I tried to leave Vietnam twice. Both times I came back.
The first was after what I call the one-year itch, the period where the country no longer has that tick, that vibrancy, that magic that made you fall in love with it. That was in autumn 2001. By January the next year, I was back, but in a different city; Hanoi.
The second time was for a job in Singapore on a magazine, Education. I came, I saw, but despite all my well-laid plans, I didn’t quite conquer. Four months after leaving Vietnam with delusions of Singaporean grandeur I was back. This time I was based in Vung Tau.
Even though these days I spend a lot of time in the UK, I still haven’t left. As I like to put it, I’m on parole. Other long-termers I know have had different experiences. They have finished their sentences and moved on. For some it’s been a successful transition, for others it’s been more complex.
When I was in my early 20s and travelling Europe, I met a man on a train from Folkestone on the English Channel to London. He was with his 10-year-old son who lived with the boy’s mother in Paris.
“I left the UK in my early 20s,” the man told me. “I travelled the world and ended up living in South Africa for 10 years.”
“So why did you come back?” I asked. I can’t remember his exact answer but the comment that follows sticks in my mind.
“Once you leave, coming back is very difficult,” he told me. “You can never quite settle back in to life in the UK. You’re always a foreigner.”
This has not been the case for former Vietnam resident, Pete Murray. An 18-year-long veteran of the expat lifestyle, five years ago he returned to the UK with his Vietnamese wife and three kids in tow. The decision to leave Vietnam, says Pete, was easy. He was ready to leave.
“I decided when my eldest was born that I had 10 years to get out,” he says. “If they were to go to school in the UK, then they’d have to start before going to comprehensive [high school].
“So, it was always at the back of my mind, but then my mum died. So we all came back after that.”
At first he took his family to Northeast England, just south of Newcastle, but after a year he settled in the Wirral, next to Liverpool. He had returned to the UK with a plan to buy a business. After flirting with the idea of getting into the pub industry, he went into post offices.
“We were trying to buy a post office in Chester, but the one school we wanted to put the boys into, there was no chance of it,” he recalls. “The agent saw the deal wasn’t going well. So he sent us details of a couple more post offices for sale. We looked at one in Wallasey [near Liverpool], that we bought. We had to raise a bit more money, but the school options were good.”
Since then, life has been focused on work and the kids. While the three sons now no longer want to move back to Vietnam — something that disappoints Pete as he wanted to “raise them in both cultures” — his wife has also settled in.
“She’s been great,” he says. “Obviously there have been some stressful moments, but in general, I think the fact we’ve always been working has kept us sane.”
He adds: “Last year she went back for the first time in nearly four years. We were chatting online. She was complaining about all the noise and the heat. She’s now more comfortable [in the UK] than at home.”
Other former expats have not been so fortunate. One such person is John (name changed). Returning to the UK with his Vietnamese wife, two young children and a thriving business in Vietnam, at first the transition was smooth. But then everything started to unravel.
“The physical aspect [of moving back] was pretty simple,” he says. “There was a lot of paperwork to do when we got over here, but it was straightforward. So the actual logistics were not too difficult. We kept our business running — that helped. We had put in contingency plans a couple of years before we moved. It meant we could do a lot of stuff from the UK, online or by phone. It wasn’t easy, but it was doable.”
However, John’s wife never quite managed to settle. For her life in the UK was so different to Vietnam that she could never really fit in. She felt like an outsider.
“Although her English is good,” says John, “because it was a foreign language to her, she had a major confidence issue. She struggled with that to start with.”
This led to other problems.
“I think it’s to do with how she values herself,” he continues, “having the guts to actually get up and do something here. She did give it a go, but it was hard for her to continue on knowing that the lifestyle in Vietnam is so different.
“For her, in England there seemed to be no end to everyone going to work and then having to spend the rest of their lives completely involved with their children. No time to relax for a coffee or anything. I think she found that quite tough.”
Other issues included friendships. She never found people unwelcoming, she just struggled with the way things work; people don’t have their front doors open 24 hours a day, you can’t walk in unannounced. “Everything has to be planned,” adds John. “She found that quite difficult.”
The deal breaker was the weather.
“It was just too cold for her,” he says. “To the extent it affects her physically. She has problems with her joints and gets headaches. She’s not used to it.”
She has since spent increasing amounts of time back in Vietnam. How the family’s future will unfold remains unclear.
Making the Break
If you leave Vietnam after living here for a year or two, then going home is not such a trial. It’s easy to walk straight back into the rhythm of life. But if your sentence has gone over a decade, especially if you’re past 40, then returning brings with it a new set of challenges. As one friend of mine has discovered, his personal test is finding work. He’s 48, and despite a successful track record backed up by all the qualifications in the world, it’s taken time. Far more time than he hoped.
“They want people with experience in the UK,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done abroad. It counts for nothing.”
However, as with everyone I’ve spoken to, the key is to have a plan. It may or may not work out — that’s life. However, if you return without having clearly thought out your goals and your direction, then you’re setting yourself up for disaster.
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