Friday, 15 June 2012

Goodbye

Well, this is it. We have only a couple of days left in Hanoi.

Thank you to everyone who has followed The City That Never Sleeps In, and especially those who commented, or sent me emails, or approached me while I was taking the rubbish out, to say they enjoyed reading it. Keeping this blog has been one of the highlights from my time here.

I wrote this final post as a column for AsiaLife, but I’ve changed it slightly to reflect my changed feelings since I submitted it for publication. At that time I was a little nostalgic and dewy-eyed about leaving, but now, I’m just excited about the future. We leave Hanoi for a long holiday in Thailand, and then a new, quiet, life in Canberra - if there’s a city less like Hanoi in the world, I don’t know it. And for us, right now, that’s a good thing.

We’re leaving with some extra baggage too: our Uncle Ho portrait, our wedding ao dais, and a baby on the way (carry-on baggage). As we are told, constantly, the baby will be a Golden Dragon, a particularly lucky and lucrative kind of baby, of which there will be many, judging by the number of pregnant women waddling around in the Hanoi heat at the moment. It’s an incomparable farewell gift from our host nation, the endowment of lunar good fortune on our new family.

Thank you, Vietnam. But we know it’s time for us to leave. 

As I have mentioned before, because you know, it's on my mind day and night, the house over the road from us was knocked down. In the middle of the night. Using jackhammers. They’ve posted an artist’s image of the government office they’re building in its place, and it speaks a thousand words. Most of them swear words.

When Nathan and I saw that image of towering steel and glass, and landscaped gardens featuring strange 2D palm trees, we both just knew: we wouldn’t stick around to see those palm trees in 3D.

The thought of ceaseless jackhammering filled us with overwhelming dread. We knew it would be the straw that broke the camel’s back, if living in Vietnam was a camel.

Over the past couple of months, the cracks had already started to show. The honking seemed louder and more unnecessary; the pollution became unbearable; fruit vendors took on Machiavellian qualities; children stopped being cute, just loud.

But nothing about Vietnam had changed, only us.

After two-and-a-half years of enthusiastic ardour for Vietnam, I was cruising for a bruising. Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, because I’d always said we should leave before three years is up, but I think it’s more just the expiry of the statute of limitations on Keeping Your Shit Together.

Living as an expat in Vietnam isn’t hard, but it isn’t always easy.  While, yes, you can drink out of coconuts and get cheap pedicures, it’s also loud, crowded and polluted. And some vegetables are grown in human poo.

It always has been that way, and I’ve always known that. But to thoroughly enjoy Vietnam’s many, many upsides, I’ve had to not let the downsides get to me. And I’ve done this through a constant practice of Keeping My Shit Together: focusing on the positive, being curious rather than judgemental, being dazzled, not frazzled.

Keeping Your Shit Together is an active process, and over time, it’s tiring. Once you begin to falter, it easily spirals into Losing Your Shit. You don’t look at your beer and think, glory be to God for cheap beer; you think, this beer is probably laced with formaldehyde. You give the stink eye to children with those squeaky shoes. You see a dog and you say to it, “They’re going to eat you”.  You look at an artist’s image for a new building and you don’t feel impressed by Vietnam’s unstoppable march towards modernisation, you just think, that building is going to be the end of me. And then you tread on a used sanitary napkin and that pretty much seals the deal.

One of the hardest things about being an expat in Vietnam is listening to the whinging of embittered expats - who’ve Lost Their Shit - who act as if they’re serving time here against their will. Their bad juju is catching, kryptonite to anyone fiercely, and rightly, Keeping Their Shit Together.

I don’t want to be one of them. I’m going to accept that in this break-up, it’s not Vietnam, it’s me, and I’m going to get out of here before I bring anyone else down with me.

I leave Vietnam with no regrets. I loved living here; it has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. It has given me so much - so many memories, and opportunities, and friends and life lessons - and asked for not much more in return than just Keeping My Shit Together. I definitely did better out of that deal.

But now, I’m just ready to go home. 

Thank you to you all. Try to Keep Your Shit Together,
Tabitha x

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

So, you're moving to Hanoi

Thanks to this blog, which must successfully create the illusion that I know things about Vietnam, I've received all kinds of emails asking for advice over the last couple of years. Some of them I'm not well-equipped to answer - like, "Will my hair-straightener work in Vietnam?" - but for most I at least try to have a stab at an answer.

