One of our expat friends invited us to a Sunday brunch at her and her husband’s home in Hoi An to celebrate her birthday. The brunch was dessert themed and was attended by people from all over the world: America, Australia, Canada, Vietnam, The Netherlands, South Africa, the UK…
One of the coolest parts about living in Da Nang is meeting people from different backgrounds and swapping stories. In addition to the nationalities represented at the brunch, I've met and spent time with folks from New Zealand, France, Spain, Poland, Italy, Russia, Ireland, Korea, Japan, and I'm probably forgetting more. Vietnam is at least somewhat new to most expats, so we’re all discovering it as we go, and our points of reference—home—vary, too.
At the dessert brunch I learned about fairy cake, or white bread with butter and sprinkles on top, which is commonly served for birthdays in Australia (our hostess is Australian). A British woman brought a pancake tower with bananas between each layer. There was no maple syrup in sight. Apparently, that’s a North American thing.
A few weeks back, a big group of us went out to a new restaurant along the river in Da Nang that was serving Pasteur Street beer. (Pasteur is a craft brewery based in Ho Chi Minh City that was started by Americans with experience in the U.S. craft beer industry.) Of course, taste and smell are two of the senses most strongly tied to memory. Sniffing and then sipping the beer got the group all talking about beer at home, as well as foods and other things missed.
On another evening, once again over beers, Phil and I got talking politics with a couple of Danish interns from the international school. A conversation that would have been taboo—or a nonstarter—in many of my social circles back in the States was both enjoyable and educational. I’ve been devouring news since I’ve been here (and unemployed), so I was able to hold my own. Though the Danish knew much more about American current affairs than I knew about the happenings in Dana, I mean Denmark.
I’m not only learning about Vietnamese culture while living here. I’m learning about the world. We’re all global citizens in a “world soup”, where I represent the U.S., and to my fellow Americans, the Midwest. I can see why some people get sucked into the expat life—there just isn’t anything quite like it, and certainly not in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Don’t worry, Mom and Dad. I’m still planning on coming home. But I am deeply grateful for this experience. It can’t be replicated.
I think it’s safe to say that we respect entrepreneurialism in America—perhaps to a fault. It’s become a buzzword, often more talked about than acted upon.
Vietnam is indeed a socialist republic. But in Da Nang, just about everyone is an entrepreneur.
I’ve already waxed poetic—or perhaps prosaic—on the excessive amount of construction here. Resorts are popping up, or being expanded on, no matter where you turn. The skyline along the beach is full of cranes. Hell, a cafe/bar is being built on the small roof of my apartment building, to be shared with the laundry facilities…the drilling right now makes it hard for me to hear my own thoughts…though most of my expat friends give it a life expectancy of six months or less.
There is no business too large or too small for Da Nang-ers.
Find some old drawings of French villages from a friendly French dignitary of years past? Build your own French village atop a mountain, complete with a funicular, church, three-floor arcade, gardens, wine cellar, bakery….
Have a successful resort across the road from the beach? Build a gargantuan second building full of more rooms and an underground tunnel so that your guests don’t have to cross the street. Be sure to take over the beach you’re across from, with a couple of bars and dozens of chairs for rent.
Live on a main road? Open a shop, cafe or restaurant in the first floor of your home. Stick a sign outside so people know it’s not just your house, you sell things.
Notice an unoccupied street corner? Buy a cart and sell banh mi sandwiches or nuoc mia (sugar cane juice).
Have a motorbike? Get yourself a container to carry around some boiled corn and a speaker to let everyone know what you’re offering without losing your voice. If that’s too much commitment, you can always offer rides to foreigners-on-foot.
If you make friends with business owners, they’ll probably let you walk around their restaurant selling any wares you can carry on your shoulder. If you have the good fortune of being a half decent singer, buy yourself a speaker and a microphone and sing some karaoke to diners before you walk around offering them gum for sale. You may have even better luck if you’re able to learn some magic tricks.
I’m not saying that it’s easy—particularly for foreigners, who have lots of hoops to jump through when starting a business in Vietnam. What I am saying is, in Da Nang, people aren’t talking about opening businesses. They’re doing it. For better or worse.
A couple of days after Phil and I moved into our apartment, we decided to “make a Metro run.”
Our apartment came furnished, and we were even provided some dishes and silverware.
