Phil and my holiday trip was not to the sexiest destination in the world. In fact, many of you have probably never even heard of it. We spent 4 nights in Vientiane, the sleepy capital city of Laos.
Mostly, we wandered around the small city by foot and drank coffee and ate good food. We did touristy things, like walking through the grounds of a few temples and climbing to the top of the Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe.
But what distinguished this trip from other trips of ours is we spent much of it with strangers.
We spent our first night at the home of the director of COPE, a British man, and his Lao wife, accommodations that we booked through Airbnb. This large, traditional Lao home was made almost entirely of wood and tucked into the jungle about 10K outside of the city. They had two other guests, an American who had been staying with them for almost a month and was leaving the next day, and a Chinese woman who worked as an intern of sorts for the owner. We ate with them and chatted and learned about Lao culture as well as Chinese and Singaporean culture—the Chinese guest had lived in Singapore for about a year before moving to Vientiane. She was studying French and applying for university programs in France in order to be nearer to her boyfriend.
The next night, we met up with the sister of one of our fellow Da Nang expats for steak dinners at a French restaurant on one of Vientiane’s two main drags. She’s British and has lived in Vientiane for something like 7 or 8 years, where she now runs a cooking class, among other things. She was an invaluable resource, giving us tons of tips on places to eat and things to do.
This same woman also gave me the recommendation of someone to interview for an article, another expat, this one a retired American. I met him for coffee, and we chatted while Phil sat at the next table over, drawing and trading jazz band suggestions with the Swedish guy who was grinding the coffee beans. As the conversation was wrapping up, Phil asked my interviewee if he’d want to meet up for a beer later. He said sure, that he knew the perfect place to enjoy a Beer Lao and watch the sun set over the Mekong. We ended up spending the entire evening with him, his girlfriend joining us later on for dinner at an authentic Irish pub.
The best part of traveling like this, spending time with other expats, is you get to see a place through their eyes. It allows you to imagine what it would be like to live there.
Our to-do list for Vientiane was short, and mostly developed while there, making it easy for us to find time for these experiences. We didn’t feel like we were missing out on some important “must see” by taking 30 minutes to talk about ping pong culture in China…or how hard it is not to laugh when a Thai English language student tells you his name is pronounced “Titty Porn”…or the legend behind why the Lao people love to relax and eat and drink for hours on end (they inherited the stomach of an important historical figure while the Thai people got the head, the Vietnamese the hands)…or how pointless it is to work 100 hours a week and not be able to enjoy your fat paycheck…
When I was a teenager, I was mortified by how frequently my dad talked to strangers in public places, whether in line at the grocery store or in the bleachers at a football game. I was sure these people wanted to be left alone—like I did, preferring to be absorbed in myself—and that they certainly did not care about my dad’s sports knowledge. Now, I’m dating a guy who does the exact same thing. And the truth is—don’t roll your eyes, thirteen-year-old Sarah—it makes life so much more fun. Admittedly, some people are less inclined to talk to strangers, but there’s rarely anything lost in tossing a comment out there. And so often, there’s much to gain. People are fascinating, they have so many stories to tell. By listening to them, their experiences mean that much more, both to the storyteller and the listener.
There’s a fun quote that I’m sure many of you have heard before. It’s attributed to Augustine of Hippo and it goes: “The world is a book, and those who don't travel only read one page.”
Similarly, we all have our own “world books”, and if we’re too busy rereading our own and deciding what the next chapter should be called, we may as well throw out our library cards. Enjoying the stories of others—by reading them or, at a more personal level, by listening to them—allows us to peek into their world book and read a favorite excerpt or two. I’m meeting people with books of all shapes and colors and languages right now, and I’m enjoying that diversity. But no matter where we go and who we find ourselves next to while drifting between our self-proclaimed memorable moments, everyone has their own book with their own highlights to share. All you have to do is (if you’re like me, gather your courage and) talk to them. And take the time to listen.
I just celebrated my first birthday in memory away from both my home and my family.
I didn’t realize what a monochrome experience my birthdays had been until this fact dawned on me yesterday. Though the weather here was appropriately about as cold as it gets, with temps in the 50s in the morning. It doesn’t sound bad and is a far cry from your typical January 25 in Michigan, but in concrete buildings without insulation and furnaces, it does feel quite chilly. And the sky was low, different layers of gray sitting right on top of the nearby mountains, the turbulent sea a shade deeper, with thick foamy whitecaps tumbling into the shore along the beach road.
One benefit of being 12 hours removed from Eastern time is my birthday seemed to last at least a day and half, hitting first in Da Nang and then in the United States. Celebratory messages came in according to the Earth’s rotation like a wave moving around a football stadium.
