1. Fourth meal phở
Sorry, Taco Bell, you ain’t got nothin’ on ‘Nam. When it’s midnight and you’ve had a few too many Ba Ba Ba’s, there is no cure like a steaming bowl of phở in a white ceramic bowl lined with little flowers. Square chopsticks will be your ticket to a mouthful of heaven, plum sauce optional, but giá required. Pull up your little red stool to any aluminum table you wish, and let the trà đá flow freely. Instant hangover relief. If there were phở pills, I would market them to colleges across the US. Now all I have is some Advil and the Crunchwrap Supreme.
2. People wanting to take your photo
Back in ‘Nam (a phrase I will never stop loving to say), I was in a cover band. Alternative Medicine. We were pretty good, but not great — I mean, we were a cover band. But despite whatever talent we did or didn’t have, people still treated us like we were famous. Young girls would rush up to me and take selfies with me (peace sign included, of course), and I gave out my Facebook information way more than I should’ve.
I had never before been asked for my autograph just because I am a white person just existing. Zero talent required. It was like seeing my name in print was a window into another world for the Vietnamese.
3. Picking out your own fabrics at the markets and letting a strange woman marvel at your height and bust size
I had so many dresses made for about 150,000 VND a pop with the Vietnam handmade “fashion industry”. Some of them were a little hit or miss, some of them I wore last week, but it didn’t matter. I was getting clothes made for me for less than 10 dollars! Three weeks later, instant closet.
4. The exoticism
There are certain things that just never seem to happen back home, like this exchange:
- “Pssst…hey, you,” says the pineapple salesman. “You want marijuana?”
- “Uhh, no thanks,” I respond.
- “…You want coca?” he counters, undeterred.
- “I’ll pass,” I say.
- Then, grasping at straws, he goes for the Hail Mary,
5. Being paid large amounts of easy money (if you are white)
Times are surely changing, but being a young white woman in ‘Nam is not a terrible thing. Once a “casting agency” needed a blonde so badly, I got paid $800 to be in a Finnish “Survivor” commercial, aka “spend a day on the beach and pretend like you’re washing this t-shirt.” I was the highest paid actress in all of Vietnam that day! I did voiceovers. I modeled. But it wasn’t just me – my roommate was the voice of HSBC. Another friend got paid to “pretend” to be representing a real estate company. Another friend had a regular spot on TV serials and advertisements. A strange, alternative reality of the “artistic world” it may be, but it’s still a white girl’s oyster nonetheless.
6. The wind-blown look and a free tan, all just for driving to work
If you’ve ever driven a motorcycle or a motorbike, you know the feeling. It’s the same drive, but all of a sudden you’re a part of the world around you. In Vietnam, the entire world is built around that concept. Because it’s all motorbikes, everything’s made for the street. The sinh- tố shop that’s a drive-up stand. The print shop that you know sells canvas because you saw it one day as you drove by. The smell of phở just too good to resist pulling over for a quick bowl.
7. The cà phê and sinh tố culture
Vietnam has a similar culture to Europe in that at 2 PM on a weekday, if you don’t plan on sitting down to enjoy a latte, a beer, or some gelato, you’re in the minority. Only in ‘Nam, it’s cà phê sữa đá or a sinh tố.
Sinh tố. I drool a little just thinking about it. My eyes glaze over in a dream-like state where I remember living in a world were a walk across any street would garner me a fresh-fruit smoothie for a dollar. I could play it safe and do strawberry or mango, mix it up a little with banana, watermelon, or coconut, or even go big or go home with avocado (seriously, try it now) or mangosteen.
Remind me, why did I leave again?
8. The markets
You never forget your first Vietnamese marketplace. I remember feeling like I was in some documentary for National Geographic walking into Tan Dinh; some enormous animal wandering through foreign territory, a literal white elephant hoping not to be noticed. I stood a head or two above the hunched-over, middle-aged women, all gathering herbs, meats, and whatever they needed for their next few days. I felt like a spy at first. And then, as it becomes more routine, the awe fades away and the excitement sets in. The challenge of the barter, the curiosity of the find, the fun of the exchange.
You don’t get that at Wal-Mart.
9. A $4 piece of French toast being the economic equivalent of 3 bowls of bún bò Huế
You know that, San Francisco, right?
10. ‘Sacrificing’ with to-die-for vegetarian food
If you’re anything like me, you don’t like live fish being grilled in front of you. Or giant slabs of cow meat sitting on countertops until they sell. Or chicken feet you can suck on, duck egg fetuses, and a number of other reminders that what you’re eating was living and breathing just like you are now. To make it easier on myself, I ăn-chayed a lot. I’d like to call it a sacrifice, but it was a complete gastronomic luxury. One sit-down at Thuyền Viên and you’ll know what I’m talking about: pumpkin cà ri, fresh-baked baguettes, and tofu dressed up so many different ways you actually can’t tell it’s tofu. Can you say that about your Boca burgers or tofurkey or those weird mushroom noodles that don’t even taste good slathered in Velveeta?
11. Ridiculously cheap beer
We are talking cents per glass here. Em ơi! Ba ly nua and keep ‘em coming. What’s my bill? Một trăm? Fantastic.
12. Stepping outside being like stepping into a warm bath that allowed you to wear sundresses all year long
Ah, the warmth of every season — all two of them. Don’t get me wrong, for the first six months I was sweaty and not cute, but you get used to it and even grow to love it. And then you go back home and only Tijuana in July feels good. You’ll be wearing that winter coat through May. Damn you, equatorial climates!
13. Karaoke being cool
In case anyone was unsure, I’m a complete nerd. The fact that karaoke is actually cool (cool being an understatement; it’s an outright movement) in Vietnam is totally liberating. I could rock out to Chris Isaak at the top of my lungs in a room full of people I sort of knew while eating water apples and French fries and feel like the queen of the ball.
Unless it was at 3 AM next to my house. And then I really wish it weren’t so cool.
14. The hospitality and resourcefulness of the people
No list about Vietnam would be complete without mentioning the people. They are the definition of “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” It might not always be the safest or most sensible way, but they’ll get it done, don’t you worry. Stranded in the middle of nowhere? You’ll be taken in, don’t worry. Need a desk made and delivered? It’ll be done tomorrow and delivered just fine via Honda Cub. Need to get across this lake on your motorbike in a canoe? Consider it done.
15. The “exercisers” getting physical in the park
Vietnam isn’t known for its urban green space, so where there’s a park, it’s bound to be full of people. Most mornings you’ll see the “exercise equipment” in any park being taken full advantage of. However, that “equipment” happens to be a little circumspect – they’re metal imitations of weight machines, but without any actual resistance. So, good for you, Vietnam. At least you’re putting in some effort. And thanks for the morning giggle!
16. Being a certified millionaire
One of these days, Vietnam is going to have to adjust its currency. Right now, it’s at about 22,000 VND per 1 USD. In other words, I’ll take my Ulysses S. Grant and trade him in for new millionaire status, thanks. Man, life was good back then.
17. 9 foot tall doors at home
As an expat in Vietnam, almost any house you’re going to be living in is going to have most of these things: a spiral staircase, high ceilings, an easily-accessible rooftop, and balcony after balcony after balcony. Property tax is determined by what’s actually on the ground, so Vietnam has built itself upwards. I miss my floor-to-ceiling curtains, my rooftop barbecues, and balcony-improved glasses of red wine.
Can I go back yet?