Lists and Short Thoughts – Thinking About the Past Year

(So I started this post a few weeks ago, but once I recovered from my cold I sort of forgot to finish it… Today I left Vietnam and I’m still a bit choked up, but finishing this made me think about all of the great things I’ve experienced and also what I’ve got to look forward to in the future. I’ll post more about Vietnam sooner or later, but be sure to look out for my upcoming entries – Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore!)

Looking to the future
Looking to the future

I’m sitting in one of my favorite cafes, alternating between lesson planning and reading think-pieces about the new Avengers movie (TLDR- Black Widow is awesome, deserved better, we need more female superheroes. Don’t hate on Joss Whedon, he’s still amazing). As I’m sitting here, a woman dressed in what is either a wedding or prom dress has walked out of the bathroom with a photographer in tow. They’re currently having a full-on photo shoot in the middle of this busy cafe, presumably because the brick interior is good for photos.

What’s notable about this particular event is that… I barely noticed it. Honestly, this happens pretty frequently. I’ve never met anyone who loves photos like the Vietnamese, and professional-level photo shoots in random places are pretty common. If it’s not someone with extra lighting and a fancy camera, then it’s a group of university students taking a full hour to pose in a trendy coffee shop, often with multiple outfits and props. It’s quite a sight, and one that I will certainly miss once I leave Vietnam in just over two weeks.

The Selfie game is strong here in Vietnam
The Selfie game is strong here in Vietnam

The pre-departure sentimentality is hitting me hard, with every conversation reminding me exactly how little time I have left. Whether it’s the realization that I only have one more class with my favorite students, or the way I have to kick myself to get things done NOW, these days most of my time is spent reflecting on the past year and the things I will miss most when I leave. I’m a fan of lists, and since I recently caught a cold and am not really up to that whole “making the most of every day” thing I talked about last post, I decided to share a few of my current lists.

Things I Will Miss:

This list is LONG. I’ve condensed it here for the sake of brevity, but rest assured, I have loved Vietnam and I hope to come back someday to revisit many of these foods/people/places/etc.

FOOD. Anyone who has ever visited Vietnam, or been to a decent Vietnamese restaurant will likely talk your ear off about the wonders of Vietnamese cuisine. Yes, it is delicious, and varied enough that I haven’t gotten sick of it in eight months here. And while most are familiar with Vietnamese-American mainstays like pho and banh mi, it’s the lesser known (but equally delicious) dishes I’ll miss most. Bun thit nuong (cold vermicelli noodles with pickled veggies and grilled pork), Vietnamese fried chicken, and com suon (something like pork short ribs? There are so many variations on this one it’s hard to say).

Vietnamese BBQ (well, this might actually be "Korean style")
Vietnamese BBQ (well, this might actually be “Korean style”)

Friends and Coworkers. I have been so lucky in the past year to have met some amazing people who I will sincerely miss. I don’t think I can really get into it here or I’ll get too sad and mushy, but this year would have been a disaster without them, and I hope to keep in touch with many of them. I know that I will return to Vietnam someday to see all of my amazing friends again.

Spicy noodle adventure with a group of friends, including many of the teaching assistants. Noodles went from level 0 to 7 spice, and level 1 took me DOWN. No spicy food for me, please.
Spicy noodle adventure with a group of friends, including many of the teaching assistants. Noodles went from level 0 to 7 spice, and level 1 took me DOWN. No spicy food for me, please.

Cost of living. I have lived a bit of an extravagant lifestyle this past year. I eat out most meals, go to coffee shops almost every day, take weekend trips and buy things when I feel like it. It’s going to be a bit of a shock when I return to countries where a fancy meal costs more than $6. Actually, anything costing over $10 will be a shock. My daily budget here is $10, and I usually only spend $5. The other day I had to get a physical and the whole thing, including an x-ray and taxi fare to and from the hospital, was under $20. My favorite breakfast costs $0.50. Life is good here.

One of my favorite meals - bun thit nuong, very conveniently located next to the center I work at. And it costs roughly 75 cents.
One of my favorite meals – bun thit nuong, very conveniently located next to the center I work at. And it costs roughly 75 cents.

Easy access to travel. Travel within Vietnam is so easy! Buses are cheap and reasonably comfortable (though roads may not be as nice). There’s a train that runs from Hanoi to Saigon (which I’ve never taken but would love to one day!) and many cities have airports. It’s equally simple to travel to neighboring countries for relatively little cost. I’ve seen round trip tickets to Taiwan for as little as $20, which is crazy! I sometimes wish I had taken advantage of this more, but oh well.

This is the "before" picture on our sleeper bus to the mountains. The after photo looked decidedly sleepier, and a bit more anxious after a long night of crazy driving.
This is the “before” picture on our sleeper bus to the mountains. The after photo looked decidedly sleepier, and a bit more anxious after a long night of crazy driving.

