In college, a four-month study abroad trip was life-changing. In my 30s, living in a new country for a year is a mere warm-up. Celebrating one year of living in Saigon has felt somewhat anticlimactic. In so many ways, I feel we’ve only just arrived in Vietnam. We seem to be barely dipping our toes into life in this chaotic city and have the faintest understanding of Vietnamese culture.
After six years in Shanghai, and one year of globetrotting, I must admit life in Ho Chi Minh City hasn’t been love at first sight. For the first time ever, I questioned whether an impulsive decision to move across the world was the best idea ever. A year in, the city is slowly growing on me. Thanks to COVID, ample time to reflect has led me to glean some useful life lessons.
Appreciate the Present: Stop Comparing Grasses
For those who’ve been fortunate to live abroad, it’s natural to compare our surroundings. Our minds also have a skewed positive filter that leads us to only recall fond memories. Saigon bears so many similarities to Shanghai, and I couldn’t help but compare these two cities. Yet, I’ve learned the key to happiness is to celebrate each place’s greatness and accept its faults. No one place can be everything at once to us.
I love Saigon for its vibrancy. Every chaotic moto ride is a zen practice – let the craziness roll off the shoulder. Every hidden café and bar makes me feel there are an endless number of doors to open and gems to discover. The city is going through that phase of development where everything is possible. Restaurants and shops go up one month and come down the next. Every idea is worth a try.
Most of all, I love the Vietnamese people. I love when a moto guy reminds me to put my bag closer to my lap, or a sweet vendor lady’s gestures to put my phone away. For every phone and bag snatcher in the city, there are dozens more Vietnamese who care to inform a careless foreigner to take more precautions.
It’s Okay to Have Preferences: I Don’t Like Noise & I Like Walkable Cities
I always felt I could live anywhere in the world. I love the process of adapting to a new culture and a different way of life. While I had gravitated toward life in megacities, I was just as happy living in a village in Cameroon. As such, I’ve never had any criteria when deciding life moves. Saigon has taught me that while I could live anywhere in the world, I also have preferences that would improve the quality of life.
Battling with noise has been a constant struggle with our first year of Saigon living. Since Xav’s office is near the airport, we decided to live nearby in Phu Nhuan District, instead of the quieter expat havens in District 2, 7, or parts of Binh Thanh. Not to say there aren’t any quiet places to live in Phu Nhuan, but the odds of finding it is lower, and we haven’t been particularly lucky in this regard.
Besides noise, I also miss living in a walkable neighborhood. Saigon, as a city, isn’t pedestrian-friendly. The weather is almost always above 30ºC and 80%+ humidity. The sidewalk is a rare commodity, and even when in existence, motorbikes often take over as shortcuts. Leisure stroll, my favorite activity, has been replaced by sweaty and cautious walks in an attempt to not get hit by a motorbike.
A year of life in Saigon has made me realize that I do indeed have particular living preferences. Being clear on elements that would improve my well-being, I am better equipped to make decisions on where and how to live. I had always feared that requirements are a slippery slope into lifestyle inflation. I will one day require a large house, regular spa treatments, daily cleaning staff, and more. Yet, I’m learning the need for a quiet place to live, and a walkable neighborhood is not unreasonable requirements – live life in moderation.
Incremental Improvement: I Can Learn Vietnamese Even With Three Hours a Week
Sink or swim has always been the method for my language learning journey. I’ve been fortunate to be in situations where I had no option but to quickly figure out the new language. Learning Vietnamese is the first time where I’m going at it old school, with a tutor. Saigon living doesn’t really require Vietnamese. I could easily fumble through life here via the combination of some basic phrases and Google Translate.
Yet, I’ve enjoyed the process of learning Vietnamese. I love connecting dots and finding similarities between Vietnamese and my mother tongues in Mandarin and Hokkien. So, I’ve stuck with the twice a week, 90-minute private tutoring sessions. Much like the gym, I dread before each class, but I am always glad to have completed my lesson. My efforts stop at those 3 hours per week of lessons and don’t spend time reviewing outside.
Recently, on trips outside of Saigon, when the occasion arose that required Vietnamese, words somehow managed to find their way out of my mouth, strung together in a way that was understood. The feeling is empowering. I was amazed that 3 hours a week could actually amount to something and motivates me to keep investing time. While I’m far from fluency, improvements have indeed taken place within 12 months.
Invest in Relationships: Making Friends as An Adult Is Like Dating
The primary reason that the four-month study abroad program felt life-changing is due to the built-in social circle. Relationships bond over shared experiences. A group of people experiencing a new phase of life together is a recipe for instant friendship – the more ridiculous the experience, the stronger the bond. Hence why Peace Corps friends have become lifelong friends, and one of my closest friends in Saigon had also been in Peace Corps Cameroon.
When moving abroad solo, there isn’t a predetermined social circle, for better or worse. Making friends as an adult is akin to dating. Every now and again, at one of the social events that I mustered enough energy to attend, I meet someone that piques my attention. S/he seems interesting enough to exchange numbers. The follow-up meeting within a week or two is crucial; otherwise, that connection fizzles.
And like dating, sometimes you wish a connection would actually fizzle on its own. But then you get a random text months later to hang out. Fortunately, with friendship dating, bringing other people to a friend date is perfectly acceptable. Some friendships click instantly, but the breakup happens when that friend moves away. The cyclical going-away parties mean it’s time to get back into the game.
Again comes the conversations on how long we’ve been in-country, what we do for a living, where we live, and where we came from. The superficial conversation can extend into the hot spots for brunch/dinner, where we are vacationing next, and sometimes even discussing domestic help (*insert eye roll*).
The process is tedious and arduous – something I had forgotten after six years of living in Shanghai. The pain eases with each year that passes, as the social circle solidifies. Once formed, our unique shared experiences in this place in time bond us forever. The investment has a long-term return.
Ready for Year Two
The first year in Saigon flew by, and while it wasn’t the best year ever, the experience was nevertheless meaningful. We are hoping to make some changes as we head into year two of Saigon Living and able to continue our quest to understand this fascinating city. I hope to craft a small corner of an oasis amidst this crazy city. Embrace the challenges that always turn into entertaining stories for later. Onward and forwards!