I can remember sitting on the tailgate of a truck my dad and I borrowed to move my stuff. I was about to enter into yet another student house, a future of predictable chaos, for however much longer I could manage. He told me then that we could forget about the move and I could go somewhere else. He knew what I thought about this, but I was afraid to make the difficult choice.
It was summer 2008; I had just graduated. I was trying to figure out in which direction the next step was going to take. For the moment, all I wanted was to remain independent, living away from home. Two hours away had been enough for the duration of university, so I decided to stay for another year. It turned out to be a year of unforeseen struggle, bouncing between jobs and routines that were becoming unfulfilling and detrimental. Then one year almost become two. Feeling discontent with the way I lived at home was difficult in itself; but suffering through my last years at home was crucial in my decision to finally leave my country of birth to live and work abroad.
It became obvious that my university education might not illuminate a pathway for me even before I graduated. For years I ruled out options I thought I wouldn’t want to pursue. Doing this seemed to leave very few possibilities that I might actually enjoy. I sometimes wonder if I was an active participant in limiting my future. If anything, though, four years of university taught me how to enjoy learning and how to learn effectively. Those years of intensive study also showed me that the list of people and things I thought I enjoyed was getting smaller.
At first, I brushed this off as a fact of life and then chalked it up to part of growing-up. I began to panic when I realized that what I really wanted to do would not earn a living, at least not initially. It was extremely frustrating to think that I couldn’t be independent and aspire to be what I wanted, without being fiscally challenged. I loathed the idea of spending all of my time making money, just so I could spend that money. I needed a plan.
It was Christmas 2009; I was starting to feel like I was getting into a dangerous rut. I was not enjoying work. It wasn’t exercising my skills. My thoughts returned to wondering about how living and working abroad could open up different avenues for me. It had already been more than a year since I applied to teach English in Japan. My interest to go abroad had dwindled a bit and during that time my sister and her boyfriend travelled to live and work in Viet Nam. They shared adventures I wish I could have partaken in and the comparative boredom of next three months started within me again what I thought I had almost lost; a desire to explore and understand, that which is not known; the ability to dream. I had hesitated long enough. I decided to join them. I thought I was going because I needed a job, because I needed to make money, because I thought I would have the lifestyle that would afford me the time I needed to become what I wanted. This is the closest I have ever been to making it happen and everyday my experiences in this country stare me in the face, forcing me to question my motives for coming.
Viet Nam quickly earned a special place in my heart because it represents a long list of firsts. I left for Ho Chi Minh City in the Lunar New Year of 2010, never having lived in a large city, that is, a city of much more than 100,000 inhabitants. Considering that I grew up in a town of less than 5,000, Saigon, as many people still call it, is absolutely huge by my standards and consists of anywhere between 8 and 10 million people. Perhaps more. My stay in Viet Nam has also been reason for my very first flight on an airplane, my first adventure off the North American continent and my first teaching position at any school. Not surprisingly, Viet Nam has also been the first place I have felt like a bit of an outsider. That being said, culture shock wasn’t and still isn’t much a concern for me; but I feel my experiences here have already changed my life and the person I am becoming.
Before ever exploring the world as a traveller and discovering Viet Nam as a tourist, I was thrust into the fray, the bosom of a foreign society, to undergo a trial by fire like I had never experienced. After two weeks at the new job I was driving myself on a rented motorbike from Phu My Hung in District 7, where I lived and held a company office, to District 6, where I taught children at a government run public school. The traffic in Saigon is absolutely terrifying. A sea of motorbikes speckled by four-wheeled vehicles and bicycles as well, cover the streets on their way to and from work. It’s important to have nerves of steel while operating a motorbike in busy traffic. Go with the flow or be one in the flock. This was the first time I had driven a two-wheeled vehicle much further than a hundred meters, maybe a little odd for a boy growing up in the Canadian countryside; still, it was as I expected once my confidence grew; pure joy. Among the first of what were many sublime realizations that this country stirred within me; there were many things to fall in love with in Viet Nam.
