Friday, May 24, 2019

Vietnam (5): Personal Challenges

(*I started writing this on the 1st of May. It's taken me 3 weeks to write the second half. There's been a lot going on.*)

And now over a month has passed, and the (self-imposed) deadline has come and gone for another chapter in the Vietnam saga, and - in truth - I find myself at something of a loss on how to begin. 
I don't like to sound gloomy. I don't like to sound negative, or anything other than "sunshine-and-rainbows-and-butterflies!"
Conversely, I believe strongly in authenticity, for no good can ever come from lying to oneself.
So I waited. 

My soul has been uneasy, and this month has been a internal battle to focus on the good, to remain positive, and most importantly: to live in the NOW. 

I think this is a struggle which I've faced my whole life, though. I think it's one we all face. To not always be focused on the future, on the "what next?", on the "where to from here?" dilemma. To find peace in the current moment is profoundly difficult, and takes a great deal of mental strength and redirection whenever we stray off course. 
I am unspeakably lucky to have a partner who centres me when I need it, and this is something which I've noticed we do for each other when necessary. This relationship is unique for me though, because for the first time in my life I'm learning to trust the message, I'm really listening to and hearing the words, and I'm realigning myself and my attitude accordingly.

The flip-side of being in such a relationship, though, is that neither of us are really planners. We flow. We let the Universe lead us. Which is AMAZING when it's working, and life is calm, and your spirit is at peace.
But we're human. And humans have human emotions, and human thoughts, and human worries. 

I've peeled myself back from the brink of anxiety these past few weeks, because I was getting ahead of myself, and living in an uncertain future, and it was stressing me out. We weren't making money, then we weren't saving money, then we didn't know how long we could even stay, then we didn't know where we'd go to from here... So many questions, so much uncertainty.

But what a ridiculous statement that is to make: an "uncertain future". When is the future anything BUT uncertain?!?! We never know what's going to happen one second from now, no less a week or a month or a year from today! It's good to have an idea of where you want things to go, but I've never really been particularly good at THAT, either.

So: we're fiiiiiiiinally settling in here. 
It took a while. 
What we were NOT told before coming here (in several conversations about moving here that have since proved to be mis-informative and cavalier - but that's an entirely different matter that I shan't expound on further), was that the Lunar New Year began 3 weeks after we arrived. That's basically the equivalent of Christmas break in the Western world - the country shuts down for 3 weeks. No-one is hiring at the end of the year, no places are available for rent in this coastal town as they're taken up by holiday-makers, there is no money to be made, everything is winding down to the end of the year. 
So we were stuck in limbo for the first 3 weeks, then for another 3 weeks during the actual holiday, and only after that could we go about finding a place to stay and earning a living. So, in effect, our first 2 months here were something of an extended and entirely unplanned and unintended holiday. Thank goodness for savings. An unexpected payout from a providence fund that I didn't even know I'd been paying into for the past two years at my school in S.A. saved us.
(A handful of unforeseen financial setbacks happened just before we left home: Shaun's 6-month contract which was due to end in December was suddenly cut to a 3-month contract because the construction company ran out of funds, so he went unpaid for 3 months, his unemployment insurance got stuck/lost/buried in the black hole that is South African bureaucracy, his car gave out on him and he had to spend over 2000 US$ getting it running again,  I had to spend 1500 US$ at the dentist... 
Just... life, really.
But damn.)

Finding work here was not hard for me, because of my years of experience, and my teaching qualifications. But there are still only so many hours in a day that you CAN work here. You sell your hours, so you build up your own schedule as best you can, picking up work wherever you can to fill up the time.
It's all after-hours work though: English lessons for when the children are not at their regular schools. If you're lucky, you find an hour and a half 2 or 3 nights a week, the rest is full weekend shifts: 3 or 4 classes of an hour and a half each, Saturdays and Sundays. There are some kindergarten jobs where you work about an hour and a half every Monday to Friday at 8 a.m, but these are harder to come by, and are usually run really unprofessionally.

It's been harder for Shaun. He's never done this before, and teaching is NOT easy. He's also competing with MANY (how did we all get here?) other inexperienced and unqualified South Africans - who aren't considered by some schools to even be native English speakers at all. 

So it's been a struggle since we got here, on several levels - not only in keeping financially afloat. Things keep changing, employers are fickle, promises aren't kept, you're told to wait a few weeks, and when the few weeks are up, the whole playing-field has changed. Work has been unstable since we arrived, which leaves one feeling at odds in a new life, in a new, foreign country.
Even for me, though: no sooner did my schedule settle down and fill out nicely, when suddenly the summer vacation began! My adults that I was teaching at the University are on summer break, that course is done. My Grade 3 English classes at the public school are done until the school reopens in September. I've lost half of my teaching hours in this past month. Just like that. Snap! 

