Who is the Lifer?
It’s hard to include this guy on the list, because he’s not really an expat anymore. In the apartment block he lives in, he’s the only westerner, but he never gets stared at.
He is definitely wearing all the clothes you’d see a xe om driver clad in, and definitely has a packet of Cravens in his top pocket. He lives out of town, in the same accommodation since the mid-1990s. He laughs at the amount of money you’ve been tricked into paying for your serviced apartment or your villa with a pool, you lame expat.
He only ventures into the downtown districts when it’s 100 percent necessary... and absolutely hates it.
I visited Vinh City. More like Grim City, actually. Hailed by Vietnamese holidaymakers as a “seaside getaway”, Grim Vinh is often touted for its wide French boulevards, hotel-lined beachfronts and endless supply of Vietnamese street food cafés. Sounds like a dream, right? Well, it’s not.
Those beachfronts? Dirty. The hotel? Besieged by bus-in-bus-out tour groups and ruined by 5am shouting of “em oi!” over the sides of balconies to the lower levels. And breakfast, you ask? Served from 6am to 8am sharp, only. Luckily we were guests of the hotel owner, otherwise we would have been forsaken to the hellish unknowns of Vinh breakfast food.
But the real tipping point? When my request for more milk was rebuffed with the answer “that is the regulation amount of milk. If you want more, you have to pay.”
That was the last time we ever went to Vinh. Vinh is terrible. There, I said it.
When the helmet law was first introduced in 2007, I was against it. Not because I didn’t understand the reason for it, but because it took away one of the freedoms we had in Vietnam — the freedom to choose whether we use a motorbike helmet or not.
In my case, in town I’d always refrained. In the summer it was too hot, the helmets were always too bulky, and unless you could put them inside your bike, you ran the risk of having it stolen. When I told this to a Vietnamese friend of mine he looked at me with long eyes — “You’re turning Vietnamese,” he said. Yet when I added that I always wore a helmet when I was driving the highways, his response was, “Okay, maybe only 50 percent.”
A few years later I was in Yen Bai, a city north of Hanoi, and was driving on the main road out of town. In the past I wouldn’t have worn a helmet on this stretch of tarmac, but with the law being the law, I’d kind of accepted that sometimes you just have to do as you’re told.
From nowhere a truck pulled out in front of me. The movement was so sudden, that I didn’t have time to stop. I braked and somehow skidded my bike out of its way. But I came off and smacked my head on the road.
If the accident had happened before 2007, I would have been dead. Now, though, all I had was a bit of concussion, a few grazes and an easily stitched-up hole in the left side of my forehead. The helmet, or maybe I should say the helmet law, saved my life.
I became immune to the mixed-race couple age gap. With so many foreign retirees or former Australian GIs living in Vung Tau — where I lived a decade ago — it was the nature of the place. I guess I just got used to it.
The first time I returned to the city after I moved away my attitude changed. I was MCing at a friend’s wedding. The groom was Australian and in his 50s, the bride Vietnamese and in her 40s.
When I sat down at one of two ‘expat’ tables with my wife, I realised how out of place we were. While myself and my wife, who is Vietnamese, are of similar age, every other couple was comprised of a 50 or 60-year-old white man with a 20-year-old Vietnamese woman. As I watched the arse slaps, listened to conversations about hookers and overheard chatter in Vietnamese about buying houses, make-up and Gucci, I became disgusted. So did my wife.
When it comes to age range, the everyday person will view us as ‘normal’. But here we were the odd ones out.
I know my Vietnamese is far from perfect, but come on guys, give me a break. I’ve been here many years now and my relationship with my wife is in Vietnamese. I even go to a local Vietnamese church and pray in Vietnamese. So, what is it with you? Why can’t you just let foreigners in? Hey, we give you a break in our countries.
This morning was typical. I went to a café and asked for “mot lon so da voi da”. Come on, it’s a can of soda with ice, right? But no, the girl there just stared at me and looked blank. So, I repeated myself. On the third go she just handed me the menu.
I was starting to get angry. When you spend as long as I have learning the language, it’s damn frustrating when you’re not understood.
So, I repeated myself, this time really slowly as if I was talking to a baby.
Now she got me, repeating my words verbatim. So, I added, “Khong co lay chanh,” or please don’t give me any lemon. Once again I got the blank look. So I tried again, even more slowly. Ah, suddenly everything was okay now.
I just don’t get why it should be so problematic. Learning Vietnamese is difficult, not because the language itself is so hard, but because of the way people can react to you. And that, for me, is madness.
It took me years to work out where to take visitors. My instinct was to take them by taxi to the tourist sites or the good Vietnamese restaurants. But I always felt I was not really letting my friends and family get a real sense of what life is like out here.
So one time when my cousin and her boyfriend were in Hanoi, I tried something different. With me on one motorbike driving my cousin, we got a xe om driver for the other bike to drive the boyfriend.
We started at the obligatory One Pillar Pagoda, me flinging them in while waiting outside in the shade, xe om style, trying to get some shut eye. A 15-minute snooze later they were out so we drove past the mausoleum. After that I threw away the guidebook and took them around West Lake, down to the beach area behind Au Co, and to a streetside tea stand where I like to sit over a couple of pipes of thuoc Lao. The head rush my cousin got from a pipe was hysterical. She almost fell over.
The final part of the trip was driving halfway across Long Bien Bridge and descending onto Middle Warp. There we walked through the banana plantations and stumbled across the naked swimmers. My cousin and her boyfriend couldn’t stop laughing at the strangeness of it all. And then I gave them the sunset view over Chuong Duong Bridge with the city in the background.
Every time I see my cousin she talks about that tour. She’s done a lot of travelling, but she got to see what the place she was visiting was really like, and more importantly, what my life was like. For her that was priceless.