I remember going around the grocery store wishing I could make a classic packed lunch sandwich, but no slices were to be found. Don’t get me wrong, I had my fair share of banh mi op las, but I needed a taste of home too. Having grown up on sliced bread with processed meat and cheese, I was nostalgic for that taste of home (yeah, I can admit it, I missed my Mommy). These days, not only can you find sliced bread at banh mi stands around town, but you can find fantastic varieties of it in almost any grocery store. And yes, I still miss my Mommy!
The Helmet Law
Ah, those days of seeing people driving around, enjoying the wind in their hair. This nguoi nuoc ngoai got some strange looks for wearing a full-face helmet when you didn’t even need to fret over a fine for not doing so. The most incredible moment was the day the law was enforced — December 2007. With much anticipation, I stepped out of my house to find 99.9 percent of people wearing helmets! I rejoiced with the thought of fitting in, finally, until I realised they all had tiny little skullcaps on while I was still sweating in my head sauna.
These days, anybody who has just moved to Vietnam or is considering doing so can log into Facebook and find groups where they can ask anything their travelling heart desires. Not only did I arrive in Vietnam before the billion-plus user website, I set foot here before it was even a dotcom. Where the best burger in town was, the bar with the cheapest happy hour or where to find a good deal on renting a motorbike all came from getting out there and searching. And not with a keyboard.
Though I don’t have any tattoos, I did come here with my tongue and lip pierced, and got some rather curious reactions along the way. Tattoos and piercings were for society’s underbelly, but that concept is slowly changing. With parlours popping up everywhere and a lot doing quality work, it’s not the tay ba lo who are supplying Tats Studio with their 65,000 Facebook ‘likes’. Vietnam is loving its ink more and more each day. And my oh my there is something sexy about seeing a little dragonfly tat creeping out from under that traditional but alluring ao dai.
English Language Novels
I love to read, especially when travelling. It passes the time, clears my mind and puts me to sleep if need be. Once I made my way through the street seller’s skyscraper stack of books (those who haven’t read a Dan Brown novel haven’t spent enough time drinking in the backpacker quarters). I relied almost solely on my father passing on his books, which were passed on to him from friends coming from Singapore. Now, I’ve got an impressive collection on my bookshelf, which I often offer up for keeps. Why? Because I’ve got the tallest skyscraper stack that fits in my pocket — my Kindle!
Learning the Lingo
Obviously this one isn’t 100 percent accurate and I think it goes two ways. I found every excuse not to speak Vietnamese when I first came here and out of sheer necessity relied heavily on hand signals, which were surprisingly efficient. I wasn’t crossing paths with too many people that said anything past, “Hello, how you?” These days, the cute school kid on the corner can help translate your motorbike issues or tell you where the new Starbucks is going to be. No xe om on the corner to help out? Don’t worry, now there are expats driving past every corner, and even dropping some tieng Viet here and there.
American Fast Food Burgers
Sure, Lotteria and KFC beat me here, and I’ve had my fill of both. But gone are the days of your buddy asking how many BK Whoppers he should bring from Bangkok Airport. Now places like Phu My Hung have American fast food on every corner, and whether you like it or not, this is just the start. Though, luckily for everybody involved, the F&B industry has greatly improved and fantastic burgers can be found in any style you want around town. I’m not going to lie, though — I can’t wait for that first Big Mac!
I lived in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1 for my first year and after dropping my girlfriend home one evening, I almost managed to get lost — in District 4. As the sun set and I made another turn down an unfamiliar street, I tried to recall how to say ‘District 1’, ‘left’ or ‘right’ in Vietnamese but hesitated to stop and try. The best feature my phone had at the time was a flashlight — arguably still the best — but I managed to get home without using it or asking for help. I certainly didn’t have the option of whipping out my iPhone, turning on 3G and letting Google Maps point me back to safety while tweeting my location to the world.
But the Best Thing Was Always Here
The first year I lived here I spent nine months intermittently working in other countries, and even after returning ‘home’ to Saigon each time I didn’t feel comfortable or settled. What eventually helped me feel that way? The people who were here all along.
People often ask me what I love about Vietnam, and it’s not the sliced bread, the smartphones or international conglomerates that I think of. I can’t help but think of my friends every time. They go beyond that; they’re my family when I can’t reach mine or when Facebook or my smartphone doesn’t know. They are the infinite reasons why I love this place and have stayed so long, and why I can’t wait for the next decade of change here.
All of us have made it to Vietnam before something or someone else, including the friends that we haven’t yet met. But that’s all part of the adventure, the fun of discussing the past and the present.
I’m not saying all of this change is great, or I probably wouldn’t be writing this nostalgic article about my past, but change is inevitable and it’s as much fun looking back on it as it is looking forward to it. Especially with friends.