On Leaving Vietnam

I came to Vietnam expecting to be there for just three months before leaving for Thailand, but it wasn’t until 18 months later that I finally said my final goodbye’s to a city that can be charming, frustrating, colorful and off-putting at the same time. Consider this a farewell post, if you will, a hodgepodge of thoughts and reflections on the city where I’ve lived nearly a third of my adult life.

First up, a video I played at my going-away party. This is just a collection of photos and videos from my time in Vietnam, and I had it projected on a wall during the party. Its a little long and wasn’t intended for this purpose, but maybe you’ll find it interesting:

Why I Left Vietnam

I left Vietnam for good June 8th, am currently in Malaysia and headed to India in two days for the next six months. I spent a year and a half working for V-TRAC, which was the first American-owned company to start operations in Vietnam immediately following the trade embargo. I worked as the Marketing Manager there for nearly a year before transferring to work exclusively on Business Development issues. What is “Business Development,” you ask? It basically meant working directly with the CEO and Chief of Staff on just about every type of management issue you can imagine, from financial planning and forecasting, developing deals with external partners, and developing organizational changes. Due to the nature of what I was doing I can’t be more specific, but I had a fantastic time, worked with some amazing people, and had a lot of opportunities to develop a pretty wide range of skills.

But my true passion is for startup-entrepreneurship. I love the challenge of taking on an idea that’s never been done before and finding a way to make it work. I love the responsibility of being in charge of managing a project, and being personally responsible for its success or failure. I need the freedom to be my own boss and to make my own schedule. This hardly means working less hours; in fact, I’ve never worked harder or longer than I have since becoming my own boss. I want ownership in my work, to be personally rewarded for its success or to go down with the ship if it sinks. Most importantly, I want to work on something that truly inspires me and that I’m passionate about. With all this in mind, I started laying plans to pursue this dream, and now six months later, its on.

Top Five things I’m Going to Miss About Vietnam

  1. My expat friends. One thing I’ve learned from traveling is that the architecture and sights and sounds of a city are only the skin-deep qualities of a place. The people are what makes a city a home and what constitutes the vast majority of life in a placee. I met some amazing people in Hanoi, both expats and locals. Expat-wise, you can certainly meet amazing people anywhere, there are certain self-selected qualities of expat Hanoians. Hanoi is a tough place to live. The traffic is madness, the language vexing, and the logistics of living complicated enough that even the simplest errands can turn into escapades of boundless frustration. There aren’t thriving clubs, there’s no abundance of social activities, and the revolving door of expats makes lasting and meaningful friendships difficult to find. Yet those that choose to come in the first place and perservere are of a certain mold, and truly  I have some great friends in Hanoi that I’ll miss being close distance-wise to.
  2. My Vietnamese friends. I’m not going to sugar-coat things to avoid offending people, so truthfully I’ll say that in general, Vietnamese people are not as friendly and warm as their Thai and Malay neighbors, atleast when you first arrive. I think this probably has something to do with a long history of violence, foreign occupation, and  history of poverty that is both a result of these violent struggles and the fact that only in the past twenty years has Vietnam made economic reforms conducive to economic growth. But once you get to know Vietnamese individuals, once they see you’re not a douchebag tourist, the bounds of their friendliness can be limitless. My co-workers showed me endless care and concern, and over a year and a half I had the chance to become close with quite a few locals that I can’t help but smile when I think about.
  3. Riding a Motorbike. I love motorcycles. So much so that I got my motorcycle license when I was 20, even though I had never ridden one before and wasn’t going to own one anytime soon. What a pleasant surprise when I arrived to find that motorbikes ruled the road in Vietnam. I found it thrilling to weave through traffic, tear it up bombing down the highways, and cruising around with a passenger on the back in the uniquely-intimate form of travel that a motorbike provides. I seriously thank my lucky stars that I was able to escape Vietnam without any serious accident-related injuries, as I’ve got more friends than fingers that haven’t been so lucky. But I’ll always miss the freedom and thrill of motorbike riding in Hanoi.
  4. Speaking what little Vietnamese I can. Vietnamese is a damned difficult language to learn. I think it took me three weeks to remember the trifecta of “hello”, “thank you”, and “where is the bathroom?”. I ended up studying witha  private tutor one hour a day, five days aweek for nine months. I got to the point where I could understand maybe 40% of what was said to me (not 40 of the language, 40% of what was said to me), could basically make most basic points, and even toy around with a little humor every now and then. After all that work, it was satisfying to be able to speak a little. In my mind, it made me different from the aforementioned douchebag tourists, helped me to connect with locals and gain their trust and respect, and made life their much easier. I’ll miss having the chance to speak the language going forward. Now I just have to learn Hindi!
  5. Cheap and easy travel. I had the chance to visit ~19 cities in Vietnam, as well as take trips to Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Myanmar during my time in Vietnam. Tickets were rarely over $150, with relatively easy access to most destinations. As Julia put it, in the U.S. maybe you take a trip or two each year to a ski resort or a beach while paying several hundred bucks for each trip. Not so in Vietnam, and I’ll miss the cheap and easy access to some awesome vacation destinations.