Luckily, Shaun's started working at the language centre where I work on the weekends, and they love him there. His schedule's filling up, and we've both been promised some extra hours from them during the June-August summer school programme, as they create more classes for the kids who'll be on holiday. 
Luckily, too, it's not that expensive to live here. We're making it work.
But the constant ups and downs have been putting a strain on us individually. How very lucky we are that ours is a relationship built, ultimately, on respect - when the dust settles, we listen to each other, we hear each other, and we make adjustments. It's been an amazing experience for us both, and we often marvel in gratitude at how we're traversing the challenges of life here together. 

Our stress was further exacerbated by the sudden changes with regards visa regulations - we came here with the intention of staying for a year, maybe two - when suddenly we didn't know if we'd even be able to stay beyond our initial 3-month visa! No-one had any answers, no-one knew for sure. There were a few tense weeks when it felt like we might have to suddenly pack up all of our stuff and make a hasty return home to S.A - and who knows what we'd do there midway through the year! - or quickly think of somewhere else to move to. This only intensified the strained financial situation - flights might need to be bought, arrangements might need to be made, no time, no time, no time! 

It also affected our social lives, and our interactions with new friends. If you're suddenly faced with the prospect of having to leave in a matter of days, you're less inclined to go out and make friends with new people, to get to know the local expat community, to start laying down roots that you'll just have to rip out before the month is up. And we weren't really in the right frame of mind to make new friends: we were worried, overwhelmed, lost in limbo.
We decided instead to enjoy our time together alone while we had it: in our beautiful home overlooking the sea. We went walking on the beach, swimming in the ocean, shopping at the market, cooking meals and enjoying them together. We nested in our first ever home together, for as long as we would be able to, not knowing how long that would be.

But, as it turns out, we've been granted another 3 months here, and it seems we'll be able to keep renewing for a while yet. Fingers crossed!
So, finally, we've been able to exhale. To let our hair down, and ease into making a life here.
To relax into the adventure.

And the last few weeks have been wonderful. I've accepted that horrific karaoke music can and will invade my life from time to time, sometimes even at 6 a.m, either from neighbours or from nearby restaurants. I've accepted that the construction crews directly in front of our apartment building have 2 shifts and work throughout the night, smashing and banging and clanging and pouring cement at all hours. (Earplugs are my new best friends.) I've learned to live with it. I've changed my focus.
Instead, I've begun to watch the full moon rising over the sea , to enjoy the pink candyfloss sunsets, to marvel at how the sea changes colour every day...

We've been meeting some truly stellar people, forging warm and comfortable friendships, and relishing being invited to pool parties, get-togethers, Girls' Nights and Boys' Nights... 
With the luxury of time now, we're no longer living with an internal ticking clock. The pace of life has slowed, and that's a large factor in why we came here in the first place.

We've found our rhythm again, and now we get to enjoy the dance.

  Public holiday pool day fun!

Candyfloss sunsets from our balcony 

 Candyfloss sunsets from our balcony

Sunset strolls on the promenade

My Guy. xx

Monday, April 1, 2019

Vietnam (4): The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I have, throughout the course of my life, been both commended and also accused, of being an eternal optimist. When presented as a compliment, it has been followed by an appreciation of my tendency to remain ever-hopeful and find the joy and beauty in life. When uttered in cynicism, it has been coupled with nasty doubts as to my sincerely, or snide comments about my (perceived) ignorance. 

In truth, being an optimist is a conscious decision. It's not a natural state of mind, but rather a daily practice which becomes smoother and easier with time... a determination to - even in the face of pain and ugliness - maintain an "attitude of gratitude" (a phrase which I once heard long ago, and which has stayed with me always).

Life is not perfect. Life is not easy. There is pain and suffering in this world on a massive scale, everywhere you look. Injustice is rife, greed is abundant, disregard for other people's humanity is a prevalent feature of both personal and impersonal interactions. 

And yet here we are. Here I am. This life of mine hasn't ever gone according to any plan which I thought I'd made. I look around me and see things that make me sad all the time. But I choose not to dwell on them. For my own peace of mind. And perhaps THAT'S what my special gift is: a fierce determination to live a life of joy. To not allow disappointments to destroy me, to not let heartbreaks crush me, to actively seek out the good bits of life - people, moments, places, foods - and truly APPRECIATE them in all of their glory and goodness rather than drown in the mire of the hardships.

With this all in mind, I present to you: an attempt at a balanced and fair description of the past month of my life, in all of its multifaceted uniqueness. 

