Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Goodbye Indochina

My last days flew by and before I knew it I had left Indochina behind me. Already life in Leeds feels back to normal and it is almost as if I never went away.

I spent Saturday preparing for the presentation I was to deliver in the evening as a part of my leaving do. In the end I was not best pleased with the delivery of the presentation and felt that I could have prepared more. I hadn't applied enough genuine thought to how this experience has affected and changed me; in the days since I've done much more self-reflection and got my head around the past nine months as an entire entity- it has felt like such a lifetime that it is difficult to realise how my attitudes and outlooks have changed over the full period.

My friends came out for a meal with me after the presentation and ended up taking me to Apocalypse Now, the nightclub with the notorious reputation. I had somehow avoided it the whole time I was living in Saigon and felt I should experience it before I left. In fact it was nothing like how it had been described to me as being, and I had a really good time.

My last day in Vietnam was so busy that I didn't have time to fully take in the gravity of moving away. At the time I wished I had more time to relax, but in hindsight I was glad that I was able to keep busy as it kept the sad feelings at bay until I sat down to eat a last meal with Jessica in the evening.

In the morning I went to a Zumba class taught by my friend Huyen and later had lunch, sat outside in the sunshine with Huyen and some other friends. Then it was time for more goodbyes. I spent the afternoon desperately trying to fit everything into my two suitcases and handbag, and then angrily trying to close said suitcases and handbags. Huyen dropped by to give me the DVD of the presentation the day before, the filming of which was paid for by Yvonne, a friend who couldn't make it to the presentation itself. I've been told there is a surprise at the end of the film but I've not been able to watch it yet. Another very thoughtful gift came from my close friend Nga, who had a portrait made of me, which she inscribed with a message.

Before I knew it it was time to get my things together, make a last check of the little room that had been my home for nine months, give my parting gifts to Jessica and Thuy and get ready to say goodbye. It was very sad, especially as poor Thuy was heartbroken; I had never seen her upset before. As I stuffed my remaining things into my bag, she came into my room and presented me, red-eyed, with a plain green mug. "I bought this for you when you came, you drink from it every day, now you take it home and use it", she said solemnly. I really didn't have room to take anything else but I felt that it was such a symbolic gesture for her that I had to take the mug, which I put in my handbag.

I said the difficult goodbyes and was loaded into a taxi which took me away. It was silent in the car so I asked the driver to put the radio on on. "Vietnamese?", he asked. "Yes, good", I said. At the airport I lugged my heavy bags to be checked in. My big suitcase was even heavier than it had been when I arrived, but now I could carry it myself.

However, it was so heavy that I was told I had to remove one kilo of weight or else pay a $60 charge. This was the first of much hassle as I later had to remove scissors, a laptop and a tablet from my hand luggage and then sign something in Vietnamese which I hope was about the scissors that has been confiscated from me.

I boarded the plane and felt really sad when I saw Ho Chi Minh City disappear beneath me. I remember the sight of the city lights from when I flew in; I didn't remember how spectacularly colourful the scene was.

From then I travelled to Dubai and arrived in Manchester on a beautiful bank holiday morning, a lovely welcome home.

I am settling back into life in the UK again. I had lots of thoughtful messages from friends in Vietnam as I left the country, which I was very grateful for. It has been the most incredible experience; I think that the impact it has had on me will become more evident as my life goes on.

But although I have left Vietnam and am beginning a new chapter of my life, my project isn't over until my presentation evening in Leeds on September. I will continue to update my blog with work I have been doing towards the project. The challenge for me is not yet over and there is still much to be done. I will miss Indochina and the life I lived there. I have been so lucky to have this experience and I am incredibly grateful to Jessica for everything she has done for me. 

Last night out in Saigon. L-R: Michelle, Hien, Uyen, Nga, me, Huyen
Me with the beautiful Nga
Almost ready to go

Friday, 24 May 2013

Getting soppy

This morning I went to Hang's house as I did this time last month to help her and her neighbours to prepare food to give out at a local hospital. I took a taxi at 6.30am and found myself getting emotional looking out of the window and trying to absorb the surroundings that I will be leaving behind in two days' time. The narrow streets and tall buildings, the dark webs of telephone lines, the stacks of red pastic stools set beside peeling yellow walls, the faces of people drinking coffee on the streets, and even the motorbikes; this is the scenery I have grown to love and will soon feel millions of miles away from.

