Things I Love and Hate about Vietnam
Living in Vietnam as an expat is like being in a dysfunctional relationship. Just as you snuggle up to its sunny charm, it cuts the power, lets the rats run loose and throws in a typhoon to boot. But when you’ve finally had enough and are set to leave with the kids, it begs you to stay with lovely days at the beach and unexpected flowers from neighbors. My love/ hate relationship with my temporary home leaves me frustrated and happy. And also confused. I can’t figure out why the things I hate about Vietnam are the same things I love.
Here are a few.
Every Night is Biker Night
Scooters, oh scooters, you two-wheeled devils. The Vietnamese preference for scooters to cars tops my list of love/hate things. The good: traffic moves quickly, transport is cheap (and sometimes fun), air pollution is lessened. The bad: scooters scare the what out of me. Scooter drivers refuse to operate with any sense of straight line. Everyone has right of way at all times. Honking repeatedly is a pleasant way of saying hello. You move to the far right lane to make a left turn. Pedestrians can- and should- fend for themselves. Every inch of sidewalk is a potential parking space. Vietnamese scooters put the wind in your hair and the stress in your heart.
Strobe Lights in Every Room
Working lights are so boring. Vietnamese electricians have figured out a much more playful approach to powering up the place.
Step 1: Combine 45 million electric wires into one enormous ball on each telephone pole.
Step 2: Make sure said electric lines droop low enough across busy streets to decapitate at least one person per day.
Step 3: Cut electricity without notice or reason at least once a week, preferably during peak time of usage.
Step 4: During those annoying times when power is working, ensure that each light bulb flickers in strobe-light fashion for at least 45 seconds before coming on steadily.
Step 5: Allow only blinding, interrogation-room-style light bulbs to be used in all commercial and residential buildings.
Bottom line, when power’s on, I love it; when it’s off, I hate it.
What’s Mine Is Yours
Vietnam believes in sharing. People will graciously offer you food, rice wine or an invitation to their living room just because you happened to be there. Vietnamese people are kind and generous. Strangers have helped me fix broken gates and busted tires without even being asked. Neighbors have tried their best to explain how to get to the grocery store using only gestures. But sometimes, this warmness goes too far. It’s one thing to be kindly invited to enter a stranger’s home. It’s another when they assume you’re just as nice… and enter yours. Uninvited. It’s not uncommon for neighbors to walk in and look through your cupboards, just to satisfy their curiosity, while you’re reading on the couch. I’ve had children suddenly appear in my bedroom – just to say hello. Here that’s not invasive. After all, what’s mine is yours.
Tropical Paradise or Hot as Hell?
Some people love the weather here. Most of the time it’s a cloud-free, blue sky place that just happens to have some of the world’s most gorgeous beaches. For those who hate the cold, here is meant for you. But for those of you who enjoy bundling up, stay put where you are. This is one hot-as-hell mother. Good news, though, it’s not hot all the time – it’s also rainy. Tropical storm-y. Typhoon-y. The optimist would say that rainy season is a built-in excuse to stay in your pjs all day and watch movies, and that the rest of the year offers adventure and swim time. The pessimist would say it’s either too damn hot or too damn wet. You decide.
Big Girl on Campus
Vietnam is a study in humility for all you expat ladies. At 5 foot 4 I am officially enormous. My hugeness is a repeat topic of conversation among my Vietnamese friends, most often accompanied by a tummy slap or love handle grab. It’s a compliment to tell me, “You look so nice and fat today.” Vietnam is an honest place. And this honesty is both loved and loathed by foreigners. Vietnamese are direct with their observations and find no harm is calling out the elephant in the room. I no longer stand in front of the mirror worrying if look pretty or ugly. All I need to do is walk outside and my neighbors will tell me. This no-frills approach is equally depressing and refreshing, depending on how cute my outfit is.
The Pig Lady
She deserves her own sub-heading. The Pig Lady and I met when a distinct scent of Gross wafted through my home. Turns out it wasn’t my laundry. The Pig Lady had decided to set up shop right in front of my house. She is sweet, friendly and always waves good morning. She also always brings a freshly slaughtered pig to hack revoltingly on her makeshift table, starting at 6 am. While those of you back home have rush hour to face, I have – literally – a skinned pig face to face. Each day it’s a new one, crying out for help in a Hannibal-like way. Meanwhile Pig Lady is there to kindly tell me to have a nice day at school.
I underestimated Vietnam. After living in five other countries I was sure I could handle this place. And yet, each day it surprises me. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes bad. But at least it’s never boring. The ups and downs here make things frustrating, interesting and downright exhilarating. I may not have known what I was getting into when I moved to Vietnam, but I’m sure glad I’m here. Pig Lady and all.