1. The Good
Shaun and I moved into our own place on the 1st of March. It's the first home we've properly shared, given that in South Africa his work on the big power plants kept him based far out of town during the week, and we'd only see each other on weekends when he'd come stay at my place, for the most part.

It's been a dream. 
We've absolutely LOVED playing house. We go grocery shopping together, plan our meals together, cook together, clean together. We've fallen into such a comfortable and beautiful rhythm, and it speaks to our relationship with each other how seamlessly this has all taken place. And it's FUN. It's been so loving, so healthy, so happy. We laugh so much together!

I started a keto diet at the beginning of the month, which - in effect - means no sugar, no processed carbs, no alcohol. Shaun hasn't quite managed to stick to it as strictly as I have, but as head chef in the household, he's kept all of our meals strictly on plan, and we've been having such fun shopping together at the fresh produce market and planning our daily meals - every single one of which is consumed with appreciation and active enjoyment. (I love good food. It brings me such joy. I find it to be such a profound pleasure in life.)

And our apartment. Ah, what a GIFT. 
Not only did we stumble upon an absolute little gem - fully furnished in such a tasteful and welcoming and warm manner - but the VIEWS! Our 6th floor balcony runs along the length of our entire apartment, which means that from every room in the house (except the bathrooms), you look out onto the big blue sea.
I cannot accurately explain just what that does to one's soul. I don't really think I need to, though. We all know.

Whether we're quietly sitting on the balcony and staring out at our 180 degree view of the blue - either together or alone, or simply glancing at it as we walk through the house, or catching a glimpse while we're doing something else, or waking up and opening the curtains and taking it in for the magic that it is... the sea has become an integral part of our relationship. A third party in the union, as it were. 

On our days off together, we like to go for long walks along the beach, which usually end with a swim in the warm waters. It's what we dreamed about before we moved here - a chance to live by the sea, to enjoy it every day, to let its flow guide the rhythm of our lives... But I don't think either one of us ever imagined the relationship would be quite so intimate and immediate. How lucky we are!

We've had some friends over for meals, joined in on a pub quiz team one night, and Shaun DJed another fantastically fun party at the Pineapple Bar, but for the most part, this past month has seen us really enjoying and settling into our new space. And it's been wonderful. 

I start work later than back home - on two days I start at 10 a.m, on the other three I only start at 2 p.m, and although it means I finish later, too, I've welcomed the change in routine. There's something quite magical about having the freedom to ease into one's day - waking up naturally, without an alarm clock, slowly going about the morning rituals, preparing for the day's work in one's own time... what a blessing. I'm really, REALLY appreciating that part of this chapter a great deal.

2. The Bad
A big feature of our lives here is the impermanence of it all. We don't know how long we'll be able to stay. We originally came on a 3 month visa, and then went through a difficult period of about 2 weeks where people all around us were unable to renew their visas, which made us start contemplating the possibility that we'd also have to leave by the end of March. Luckily, we managed to score another 3 months, and beyond that, we'll just have to see. Rules keep changing, possibilities keep changing, options keep changing. We're looking into various avenues, but have also made a pact with each other to enjoy every single day for the miracle that it is, and live in the present that has been gifted to us, rather than in an unknowable future.

Secondly, I'm also finding it decidedly difficult to cope without knowing the language. By all accounts, Vietnamese is a terribly complicated language to learn (more from a pronunciation perspective than from a grammatical one), and we hadn't looked into language lessons previously as we didn't know how long we'd be staying. But I think my project for the coming month will be to get that ball rolling. It frustrates me to be unable to communicate even the most basic things, and I feel I owe it to my host country to make an effort in that department. Besides, I'm looking forward to it! With all the languages I've picked up in my life, I'm excited to learn the basics of yet another one. Language is a beautiful thing: it's an insight into culture, and culture is fascinating. The sociologist in me still finds human beings utterly enchanting across all of our differences and similarities.

3. The Ugly

Ohmygod THE NOISE.

The noise, the noise, the noise. 
It's completely invasive. It permeates our lives in every respect. The rare moments of 'peaceful' are prized and cherished.

Vietnam is, without a doubt, the loudest country I've EVER been to - and I've been to a fair few. If it's not the banging and clanging and sawing and industrial-level smashing of construction EVERYWHERE, it's the constant hooting and beeping of all the cars and motorbikes and trucks and taxis on the roads (and there are MANY, and they beep constantly as a kind of cautionary measure to let each other know they're there).

But the worst - the absolute WORST culprit in the noise pollution nightmare - is the damn karaoke. People are obsessed with singing into microphones here. (I'm being generous with the term "singing", by the way.) But not at any kind of reasonable volume, no. Music is played at MAXIMUM volume, and microphones are adjusted to be even louder than the music. 