The most common type of email I receive is from someone moving to Hanoi, and who is looking for tips or advice on how to make the process easier and less overwhelming. I received an email like this the other day, which reminded me in many ways of the circumstances in which Nathan and I found ourselves in Hanoi. It went like this:

"Naturally, I am both very excited and unbelievably terrified. I know absolutely no Vietnamese, know nobody in the country except the name of my contacts, and am deferring medical school (a very straightforward/safe path) for the unknown despite not being naturally adventurous. I'm not running from anything or a natural free bird, as it were - it's a great opportunity and I want to force myself out of my safety bubble to learn something genuine."

Since this blog's retirement is imminent, I thought I should try to respond to this email here, in a last-ditch bid to be more useful to those who arrive in Hanoi, very excited and unbelievably terrified, in the future.

The email continues:

"I was wondering if you had any general advice about coming to Hanoi. I think my greatest concern is loneliness due to lack of language ability, relative youth (and traveling as a single woman without a partner, family, etc), so if you have any pointers in that realm that would be great. Also, because I have no idea where to live, if you have any advice there too (I've been told to come in a few days early, stay in a hotel, and look for a place from there, but any pre departure information would be appreciated, especially in terms of what I can expect)."

Funnily enough, I think loneliness should be the least of your concerns. Making friends in Hanoi is exceptionally easy. You'll start by knowing only your colleagues, but if you're sociable, you'll very quickly meet their friends too, and before long, friends of their friends. Young, educated Vietnamese people speak English and are eager to practice it, so not speaking Vietnamese is very little impediment to making Vietnamese friends - this is actually one of the reasons it's so easy to just give up on learning the language.

The expat community in Hanoi is small, and easy to infiltrate. There will be many other people just like you, young and single, and, just like you, looking to make friends - and fast. Everyone seems to organically develop friendship groups, but you can proactively boost your acquaintanceship by joining various clubs, sporting groups, attending all kinds of different events, or meeting up with people you know from the internet. For example, Nathan and I met two good friends of ours by joining their table at a trivia night event, and they themselves had only recently met, through a Couchsurfing group. We subsequently invited them to things, they invited us to things, cross-pollinating our friendship groups.

But of all the foreigners I've known in Hanoi, the ones who seem to have had the best time here are those who throw themselves wholeheartedly into their Vietnamese (as opposed to expat) friendship circle. It sounds like an obvious thing to do, but actually it can be hard. Amongst you there might be cultural and socio-economic differences, resulting in fundamentally different world-views; there might be different ideas about social norms and what is and isn't the "done thing"; there might be different ideas of simply what constitutes a good time. I definitely let my terror of potentially awkward social situations limit the kind of experiences I was open to, which I regret, because the Vietnamese friendships I did maintain are just so, so rewarding and wonderful, and who wouldn't want more of that? 

This brings me to the most important piece of advice I have about moving to Hanoi: Seize the opportunities it presents, using both hands, and your teeth too if necessary. This is not necessarily something you can really plan or prepare for, just be ready to recognise when it's happening - maybe when you least expect it - and then always say "yes".

I know engineers who've opened cafes; I know self-sworn singletons who've found lifelong love; I know people who came to teach English as an interim job and discovered that teaching is their passion; I know NGO-workers who sang on stage for the first time - as the star of the show no less; I know people who hated Vietnam during their first year, and now never want to leave.

If there are parts of your life here which are difficult - you might feel under-utilised at work, or you might miss home - Hanoi will always offer you another outlet to compensate for it. Take it. I had a friend who was deeply dissatisfied with her job, but started teaching swing dancing in the evenings to find some fulfilment. Last I heard, she was swing-dancing her way around Australia. Nathan and I are ourselves leaving Hanoi on a completely different - nay, better -  trajectory to that which landed us here. One we absolutely never could have predicted, and one that owes a lot to the opportunities which came our way since moving here. Nice one, Hanoi.

This is all very wishy-washy, I know. But for all the practical stuff, such as what to bring, and where to buy things, and how you find flatmates or a place to live, plus information on what clubs or groups you can join, it's all on The New Hanoian website, a Godsend for new arrivals. For events, there's the Hanoi Grapevine.

The only other thing I would add is regarding where to live. Something I've heard newcomers say a lot is how they want to live in a "Vietnamese neighbourhood". I totally get this desire for cultural integration, but actually, I think you'll find pretty much every neighbourhood in Hanoi will be "Vietnamese" enough for you, even the areas popular with expats. We live in a building that houses only foreigners, yet our neighbourhood is... well, you've read about it on this blog. You couldn't mistake it for being anywhere other than Hanoi. 

But what do I know anyway? I'll hand it over to The People. Is there anything you wish you knew before moving to Hanoi? Would you have done things any differently? Or do you just have a solid gold piece of practical advice for new arrivals?

Mine? Well, start a blog. Obviously.