My Da Nang family thoroughly spoiled me with two cakes and song, hazardous indoor fireworks, free meals and drinks, lots of texts and hugs. And I enjoyed the creativity of the digital birthday wishes from my real family, including an e-card with singing dogs and a PowerPoint presentation complete with Word Art and lots of photos of me creatively cropped into different shapes.
Philip outdid himself, gifting me a cute pair of shoes that I told him I’d admired (I learned how to drop hints from the best of them, my mom), as well as a surprise weekend trip to Da Lat next month. He says the idea came to him while getting a massage, that a gift I’d enjoy most maybe wouldn’t be about a thing but an experience. What a guy. As it turned out, in researching potential sources in Da Lat for an article I was working on not too long ago, I’d stumbled upon an adorable bed and breakfast. I hadn’t told Phil about it, but it must have made an impression on me as I was able to find it again—it’s ranked the #1 B&B on TripAdvisor, and there was one room left during our trip. We snagged it quickly. We even saw a picture of a stand-up bass that seems to have a home at the place. Phil is itching to make its acquaintance. Some things are meant to be. We’re hoping this is one of them. Then, my guy took me out to dinner at an adorable French restaurant tucked into a back alley in the heart of Da Nang City. It’s called Le Bambino, and it was a completely new Da Nang experience for me. Just when I think I’m becoming well versed in this city’s offerings, a quick turn off of a familiar road surprises me.
It’s easy for me to tell others that age is just a year and that we’re only as old as we choose to be. However, last night, Phil and I were talking about how it’s natural to bundle ages into groups of threes—at least at our age—and that, at 28, I’m now in the 28-29-30 set. Undeniably in my late 20s and well on my way to 30. It’s not old, I know that, but it feels like something. Something different from 27.
I became contemplative.
On the whole, I’m happy with how I’ve spent my first 28 years.
I haven’t let myself coast too much, preferring to be challenged and struggling rather than satisfied, which for me is synonymous with boredom.
I’ve dealt with failure and success.
I’ve worked hard and have come to recognize the importance of relaxation.
I’ve stared out windows with a whole host of views and caught many different versions of myself in the mirror.
I’m working on reflecting without fretting.
I’ve yet to discover what exactly I should be doing with my life, what the world needs from me. I think about this frequently and have to remind myself to control what I can control, work hard with what I have and let everything else come.
I’ve burnt a bridge or two out of stubbornness.
I still get angry more often than is ladylike (a statement chosen deliberately because its idiocy makes me mad) and can’t always find an appropriate outlet for that anger.
On the other hand, this same anger can be a good motivator, and it’s less fiery and further from the surface than it used to be. My patience has improved, thanks in part to living in Vietnam.
I worry that I ought to spend more of my time helping others rather than working to improve myself, though I imagine that may change in the not-too-distant future.
I’m happy to be where I am. I often make things harder for myself than they have to be, and am aware that that may make me a pain in the ass at times, but it’s how I stay interested in this whole day-to-day thing.
As I look ahead, I’d like to continue defining my life—professional, personal, and otherwise—on my terms…even if I’m not always sure what exactly those terms are and what they might mean in the long-term, though I’d like to keep working on that bit, too. For me, this year, I want to keep writing the types of things I want to write even if I don’t get paid for any of it—though it’s OK to write within the parameters of others for pay. I also want to get to a place where I’m able to move back to the States and know how to identify the types of jobs and/or projects I’d like to work on. The key here is being deliberate with how I spend my time and effort while remaining open to possibilities.
Above all, I’m thankful for the good fortune I have to spend time thinking (and writing) about these things, the flexibility I have to be deliberate, to past Sarah for saving enough money to make this risky business less scary, and to my support network—near and far—for always being there.
What a lucky 28-year-old I am.
Everything Is So Freaking Cheap
One of the best benefits of living in Da Nang is how freaking cheap everything is. At first, I almost felt guilty when getting the bill at a restaurant or paying for my lunch, as if I were getting away with something immoral. Now, I'm bargaining to get the price of a pair of flip flops down by less than $0.50 and gasping when my mom tells me that the hilariously inept massage she got at the Aveda spa school was “only” $45.
A really good 60-minute Vietnamese massage at the spa two blocks from me costs just over $11. A manicure-pedicure combo, with polish, is about $9 there, and it's actually a bit pricey. Paying the equivalent of $6.70 is common.
When I first got here, I realized that I needed a few more hot weather clothing options. A friend recommended a shop in Hoi An's Ancient Town with lots of colorful pieces in a variety of patterns. I bought three pairs of shorts, two dresses, a pants jumpsuit, and a shorts jumpsuit. It sounds like quite the spree, huh? All of it cost me not much more than $22.25. I'm used to that slight rush from buying new clothes paired with a tinge of guilt for spending money on something I don't truly need. But this was just so cheap. It was only when I was finding places for the new items in my closet that I found a reason for guilt: the obvious fact that nobody could possibly be making a living wage working within that business model, even in Vietnam.