People rig up sing-alongs on the pavement in the street, blasting out of apartments in our building, blaring out of virtually every beach bar and restaurant along the strip directly across the road from our house (this last one is particularly obnoxious, and clearly an attempt to lure customers inside, the louder the better)... It's loud enough to drown out our TV in our own living room unless we shut all the doors and windows, which is not ideal in this hot climate... Sigh.

And it's NOT good, the singing. It's usually the culmination of day-long drunken revelry... over loud, thumping bass. Oh my. 
The only saving grace is that it doesn't ever seem to go past 10 pm. YET.

Coming home to no karaoke music blaring into our home through the sliding doors in the evening is a blessing. Waking up naturally rather than to the sounds of construction from 7 a.m to 7 p.m, 7 days a week, is a blessing. Being surrounded by peace and quiet in the sanctity of our own home for a few hours a day, is a blessing. And we relish every minute of it!

(To be fair, the reason it's particularly noisy where we live is because we live in an area mainly filled with holiday-makers. Most locals live closer to the centre of the town. We chose the outskirts - which are all of 10 minutes further away! - so that we could be near the sea. And we wouldn't change it for a thing.)

So that's the summary, really. Good with bad. Day by day. 
We're LOVING our adventure, and gratefully making the most of our opportunities which we have while we have them. 
Looking forward to what the future holds - whatever and wherever that may be.

With love, always.

 Watching the sun go down at our favourite sunset spot

 Beach walks in front of our house

  Beach walks in front of our house

  Beach walks in front of our house

 Shaun DJing the St Paddy's Day party at Pineapple Beach Bar

 Sunrise from our balcony

 Pool day with my bae!

Sunset from the pool

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Vietnam (3): Lunar New Year

Greetings from 'nam!!! 

It's been a while since last I posted, as we've had a rather languid and calm few weeks here over the holidays.

Vietnamese New Year/ Lunar New Year/ Tết started at the beginning of February, so we weren't working or job-hunting at all for a few weeks, but we DID find a home - just as soon as the holidays ended and a bunch of listings suddenly went up, we quickly found a veritable gem. It's PERFECT. More about that later!

The Lunar New Year celebrations here are much like our Western Christmas and New Year December holidays rolled into one GIANT celebration. The whole country is on holiday, and people go home to visit their families, wherever they are. Also, many people bring their families to the coast for a beach holiday, so our little town has been FILLED with out-of-towners such that the roads were packed, eateries were packed, beaches were packed... Damn tourists! Hee hee. 

Because of how busy it was outdoors, for the most part we didn't do very much over the holiday... reading, hanging out at the house with friends, catching up on shows, cooking yummy meals at home - which, let's face it, are all rather splendid ways to spend one's days! 

There were certainly a few highlights, though - one of which was the actual first night of Lunar New Year. We, with what felt like literally every other person in the town that night, headed down to the seafront for the big fireworks display at midnight. Down by Front Beach, they'd decorated a park with so many fairy-lights and sparkly statues and sculptures that it looked like a magical wonderland for people to wander through in the evening. So we did! It was lovely!

After that, a big group of us expats gathered at a cheap 'n cheerful beer hall, had some drinks, then headed down to another park filled with statues near the waterfront. We sat there, on the grass, under the stars, chatting, drinking, socialising, surrounded by Vietnamese people of all ages - families with little kids, teenagers, elderly couples - who were all doing the same thing: waiting for the midnight fireworks. Which did NOT disappoint! We were treated to a full 18 minutes of the most beautiful, most glorious patterns and colours and lights in the night sky - just MAGICAL!

The other highlight was a day on which we went out hiking, also a rather large group of us. Everyone hopped onto their scooters and motorbikes, and drove together to a place about half an hour outside of town, called Minh Đạm. Once there, we walked through a quiet temple complex, up several hundred steps to a vantage point at the top of a mountain, from which we had the most incredible view of the whole area - miles and miles of coastline, mountains, greenery, rock formations, mountain streams... beautiful. On the way back down, we made some stops to crawl into caves and nooks, and little hidden spots - what a lovely way to spend a morning! 

Driving home, we stopped for lunch towards the top of yet another mountain, at a rustic eating spot - low ceramic tables surrounded by plastic chairs, along the side of a rockpool with kids splashing about and chattering happily. We ate delicious barbecued chicken as we were serenaded by the off-key karaoke stylings of happy, beer-drinking locals - booming at us from giant speakers that had suddenly appeared, seemingly from out of nowhere! It would be fair to say that "soothing", it was not. Entertaining and endearing - certainly, yes.

So that was the holiday - a day trip here, a sunset there, Candice and Connor threw a big party at a cafe on a hill that was good fun... Just... goodness.

