For the past few years the thought of settling down anywhere had been as unwelcome as a fart in a spacesuit, (thank you Billy Connolly). It was against every normal instinct, a notion as a backpacker, I’d striven to avoid. I was nomadic, always on the move and looking for something new. As my Nan so elegantly put it, I had ants in my pants! But alas I felt the time was right. I’d grown desperate to unpack my rucksack and the thought of a stable income had become more appealing than I ever thought possible.
So we made a decision to settle, of a sort. We, being myself and my girlfriend (the brains, beauty and catalyst behind this crazy escapade). For weeks we toiled over where to settle, not yet ready to retire our rucksacks but merely give them a break. After circling a globes worth of potential places to call our home we ended up back where we started – Asia. Having earned our backpacker stripes roaming this beautiful continent it seemed the obvious choice. A culture far removed from the ones we grew up in but this I think, was exactly what we were looking for. In particular, one place called out to us. For me, a place which held especially fond memories of a journey which flew by far too fast. For Liska a new place, but one that seemed almost familiar. Together we decided on Vietnam and set in motions plans to become English teachers. This I suppose, was the easy part. Settling in, well therein lies the story.
Before heading to Vietnam we decided to make a pit stop in my home town. It served as a chance to catch up with old friends and family whilst providing us with a solid base to organise our next big move. As always, time spent at home was far too brief. We spent too much time stressing over Vietnamese visas and budgeting like savings accounts were going out of fashion. Time with family and friends was so dreadfully limited and before we knew it we were back on a plane. I know what you’re thinking, “Oh poor Matt, off to travel again, it must be so hard for poor Matt.” Honestly I’m not complaining about the lifestyle; I love it! But it’s not all flip flops and coconuts – I value that precious resource of time spent with the important people in my life. I remind myself every time I leave of the brilliance of knowing that wherever I am I have two places to call my home – where I am and where I’m from.
Arriving in Vietnam is an eye opener. We had decided to base ourselves in Ho Chi Minh and came prepared to experience what is arguably Asia’s craziest city. Modern enough that they are keeping up with the 21st century, but traditional enough to show that they haven’t quite mastered it yet. It’s a jungle of stark contrasts – adept of regulation yet never straightforward, lacking guidance but drowning in unwritten rules. We arrived with open eyes but soon realised we’d have to open them much wider. Initially we stayed with a friend in Saigon’s District One; the epicenter of crazy. Her traditional apartment, just off Vo Thi Sau, provided us with a great location from which to get to grips with the city. Our first full day was spent organizing phones and documents. From then on we put out the feelers for work, but it being a Friday responses were non forthcoming. Instead we asked lots of questions and took lots of notes but decided to leave the hard graft until Monday.
Our first weekend was spent with friends. Their value has been immeasurable not only as friends but as a resource. We hopped on the back of their bikes and headed south to the Mekong Delta where we spent a day acclimatising. Great decision. We experienced the roads, we ogled at the beauty of this unique country and we relaxed in the serenity of the Vietnamese countryside. It set us up perfectly for the week ahead which undoubtedly became one of the most stressful yet gratifying weeks we’d ever experienced!
On Monday morning we took the metaphorical bull by the horns! Armed with a laptop, a strong resolve and even stronger Vietnamese coffee, we rinsed Starbucks for every ounce of free internet we could muster and sent our CV to schools throughout the city. At the same time we organised to view houses all over Ho Chi Minh and organised unholy amounts of document packets for the inevitable CV dropping session. By Tuesday morning we had interviews arranged methodically for the next three days. We felt unprepared, not expecting things to move so fast. We raced from interviews to house viewings and on to schools to drop off our CV’s. By the time the sun had set we were exhausted but dragged our tired minds around the city fueled by an obligation we felt to get to know it. Wednesday morning brought about another interview; one which we deemed promising. Between worrying about how the interviews were going, we stressed about which apartment to choose. Should it be cheap and basic? Can we afford a nice place? What if we don’t find work? What if it doesn’t feel like home? We had questions to ask and decisions to make, but no time to find the answers we craved. At lunchtime on the Wednesday we both received a call in regards to the interview we’d had that morning. They wanted to see us again – THAT AFTERNOON. They wanted to offer us a job; talk about out of the blue. Panic ensued! Should we take it? But, its only been a day? What about the other interviews? When would we start?
To answer that question, we started the next morning. Arriving at the office at 7.30am we were shown to our desks in an office full of teachers. We observed the classes we would take over, learnt a little bit about the company and resided ourselves to the fact that we were now Cambridge English, Maths and Science teachers to a future generation of Vietnam. Oh, and that evening we moved into our apartment. Standing on our balcony with the chaos of district one in the distance and a cool evening breeze on our face we took a deep breath and slowly came to terms with the last 72 hours. It was as though we’d crashed headfirst into Vietnamese life. We’d hit everything on the way through, been battered by the debris but had somehow come through with everything we wanted whilst being mildly unsure how we’d done it.
This was just the beginning. Now that we had some form of stability in the shape of a job and a place to live, we had to find our feet. We took the plunge early and rented bikes as soon as the weekend rolled around. Joining the roads in Vietnam is daunting. There is no learning curve, you learn simply by doing. It soon becomes fun, very fun, in a video game kind of way. It almost doesn’t seem real. There are very few rules and each journey is its own unique challenge. Granted the challenge is not to die, but its strangely entertaining! I look forward to getting on the bike every morning and there is no better feeling than mounting your two wheels at the end of a tough day. The bikes opened up the city to us. Every spare minute was spent checking out new, vibrant markets and finding new ways to bypass the city’s manic traffic. We sought out places to eat, places to hang out, coffee shops and bars. Everything was new; but it meant that everyday became an adventure. Work progressed nicely, the kids were great, and building relationships with them was the most rewarding feeling. Battling office bureaucracy could be a long and tiresome war but as with most things the thrill is in the chase.
Unsurprisingly there have been tough days – sometimes all the excitement is just too much. We harbor worries about money, job satisfaction and the future. They nestle at the back of our minds waiting for an inconvenient moment to surface. We become frustrated at the fact that we hold back from nice meals, nights out and features for our home. Counting down the days till payday is a laborious task, but one not uncommon to the rest of humanity.We are slowly making that transition to ‘the real world’, albeit in Vietnam, but the real world all the same.
This first month has flown by. We now call Ho Chi Minh our home, but becoming settled is a long and winding road. I’m not even sure what settled feels like; its a word I haven’t used for years and a feeling I have learned to live without. Settling in Vietnam is our goal and when it happens no one in the history of time will have felt as satisfied and content as we will. We are fully committed to it; its everything we strive for and I have no doubt it will come. Until then we’ll delve back into the chaos and find our way. In this unique country amongst these beautiful people we’ll make our home.