Vietnam: March 1 – April 10, 2018
Seemingly one of the oddities in life is how much we dislike friction and oppose resistance. As natural as these tendencies are, they are actually a central aspect of progress and evolution. It is true that one of the basic premises in nature is to proceed along the path of least resistance. Yet, those less resistant paths aren’t carved without friction. Like sandpaper against wood, it is friction that eventually smooths the way and it is because of friction that we achieve progress – social, economical, and personal. The times when we confront friction are when true change happens.
My experiences in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) have been a constant dance between friction and resistance in the continual pursuit of personal progress. The friction caused by the environment – the heat, the noise, the language, the organized chaos – and the resistance that I naturally put up to guard self within the environment.
Though I knew that living in Saigon would challenge the depths of my personality, at the end of our second full year of living abroad, we’d intended to stay in Vietnam for 2-3 months in the Spring rather than heading back to Spain. The original plan was to stay a month in Saigon and then head up to the central region if we couldn’t handle the chaos. Ironically, it was a brief trip up to the central region during our stay that confirmed that the friction was too great and the resistance too strong for us to remain beyond our initial 5 weeks in Vietnam.
The more we travel, the more we understand the most effective and efficient areas for our needs. And though the friction of life in Saigon was frenetic and overwhelming at times, in the end, the experience helped to smooth out some rough edges of my perspective and allowed me to see opportunities in a much different light.
A Brief Stop in Malaysia
As I noted in my previous Thailand post, we departed Chiang Mai on the most intense day of the burning season that we had ever experienced. Boarding the plane through the airport jet-way, we could barely see the mountains that were only a few kilometers in the distance. The air was thick, grayish/brown, and nauseating, such that during our short 4-day stay in Kuala Lumpur, I still felt the effects from the pollution in Chiang Mai.
Kuala Lumpur is the epitome of taking the path of least resistance. During our two seasons of living in Thailand, we’ve visited the city 5-6 times – whether for weekend getaways, visa runs, or quick stopovers prior to exploring our South East Asian destinations. As a “poor man’s Singapore”, it has all of the comforts of a major city (shopping, good international food, and quality transportation). It also seems to always be the most affordable direct flight out of Thailand from Chiang Mai and one of the most affordable airports in the region from which to fly to other destinations.
Not only is it affordable, it’s also comfortable. In our brief 4 days in the city, staying at the same apartment complex that we’ve stayed multiple times before, we were able to catch up with some much needed seasonal shopping, maintain our daily workout routines from the rooftop gym/pool, and enjoy a midday brunch with a local friend. For as much as we move around and experience the normal friction of travel and cultural transitions, it’s nice to have the balance of friends, food, and familiar places. The balance helps mitigate the natural internal resistance to change.
Saigon – The Arrival
As we walked into the jet-way upon arrival in Saigon and looked around the airport tarmac, we felt as though we had never left. It had been a year since we were last here. We’d been around the world in that time, having visited 12 countries on 4 continents. Yet for as much as Saigon is uncomfortable and rattles my senses, it was slowly becoming our second “home” in South East Asia, and a good springtime option during the Chiang Mai burning season.
The previous year we stayed in the hectic, bustling District 1 area near the main tourist walking streets – filled with late night karaoke, the endless streams of loud speakers blaring from bicycle street food vendors, and buses honking for everyone to get out of their way at the main intersections, not to mention the stifling heat and humidity. At that time, we didn’t know any better. But after visiting our Aunt Ngoc multiple times last year in the Phu Nhuan District near the river in the middle of the city, we were determined to change our environment this second time around.
Our first stay was in a fairly quiet neighborhood a block away from the river at the aptly named, Casa de Saigon. Though it was a nice place on a quiet street (by Saigon standards), it seemed a bit away from the action and an unnecessarily long walk to our Aunt’s house. Due to the flow of the river and the layout of the streets, getting to her place by foot (which became a 3-4 times a week ritual) was too long for our tastes. Also, though the apartment was quaint, affordable, and on a quiet street, it was made in the traditional Vietnamese/Chinese style of building design – tall and narrow with only windows on the front side of the building. That meant that even during the day, there was no natural light in 80% of the apartment. So we opted to change our venue.
Another truism in life is that you can almost never get 100% of what you want. There are always trade offs. Moving from a dim (but nice) apartment to a sunny, riverfront apartment, we left the quiet and picked up the noise. We left the shade and picked up the heat (from the sun beaming into the bedroom all day long). We left a short walk to cafes and food, and replaced it with a nicer, river walk to our Aunt’s house, but further away from our daily spots to work and relax. Such is life and the process of continual adjustment. We moved away from some types of friction, only to pick up others on the other side of things.
