I noticed it as soon as I set foot in Melbourne, waiting for my connecting flight to Adelaide. The air was decidedly chilly, and I was decidedly under- dressed, having just arrived from the heat and humidity of Hanoi. A group of middle-aged men, football fans, had seated themselves near me and were swearing loudly, cursing their team’s loss. Another group of young people lounged on the floor, limbs stretched in overt rebellion, fingers tapping in time to whatever tune was being streamed into their ears. The ordered, but well-mannered chaos of Vietnam’s airports was immediately up for comparison, and I searched eagerly for the familiar solace of Asian faces, finding only a few.
I was warned by the expats in my social circle that I was likely to experience reverse culture shock, and I pooh-poohed the notion. Of course, it didn’t apply to me. I was going back to Australia and my home town of Adelaide to see my family, friends and beloved cat — back to where all is right, good and sensible with the world.
Toto, We’re not in Kansas Anymore
Except it’s not. Right, good and sensible is not the world I want to occupy. Not anymore. I missed Hanoi almost immediately. Where was the noise, the motorcycles, the heaving mass of humanity living life on the streets that I had grown so used to and loved? The heat and humidity that I vacillated between loving (because I had great skin) and hating (because I was always dripping with sweat)? The weather was icy in Australia and I felt the cold seep into my bones. I couldn’t get warm. And everything was so expensive; food and alcohol especially. But it was more than that. A few days in, I was bored.
Now I was back, my social life had dwindled to a few lunches and dinners with family, friends and a handful of ex-colleagues, some of whom I had to chase. I tired very quickly of answering the same questions about the same things; did I eat street food (yes, and it’s delicious and safe), how much does everything cost (not a lot to quite a bit, depending), did I drive a motorcycle (no, I get a Grab or an Uber), how easy is it to find work (easy), how my daughter felt about me moving to Hanoi indefinitely (happy), was Hanoi the capital of Vietnam (yes), what was the internet like (cheaper, faster and better than Australia). And so on and so forth.
Apart from a few friends and ex-colleagues, I was bored with them and their lives. The majority of my friends from before I went to Vietnam were doing exactly the same thing as when I left. Sure, one friend married, two had children, and another separated from her spouse, but their lives were essentially unchanged. They told me about their struggles with work, bullying bosses, toxic work cultures and not winning promotions, with not having enough money to travel and enjoy life, about their frustrations with their families, partners and children. It was lovely to see them, but I struggled to connect at an intimate level. I craved real conversations — like the stimulating ones I had back in Hanoi — but scrabbled to deal with what was essentially superficial chit chat.
Proof of Concept: Backing Myself
I recognise this is my problem. I’ve changed. I’m not the person who had left Australia to have an adventure almost 12 months ago. I arrived in Hanoi knowing no-one, unsure of how I would make friends or what work I would do. I didn’t know the language, apart from a xin chao and a cam on, both abominably pronounced. I got lost in the Old Quarter (nothing has changed in that regard — I still do). When I gave an address, I had no idea where the taxi was taking me, and had to trust that I wasn’t going to be scammed or sold into white slavery (neither of which happened). Slowly, as things fell into place with an apartment and a volunteering role, and because I went to the opening of all the envelopes, I made friends. Good friends. And my life in Hanoi kicked up a notch into exciting and interesting territory because I’m all in.
I had nearly died in Cao Bang and lived to tell the tale. I can speak basic Vietnamese. I have work falling into my lap, and I travel regularly and meet many interesting people because of the work I do. There are opportunities here, real opportunities that value skills and experience and education. My expat friends come from all walks of life and from all over the world.
My Vietnamese friends are kind, warm and funny, and have welcomed me with open arms into their world. My edges, which were honed razor-sharp in Australia because everything is so hard and such a fight, are softer. I have learned to let things go, like politics and late taxis and flooded roads, because I can’t do anything about it. That frees up time and space for other creative ventures and projects.
Call it reverse culture shock if you will, but what I miss is this; my lovely life in Vietnam. Thank God I’m only away for a month.
Photo by Senkaya