I had pulled myself together by the time I reached Hang's home in district three; it was nice to see her again. The boxes being prepared this month were rice, beancurd and vegetables served with a hot, oily plastic bag of sweet and sour soup. I helped at various points on the amateur production line that was assembled on the street outside the house, but I did struggle with the strain of sitting on a low stool in a cramped spot, leant over and working at a fast pace with the sun on my back. Hang could see I was tired and set me to the easy task of serving the food parcels from a makeshift stall set on the back of a row of motorbikes to the street workers, elderly people and children who approached us. Later I went with a few others to the same hospital in district five we visited last time to hand out some of the 750 meals that had been prepared. The experience was slightly tainted by the suspicion of Hang and her friends that a nurse who had taken a box of twenty meals to deliver to bed-bound, disabled patients had in fact taken them for the hospital staff; Hang thought the food should go to the patients and not the staff, but there was little she could do. Her friends seemed disappointed; "Charity is difficult," said Minh.

I spent the afternoon back home, working on my PowerPoint slides for tomorrow's presentation. I spent some time working in the cafe at the end of my street where I indulged in a Ca Phe Sua Da (iced Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk), one of my favourite culinary discoveries. In the evening I met up with Gretchen at Crescent Mall for a farewell dinner at Boomerang, an Australian/international restaurant. She can't attend my leaving do tomorrow as it coincides with her school prom. This farewell dinner was not at all emotional, as yesterday's with Yvonne, Jessie and Jasmine was somewhat; it was a nice, casual meal and a last chance to hang out together.

However, I got a little emotional again at home after Thuy had come to my room to present me with a little gift she had made for me, the second thing she has made for me on her sewing machine in recent weeks. I feel really close to Thuy, particularly so in the last six weeks while Jessica has been away, and I will be so sad to say goodbye to her.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

First Goodbyes

Being caught up in a busy day has left me somewhat unprepared for the sad reality of saying goodbyes. I took the 8.15 bus to town this morning and was back on the bus at 10.15 after an efficient hour of making my final purchases. Back home I had my lunch and then settled down for a nap, already feeling exhausted. In the afternoon I took my bike over to Lam Van Ben for the first time in about six weeks to say goodbye to the headteacher and children at the Anh Linh school, where I volunteered for five weeks over March and April. I brought a bunch of flowers for Ms. Kim Ngoc, the school's gentle and kind headteacher, a bag full of art supplies for the school, and of course some sweets for the kids.

The school was busy with activity as I arrived, in preparation for the end-of-year performance and awards celebration tomorrow; a stage had been erected and decked with speakers, two men on ladders were stringing a canopy between the gate and the building and in the office, presents of clothing, books and book-bags for good students were being wrapped up. Kim Ngoc greeted me and several of the kids who attended my art class were pleased to see me. I befriended a few more who I hadn't met before, who clung to my arms or pushed and tickled me. After chatting with Kim Ngoc, playing with the kids and dishing out sweets I sat down to watch the rehearsal for tomorrow's show. There were several dances and songs performed very well by the kids; the highlight for me was to see Nam, the overweight boy in my class who was always so polite and shy, come into his own on the stage by dancing. He looked so comfortable and confident that it took me completely by surprise, but it was wonderful to see. I mentioned this to Kim Ngoc and she said "Yes, he loves dancing", smiling as she always does.

Introduced to Nam (centre)'s passion for dancing

Ms. Kim Ngoc 
It's a shame I won't be able to come to the celebration tomorrow but I'm glad I was able to fit in a last visit to the school. In the evening I had some more goodbyes to do as I had arranged to have dinner with Yvonne, Jasmine and Jessie, who all cannot attend my presentation and leaving do on Saturday as they are doing a triathlon in Mui Ne, the seaside town where I first met these three for the September half-marathon on my first weekend in Vietnam. I see Yvonne regularly at Zumba classes but have not spent much time at all with Jasmine and Jessie in my time here, although I really like them both. Nonetheless  they were incredibly sweet to me and the three women sat around the table asking me questions about my plans for the future and the things I've gained from this experience and how I feel I've changed etcetera, all with cocked heads and gentle smiles, watching me with sincere interest in quite a motherly way.