Now please look around your home (in your mind, if you must) and picture all of the items that you own besides furniture, dishes, silverware, and clothing. Look in your kitchen cupboards. Your linen closet. At what you have hanging on your walls. In your garage and your basement. In your junk drawer.
We had packed everything we had with us into four suitcases. We didn’t have most of the stuff you just pictured. Well, our apartment did come with this housewarming gift from Obama and Vietnam’s president, Truong Tan Sang.
How kind of them!
But our cupboards were empty, and we couldn’t eat out forever.
We borrowed a Metro membership card from Phil’s sister and brother-in-law and made our way to the superstore, which resembles something of a Vietnamese Costco.
I don’t like grocery shopping. I have a silly crippling fear that I’ll forget something that I need and will come home only to be compelled to head to the store again.
Combine this dislike with an upset stomach (my body was still getting used to Vietnamese food) and accompanying crankiness, a giant grocery list, and a behemoth of a store with an unfamiliar layout, where most food labels are in a foreign language and math is required to figure out how much money you are actually spending.
Poor Phil. Luckily he is patient and had been in this store before, and we had timed our trip during midday, when most Vietnamese nap through the heat.
Our two and a half hour “Metro run” was quite the slow-moving, exhausting, frustrating, fascinating adventure. We found Dove shampoo and conditioner—a brand from home!—but the labels were in Vietnamese. Luckily I remembered that Dove shampoo opens on the top of the bottle and conditioner on the bottom. We couldn’t find the spices and asked an Australian parent from Phil’s school that we had bumped into where they were. Once in the correct aisle, we struggled to identify most of the spices that we were hoping to stock up on because they came in bulk sizes and different forms. How dependent we are on labels! We gave up on cumin, cinnamon, and a couple of others. Phil saw a rat scurrying through the bulk rice section—so we opted for the pre-bagged kind. I had to check out the beer section and was fascinated by the selection of Belgian beers. Yes, Trappist beer makes it to Vietnam. Near the end of the trip, while checking out some $1 floor mats in the home goods section, we realized that something in our cart was dripping a red fluid. The ground beef was leaking. We left a beef-blood-stained rug in the aisle, deciding this was a sign to call it quits and head for the register.
We made a bit of a scene. In addition to our leaky beef, we were buying so much stuff that we went over the 5 million dong (~$222) limit for an individual purchase. Three sets of Vietnamese customers attempted to get in line behind us, looked at our cart, and moved to a different register in short order. Phil paid the 5 million dong bill, and I bought our remaining items for 26,000 VND.
Then we had to get it all home. On a motorbike.
Phil had the foresight to bring some large reusable shopping bags, but we couldn’t carry all of this on his bike alone. We had large items, like a trash can and a rice cooker and the all important case of beer. So we paid 50,000 VND for a delivery man to pack most our goods into a styrofoam box on his bike and follow us home. He didn’t speak any English, but seemed to be trying to joke with us from his bike on the ride, motioning for me to get closer to Phil—an impossibility with the bags of groceries piled between my legs. He came with us in the elevator up to the fifth floor, set the box in our living room, and had the good sense to leave without it, motioning that we could keep it. I wouldn’t want to wait for us to unpack it either.
Throughout the rest of that day, Phil kept opening our refrigerator, looking in, and closing the door again without grabbing anything. Same thing for our kitchen cupboards.
Finally, I asked him, “Whatcha doing?”
“I just like seeing our refrigerator stocked,” he said.
The next night, we skyped with Phil’s mom, and, while giving her a tour, he made a point to show her the fridge’s contents.
Its fullness signified that this was our home now. Our first place together. Our mix of Western imported apples and mustards and Eastern cuts of meat and yogurts represented the cultural mashup of our new haven, meals yet to be cooked in a style to be worked out.
Words I can’t comprehend
Spoken by men yielding tools I don’t know how to use
Building things I can only fathom
Imagined by others
Soon to be touchable, visible, functional
One thing I do understand
Is the soundtrack of Da Nang
Of my neighborhood
Is comprised of the mating calls of commerce
In competition as in concert
Hopes of power financed by whom?
Drawn to status’ light
Backs to the rest of the world, shadows lying over
And has been
But can be no more
Who’s looking to whom?
How would we live without examples of those who had gone before?
Is there a need for that building?
Or has the need been contrived—or is it yet to be?
No lack of hotels, resorts
Most windows remain dark most nights
Nobody there to witness the progress of another
Being built in the neighboring lot
I feel a strong need to swim in the ocean frequently.