Cafe culture! This is a big one. This year I’ve spent so much time in coffee shops and cafes, and my usual routine included going to between one and three coffee shops in a single day. Not only is the coffee here great (fun fact – Vietnamese coffee gets its distinct taste from the roasting process. It’s roasted in butter and fish sauce, which sounds strange but tastes amazing), but the variety of styles, themes and offerings is fantastic. I would go to cafes with friends and hang out for hours, or hang out on my own (like now) to get in some blogging or finish up my lesson plans. Nobody cares if you stay for six hours and only buy one drink. It’s wonderful, and my life is going to have a big, coffee-shaped hole in my life.

Definitely not your typical Vietnamese coffee, but you get the idea
Definitely not your typical Vietnamese coffee, but you get the idea

Experiencing a new culture. Learning about the lives and experiences of people in Vietnam has been both fascinating and eye-opening. I believe everyone should find a way to put themselves in a situation completely outside of your normal life and try this. I’ve learned a lot about the world, about Vietnam, about the way I view things and how and why others might see them differently. Some things are great,  some are bad, and some are a mixed bag. Either way, life was never too dull. Every time I started feeling too comfortable, something would catch me off guard. It was also humbling to know that no matter if I spent eight months or eight years here, I could never possibly learn every facet of the culture. Amazing.

That one time I went to a wedding in the countryside and the family wouldn't let me stop dancing. They pulled me back on the floor for an extra four or five songs, even as I was trying to put on my helmet and ride away. Khmer weddings are fun (and LOUD!)
That one time I went to a wedding in the countryside and the family wouldn’t let me stop dancing. They pulled me back on the floor for an extra four or five songs, even as I was trying to put on my helmet and ride away. Khmer weddings are fun (and LOUD!)

Free time. Oh man, was my schedule ever open this year! Teaching between 1.5-6 hours most days meant I had lots of time to spend with friends, explore the city, and generally do what I wanted. I set a goal to read 25 books this year and am already at the halfway point! But the best thing about this was probably that my friends, mostly other teachers and students/recent graduates, were able to hang out all the time, with little prior notice. It felt like college, where you could just go down the hall and knock on someone’s door and ask them if they want food. I’m going to miss this quite a bit.

Color Me Run with my friends
Color Me Run with my friends in Ho Chi Minh City

Things I Will NOT Miss

It’s been a great year, but let’s be real – it can’t all be sunshine and rainbows, com suon and ca phe sua.

Being the token white person/foreigner. This seems self-explanatory. It involves a lot of photo-taking, often to the point where my face hurts from smiling, an expectation that I will pay more for certain things, and sometimes awkward questions. But in the end, this isn’t so bad, sometimes it’s even great. I went to karaoke a while ago and one of the employees asked to take promotional photos of our group singing, which I think might have gotten us a discount. So hey. Either way I signed up knowing full well what I was getting myself into, but sometimes I miss being able to fade into a crowd…

What's better than photos of your foreign teacher? Photos of her wearing traditional Vietnamese farming clothes. I'm marketing gold.
What’s better than photos of your foreign teacher? Photos of her wearing traditional Vietnamese farming clothes. I’m marketing gold.

Traffic. Yes, the traffic in Vietnam is crazy. Can Tho isn’t so bad, but there have been a few close calls, and one almost-accident where my leg got bumped by another motorbike. Since I rode a bicycle instead of a moto, it wasn’t so bad, but I’m glad I didn’t live in a bigger city like Saigon. I took a ride with my friend there last week and it was a bit frightening. But as with all things, I got used to the traffic here and now I feel perfectly comfortable riding down the busy streets. Sometimes I worry that my crazy riding habits will follow me home… best to ease back into driving slowly, I think.

No traffic in the countryside! But lots of scary bridges, and a sore butt after riding that long...
No traffic in the countryside! But lots of scary bridges, and a sore butt after riding that long…

Language barriers. Ok, a lot of this one’s on me. I never learned much Vietnamese. Between having friends/housemates who can speak and the surprising amount of English spoken/English menus provided at restaurants, I learned very quickly how little language I needed to get by. I guess I learned this on Pac Rim too, since you know I didn’t learn much Mongolian or Chinese, but I made it through just fine. My Vietnamese skills extend about as far as ordering food and telling you my age and occupation/nationality. I also have a talent for remembering only strange/dirty words, which is always fun, but not particularly helpful when you want directions to the bus station. Also, it was sometimes lonely when my friends would speak together in Vietnamese, and I couldn’t participate. This was never done on purpose, but it happened frequently, and was always a bit alienating. I also was only able to make friends with people whose English was at least conversational, which leaves out a lot of really cool people. So, my advice to anyone living abroad? Learn the language!

Things I’m Looking Forward to

Because I can’t just dwell on the past! My future is looking good, and I’ve got lots of exciting things in store. As some of you may know, I recently accepted a new job – starting in August I’ll be an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) for the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program! I don’t have many details yet, but I’ll be living on the southern island of Kyushu, likely in a rural area, possibly teaching high school students. It’s all TBA, and I’ll be sure to make a post soon about what’s happening. And in case you were wondering, yes, this is why I went to Guam back in February. JET applicants are required to interview in their home country, and the closest thing to the US was Guam. It’s been quite a process…

Other things on the horizon include a trip to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, followed by two weeks in Australia with my aunt Cindy. And after that, one month at home before I start this all over again. The fun never stops!

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