I stare at the potato chips on top of my “Most American Thickburger” from Hardee’s and it just isn’t the same. Back in Vietnam, whether it was 1pm and I had skipped breakfast or it was 1am after a show, a quick hop on my crappy, seat-peeling Honda Wave and I had a bowl of phở or bún thịt nướng hand-crafted and handed to me in minutes.
I can still picture the gleam on the ceramic floor from the day’s worth of splashes. The chill of the aluminum table underneath my arms, and the anticipation when the bowl was plopped down in front of me, smoking and steaming, ready to be drenched in xa (bean sprouts) or fish sauce or whatever that night called for.
And don’t get me started on the chay food — we’ll be here all day.
Vietnamese coffee is a different being. It’s thicker and juicier and more satisfying; it gives you the impression that it’s the way coffee should taste. It’s brewed in a phin, a four-part filter, to give it its freshness. At any café worth its weight, they’ll bring you your coffee while it’s still seeping through the filter, and while you do have to wait a few minutes, it’s worth every second. A little bit of sữa (condensed milk) at the bottom and it’s an addiction for any conscious human waiting to happen.
And yet somehow, when Starbucks came onto the scene in Saigon, the line was wrapped around the block. Sure, the experience of Starbucks is one we all should have (I guess?), but it’s something you should have once — and then go back to the phin. Judging by the immense coffee culture all across the country, I’m guessing the Vietnamese have realized this, and hopefully it’s just a matter of time before the rest of us catch on.
Towards the end of my tenure (or so I call it) in Vietnam, I was tutoring once in a while, but the rest of my income came from singing in a band and doing one-off creative gigs like commercials and voice-overs. I started and ended my modeling career in Vietnam, and I’m pretty sure I’m never going to get paid $600 to stand next to a campfire and be blonde ever again. The entire world felt like it was at my feet, and it spoiled me rotten. In America, I’m lucky to get a freelance writing gig when I can, and any hopes at a modeling gig is just out of the question, unfortunately. There are days when I wonder why I ever moved back, and this is one of the biggest reasons.
And for the record, I was hardly alone in this. Most of my expat friends had something going on, whether they were the voice of HSBC, starring in Vietnamese sitcoms, or headlining music venues all around the country. Once you get integrated into the community, you wind up meeting people and it just happens. Not only is it an option, but it’s an option that falls into your lap. Spoiled. Rotten.
Need I say more?
After years in Vietnam, years of having a maid, years of getting stopped on the road just to talk to someone, years of being asked for your autograph, years of being sneakily gawked at, years of being needlessly trusted, years of having access to the finest restaurants, bars, and hangouts in the country…you get used to it. You feel like hot shit — it’s why some people get attracted in the first place, and it’s why some people never leave. And then you go back to America, and none of these things are true anymore. You go from feeling like the cream of the crop just for existing to another small fish in another faraway pond. It’s easy to see why some people get addicted.
Hopping in a Honda-CRV, strapping on your seatbelt, and gazing through the window just isn’t the same as hopping on your Honda Cub, strapping on your helmet, and feeling your hair whip you in the face. While the traffic in Saigon is getting more and more atrocious by the day (especially with all the new money driving cars on roads built for bicycles), when you do have an open road — say early Sunday morning or late at night — it is the most incredible, earthly feeling.
The breeze carries smells from nearby street stalls, the wind cools you as the sun warms your skin, and it must be akin to the sensation of flying. What’s more — it’s completely normal. You’re not a loud motorcycle in a sea of minivans annoying soccer-mom drivers, you’re a small, fleeting motorbike dodging in and out of other motorbikes, blazing your own trail in a series of right and left turns, French boulevards, and streets that sometimes lead to jungle. Jungle.
Need a standing desk made? Your landlord knows exactly where to get that done and he’ll take you there this afternoon.
Need art supplies? You pass an art shop on the way to work every day, and all you have to do to get there is pull your bike into the side of the road and walk into the three-walled shop — there isn’t even a door.
Food is literally at your fingertips if you care to walk down the sidewalk and markets in a hundred different shades of reds, blues, yellows, and greens are only ever a mile or so away, offering you the freshest produce, an interaction with a sweet grandmother, and an experience under canopies that will make you feel like you lucked out with a ticket to another world. It may not be Amazon.com, but it feels beautiful. It feels organic. It’s a way of life that feels alive.
It’s hard to pinpoint the air of Vietnam that I miss most, but it wouldn’t be wrong to say that on top of the list is the DGAF-ness of the entire country. People still spit chicken bones onto the floor, men lift up their shirts above their bellies to cool off, and sales clerks will go behind the desk and just plop down for nap when mid-afternoon rolls around.
Sure, the money culture — the capitalism — of the country is hugely on the rise, and there are selfies to take outside Diamond Plaza and shiny high heels to sport along Lê Thánh Tôn, but, unlike most parts of America, if you want to avoid it, you easily can. You can go get sweaty in an un-air-conditioned bar sitting on a stool built for a five-year old and pound down 50 cent beers. You can put on your outfit in the dark on a Friday night and go to Turtle Pond, park your bike wherever the hell you feel like, and gawk at the young couples holding hands while sipping on your third bubble tea of the day and smoking a joint. It’s a wonderful thing.
At the peak of my teaching schedule, I was working maybe 30 hours a week. It didn’t take too long before I worked less and less and less, eventually not teaching at all. My days would up including getting up whenever the hell I wanted, tutoring during the afternoon, and performing at night. I made more money in Vietnam doing essentially nothing than I do in America working my tail off.
I never once had to worry about a 9-5 or worry about making rent (it was anywhere from $225-$600) and my concerns became less serious — and more ridiculous. I worried about not being able to find good oatmeal. About the post office confiscating the box of underwear my mom sent me. About my eye makeup in the rain. I was at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy, and I had time and money to spend however I wanted. Trip to Bangkok? Sure, why not? How about a trip to Italy? Không sao. I wasn’t working hard, obviously, but I was living.
The main thing that’s difficult about living in America is the pure lack of surprise. Here, it’s just easy most of the time. It’s all in English, everybody knows the rules, we all get by.
There, you never knew when you’d have to give someone a stern eye before they quote you the right price. A road trip meant the possibility of getting stranded in a teeny village on the side of the mountain and no way of getting out for days, not having to spend too much money at the only available Best Western at your exit. Shopping meant finding the freshest mangos in a sea of hand-constructed color and making an impulse teapot buy from a bored-looking teenager, not wondering if what you needed was in aisle 12 or aisle 13.
Though I’m getting better at finding a sense of adventure back home, beating the impulse to think of America as “boring” is difficult after years in Vietnam. I love “home,” I do, but Vietnam has stolen my sense of wonder and I don’t think it plans on giving it back anytime soon. I don’t think it could.