So we eventually settled into our 4-week stay near the river and began to develop our daily rhythms. During the week, we spent most of the time discovering new cafes in the areas to work from and local spots for breakfast and lunch. Though walking in Saigon is far from relaxing, I often enjoyed waking up around 7:30-8AM and taking a 15-min stroll along the river to Tours Le Jours to grab my tasty blueberry muffin, while catching up with my weekly podcasts. Oh the simple pleasures!
Our evenings were evenly divided amongst scoping out new places on our own, having wonderful home-cooked meals at Aunt Ngoc’s place, or having her and her daughter pick us up on their motorbikes for us to treat them to dinners and desserts at their favorite local spots. For as much as the heat, hectic pace, and noise affected us during the day, the nights in this area of Saigon were a nice release. The evening motorbike rides around town to discover new foods, the walks along the river with cool, evening breeze (something unique to this area of town) – they helped to lessen the natural stresses and friction of the day, and cool the senses.
On the weekends, we’d try to explore other parts of town but quickly found that it was just too exhausting to do simple things. When it’s 90+ degrees (and 200% humidity!!!) by 10am and it takes an hour or more to walk 1-1.5 miles through the chaotic streets of the city or even 45-minutes to take a cab 2-3 miles, one’s desire to endure that friction lessens and the enjoyment starts to subside. Luckily, after just 2 weeks in our new apartment, we took a break from the urban jungle. We flew up to the central region to enjoy an extended weekend in the historic and picturesque town of Hoi An with our friends, Yoway and Julie (by way of Valencia and Chiang Mai).
Hoi An – A Break from the Friction
The weekend in Hoi An was exactly what we needed at the time. Going from Chiang Mai to Saigon is a huge shock to the senses and can take some time to adjust. The pace, the culture, and heat, are just so opposite. We missed hearing a simple “hello” or “thank you” when interacting in public. We were tired of being honked at for simply being in the street as motorbikes feverishly (and narrowly) passed by us in a “race to go nowhere.” We wondered if the vibe would be different in the central region, enough to allow us to settle up there for a month or two after our 5 weeks in Saigon.
We had visited Hoi An (and Danang – Vietnam’s third largest city) three years earlier during our belated honeymoon trip. So we were very excited to return, visit some of the same places, and see how the region had changed in such a short time. We were also excited to explore the areas with our friends, who we’d enjoyed adventurous times with in Spain and Thailand during the previous year.
Though our boutique hotel was probably the least “boutique” place I’ve ever stayed, it offered us the chance to rent bicycles and motorbikes during the two weekend days, and we surely took advantage of it. Our first full day was spent purposely getting lost riding around the countryside and the various islands to simply enjoy the cooler weather, sunny, blue skies (something you can rarely see in Saigon even on the “sunniest” day), and endless fields of green. Along the way, one of the bikes got a flat tire and we stopped at a local pub to grab a drink and try to get the tire inflated. Yet, when the locals tried to inflate our tire, their pump popped and broke in half. Argh! Needless to say, we tipped well for our drinks.
We then walked around for a couple of minutes and stumbled upon a family at a house who were able to inflate our tire. We tried to give them a little bit of money for their troubles and they wouldn’t even take it. Perhaps this was the universe’s way of paying us back from a few moments earlier when I was riding through the same neighborhood and found a 50K bill (about $2) lying on the street. I stopped quickly and gestured to the people at the house, and the lady of the house came out to reclaim it in a very appreciable manner.
After another hour or so of biking around, we stumbled upon a seemingly vacant resort and enjoyed another nice break in our random explorations. The setting was quiet, perfect, and all ours. It was such a change of pace from our previous weeks in Saigon.
That night we added another destination to our list of live music moments with Yoway and Julie. Over the previous year, we had enjoyed evenings of live jazz with them in Valencia and in Chiang Mai, and now we found ourselves strolling the cool, dark streets of Hoi An to find another late night gem. We lucked upon Guitar Hawaii, which was surprisingly awesome and a nice way to end our first day of exploration. Over the next couple of days, we transitioned from bicycles to motorbikes and used the enhanced means of transportation to explore more areas of the town. Our goal was see if we felt comfortable enough to stay in the region for an additional few weeks after our time in Saigon.
While exploring the beaches, cafes, and riverside villas was a nice, relaxing weekend adventure, we quickly realized that we wouldn’t be able to tolerate all of the friction of life in Vietnam beyond our 5-week stay. When you have the choice to live anywhere, it really alters how you deal with friction and resistance. Sure, life in Vietnam would be noticeably more affordable than life in Europe for 2-3 months but Europe seems to call to us in the Spring. And we knew that if we didn’t jump at the chance to spend the springtime in Europe, we wouldn’t have the chance for the rest of the year due to travel schedules and comfortable weather patterns.
So after spending our final day in the region scoping out Danang as a potential short-term stay in the future, we decided to book our tickets to Spain and make the most of our remaining 2.5 weeks in Saigon before departing to Europe for the Spring.
