What I Learned After a Year in Vietnam

In February of 2018, I set sail (or set out on a jet plane) to Vietnam with a one way ticket. Since living in Vietnam, I’ve been back home once, traveled around Asia, and even spent some time in Europe. I’ve had a very emotional relationship with Vietnam this past year. There’s been some down downs, and some really up ups. Here’s what I’ve learned after a year in Vietnam.

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Children aren’t Little Monsters with Cute Faces

If you would have told me a year ago that I would fall in love with little kids, I would have laughed in your face. Before coming to Vietnam, children scared the crap out of me. And not the thought of having my own, just being around them scared me.

My first teaching job in Vietnam put me in a room with seven screaming two and three year old’s, so I had to learn fast. Yes, some of them hit me. Some of them spit on me. And some of them cried so loud I thought my ears would burst. But man, these kids sure showed me how adorable they are. Fast forward to now, I can’t walk by a kid without talking about how cute they are.

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Some People do Things Differently, and that’s Okay

I’ve traveling internationally before, but I’ve never actually lived in a different country. I got to see first hand just how different some of our customs and traditions are. Some were easy to deal with, like taking your shoes off before you enter the house. And some were… freaking difficult. (Like using a squatty potty that clearly hasn’t been cleaned since it was fist installed in what looks like the 1500’s).

After a while, those things became the norm and it allowed me to look at why my country does things and why Vietnam does things. There’s really no right or wrong way. It’s just how it is.

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How it Feels to Not be in the Majority

I grew up in white family located in a suburban, middle class neighborhood in the United States. Everyone spoke English, looked white, and had parents that worked for Boeing. It was a simple time, and I was always one of a million others that looked like me.

Living in Vietnam, in a a local neighborhood, I was not one in a million. I was the only one. The locals weren’t used to seeing a white person walking around. So everywhere I went brought stares and whispers and questioning. With me not able to speak Vietnamese, it was always a guessing game as to what they were saying.

It was a very eye opening experience that gave me feelings that I had never felt before. Some days, I wanted to hide away in a dark corner of a coffee shop. And other days, I wanted to sprint around town and say hello to everyone.

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To be Comfortable in my Own Skin

This piggy packs on the above heading, but I wanted to give this topic it’s own attention, because it was a huge learning process for me that I’m still dealing with while living in Vietnam. As I said above, I drew a lot of attention walking around neighborhoods because I wasn’t Vietnamese. I was white. But I also drew a lot of attention because I’m a bigger than average size.

Vietnam is full of hard workers, the diet is relatively healthy, and a lot of people don’t have a lot of food on the table. The people of Vietnam are all very small, height and width wise, so seeing a person of my size is very different for them. So they stare – a lot. They talk about my size, poke me, and even slap my butt or pinch my love handles and ask my what I eat every day.

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This was absolutely horrifying for me when I first began living in Vietnam. In the US, someone’s size is a faux pas to discuss. In Vietnam, it’s completely normal to talk about. Everywhere I went I felt like an elephant that people wanted to poke and prod and talk about how fat I was. People even wanted to take pictures with “the big American.” Sometimes I was happy I couldn’t understand what they were saying.

This was not Vietnam hating me, this was people being curious. Which I know now, but it took a lot of self love and acceptance to get to this point: happy with who I am. Now when people stare or make comments about me (I can speak a lot more Vietnamese now so I’m able to hear and respond more to their comments) I smile and say hello to show them I’m a real person with a real personality, and that has helped a lot.

Inequality is Real and Alive

I know discrimination exists. But I had never really seen it first hand. Living in Vietnam, I’ve seen that for every job, there are two different salaries: A Vietnamese salary and a foreigner salary. And the difference is ridiculous.

The foreigner salary can be 5 times higher or more than the Vietnamese salary. Take the school I work at for example. Each class has two teachers, a Vietnamese teacher to help with reading and writing, and a Foreign teacher to help with listening and speaking. It’s a great blend because the Vietnamese have studied grammar and know the rules better than native speakers. And the native speakers have good pronunciation and can help with speaking mistakes.

However, the Vietnamese teachers get paid so much less. It’s so frustrating. I’m not sure what and if something can be done about it.

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Little Moments Are Forever

Some of my best memories from living in Vietnam have been what seemed like little moments at the time. There’s no picture or video or planned outing to support it. It was just a moment that was created in my life in Vietnam.

One time, I was invited to visit a friend’s family house in the countryside. Her uncle took us fishing and showed us all his banana trees. It was such a simple moment, but I remember it well and I had a blast. Her uncle spoke zero English, and I spoke no Vietnamese, but we were still able to communicate and had a great time. Traveling is full of these, and they need to be appreciated.

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Learning a Language is Friggin’ Difficult

People in American are often found saying “if you can’t speak the language then get out!” They should try to learn a new language before saying that, it’s friggin’ hard. I took Vietnamese lessons twice a week for eight months. I’ve definitely improved over time (Duolingo helps), but I’m by no means close to being conversational – let alone fluent. And Vietnamese has six tones, English has none, so that was super hard to learn.

I’m so thankful to have been living in Vietnam because the people here are so patient. Being able to speak just a little bit of Vietnamese is impressive to them, so they’ll take the time to listen and speak to you. And it’s so helpful to get the things I want when I can say it in their native tongue.

For you guys out there learning a language, keep going! It’s so worth it.

There are so Many Good People Out There

The people of Vietnam have helped me more times that I can even count. They’ve been so helpful with my experiences and I’m so grateful. In a search to look for a bus station, I got soooooooo lost. I pulled over to a security guard and asked him for directions. But he didn’t speak English. Then all of a sudden a police officer came out and drove me to my destination on my bike.

Say what?! Yes. A police officer sat on my motorbike and drove me to the bus stop because I couldn’t understand how to get there. That would never happen in America. I was so blown away by his kindness. What a stand up guy.

Home is a Very Special Place

My experience in being away from home has taught me just how special it is. I went home for Christmas last year to visit friends and family, and my hometown seemed way more magical than I remembered it. My dog was cuter. My local coffee shop was cozier. And my mom’s adorable blue house was adorabler (I know that’s not a word but I like the sound of it).

To this day I can’t wait to go back home again and cherish all my childhood memories and visit all my loved ones. I’m from a pretty cool place and it took me leaving for a year to figure that out.

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Living in Vietnam has been an experience I won’t forget. I’m nowhere near finished, but I’m so grateful for the time I’ve had thus far. If you’re considering moving abroad, check out ways an American can live abroad or our Expat Confessions to inspire you.

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