And a final, wonderful cherry-on-top: finding the perfect spot to call home!
Shaun and I always fantasised about living near the sea when we first decided to move to a coastal town, and after seeing a number of houses and apartments in a day - some in the town, some near the beach, we both fell in love with the little place we're moving into next month. It feels warm and cozy, the finishes are classical and beautiful, and there's a balcony which runs along the entire expanse of this 6th floor apartment that offers an almost 180 degree view of the sea and the horizon. We're so excited!!! It's also across the road from the beach itself, and I have grand plans of waking up early every morning and going for long walks on the beach to start my day in serenity and gratitude. 

I made a decision yesterday that I would actively be focusing on no longer living my life around work. Work is going to be just another part of my day - something on the itinerary, just like reading, or exploring, or going out for meals and sundowners.
It's going to be an adjustment, because I feel like we're all so consumed by work that we build our lives around it. Given the unique set of circumstances in which I currently find myself, I want to make it just another part of my day, of my week.

Speaking of work, I started my regular classes at the public school this week: from 2 to 5 pm, Tuesdays through Thursdays. It's not easy. Each of my 6 Grade 3 classes has 35 kids in it (aged 9 - 10), whose English is very weak, and who've been taught the way most second-language learners are taught: formulaic, repetitive. They're incapable of answering even the most basic of questions, like "How was your holiday?", and need to be guided through conversations slowly and carefully. It's almost like they freeze up the minute I veer away from the textbook pages I'm supposed to be teaching them. 
Now, the easiest thing for me would be to continue to teach like that: repetitive, rote, the same sentences over and over again until they've learnt them off by heart... But that's not enough. I want to make them comfortable with the language. At the moment, they're terrified of it. I feel a duty to these kids to make English accessible to them. I want them to relax into it. Language is not mechanical - it should never be.
We'll see how it goes.

My other classes with kids are at a large private language centre. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, I teach a class of 7 year olds for an hour and a half at a time - 3 Russian kids and 10 Vietnamese kids. (There's a rather substantial Russian community here, due to the Russian petrol companies having sizeable contracts with Vietnam, and setting up shop here in Vung Tau.)
THESE kids have been learning English for about a month (4 lessons or thereabouts) Soooooooo... their English is nonexistent. And because they're bored and frustrated by not knowing what's going on, their behaviour isn't ideal - they're alllllllllllll over the place. It's a challenge. BUT! This ain't my first rodeo! I know how this goes. In EVERY job, the first 3 months are always the hardest. It's inevitable. The kids need to grow to trust me, like me, and relax into my energy. Routines take time to be established. I know for a fact that there were classes in my life that were atrocious to start with - that brought me untold anxiety and crippling self-doubt - and that ended up being happy, positive, joyful environments after just a few months. The trick is to remain calm. Which is obviously easier said than done! But I think that with experience and time, I myself am learning how to negotiate the teaching space better every single day. 
It's a gentle dance, working with kids. It requires finding the perfect balance between firm boundaries, and joyful exuberance. The foundation, of course, is to approach the situation with love, and kindness. Always. Too many adults hold children accountable for the bad parenting which they've received. Too many children are met with annoyance and frustration at their "bad" behaviour - which is almost always a symptom of several factors outside of their control.

My University classes only kick in in March, and then it'll be only one - until mid-April, when two more classes ensue. I'm excited to be lecturing at a University again! I have fond memories of my evenings lecturing in Sociology at Wits University, although I don't expect the same kind of rigorous philosopical, ideological, socio-cultural debates from my timid Vietnamese second-language learners. Still, it'll be a great experience to be teaching at the tertiary level again, after all these years.

And that's really it, as far as summaries go. 
Tonight, Shaun's DJing again at the Pineapple Beach Bar 2nd Anniversary Party, and I'm excited to see him in action again. It'll be fun to catch up with some of my new friends whom I haven't seen in a few weeks. It'll be fantastic to get my dance on, and shake my tail-feathers once again!

Until next time, this is me signing off in love, as always.
Smooches!!! xxx

 Magical fairy-lights adorn the trees in the park, over Tết

 Magical fairy-lights adorn the trees in the park, over Tết

Disco-balls adorn the trees in the park, over Tết

Yellow flowers are a symbol of good luck over Tết, and are sold everywhere in the streets

Tết decorations light up the streets

Tết decorations light up the streets

Tết decorations light up the streets

Large fruits are painted in gold, and emblazoned with well wishes

Tết decorations everywhere

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới !

Exploring Minh Đạm

Exploring Minh Đạm

Exploring Minh Đạm

Exploring Minh Đạm

Exploring Minh Đạm

Sea view from the balcony of our new home

Sea view from the balcony of our new home

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Vietnam (2): Settling In

So much has happened in such a short space of time!!! 
As we reach the end of our second full week in Vietnam (17 days here already, but who's counting!), I find myself living in that all-too-familiar contradiction of "Where has the time gone?!", and also "Wow, we've only been here TWO weeks?!". 

