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Life in Ho Chi Minh City: A Year in Retrospect

My family and I have now been in Vietnam for almost a year, and have settled in well to both ex-pat life and work/school. With only a few weeks until the end of the school year, and our minds beginning to dwell on going home for the summer, it feels like a good time to reflect on some of our experiences, both positive and, well, those more challenging…

5 things  I’ve learned in Vietnam…

1.      You will never meet more friendly people.

The smiling isn’t just for show. People here are genuinely glad to see you, to meet you. Whether it’s a teenager wishing you a good weekend – a far cry from the mad rush for the exits on a Friday afternoon in England! – or a lady trying to sell you a completely over-priced t-shirt in Ben Than Market, it’s always with a smile that reaches to the eyes. I will never forget the moment that a waitress in Phu Quoc, seeing my seven-year-old throwing the usual infantile tantrum over not wanting to eat her lunch, simply walked over and began brushing her hair, singing to her softly in Vietnamese, and soothing her distress almost instantaneously.

2.      Hail stones hurt more on a scooter.

When it rains here, it rains. Having ‘passed’ my scooter test back in January (the inverted commas may be read into how you will…) I thankfully avoided riding in anything but the most clement weather. With the onset of monsoon season once again, I had the misfortune of being caught out in a storm and, even with a supposedly waterproof jacket on, found myself and all my possessions soaked to the skin. It’s that point when the traffic stops and you wobble precariously before finally succumbing to putting your foot down in three inches of murky brown water that reminds you why you drive a car in England. At least the rain’s warm here, though…

3.      In Saigon, you can eat anything.

Vietnamese food is fantastic – varied, fresh, unique – but we all want a change from time to time, especially when living rather than just visiting somewhere. Saigon reminds me of London for the variety and quality of its food: Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Italian, South American, Western… I’ve visited so many cities around the world where the food may be good, but is also quite parochial. And it’s not just food: we were warned before we arrived about all the little things we wouldn’t be able to find here; those little day-to-day luxuries than were seemingly unobtainable like sun cream or cosmetics or size 10 shoes. To which I say: search and ye shall find. Because there’s not a lot that you can’t get, if you look hard enough.

4.      Progress happens, whether we like it or not.

Go anywhere in Ho Chi Minh City and buildings are shooting up – apartment blocks, shopping malls, the metro. As more and more wealth pours into the country, the signs of development increase exponentially. It may not be pretty, it may affect our Western sensibilities as to what a South East Asian country should look like, but it’s inevitable. IN Phu Quoc people complained constantly about the rise in the number of hotels, particularly an enormous complex to the north of the island with no less than three golf courses! It would ruin the natural beauty, take away the rustic charm of the island, bring in the ‘wrong’ sort of  people. But to the locals it meant literally thousands of jobs. Add to that the fact that only where there are hotels are the beaches cleaned of litter, the environmental impact might be more positive than we’d like to believe. I overheard someone else complain of a home stay in Sapa that:”It was ridiculous – they had television and everything! That’s not real Vietnam!” But Vietnamese people want – and are just as entitles to – the same luxuries that the rest of the world desires.

And I bet she booked her home stay on the internet in the first place…

5.     Kids are kids

We are fed something of a fallacy in the West that all Asian children are inherently good at maths, they’re diligent, hard-working, there are no behaviour issues… but don’t believe a word of it! I’m luck working at BVIS that the students are some of the most lovely, determined and talented young people I’ve ever had the pleasure to teach. And whilst we have some of the most talented mathematicians at their age in the world, there are also quite a few who don’t find it so easy. Or who even like the subject! Some of them don’t do their homework, answer back, are silly in the corridors; they occasionally write nasty things on Facebook and fall out with their friends. In short, they’re children, with the same issues as children everywhere, the same challenges, the same pressures to conform and be a part of one social niche or another. They’re not automatons who abide by every rule and instruction given by an adult, be it parent or teacher. But wouldn’t life be boring if they were?

There’s so much more to say, and in a country as rich and diverse as this I’ve not nearly done Vietnam justice, but that’s just a snap shot of my thoughts at the end of my first year. I’ve not even mentioned crossing the road, or things you can’t carry on the back of a scooter, but I know that this is just the beginning of my time here. It’s been a wonderful adventure so far, and I can’t wait for the experiences to follow in the coming years.

Mr Simon Graves – Head of Secondary School

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