I can remember staring out the window like a child at a rainbow during the taxi-ride from the airport to my hotel. Seeing all the colours of the city at once, in awe and wonderment, exploded my imagination. I thought to myself, there is more to see in this city than I could have ever known. This is the most interesting city in the world. This memory is still as vivid as the day it was created more than a year later and within an hour of being in Saigon I was hooked. The colours, the sounds, the smells, the beautiful people and the delicious food, I couldn’t ask for more. Oh, well perhaps one more thing: a steady influx of money into a new bank account. Excellent. After three months, this new life of mine was starting to feel very good. I kept my nose to grindstone for this time and seeing how my colleagues felt after living hear for a number of years, I began to understand their reasons for never leaving. They enjoyed their lives. I could often see the stress that work caused, but the ends more than justified the means for them. A teacher’s salary can easily provide an upper class lifestyle and they made sure to take advantage of every free minute they had. However, under the candy coating of the expat life laid hidden dangers. Some of these dangers were things to be weary of for all people living in Saigon, but as I discovered, most reveal themselves only to expats and other foreign visitors.
Viet Nam can easily show itself to be a hidden gem and a place where dreams have the very real possibility of coming true. Before coming here I was making attempts at becoming a responsible young adult, perhaps a few years late, but nonetheless, independence and professionalism were important to me. Saigon rekindled my love affair with frivolous activities. I don’t know if its because my money goes further in this country, or because as a young man I felt more susceptible to the promises of the night, or if I’m escaping from, or pursuing something in my subconscious; regardless, somehow my steps towards becoming a mature adult regressed in the first six months of my stay, if just a little.
Saigon is a city with a recognizable pulse, but at times it can be somewhat erratic. It takes time to adjust to the new highs and lows its has to offer and I’ve been doing so the best way I know how, for this is surely a place where your maladaptive character traits can get you hurt in more ways than one. I know. This city can feel manic-depressive and sometimes I feel it has brought out the worst in me. Sometimes I feel like it can see right into me. Is it so strange that after six months of fortune and despair that I was and still am looking for a deeper meaning in my being here? You have to see this city to believe what I want to tell you.
In the year I have been in Viet Nam, nearly all of my time was spent in this city. When I look at Saigon, I have strange feelings of always wanting to have lived here. I never thought about living here. I wanted to live in Japan. It is somewhat of a mystery to me because I cannot explain the feelings I have developed for this country and this city. And that makes my being here even more moving. If you were ever someone that couldn’t stop dreaming about a place you’ve never been, Viet Nam might be the place you were always dreaming about.
My experience of Viet Nam would not have been the same without living amongst its nationals. To live a normal life in a different country changed the way I view and feel about certain things. The way I think about wealth, money, possessions and my ultimate happiness have been irrevocably altered. I have gone through a transformation and I owe it all to events that transpired here, away from home, where a dream turned into a nightmare and then a dream once more. In coming to Viet Nam I had to change my life and as I was settling into a new kind of lifestyle, not entirely sure I was enjoying it; events that happened next ensured that it wouldn’t last.
You really can’t be too prepared for a wrongful termination of your employment. It’s important to keep high spirits when you’re far away from home though. Undoubtedly, losing my job after six months was discouraging and I have not been so quick to trust business owners and others since; I’ve managed to survive though. Living outside of the foreigner compound of Phu My Hung rejuvenated my image of what life in Viet Nam could be. Suddenly, it was not about affordable luxury. It was about a soulful mediocrity. It was about living like the common man, both modestly and happily. It was beautiful. There were times when I struggled to make ends meet; even so, I was still able to find happiness with what was sometimes very little. I turned this uncomfortable period into a test of character and I came out enjoying myself even more than before. It was an experience as raw and real as I could have hoped for. Not everyone wants to live a life this way. I started to think that this was the real reason I came. If anything shocked me so much about this place, it was only how rich and evocative the culture really is; there has also never been a place where the passing of time has confused me more than in Viet Nam.
