by Doris Gallan
Picture yourself making friends of all ages with locals and foreigners from around the world.
Can you see yourself having a meal of shrimps, salad, and two large beers for under $5—for two people? And, finally, imagine being treated with the utmost respect just because of your, um, advanced age?
Some frustrations include the disorientation you first feel when living in a country where the language, culture, and traditions are so different from your own. The easier challenges include beer served warm (put ice in your drinks); farm eggs that come with bonus straw and feathers attached (wash eggs before handling); and taking taxis instead of driving yourself (learn how much it costs to go to the places you regularly go to.)
Some of the more difficult tests to your patience may be the laissez-faire attitude of people (they put up with things we wouldn’t like, such as corruption); the seemingly millions of motorcycles driven by people who think traffic laws are just suggestions; and the lack of ventilation—except for windows—in most buildings.
We moved to Viet Nam to help a West Island friend establish an eco-resort near the city of Quy Nhon on the country’s central coast. We later moved to Da Nang, another central coast city, after I landed a job teaching tourism and hospitality at Duy Tan University. After sending my translated resume and a quick telephone interview with the English-speaking dean, I was offered a position and assured that my husband would be given a job teaching English for the same institution. So off to Da Nang we went where we would spend two and a half years.
It’s all about the people
My best memories of living in Viet Nam are about the people who became our friends and, especially, two young women who became our ‘daughters’. Many foreigners are attracted to Viet Nam because of its exoticism, low cost of living, and beautiful nature. Young adults as well as older ones come to teach English or other subjects in private schools and universities while others come to retire. We met many people from Australia and New Zealand, as well as a few Americans.
Vietnamese people who became our friends were mostly those who could speak English, including our work colleagues and students. I was, by far, the oldest in the Hospitality and Tourism department of the university and this, coupled with my years of experience, elevated me to a level of respect I’d never experienced anywhere before.
I also made very good friends among the young teachers and, as most of the teachers were in their 20s and 30s, we attended more weddings in the two and a half years I worked at the university than I had in my life. We learned a lot about traditional and modern weddings as well as the customs related to having and raising children.
Unfortunately, we also attended a traditional Vietnamese funeral for the father of my good friend Mita. There, I learned she couldn’t cry (even though I was sobbing) because it would keep the spirit of her father from leaving Earth to sit next to Buddha. I think I did enough crying for the two of us.
The Daughters Phu’ong
Two young women who became like daughters to us, coincidently both named Phu’ong, made our lives in Viet Nam so much more complete. Younger Daughter, or Phu’ong 1, was a student in my marketing class at the university.
She was the first student to invite me to join her and her friends for a coffee after class “one day.” We never did go for that coffee but we did develop a wonderfully close relationship.
Her friend, Phuong 2, became Elder Daughter and the two girls guided us through the more challenging parts of living in a foreign country including: paying our income taxes, taking the dog to the vet, and answering hundreds of our questions about Vietnamese culture, traditions, and religions.
They taught us to cook simple Vietnamese dishes and I taught them to make crêpes. They took us to the market so that we could get the best prices while we invited them over for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with a dozen other friends. They explained to us the finer points of Vietnamese social values while asking us questions about living in Canada and the United States.
The exchange of information was as great as the exchange of affection. Leaving our daughters made leaving Viet Nam painful but our relationships still hold two years after moving away and they remain deeply embedded in our hearts.
In the next few months, I’ll write about what brought us to Viet Nam in the first place (a West Island friend), how we found work, how we tried to learn the language, and how we dealt with difficult issues: not always well but, sometimes, in a very funny way.
Doris Gallan is a writer and creativewriting teacher currently living in Ecuador. She has lived in seven countries and traveled to over 50, on all seven continents. Doris grew up in Northern Ontario where she was educated in French and English and later became fluent in Spanish. She spent most of her summers in Montreal and lived there twice as an adult: one year working for the Saidye Bronfman Centre and one for CBC Radio.