In fairness, I couldn't be more grateful. That awful limbo-space of beginning a brand new chapter in a brand new place is no longer feeling awful - although still decidedly limbo! The initial General State of Confusion is being exited. We're starting to know our way around, starting to fall into a routine of sorts, starting to get a feel for the place...

The major development for me, personally, has been on the work front. As my friend Candice told me right in the beginning: you have to be your own entrepreneur here. You sell yourself, you sell your hours, you hustle and manoeuvre. You build your own schedule by simultaneously working for a number of language schools at a time, and try to work it out so that you end up with a schedule that is most beneficial and best-suited to YOUR personal needs, in terms of the hours you wish to invest, and the returns which you wish to enjoy.

Now: this is all rather daunting for someone who is used to working a set weekly schedule, as most of us are. We're used to a Monday to Friday workweek, working X amount of hours within the usual 8 - 4 or 9 - 5 parameters. It's overwhelming to go for interviews and be asked how many hours you want, and on what days, or to be given a schedule and asked if it suits you, while waiting on schedules from numerous other companies, and all of them are waiting for your answer because there are other people who need those hours too... ARGH!!! It's been an EDUCATION, if you'll pardon the cheesy metaphor!

Anyway. I'm set, it seems. I'll be working 4.5 hours at the University a week (which is 2 classes), and after April another 4 classes will be added, which will bring me to 13 hours in total. 
Then I signed on as the Grade 3 English teacher at the biggest public school on the island, which I'm REALLY excited about. 6 classes with 35 kids in each, 8 years old. I think it's going to be an incredibly challenging and wonderfully enriching experience for me as an educator. It'll be vastly different from anything I've ever done before. But I've worked there for all of this week and a few lessons last week too, and I really do enjoy the environment. It feels like ACTUAL teaching. I connect with both the staff and students in a way in which I never did in all of the private institutions I've ever worked at.
Finally, I'll be working at one of the biggest language centres here on the weekends - one class of littleys on Saturday and Sunday morning, and a class of teenagers on Saturday and Sunday evenings. 
If the University accepts my proposed class-schedule, I should have a 26 hour workweek in total, with Mondays and Fridays off. And make enough money to enjoy my life here, as well as put some aside for travel and life. Fingers crossed!!!
(Shaun has his first batch of interviews and demos lined up for the week ahead. He's going to ROCK them, charmer that he is. ;) )

We've had some really awesome experiences in this past week that have brought me a great deal of joy, and continue to endear me to this place more and more each day. I'm often reminded of Taiwan in many of the interactions here, and I imagine it has a fair amount to do with the overriding Taoist/Buddhist ethos of most of the Vietnamese people, as well as the historic Chinese influence.

Most prevalent at the moment, of course, is the upcoming Lunar New Year, known here as "Tet". For the first two weeks of February, Vietnam will be on holiday (along with the rest of most of East Asia). The streets and alleys are being covered in fairy lights and lanterns, trees are being adorned with red envelopes, pomelos (a huge, delicious citrus fruit that is traditionally eaten around this time) are EVERYWHERE, big red festive signs seem to be going up everywhere around the town wishing everyone a "Chuc Mung Nam Moi!" ("Happy New Year!"), and there's a general sense of jubilation and excitement all around.

We were very fortunate to be invited to dinner at our landlords last week, who live on the 4th floor, just above us, as something of a pre-New-Year get-together... Candice and Connor, Shaun and I, and another couple who also rent from them: he's French Belgian, she's Vietnamese. 

The landlords are a young Vietnamese couple in their 30s, who used their wedding money to buy a small piece of land on the side of a mountain in this lovely little coastal town. Him being an architect, they built a house in which they could live comfortably on the top floor, and still rent out the two apartments below. As he explained to me, property in Vietnam is very expensive, so people build UP. (I should have known this house was designed by an architect. My mum is an architect, and the way this house flows into beautiful spaces and areas is something that immediately resonated with me, after years of learning from her and listening to her).

Dinner was casual and plentiful, traditional and unpretentious: a table laden with roast duck and roast chicken, different types of spring rolls, rice, greens, steamed fish, and different and interesting little sauces to go with each dish. The beer flowed freely, conversation was lively and interesting (I'd expected it to be somewhat stilted, as these events generally tend to be, what with the language and cultural differences, and the coyness and humility of local hosts as opposed to the brashness and gregariousness of us Westerners, usually - but we all fell into a rather comfortable repartee rather quickly). 
We left with full bellies, big smiles, a warmth and gratitude for all that is Vietnam... and a cactus-plant each for Candy and I, after we'd admired the landlady's beautiful potted succulents - a very typically Asian gesture of kindness.