Towards the end of the meal I noticed that they had all become quiet and I wondered if they were getting bored. It was only afterwards that I realised that they were preparing to say goodbye to me. The finality of the parting didn't really sink into me until I saw the emotion in Yvonne's face and I wondered if I really would ever see her again. She means a lot to me as her kindness in accommodating me on the Mui Ne trip and her introduction through her Zumba class has led me to meet nearly all of the friends I have made here; she has helped me to settle in and has always been so kind and warm to me. Jessie and Jasmine too, are such lovely people and it's a shame I haven't spent more time with them. They saw me off in a taxi and repeated how sorry they were that they couldn't attend the presentation. I feel so touched by their interest in me and the kindness they've all shown to me (they didn't even let me pay my share of the bill). I do hope I will be able to see them all again. They say the world is small these days, and it will certainly be easy to stay in touch, but it's still a big enough world that you may have to walk away from somebody who has touched your heart and not know whether you will ever cross paths again.

L-R: Yvonne, me, Jasmine, Jessie

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Happiness and a few nerves

Yesterday and today I have been working on my PowerPoint presentation for Saturday's leaving do. The first step of this was to have a major panic when I realised that I didn't have the PowerPoint software on my computer; the next was to download a free trial and get cracking. My foolish belief that the presentation could be completed in the best part of a day was my reason for not starting this task earlier and now, into day two, I am starting to get a little edgy. Of course, I do not want to put doubt in the minds of the people who will be attending; I am really fairly confident that it will be successful. I am just a little bit nervous, particularly as a friend who couldn't attend has generously offered to pay for a cameraman to film the event- an offer I couldn't really refuse but which I has now doubled the pressure for me!

Today we had an unplanned power-cut in the afternoon and it quickly became uncomfortably warm in the house. I took my laptop and headed to Phu My Hung to work in a cafe, but was surprised to find that the power-cut had extended to there too (I was later to learn that it affected friends across district seven and in district one and Bin Thanh). Luckily the electricity returned not long after I had arrived and the giant fan behind me charged into life with a massive gust. I really enjoyed my few hours sat in the cafe relaxing and working on my slides and I felt in an altogether good mood. This was only extended by my Zumba class in the evening, which would be was my last ever at the Tavern, and the drinks and cake I invited everyone for afterwards.

Monday, 20 May 2013


We were blessed with more beautiful weather over the weekend, with blue skies and low humidity. I made the most of it by spending Sunday afternoon inside a shopping mall, where I met up with Lisa, my one-time Vietnamese language teacher, to see Iron Man 3 with Vietnamese subtitles. Joining us were two young colleagues of Lisa's, one a woman named Thi and the other a small, geeky-looking Chinese man whose name I have forgotten (but I remember that his shirt had the words 'Your Bra' printed on the back). There were some communication issues for me as Lisa's friends didn't speak English but Lisa was kind in sticking with me and not letting me feel left out. I have developed a bit of a soft spot for her. Lisa slept through the film, which she had chosen, but I thought it was good. Afterwards I hopped on the back of Lisa's bike and the four of us headed downtown for a meal at a Vietnamese restaurant.

With Lisa at Crescent Mall

Today I started early and spent much of the day shopping for gifts and souvenirs. This started out as some fun 'me-time' -even though I wasn't buying for myself- and I enjoyed spoiling myself to some carrot cake at lunch. I was even lucky to miss a heavy downpour that occurred while I was inside the Vincom shopping centre. But by mid-afternoon I was trailing my feet, my forearm marked from carrying four big shopping bag, and felt disappointed that I hadn't managed to get everything on my list. When I stepped off the bus at home, my glasses steamed up from the hot air and I took them off, carrying them along with all my bags as I walked to the house. I was a bit embarrassed by the male police officer who politely pointed out that the spaghetti-straps of my dress had fallen down my arms (I knew), but he did offer to help me with my bags (I said no, thanks) and then decided to follow me on his bike, presumably to see that I got to my house okay (bit creepy and unnecessary).

