negative or a positive view or it is just general but i think it is interesting so i would like to post it on my facebook page, thank you for that. And if there's anything you would like to ask about Hanoi and places, i'd like to help, and here is my email:


    Tu Nguyen

  27. Hi Tu. Thanks for commenting. I think it's neither positive or negative; it's more that we humans love to complain and then don't usually appreciate what we've got till it's gone. I think this is true of anyone living anywhere. Hope your friends enjoyed the post.

  28. I love Vietnam, mainly Hanoi!

    I am a female solo rider and I 'rarely' had any problems of any sort no matter where I traveled in Vietnam.

    Every Vietnamese person I met were extremely nice to me. Every where I stopped, I usually had a free meal, a place to sleep and/or company while I drank.

    I don't even know Vietnamese language but I never had a problem understanding any of them.

    Out of all the SE Asia countries I have visited, Vietnam is TOP on my list! I can't wait to go back.

  29. Anonymous, really great to hear of your super positive experience in Vietnam. Hope you can make it back soon!

  30. ..Hanoi life is definitely an adventure, everything seems to defy whatever principle
    I got myself loaded before I stepped on this new land.

    When I leave Hanoi,one thing that I would surely miss would be the expect-the-unexpected days..

  31. Oh gosh I am one of "those rose-coloured regretters who use too many exclamation marks!!!"

    I left Vietnam but miss it every single day, despite being very happy in my new expat location. Life is chaotic there but you can afford to take time out to get a decent massage, unlike in the rest of Europe.

    Thanks for posting, it made me smile :)

  32. I'm on the other side now (Thailand). The grass is much, much greener.

    1. This is funny because after living in Thailand for 8, yes I said 8 years, I now reside in Saigon, NEVER going back to Thailand!


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