As a Michigander used to snow on the ground for around 5 months of the year, it is ingrained in me to take advantage of nice weather, particularly when it's coupled with such proximity to a body of water.
I don't do it daily, but I've begun to develop something of a habit of throwing on my suit and walking to the water for a quick dip in the ocean. I only go in up to my chest or so, because I'm not the strongest swimmer, I don't know these waters well, and I wear contacts that seem to lose their clingy quality quite easily when I get water in my eyes. The water isn't deep here, and there are big enough waves close to shore that I'm not just standing in the water...I'm doing a combination of standing and jumping into waves that makes me look like a child.
Some days I live vicariously through the dark heads of the swimmers that I can see from my bedroom window, between buildings, going for their pre-sunset swims. The Vietnamese avoid the sun at all costs and prefer to swim at sunrise and sunset.
A few weeks back, I joined in the pre-sunset swim festivities further north along the beach, near resorts that attract Vietnamese tourists. The beach was full, with lots of families, and upbeat, unintelligible music played over the loud speakers. I headed for the edge of the buoyed swimming area--I was already something of a spectacle as one of the few white people on the beach and didn't care to draw more attention to myself. But I couldn't help it. I found myself smiling with my arms widespread while I hopped waves. Feeling eyes on me and realizing how foolish I must look, I peeked over my shoulder sheepishly. A pre-teen Asian girl was swimming by herself, as well, wearing goggles and giggling with joy. She smiled and waved at me as if to say, "I see you're enjoying this, too--isn't it the best?" Her kindred spirit helped free my inhibitions. I hopped a few more waves, then walked back to the beach, to my coverup, across the street and back into the city, proud of my diligence.
What an agreeable duty it is, to live three blocks from the ocean.
I left too late for my morning run again. The 7am hour on the beach boardwalk in Da Nang feels like noon in July back home. In Michigan, I often convince myself to tack on another half mile or more during the course of my run.
My powers of persuasion and self-trickery are no match for this new type of heat.
However, by the time I hit the pavement today, the beach had mostly cleared of the swarms of early morning exercisers—groups of older men playing hacky sack; crowds of women carrying out choreographed dances to thumping bass music; individuals doing self-guided tai chi facing the water, feet planted in the sand or on the grass beneath palm trees; elderly couples playing badminton silently, either replacing their verbal banter with a physical version, or merely passing the time—that I encounter when I run during the much more pleasant 6am hour.
I practically had the place to myself.
Well, with the exception of the 8 sets of model brides and grooms and their accompanying photographers each doing separate photo shoots. But they were out of my way. And there were a couple other foolish white women runners like me. While many of the Vietnamese who were still present watched me from the shade with rightful confusion (surely thinking something like “it’s too hot to run—why didn’t she wake up earlier?”), a few cheered me on. I’m always tempted to cheer on runners that I pass while driving in Michigan but don’t for fear they would think I was making fun of them. So I appreciated the dramatic applause and approving smiles and may have even picked up my pace. Slightly.
The Da Nang morning running experience is further dramatized by publicly broadcast music. There are somewhat evenly spaced speakers that play the same broadcast for just about the full length of the main drag. Today, I had the pleasure of running to what seemed to be a live piano concert. So I played “name that tune”—which, after all, is far more fun than “count your steps”, what I often end up doing if I don’t keep my mind occupied while running. This morning’s playlist ranged from The Beatles’ “Yesterday” to “We Three Kings” to “Colors of the Wind” from the Pocahontas movie. There may have been part of a Beethoven sonata in the mix, but who am I kidding, I can’t correctly identify sonatas. It’s far from the Songza mixes I ran to on the treadmill at my gym back home, full of Beyonce and Bruno Mars and pop-artists-I-don’t-know. Or the near silence of running on side streets in Grand Rapids.
It’s so different from anything I’ve experienced. But it’s becoming part of my routine.
I don’t jump anymore—or at least not as much—when a truck honks loudly on the beach road next to the boardwalk.
I don’t plan to wear headphones, to block out this experience so that I can run to more exercise-appropriate beats. Because I want to keep taking it all in. I know each day, every experience here in Vietnam might not always be so full of the unexpected—I may come to expect certain things, or even to expect the unexpected—but I want to relish it while it’s fresh. To continue to feel alive in a way that often exhausts me, it’s so intense.
These experiences can’t be bottled. At least not yet.
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.