Saigon – The Departure
Making the most of our remaining time in Saigon, meant trying to lessen the friction by enjoying the simple pleasures of daily life. Luckily, we had some friends in town, so we enjoyed evenings hosting them at some of our favorite local restaurants and having drinks on our rooftop deck. We used every other opportunity to enjoy evening motorbike rides with Aunt Ngoc and treated her to dinners out as much as she treated us to fabulous home-cooked meals. But just after a week back from our relaxing getaway, I got hit with a 24-48 hour bug that completely zapped my energy and forced me to face the friction that I had been resisting during our entire stay in Saigon.
As I noted in my previous post titled, “3 AM – The Shadow Side of Downsizing My Life to Live Abroad,” I hit a difficult yet important breaking point during our time in Saigon.
“The things that once gave me a sense of self have long been taken away and the power of their memories I must fight to regain. It’s Saturday, March 31, 2018 at 12pm and I’m lying on the sofa at our apartment in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in a cold sweat. My entire body is sore and I have barely enough energy to prepare a meal for myself. Today, it takes hours before I’m able to regain the energy to leave the couch and I never gather enough strength to leave the building. Instead, time speaks to me through dreams, soreness, and flu-like sweats, because in all other conditions I’ve been unable to listen.”
Life in Saigon has always been a challenge for me and for a variety of reasons, I have tried to resist the lessons that this challenge was trying to teach me. Yet, that day, the city held me down and forced me to listen. Thankfully, I did because on that day my perspective began to shift, allowing me to absorb the friction in a different way and use it in a different manner. Ultimately, as such is life, my altered perspective would be tested greatly upon our departure from the city of insanity.
On April 10, we arrived at the Saigon airport 3.5 hours ahead of our flight – and thankfully we did. Weeks earlier, my wife had received a brand new passport at the US Consulate in Saigon and we knew that her previous visa (on her old passport) might cause problems with her exit since her new passport was completely blank. Once this was settled after 30 minutes of running around the airport terminal speaking with random personnel, it was the least of our problems. For reasons far too complex and nuanced to weave into this post, we were almost prevented from getting on our flight from Saigon to Valencia (by way of Singapore and Zurich).
It was as if the contract workers for JetStar Airways were sent to work that day simply to test our resolve. They simply couldn’t understand that we didn’t need to have an exit flight out of Spain prior to boarding our flight in Vietnam. After pleading for nearly an hour with the staff, who demanded that we buy a ticket on the spot before they would give us our boarding passes, they eventually backed down and “took our word” that we would not overstay our time in Europe. “Wheew…thank gawd, get us out of here!”
Yet, the EXACT SAME THING happened just a few hours later in Singapore. Twice in one night we were almost denied boarding for our flights to get out of Asia. So you can imagine the amount of joy and excitement we felt upon landing in the Zurich the next morning. The early morning, on-time arrival gave us enough time to leave the airport and take the 15-min train in to the center of town to enjoy a brief 2-hour walkabout and welcome ourselves to Europe for the Spring.
Zurich – Our European Arrival
It was an absolutely gorgeous (albeit, chilly) morning in Zurich. Having just come from 7 months of 90+ degree daily temps, walking around in temps closer to 40 degrees at the time was a shock to the senses. But so was the ability to walk along wide sidewalks and boulevards, without endless hazards and obstacles. Without being honked at…with vehicles actually stopping at crosswalks, so that you can walk safely across the street.
I had been to Zurich for just one day 12 years earlier during my first ever visit to Europe and I enjoyed showing off the city to my wife for her first time. Given all that we had experienced in the previous 20 hours of travel just getting to this place, our walk that morning felt like a major gift from above – for not only the last 20 hours but the last 5 weeks of friction felt during our time in Saigon. It was a perfect way to welcome ourselves to Europe – walking along the quiet streets, sniffing the warm, soothing smells of baking bread, taking in the gorgeous sunlit views of the river, the lake, and the amazing European architecture – all the things that we anxiously awaited to enjoy again during our springtime in Europe.
Lesson Learned – Saigon in Short Bursts
The more we travel, the more we understand the most effective and efficient areas for our needs. There are things we love about Saigon and things we dislike; things that challenge us in ways that no other environments seem to do. While the environment may be effective for us at certain times of the year, it’s not necessarily efficient. And that’s okay. We understand that we can experience those things that we love about it – family and food, mostly – in short bursts.
Yet, the friction that it creates for us must be acknowledged. We must listen to it and try to understand what life is attempting to teach us in those moments. Due to that friction, I came away from that experience in a much better place to maximize our upcoming 2-month stay in Europe. That friction helped to smooth some of the rough edges of my mental framework that had been limiting some of my enjoyment along this phase of life.
For as much as the friction may have scarred me during this time in Saigon, once the emotional and psychological wounds began to heal, a true shift in my life experience began to take shape. And our springtime stay in Spain – the third time around – would be a true testament to that life lesson.
Read more Tales from the Nomadic Adventure and find out where we’ll be in the coming months.