AFTER KOREA, WHAT’S IT LIKE LIVING IN VIETNAM?
‘How’s life in Vietnam?!’
I stare at my best friend’s face. She’s contorted it into some sort of overly-excited mask reminiscent of a dog waiting impatiently for the treat hidden in my pocket.
I look out the window at the glowing neon lights that cut through the darkness, illuminating the street below in a cacophony of colors. There is music playing everywhere, both inside and out, and on the street, in spite of the cold, people are milling around – laughing, dancing, flirting, smoking – a hodgepodge of energy and exuberance.
After almost three months in Vietnam, I had returned to Korea to visit friends and old stomping grounds for a few days. ‘How’s life in Vietnam?!’ Where should I begin?
The Nature Approach
Korea is a staggering country constantly tearing itself down and rebuilding. Concrete jungles are everywhere and, while nature is still present, it’s a manufactured version of Barbie’s dream house with less pink and more neon lights. A world of order and temperate climes amidst the noisy glare.
In contrast, Hoi An feels wild. One day on my motorbike driving through the rice paddies, I watched a water buffalo purposefully walk into two women on a motorbike. It knocked them over in a tangle of limbs and the ever-present blanket skirts that women insist on nowadays. They were fine, but that water buffalo stood over that bike like it had vanquished its arch-nemisis. Eventually, that massive bull sauntered off down the middle of the road like he couldn’t give a damn while I kept a respectful distance. As far as I was concerned he owned that road.
Hoi An is lush green and tropical fecundity is everywhere.
The Friend Approach
In Korea, almost everyone is there for a year. I don’t have the numbers, so this is a totally fake statistic, but I would say about 80 per cent of foreigners are either teachers or students, which means friendships tend to last longer. In Hoi An, I am the ‘Pokemon GO! Trainer of Friends’ determined to catch ‘em all.
I’ve got a South African, a Canadian, and an American disguised as a Belgian. Wild Aussies are everywhere – so don’t get too excited when you catch one – ten more will pop up. Everyone is involved in everything and constantly creating events, crashing other events, or just randomly inviting perfect strangers to your house for dinner. It’s kind of awesome, but then again, a lot of them are only there short term, so goodbyes are just as frequent as hellos.
The Money Thing
In Korea, prices are comparable to the US. I paid almost five dollars for a coffee and died a little inside.
In Hoi An, I feel like Scrooge McDuck, about to leap into a pile of money. I love tipping the drivers, it helps them remember me and where I live, and makes me feel like a rock star. I feel like laughing when a Vietnamese person is trying to gouge me on prices – I know it’s a lot for them, but for me, it’s nothing.
There are times when it’s uncomfortable though – telling my friends I pay my cleaner 4 dollars US (for two hours’ work) and my home masseuse a whopping six dollars!
Korea is first world – which means you can trust the food you’re getting to be uncontaminated thanks to constant refrigeration and hygienic preparation. Chances of exposure to mysterious and exotic diseases in the RoK are low – the weirdest thing I ever got in three years was a sinus infection that turned into a very gross case of pink eye.
Since moving to Vietnam I feel particularly pleased that I can cross Dengue Fever off of the Tropical Disease Bingo Card I brought with me back when I started traveling Asia. Also, I think I’m losing weight thanks to the food. Not from it being so healthy, but from all the bacteria that seem to want to use my intestines as a water slide. Mind the drop at the end, you jerks.
Korean liquor is awesome – a bottle of Soju will run you 1.50 USD, and a night out at makgeoli will probably run about 10 to 20 a person in USD.
One night in Hoi An I was treated to a bottle of Vietnamese gin ($US5). In Korea I had graduated to three bottles of Soju – what harm could a little Vietnamese liquor do? Yeah … famous last words seeing as my liver has seen fit to flee the country and I’m expecting divorce papers in the mail.
In Korea right now (October/November), the reds and golds of autumn, as well as the slight chill in the air, make for perfect sweater weather. It is a touch too cold for me (I’m from Hawaii) but Hoi An right now is perfect!
The days are warm, but not scorching like July when I came for a visit. In July, the word that comes to mind is melting – and not that wicked witch kind of a way – but in that ‘every crack and crevice on my body is producing an uncomfortable amount of moisture’ kind of way. I would take a shower in the morning that I never fully dried from.
Yet now, the rain that comes along intermittently is enough to cool it down, and the sun is enough to warm it up. There is lush greenness everywhere – life continually exploding. As a person whose moods are seriously affected by the sun (or lack thereof), the rays coming off the sun in Hoi An – the entire environment – is enough to keep a smile on my face.
I feel like discussing the natives is also important – but it’s like comparing a closed fist to an open hand. I always had a hard time with Korean people. See, I’m a smiler: baby slaps me in the face – I smile. I smile constantly but many Koreans look at me like I had asked them to answer question twelve of the middle school chemistry exam. In Korea I feel uncomfortable; an outsider at times.
But in Vietnam – and Hoi An especially – I am greeted with smiles. People eagerly approach me on the street, trying to lure me into conversations. Okay, really, they are trying to lure me into their stores to buy something, but I ultimately don’t care – they make me feel like they want to talk to me. And they’re kind and always eager to help with whatever problem, because they know someone who specializes in just what I need. It’s great until they show up at your house unannounced at eight in the morning!
My friend waves her hand near my face, her eyebrows raised in concern, and I look up from where I had been staring off in the distance. She shifts in her seat, and plants her elbows on the table, her face open and eager. ‘So how is it?’ she asks again.
I pick up my glass and take a sip of my drink, deliberating how I could compress all of that into one sentence. ‘Oh, you know… really, really good, but really, really different,’ I say after I set my glass down, feeling inordinately proud of the seven-word sentence I had crafted to answer her question.
She nods, her smile lighting up her eyes. ‘Awesome. But, like how?’