At home I decided to get on with packing my suitcase and have now packed about three-quarters of my belongings, leaving only the things I may need for the week. My room is starting to look quite empty and it feels just a little bit sad.

Lunch stop at my favourite, Highlands Coffee

Saturday, 18 May 2013


This word was in my head today as I lay sunbathing beside the pool with a bunch of friends on a bright Saturday. A group of girls from Zumba convened here this afternoon, where much of the time was spent ripping on me for my pathetic attempts to get a tan in my last week in the country- because I feel I am too pale to justify having been in Asia for nine months and need something to show off to my mates when I get home. It's been a beautiful day today and the parks have been flocked with people; I realise how much I've been missing by staying inside most days and only appearing at night, like a vampire. In my last week I will soak up as much sun, colour and brightness as possible before my return to England, which Bill Bryson quite accurately described as like 'living under Tupperware'.

There is much to be done in my last seven days and I feel that I am just beginning to realise that coming home is not going to be the simple joy I had expected and have been looking forward to; there is a lot to be missed of my life here. This rings true particularly when Vietnamese friends ask me, "When are you coming back?" and I have to say, to their disbelief, that I don't have any plans and I don't know when I'll be able to return. So besides from getting last-minute tasks sorted, this week will be about taking time to appreciate the things around me and preparing myself to say goodbye.

P.S. Please see my updated gallery for recently-added photographs.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Meeting baby Isabelle/Cassie

With a familiar rolling noise the rain cracked through the sky again today for another downpour. In some ways, the sight of streets laced with puddles and wet leaves and the feeling of cool air takes me back to my visit to Hanoi in early April, a time that I look back on fondly. As I usually don't go out during the day time I have no reason to complain about the rain; in fact I like hearing the rain from my desk in my little room, where I have spent the day working my way through Jane Hamilton-Merritt's 500+ page book on the American secret war in Laos with a highlighter pen. In the evening I headed out on my bicycle to go to Zumba class. The air was initially chilly (this is relative- the weather app on my phone stated that it was 25 degrees celcius) as I stepped out of the house, but I quickly warmed up by peddling along and trying to dodge puddles of muddy water, occasionally spraying the stuff on my calves.

The class today was taken by Lydia, a smiling, svelt Dutch woman who is a professional singer and dancer. Her classes are always full of energy and enthusiasm and it is hard not to enjoy yourself despite frequent cheesy moments. We were joined by a special guest this evening in the small, sturdy form of Hien's 14-month old daughter. She is a beautiful little girl who goes by the names of Isabelle and Cassie as well as her Vietnamese name (I couldn't quite work out the reason for this) and was greatly fussed over by everyone. It was a sight to see the reflection of the class in the mirror, with half a dozen full-grown humans dancing away and at the side, a miniature person stood steadily on little legs watching through big eyes in bewilderment as to what was going on.

I wanted to mention Isabelle today as her story is quite interesting. She is not Hien's natural child, but is adopted. My friend Hien, who took me to Vung Tau two weeks ago, was worshipping at the pagoda over a year ago when she met a woeful seventeen-year old girl looking for someone to adopt her two-day old baby. Hien had not planned to have any children at this point but was so moved by the girl's story that, after some consideration, she decided to adopt the little girl. Thanks to Hien's kindness, Isabelle is now a healthy and happy child cared for by a wonderful mum.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Heaven and Earth

This weekend has been predominantly spent reading Le Ly Hayslip's 1989 memoir, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey from War to Peace, the hugely moving and gripping story of Hayslip's return to the country she fled in 1970 to escape the unfortunate life that befell a peasant girl surviving during the war. Her memoir is her testament to the spiritual and emotional significance of returning to her home country and seeing her family again in a new, post-war era. I also watched Oliver Stone's 1993 film adaptation of Hayslip's life story, Heaven and Earth, which I found to be much less compelling. Today I completed a review of the book; please click here to read it.