Nobody that I know in Vietnam has a "phone plan". Everybody uses the old school, pay-as-you-go SIM card technology. I spend less than $10/month for calls and text and data, and I use my iPhone whenever I feel like it. 3G works here, but I only really need it when the internet at our apartment is being finicky or I'm not at a bar, cafe, or restaurant. So it's rare. Almost every establishment has WiFi here, including the many cafes and restaurants that occupy the first floor of people’s homes.
This was my lunch a few weeks ago:
This is informally called "rice and gadgets". It cost me just over $0.50. That's not a small plate. I couldn't eat the whole thing.
Here are some more rough general costs, converted into USD:
I could go on, but this gives you a sense.
Some things are more expensive than back home, like wine and granola, because they're imported. Other things are about the same as back home, like dairy products, which are either imported or come solely from a city in Vietnam with a distinctively temperate climate, called Da Lat.
And rest assured that no matter how little you pay for something, the Vietnamese will always tell you that you’ve paid too much.
From a disposable income perspective, I'm saving a lot of money since I simply don't shop as much. For one, I can't online shop since I can't have things easily shipped to me, so all of the emails that I subscribed to notifying me of sales are no longer relevant. Mostly, I've found that I really just don't need to shop. I have more clothes than I need right now, as it is, and I have less than half the clothes that I had back in the States. Admittedly, there is a temperature difference, but still…being an outsider in a culture makes me less susceptible to consumerism. And having more time has given me the chance to take more time with my gifting, including making gifts rather than purchasing them.
I'm told that once I get used to prices here, it's hard going back to the States and actually having to spend real money on things. I hope I can keep some of my newfound practices going. Other than bargaining for shoes. That might not go over so well.
Recently, I was struck by how nobody really knows what’s going on.
I was thinking about someone I had interviewed for a magazine article. In an interview situation, the presumption is that the interviewee is either a person of public interest (e.g., a celebrity) or an expert of sorts—that’s why it’s worth writing down his/her words, and worth it for others to read them. The interviewer and interviewee thus play their appropriate roles. Reflecting on this interview later, while preparing my article, I was struck by a feeling that something was off about it. It dawned on me that I had taken the roles a bit too seriously and whenever the person I was interviewing waffled on something, I was uncomfortable. There was a look in his eyes when I asked him some questions that bothered me. After the interview was over, he asked me a few questions similar to those I had asked him. I knew it made sense and was an appropriate form of conversation, but the role reversal threw me off.
The look on my interviewer's face that had momentarily bothered me had a name: uncertainty.
He is, of course, human, and it can be scary to trust your words in the hands of someone else. But he also wasn’t really an expert on the questions I was asking him, which were essentially about his choice of lifestyle.
Nobody is an expert on the subject of how to live.
It’s easy to forget this from time to time. I’m constantly reading and listening to podcasts, and I find myself drawn to content with a philosophical bend, whether it’s Patti Smith talking about her new memoir on NPR or an essay about why bookstores matter on Salon.com. Those two were a valuable use of my time. The worst is when I get sucked into reading articles with titles like “How do I balance happiness and financial responsibility?” or “How to know what you should be doing with your life.” All of these content creators made this stuff up out of their heads, just like I did when I sang a stupid impromptu song to Phil when he got home from work the other day.
We all live our lives mostly in our heads, after all.
Barack Obama makes up what he believes are ethical decisions on behalf of a nation, Rilke made up the letters he wrote to a young poet he didn’t know, and Joni Mitchell decided to mess with the tuning of her guitar and write some songs that she made up.
Nobody has all of the answers. But some are brave enough to venture putting something that they’ve made up out there into the world. And a few of these people are deemed worthy of listening to, either by the collective or by others with influence or power. This doesn’t mean that the rest of us should take what they've made up and turn it into a personal doctrine. That's just lazy. Their philosophies may be worth prescribing to. They may not.
Taking that further, even those closest to you don’t have the answers that you need—not your parents or your friends or your significant other or your boss or your siblings. They can venture something, but it’s up to each of us to define our own philosophies, whether it’s a mashup of things that we’ve read or heard or seen or something that only comes from within us.
I struggle with this. I like to talk through my problems and my life philosophy and consider all options. Maybe it’s why I like listening to this song, as a personal reminder. But, as cool as Jim James is, My Morning Jacket doesn’t have all of the answers either.
We can’t lean on anyone too hard. As my mom said to me once, it’s most important that you can live with yourself. It’s both scary and freeing to recognize that life is mostly about just doing your thing. Because we’re all moving through this world accompanied by our own thoughts, trying to figure it out each and every day.
I quit a job I enjoyed at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and left my family, friends, and beloved dog to join my boyfriend in moving across the world, in search of adventure and new experiences. I arrived in August 2015.