Four Things I Won’t Miss About Vietnam

  1. The noise pollution. I dare you to find peace and quiet in Hanoi. Everywhere you go, the incessant horn-honking follows you around like a ghost that’s cursed you, and the madness of the roads only heightens the feeling of overwhelmingness that accompanies the constant racket of life in Hanoi. I’m not sure India will be any better, but I can say I won’t miss that aspect of Vietnam.
  2. The “foreigner tax”. Everywhere you go, people are trying to hustle you. Bargaining is a fact of life, and being a foreigner means that people will try to take advantage of your perceived relative wealth. I don’t blame them, as I’m sure I’d be doing the exact same in their shoes, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.
  3. The absolutely terrible service. Having been a waiter myself, typically I’m full of sympathy for wait staff at establishments. It was hard to have sympathy in Vietnam, because 4 times out of 5 the service would have been pitiable if it weren’t so frustrating. Basic service conventions are absent, and getting the attention of service staff requires shouting across the restaurant or waiving your hands frantically. At every meal, you’ll have to repeat your order four times, usually to two different people. Part of it is the language barrier, but the majority of it is simply apathy on the part of the staff. The root cause of this is the absence of a tipping culture, and the root cause of that is the history of poverty in the country. Whatever the cause, I won’t miss the poor service.
  4. How hard it is to find the simplest of items. There are no Walmarts in Vietnam, no fully-stocked general stores. You can find probably 50% of the items you can find in the U.S. in Vietnam, but it won’t be easy. Want paper supplies? Find the paper stores, and god knows where they are. Need some tacks or a whiteboard? Godspeed. I’m sure the locals findstuff easier, but as a foreigner I wasn’t alone in having difficulties getting what I needed. Personally, I think its a great business opportunity for someone who wants to start a service that as a catologue and hires locals to track down and deliver the items you need.

My Four Favorite Places in Vietnam

  1. Hoi An. This sleepy little beach town in central Vietnam is just an $80 RT ticket from Hanoi and offers the serenity of an island paradise, culinary delights that comfort the soul, and reasonably high-quality and super-inexpensive tailored clothes.
  2. Phu Quoc. What can I say, I like the beach. Despite the grueling busride to get there, Phu Quoc is an island off the southern coast that offers miles of empty beaches, beautiful water, and a large interior perfect for exploring.
  3. Sapa. Sapa is located in the mountainous northwest of the country, and is a hotspot for tourists looking to ogle at the hill tribes. Personally I found visiting the tourist-oriented hilltribes to be pretty off-putting, but climbing Mt. Fancy Pants (Fansipan) was quite a rewarding challenge.
  4. Hanoi. If you’re choosing between Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, in my humble opinion there’s no question. Yes, Ho Chi Minh is more modern, has a better nightlife, and maybe the people are slightly friendlier. But its ugly, there’s not that much going on culture-wise, and its a concrete jungle. Hanoi has the charm of its 1000 year old history, the benefit of a relatively small population, and indispensable lakes scattered throughout the city that break up the monotony of concrete and dirt. The absence of a huge nightlife scene keeps the expat scene rather intimate, with less drunken one-night friendships and a more real sense of community.

Five Things I Learned in Vietnam

Below are five realizations I’ve had while living in Vietnam. That said, its hard to say if they’re from living in Vietnam or just living on my own as an adult for the first time. Without psycho-analyzing myself too much, here they are:

  1. There’s a big difference between “travelers” and “tourists,” and you should aspire to be a “traveler”. The big difference is that tourists go to a place because they like the idea of going there, but have no sincere interest in the culture, the people, or the nuances of where they go. Being an expat, you run across a lot of “travelers”, and generally have a self-righteous (but semi-justified) contempt for the willfully-ignorant and disdainful tourists.
  2. Go with your gut. Both professionally, romantically, and generally, your gut is absolutely an ally when making difficult decisions. If your gut is telling you something’s wrong or right, then you should take that into serious consideration.
  3. The physical attributes of a place aren’t nearly as important as the people there. Dirt is pretty much the same everywhere you go, and architecture can be an aesthetic plus, but these pale in comparison to the importance of who you meet and know in a place. People turn a city into a home, or a “paradise” into a wasteland. Don’t forget to engage them.
  4. Living abroad is good for the soul. I always hated the term “expat” because it made me feel like I’d betrayed my home country and abandoned it for good. That’s just not true, and I can’t wait to return home semi-permanently some day. That said, living abroad gives you a perspective on your own culture that is both healthy and challenging at the same time. Specifically, it shows you that many of the things you take for granted shouldn’t be taken for granted.
  5. My true passion is entrepreneurship. I’ve known this on some level for a few years, but for some reason it really clicked with me while I was in Vietnam. Its not just that I detest the idea of a 9-5, its that I love the responsibility, uncertainty, and opportunity of taking ownership of an idea and doing whatever is necessary to make it happen. This was a major impetus for me leaving, and for at least the next six months, I’ll be pursuing entrepreneurship full-time. But having this realization and accepting whole-heartedly has been a major transformation that I’ve experienced and is a huge motivating force for me going forward.

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