The other really cool thing that happened since last I wrote was this party we went to last Sunday night (most teachers here work full weekends, so Sunday night is the big party night here). We all went out to a place called Pineapple Beach Bar, which is literally across the road from the beach, for a birthday shindig. They have craft beers, a pool table, and a balcony overlooking the beach. They were also supposed to have a live music act, but when his equipment wouldn't work, the owners asked our friend Connor to save the day. He went rushing home to get the DJ equipment, and him and Shaun ended up DJing there! It was AWESOME!!! My man was cool as a cucumber, the consummate professional, and the floor was pumping! I couldn't have been prouder.

Also on the same night, Vietnam won their Asian Cup football match against Jordan, and the celebrations were quite something to behold! Suddenly, a parade of scooters and trucks FILLED the beach road, hooting, blasting music, and waving Vietnamese flags! It went on and on, both lanes were completely packed as the procession inched along the beach, everyone going in the same direction - elated in their victory.

We've had some adventures, Shaun and I. We like to go driving around without any real destination in mind - following the roads wherever they lead. Sometimes I go for walks in the narrow lanes and alleys around our house. It's so interesting to me, watching life unfolding all around me. There's a little old man who is clearly homeless, who lives in a hammock strung up between two trees on the pavement along the nearby main road. He always has food, and a drink in his hand. I think the vendors along the road take turns feeding him, as I've seen them chatting to him often...

One day, at the end of a Shaun-Honey Adventure Day, we popped into a Korean restaurant for dinner. We started chatting to a man outside, who introduced himself as Mr Kim, the proprietor of a new coffee shop in town. Later, as we finished our meal and got ready to pay the bill, Mr Kim said goodbye and told us to come to see his shop sometime. Him and his friends were out the door already when they doubled back and came back inside with a Vietnamese man, who promptly sat down at a little piano in the corner and started playing the most beautiful music! Mr Kim requested a song "in D-minor", and was soon singing along, while the rest of us watched and enjoyed! 
After they left, the Vietnamese restaurant owner came to chat to us, and explained that her husband (whom we'd just observed) was a professional musician, and played the piano, violin and saxophone at various hotels and venues around the city. She gave us her card, and invited us to come round to their house for free lessons anytime. She said she used to be a doctor, and was born and raised in Vung Tau, and offered to help us with anything we needed while we were here, because she loves her home town and wants everyone who experiences it to love it, too.

We left feeling high on life, high on Vietnam, high on the kindness of strangers.
THIS is why we're here.
This is the magic of stepping outside of the boundaries of regular life.
And I cherish every moment of it.

First time at the beach!

Dinner with our lovely landlords

Shaun getting ready to DJ at Pineapple Beach Bar 

 Sign at Pineapple Beach Bar

 Buddhist nuns outside a temple

 Lunar New Year decorations in the alley

 Scenes while out walking one day...

 Scenes while out walking one day...

 Scenes while out walking one day...

 Warrior statue in the park

 Buddhist temple

First time at the beach!

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Vietnam (1): First Impressions

WHOOSH!!! And here we are!

New country, new continent, new time-zone, new life.
The pace is just different. The energy is different. Life has a completely different hue here...

In a way, I wish it were Shaun writing this blog rather than I, because everything feels so familiar to me, everything feels - oddly, yet unsurprisingly - like being home again. I've been encouraging him to  point out all of the things which he finds interesting, or different, or attention-worthy here. And every time he does, I realize that these things haven't registered with me at all, because after spending a decade of my life in Asia, it's all so natural to me!

We're in Vung Tau, which is a peninsula at the very southern tip of Vietnam, about 2 hours outside of Saigon/ Ho Chi Minh City. It's little: about 140 square km in total, roughly (I've been told) 14 km by 7 km in size, with a population of about 300 thousand people. The beaches aren't very prominent (to be fair, we have yet to go to one), but there are little pockets of beach littered along the coastline where I've seen people swimming at all hours of the day and night. But there are lovely parks and green areas, little nooks and crannies and enclaves to explore...
Life is slow here, as if we were living on an island. I'm SO happy to be out of the insanity of Johannesburg. WOW. 

