Fifty Shades of Expat: The Ao Dai

Who is the Ao Dai?

The Ao Dai came to Vietnam with the best of intentions — to explore this far corner of the world and make it better, and take plenty of smiling Facebook pictures while she’s at it.


For every “I can’t believe I’m really in VIETNAM!” update she posts, she averages 74.7 likes, and 8.6 “OMG you are so beautiful!!!!!” comments.


The Ao Dai is conscientious, caring and careful, which how she’s managed to keep so many good friends in her life. She has deep convictions, and devotes a lot of thought to romance and what it should be. As far as the real thing, she’s not overly bothered — it will come to her when the moment is right, just like it does in all those movies.


In Vietnam, she’s gotten herself into her share of weird situations, most occurring when her reasonable approach clashes with unreasonable circumstances. She always finds her out of them though, with the type of story that she’ll share long after returning to her home country.



I wasn't allowed to study Vietnamese in high school. I went to elementary school in Bamako, Mali, where learning French was mandatory at school and nearly everyone was bi- or multilingual. So I was surprised when I started 11th grade in Vietnam that not only was Vietnamese not offered as an elective (only Mandarin and Spanish), but that the administration was totally opposed to offering any credit for a Vietnamese class taken by non-Vietnamese citizens — my Vietnamese classmates had to take Vietnamese history and language on Saturdays.


They also wouldn’t endorse an official after-school or Saturday morning Vietnamese language club. In my grade, at least, almost everyone I talked to agreed that it would be great to have some sort of formal Vietnamese instruction. We were basically told that, as a college prep school with an English-only policy, it wasn’t up for discussion.


This was several years ago now so I’d be interested to see if a more stubborn student could have changed their minds. And now that I’ve been through a liberal arts college, their “because we’re a college prep school” argument doesn’t make much sense.


I was sold accommodation in a museum. In my first year, I was sold accommodation for a night in what I thought was a hotel but was actually a museum. I wondered why the bed had a “Do not sit on the bed” sign and why everything was so dusty and there was no running water when I tried to shower in my museum bedroom — for which I had paid VND600,000 for the night.


I should’ve figured out that something was up from the fact that it was at Tet and there was no-one else there, but instead I thought, “Yay, there must be something really fun going on in town, I can’t wait to have a shower and go see what’s happening.” But there was no shower.



I had to keep doing my fake Irish accent for a week. I’d just broken up with my sort-of boyfriend, and decided to go to the Thai island we were planning on visiting together by myself.


I’d walked out of his Bangkok apartment a couple of days earlier, after learning that he’d had another girl staying in his bed the morning of the day I’d arrived. We were supposed to spend a couple weeks travelling together and seeing how we got along outside of quick weekend visits — and on the first day I had my answer.


I spent my first island day indoors, sulking. That night I forced myself to go out, to a bar down the street. But I couldn’t work up the courage to talk to anybody, even after my second gin-tonic.


When a boy approached me at the bar, I automatically switched on my very-convincing Irish accent. With it goes a mostly-true backstory, and he believed it. We had a laugh, then he introduced me to all his friends and asked me to stay at his family’s large vacation home. It was a great, relaxing week that reminded me of how much fun I could have on my own — the only drawback is I had to keep being Eabha to him and everyone else I met.


I've held 20 Vietnamese babies. Fact: Vietnamese babies are the cutest babies in the whole world. How do I know? Because I’ve held, nursed and burped about 20 of them since I arrived in Vietnam. And no, these aren’t babies I’m trusted to teach, but the babies of complete and utter strangers.


So warm and welcoming to foreigners are the Vietnamese people, that many are completely comfortable handing over their newborns and snapping a photo on their smartphones (presumably destined for Facebook?) of a foreigner smiling sheepishly with their offspring.


Please don’t change, Vietnam. I love holding babies.


I ate durian and then kissed a guy. Okay — so you know me: I’m pretty much a try-anything-once kind of girl. And one of the reasons I wanted to live in Asia was the food (forget the burgers and pizzas, give me soggy noodles and gristly knee-joints any day!). So when my friend bought a whole durian from this street vendor on Bui Vien one night — she just had the cutest kid — I knew I had to try some!


It smelled like a rancid pile of warm garlic, and I think I gagged a little when I took my first bite, but YOLO, bitches! I finished the whole thing and then made out with this Irish guy for like 30 minutes. I don’t think he even noticed. Irish guys are hot, and I guess they like durian too.

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