March 21st. Do you know what that represents in Vietnam? Nothing. In most European countries, however, it means Spring is finally here! I have been living in Vietnam for almost 6 months now, and I guess I can say I’ve come a long way. Even better, I think I can say that, by now, Vietnam is growing on me.
My ears are definitely getting used to the Vietnamese accent when they speak English thanks to months of passive listening, and I can now understand what used to be real gibberish to me. Without realizing it, I have trained my ears to distinguish most sounds in English spoken with a thick Vietnamese accent.
My teaching technique keeps improving day after day and as a result, the general ambience in the classroom is relaxed and filled with laughter. Gone the pre-teaching anxiety of the first few weeks, gone the dread of spending 2 hours in a classroom with an indifferent pack of teenagers. It’s all fun and games now, going to the movies and having dinner together, I know they enjoy coming to class just as much as I enjoy teaching them.
I also own a motorbike called Norbert and this changes a great deal of things! I absolutely love this new freedom of going wherever I want when I feel like it. No more dealing with cab drivers and rip-off motorbike drivers (xe oms). Gas is incredibly cheap, overnight parking is safe and cheap as well (that is, if no one siphons gas out of your bike) and riding a bike is also much faster than taking a cab. I love hopping on Norbert and going places for the weekend, such as down to the Mekong Delta. I also trust my own driving skills more while adapting old driving habits from home to the constant chaos to ensure I make it to my destination in one piece.
I have grown to like the laid-back pace and generosity of the people in Vietnam. Many unexpected things are made possible here. I find it’s such a flexible country, very last-minute and happy-go-lucky. The daily constraints and pressure of a busy lifestyle are easily avoided here. No expensive monthly pass to buy for transportation, no speeding fines, no parking tickets, and instead friendly faces almost everywhere, hot temperatures all year round, fresh fruit and vegetables at ridiculous prices, cheap and delicious food in every corner, and (almost) always what you’re looking for – especially if you don’t except to find it there.
Just last weekend in Huế, the old Imperial City, I felt like buying a coconut from a street seller to drink its juice by the pool back at the hotel. Once open, I couldn’t exactly carry it while riding my motorbike so I asked the lady if she could give me a plastic bag. But she did much more than that: she cut the coconut open and poured the juice into a bag, then scraped the inside of the coconut and put the copra in the bag with the juice and a straw for me to take home. All of that for 20.000 VND, or less than 1 euro.
As a developing country, a lot of things are yet to be improved, such as the important language barrier in a lot of places, the crazy traffic and the way most Vietnamese drive – reckless would be such an understatement – and lots of other things. But reflecting on the past 6 months, I realize that life in Vietnam is easy. It’s cheap. It’s laid-back. It’s simple.
Nevertheless, when I get a WhatsApp voice message from my friends in Italy, or when I see pictures of events taking place in Belgium, I also realize that I miss a lot of things that I can’t find here, such as the seasons. It seems ridiculous to even think about the seasons, but I know that in Europe, on March 21 I would be looking forward to warmer temperatures, a rebirth of nature, longer days and the promise of typical spring events like organized urban drinks, fairs and festivals, and waking up to a sunny day and not surrounded by darkness and rain. And after Spring comes Summer and outdoor barbecues, the smell of grilling meat, more music festivals in Belgium, getaway weekends to the lakes in Italy, afternoons at the park playing guitar and drinking beer with friends in the grass, long warm evenings on the Navigli in Milan enjoying the sunset and having the aperitivo. I know that in September I’d be getting excited about the Fall, my favorite time of year. Red leaves everywhere, temperatures still warm enough to enjoy an evening in the garden or a walk in the woods, Halloween and chestnuts, the big funfair in Liège and finally, Winter and the magical Christmas Markets, lights all around and spending the holidays with family.
Well, all of that gets lost here in Vietnam. No brisk mornings, no barbecues in the garden, no falling leaves, no Christmas markets. There are other things to celebrate though, don’t get me wrong. Like Têt Holiday, the lunar New Year, and we do get lovely evenings, sunsets and some cultural events, but it’s nothing like Europe. And there are only two seasons. As the Saigonese would put it, there’s hot … and hotter. Read, the rainy season and the dry season.
I miss living in Europe, I miss pedestrian city centers and cobblestone streets, I miss the vibe of walking around a big city and taking part in all it has to offer. I miss silly things like the robot voice announcing the next subway station in Milan, driving around Liège for 20 minutes to find a parking spot, the smell of my old apartment, even wearing a scarf, bitching about the cold weather and the stupid opening hours of a store.
It hits me every now and then, just when I can finally conclude that Vietnam is growing on me. Oh how we take for granted all the little things in life that get absorbed in our daily routine. But then on the weekend I’ll get together with my new crew and spend hours by the pool drinking coconut water (shall we try a bit of rum in it?). I’ll go to Ho Chi Minh City on Norbert, my big, heavy motorbike and I’ll fully appreciate the good life I have here until I’m reminded of Europe again.
Edit: it’s funny how 2 years ago I was saying exactly the same thing about living in Italy.