First things first: official responsibilities. I started looking for work today. Had an interview at the University, and a school, and dropped off my CV at two other noted schools on the island. Our friends here don't seem to foresee any difficulty in us finding jobs. We wanted some time to acclimatize to a new environment, so we gave it a week. I've made the mistake before (more than once) of rushing into the first thing I find in a sense of desperate urgency, only to spend the next months feeling unhappy and frustrated. I won't make that mistake again.
From what I've observed, the foreign teacher schedule is 2 hours every evening (around 6 - 8 pm), Monday to Friday, and "full" days on Saturday and Sunday (with a 3 - 4 hour break in the middle). For that schedule, I'll earn THREE TIMES as much as I did in South Africa - at a far cheaper cost of living. Plus a lot of teachers here do online teaching, too. That brings in even more money. The potential for saving is incredible. 

Also - and just as importantly, there's so much free time for other things! Exercise, study, whatever you like! I'm really excited! It's common knowledge that I'm a giant geek. I LOVE studying, learning, expanding my horizons. I can't wait to flex my brain-muscle once again!
We're SO lucky. We've come to stay with one of Shaun's best friends, Connor, and his girlfriend, Candice - who are SUCH fabulous human beings! We're living with them for now until we find a place of our own. They have a big, beautiful, 3-room house with a large outdoor balcony, on which Connor (informally) runs 10 a.m stretches and yoga and Jiu Jitsu classes, which he encourages his friends to join. Different friends show up every morning - it's SO cool. We're totally keen on getting involved regularly... it'll be so nice to reintroduce exercise into my life again!
I was always too exhausted to do anything at all back in Johannesburg. Mentally, emotionally, physically... Battling rush-hour traffic twice a day? That alone is enough to render one bedridden by 7 p.m! My body craves it, I can feel it. I've been joining-in on the morning stretches, then when the boys start wrestling on the mats, I've been moving into the lounge and doing my own weight-and-fitness routines. Nothing crazy, nothing heavy, but just working my body again has felt soooooooo good! I can feel the gratitude seeping from my pores!
Plus, Shaun will finally have the time to pursue his passion of electronic music. Connor and Candice plan on starting to throw regular parties here (they had their first one on NYE), and my brilliant man will start DJing at those. I'm SO happy for him!!! After about a decade of working in construction: long hours, long days, in a stressful and miserable work environment, under dangerous conditions... he was exhausted, and uninspired. The artist in him has been screaming for release. I've seen a new Shaun since we got here. It's beautiful.

Some random yet fascinating initial observations:
Firstly, our fabulous hosts hired a motorbike for us for the first month, since that's how everyone here gets around. Traffic is typically Asian: everyone does exactly as they please, and everything runs smoothly because of it. I'll post a video and go into more detail next time, but it's quite something to behold!
Also, because of the heat, there is a siesta-culture here, too. Everything shuts down between about 12 and 3, in order for everyone to have a nap. Delicious! In turn, that also means that things shut down later in the evenings, which makes for a vibrant and busy night-time culture. Such fun!
We've met a few other expats here so far, and everyone's been SO nice. There's that old expat unity that I've missed: it's a camaraderie, a "we're-all-in-this-together"-ness, an understanding that comes from the fact that everyone's doing the same job and therefore experiencing the same challenges together. LOTS of South Africans! Which has also made assimilating so much easier.
I've also noticed that the city seems to be evenly split between the Buddhist and Christian faiths. There are as many churches as there are temples, and just as there looms a giant madonna-with-child statue up on the hill, so too is there a Buddhist one on a different hill. There's even a smaller-than-the-original Christ the Redeemer here! It makes for what appears to be a distinctly pious and peaceful energy...
Our lives here so far have been WONDERFUL. Wake up, morning-exercise sessions, drive around with C and C to get food and get to know the city (OMG ALL OF THE FOOD IS SO GOOD!!!), afternoon nap. In the evenings while our hosts are at work, Shaun and I have been exploring the island, he's been practicing driving the motorbike (I have no desire to learn - I managed to avoid it for a decade, I shall continue to do so for as long as I can), we've been reading up on life here, he's been working on his music, I've been reading (what a luxury! I can't remember the last time I read a book!).
Then at night the 4 of us will either go out for dinner or cook together at home... friends drop in and out of the house... it's all so easy and fluid here. The rhythm is SO good.

I'm really, truly, happy we made this move. We both are.
May it continue in this vein, and may everything fall into place for us in the weeks ahead. Sending out good vibes to the Universe.
Love and light to you all!!! xxx

 About to land in Asia! WHEEEEEE!!! :)

 First meal in Vietnam, at home with the utterly lovely Candice and Connor!

 Driving through the streets of Vung Tau

 Sights around the city, off the back of a scooter

 Sights around the city, off the back of a scooter

 Sights around the city, off the back of a scooter

 Sights around the city, off the back of a scooter

 Sights around the city, off the back of a scooter

 Sights around the city, off the back of a scooter

 Sights around the city, off the back of a scooter

 Mountain-top sunset facing West...

... and East, overlooking the fisheries in this port town