Regrettably, there has been little to report besides this since my last book review, which was the last time I posted on this blog. The days have been going by very quickly, which is mostly encouraging but somewhat disconcerting too. The pattern of my life at the moment is of doing some reading or writing and a certain amount of procrastination during the day, watching my favourite sitcoms over mealtimes and doing exercise in the evening, whether Zumba, running, swimming or just a walk around the area. Going for a walk is one of my best opportunities to give my mind some air and think things over. I often think about how many days have past since the last time I went for a walk, what I was thinking back then, and how close it will be to my departure the next time I tread these same streets. Counting down the days is always on my mind.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

River of Time

I made another trip to town yesterday and did a little more souvenir shopping for presents to give to friends and family on my return. I also got my suitcase out from under the bed for the first time since I had pushed it under there after unpacking my things eight months ago. It had gathered dust. I realised how I may have trouble packing nine months' worth of life into this piece of baggage. In only eighteen days it will have to be filled and closed ready for my departure.

Today I have been dreaming of rolling green hills and sheep and dry-stone walls. I am looking forward to being back in beautiful Yorkshire, God's own county.

In the meantime, I have completed another book review, this one of Jon Swain's 1996 memoir, River of Time, which recalls his five-year love affair with Cambodia and Vietnam where he worked as a freelance reporter between 1970 and 1975. Although he experienced a very different Indochina to the one I am living in now, Swain's tender nostalgia for those lost times resonates with me, and I understand how much I will miss this corner of the world after I have left. I already feel nostalgic for places I visited in the past months- Phnom Penh, Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Hue, and especially Hanoi- and I know I will miss the Indochina countries searingly after I have left, despite the longing that I feel for my own home right now.

Monday, 6 May 2013


The past days have been spent ambling away in a familiar vane. I have done a lot of swimming recently; on Saturday afternoon I went to the local pool to swim some lengths and was asked for some tips from a girl a similar age to me who was struggling with her front crawl- something to feed my little ego. On Sunday I went for a splash around at another pool with my friend Nga, her boyfriend Josh, the manager of the Tavern, and Josh's dad and sister. The only other vaguely notable thing I have done since I last posted was to visit the LIN Centre on Friday morning, where I will be hosting my leaving do presentation. The centre is in Bin Thanh district, down a little alleyway off a main road. LIN is an organisation that supports networking between non-governmental, not-for-profit organisations in Ho Chi Minh City. Their office is a tiny place and I was met by Phuong Anh, who showed me the room I will be able to use and gave me instructions about turning on and off the electricity and water supplies, as there will not be any staff on the premises at the weekend. I am a little bit daunted about having to take responsibility for the building by myself, and am especially haunted by the prospect of not being able to get the projector to work and therefore scuppering the entire purpose of the meeting. But there is plenty of time yet to worry about such things. After my visit to the centre I headed back into district one and made a stop at the Saigon Square shopping mall where, thinking about my imminent return to cold and bleak England, I made a sensible purchase of a knock-off twin-layered North Face jacket for a bargain 800,000 dong (about £25). Filling my suitcase with souvenirs is a happy prospect for the weeks ahead.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Enter May

It may be a little early to judge, being only two days into the month, but it seems that entering May has done wonders for my spirit. By entering the month in which I will be going home, I feel I can realistically be excited for this big event. Besides the fact that this thought cheers me up, I've found that I've also had a renewed focus on my work as a result. Yesterday I suffered a brief moment of depression after counting how many words I had actually written towards my book and finding it to be- and I am embarrassed to admit this- a piddly little six thousand six hundred and forty three. But I got over myself with the realisation that now is a chance to make a change. I hope this positive attitude will last.

I try to exercise every day; often, this is the only time I go out during the day, in the evening, when it is cool. And this is usually the highlight of my day too. Yesterday I went running and this evening I went to the pool and swam fifty lengths, not something I do often. My Zumba classes are off all week as all the instructors are on holiday, so I hope to get back into swimming as an alternative exercise. And the more I do, the more I can feel my fitness improving; thus the exercise feels easier and I feel better and better by it.