Ali Waugh’s decade in Vietnam began with a holiday in 2005. She was so struck, that two years later, she sent her résumé all across the country, and landed a job as a guidance counsellor at Hanoi International School.
“I was on a contract for one-and-a-half years, and it just kept on rolling over and rolling over, and suddenly it was 10 years. I didn’t plan that,” she laughs.
So what’s kept her here this long? Besides a thriving clothing business with a team of employees now 20-strong, the 48-year-old Australia native has put down roots in the local community.
“When I first got here, a Vietnamese lady gave me a puppy, and I’ve still got him. He’s nine-and-a-half. It would cost US$10,000 dollars to take the dog back to Australia so I kind of got stuck in a spider web.
“But that way, I feel a responsibility to stay. Also, I really like it.”
In the beginning, she was the only foreigner on her block in Ba Dinh, so she began learning Vietnamese out of necessity. She took two lessons a week for two years, and studied every chance she got.
“I used to walk the dog every night after my Vietnamese lesson and talk to the old ladies that sell tea and fruit on the side of the road,” she says. “Once you make that investment of your time, then you can start talking to people that you never would have spoken to, and it becomes much more interesting to live here.”
Fashioning a Future
Around seven years ago, her career took another unexpected turn into the fashion business. When she first arrived, the only boutique option for Western women was Things of Substance in the Old Quarter.
“I would go to work, and some days three of us would have the same dress on, it was ridiculous,” she remembers. “I found out that my housekeeper used to be a tailor, so I asked her to help me start up a clothing business.”
Emporium began as a shop on the third floor of her house, and now fills two floors of space on Xuan Dieu. Though she worked the first two years just to break even, she admits it would have cost 10 times the amount and been much harder to set up a business in Australia.
“[Vietnam] is a real can-do place,” she says. Her first space on To Ngoc Van was originally an office. “I said to the landlord, can we turn this into a shop? They can do anything.”
It’s this resourcefulness that’s changed the country the most during Ali’s 10 years here, ushering in an age of English speakers, Maseratis, and a growing wage gap. She watches construction workers from far-flung rural provinces putting up 25 new storeys across the street from her shop every day.
“I know they’re earning more money here than they would at home, but there’s a big gap between them and the guy driving the Bentley,” she says.
The Long Goodbye
The country’s rapid globalisation has opened her eyes to new things, too. With an internationally diverse circle of friends and a strategic location just a short flight away from so many of the world’s most exotic destinations, Vietnam has made her culturally aware in a way that Australia’s geographic isolation never allowed.
“I’ve had quite a few friends go back and find it hard to fit in,” she admits. “I think you go through a lot of grief as an expat.” Summer is the saddest time of year in Hanoi; it’s the season of goodbyes.
“Your friends often go in June, and you go off on a holiday. When you come back in August, there’s this Grand Canyon in your life, it’s awful. Then by September, October, November, you get some new friends, but they’re never the same.”
Ten years of Hanoi’s revolving door hasn’t made it any easier to say goodbye, but still, Ali’s got no plans to leave.
“I might have 20 minutes in traffic where I think, I don’t want to be here, but nearly every minute of every day, I’m happy.”
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