Some days I forget where I am. In Saigon, when I wanted to do something, there were countless things to prevent anything from happening in a timely fashion. When you don’t know where things are, its takes time to locate them. When you can’t simply ask someone, its takes even longer. And of course, when you can’t get there by means that are conventional to you, then the issue of going anywhere or doing anything can easily seem like too much of a headache. This was not how I was used to living my life. I am a North American. I understand speed and efficiency and I understand the urgency with which we plan years ahead for our entire lives. Sometimes I feel unable to behave this way in Saigon. You could live in this city for ten years and still not know anything. I have met people of which this is true, yet I still feel less responsibility in a city where I will always be regarded as a foreigner.
I quickly learned not to struggle against the pace of things here. You need to let everything happen around you. The city lives in such a way that if you try to change its energy to suit your needs, it will hurt you. You need to change for the city. I think most of those who are interested in travelling and perhaps living or working abroad for extended periods in a city like this, understand what is required of them. An open-mind and a generous heart are good things to start with.
When was the last time you felt that time move so differently? I expect some of you to be thinking about the last time you fell in love. One year can be a long time to live anywhere; but only when you are truly at peace do I feel like time seems to have no effect, or that its effect becomes insignificant. Then you may find that time is something of which you lose track.
At the end of the day, when all I want to do is sit the shade and have a beer I often think about the poverty that is so overt, but also how romantic a notion it is to be so carefree in such a beautiful part of the world. Everywhere I look I see scenes of people in need contrast with scenes of people holding hands and couples on motorbikes. One is usually holding on for their life but it’s says to me, that not only are there tones of people living here, but also that you don’t have to be lonely when living in Saigon. Beyond all the craziness that this city seems to thrive on there is an inspiring feeling of togetherness. Despite the piles of trash that often fill all unused space, despite the political alignment of this country, this city has never made me feel unwelcome and I’ve never been somewhere that has made me feel better about myself. Whether it is because I helped children to learn, was generous to someone in need, or just smiled frequently, I feel as though these gestures were taken more seriously here. In Viet Nam I see school kids signing in the streets. When I see happiness in the smiles of children who I know live lives less privileged than mine, it makes me wonder if a life of little expectation is as enlightening as I hope. This makes me never want to leave.
The circumstances that lead to my leaving are still things that I think about. If I had been just a little more content with where I was living and what I was doing at the time, I may not have ever gone on the journey I had always dreamed about. I can remember how long it took to muster the courage, to say goodbye to the people and places that you knew for so long, not because you knew you would never return, but because you knew you would miss them dearly.
I expect the same feelings of apprehension to plague me once more when it’s finally time for me to return home. I am certainly not in a hurry to do so. The day when I go home is not a time that I think about. But Saigon is the only other place I’ve seemed to continue dreaming about while still living there. This is a city where the sights and sounds are colourful and loud. This is a city where afternoon naps transport you to a different time and place. This is a city where strangers sit side-by-side and eat with gusto. This is a city where a smile can go further than most are willing to imagine. This is a city where I can work a little, enjoy a lot and write all the time. This is my dream. Here, I can escape to a place I thought was only in my mind. It’s a place I used to think about as a child.
I can’t remember the last time I felt so humbled by everything. I can’t remember ever seeing so much beauty, in so many unlikely places. I’ve seen and felt things here that have left me with memories that will last a lifetime, of this, I am sure. Sometimes I am brought to the brink of tears, because I’m filled with feelings of such simple freedom, joy, and peace. I see these feelings in the people here. These are feelings I get when I am alone with nature, witnessing the natural beauty of the world. These are feelings I get when I gaze at the stars with intrigue and bewilderment. These are feelings I often get when I am in Saigon. If ever I forgot how to live my life, being in Viet Nam has taught me how to live again. The next step has been laid.
Even though my concept of time is challenged by this place and I feel like I can only live a day at a time, I wouldn’t have it any other way because my life has finally slowed down enough to enjoy. And that makes me smile. You’ll know when you’re beginning to really feel at home because your reason for staying becomes so different from the reason you came. It’s on these days when I realize that my journey has just begun.
About the Author – Aspiring writer and Photographer, Eric spent nearly 20 years in a small southwestern town in Ontario Canada, privileged with panoramic views of wilderness at its most serene. A student of history and anthropology during his years at university, he has since earned a degree in teaching for English as a second language and currently lives and works in Vietnam. He claims this country has become a second home and allows him the time he needs to follow his dreams.