Living Abroad: Daniel & Reed I

This week I exchanged words with two individuals living abroad, Daniel and Reed.

 

This week I exchanged words with two individuals living abroad, Daniel and Reed.

Daniel, originally from Canada, has lived in six countries over the span of seventeen years. Married and with two beautiful daughters, Daniel now divides his time between a farm he owns in Buriram Province, Thailand, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Reed, a Texas native, has spent over two years residing in Hanoi after falling in love during a visa run. He currently works as a marketing manager for an export company and runs @HanoiHandbook, a resource for inspiration and knowledge regarding travel in Vietnam.

Continue below to see what they had to say.

Continue reading “Living Abroad: Daniel & Reed I”

Traveling Abroad: Fear & Failure

Traveling and living abroad are not always walks in the park– you will have to confront fear!

I recall the weeks before my trip, where I’d stay up nights just imagining what it would be like. I watched the movie, Into the Wild, whose protagonist embarks on an epic journey only to die as a result several years later. My mind, trying to compute all of the unknowns rattling in my head, fixed on the idea.

A part of me thought that I’d die abroad during my trip.

The reality is such that had I not confronted fear, I wouldn’t have made it to Hanoi. In fact, I would never have purchased a one-way ticket in the first place.

All cities have their unique set of challenges.

In Hanoi, the road and traffic were causes for concern, the pollution, who’s Air Quality Index (AQI) was higher than Beijing at times, the uncertainty of finding a job and be taken seriously as an expat teacher, learning Vietnamese–and using it while knowing that you fucked up your tones!

Many of you have likely experienced situations in which you sabotage yourself.

I’ve noticed that I sabotage myself when I am not confident about what I’m doing. Depending on the situation, the sabotage can come in a variety of forms. The simplest of them is the one where I constantly make excuses to not do something, or not be somewhere. I saw this a lot with interviews in which I didn’t feel qualified. More often than not, if I had just shown up, I’d probably walk away with a job. Simply put, I was afraid to fail.

Still, my biggest act of self-sabotage came during my last year at UCLA, during a graduate-level course examining Contemporary Russian Literature.

For an undergraduate student, the amount of intellect and knowledge about Russia in that room was staggering. Think of 10 people who literally specialize on Russia literature and sit in a room with them to dialogue about your opinions, views, and thoughts on Russia. Personally, I knew nothing about current events, relying on contexts provided by Russian classics that I’d read previously. In lieu of a final exam, we were asked to pick some writings examined during the class, break them down, form a coherent analysis based on factual information as well as personal opinions, and present to the class.

For hours, days, and eventually weeks, I worked to select the appropriate texts, do research, and develop a strong presentation.

I’d practice my presentation in my room, anxious about my golden moment which, in reality, felt more like I was being led to the slaughter, the dreaded guillotine. When the time came, I was shaking just walking to class. I knew, when I walked in that room, that he would ask me if I was ready and my response was supposed to be yes.

But, something happened. I lied.

I told my professor that I had accidentally left my flash-drive at home despite sitting with a fully finished and polished presentation with me in the very moment that I lied to his face. Since class met only once per week, I had another week to perfect it.

I walked into class a week later, shaking again. I did something I’d never forgive myself for: I told the truth.

My confidence was severely shaken as I admitted defeat that day and explained myself. I don’t know if he sympathized or was just caught off-guard, baffled, but I was offered the option of writing a fifteen-page research paper instead. I accepted. Besides wasting time laboring over something I never presented, I then had to buck up and write the paper. Thankfully, I got an A on the paper, which was the only graded assignment in the class, and walked away happy yet unsettled. I felt like a cheater, like I had failed.

Months later, I’d come to find that this experience served a purpose and that perhaps it’s best to have learned my lesson on self-sabotage and fear early on as opposed to later in life, when it would likely be less forgiving and more problematic. 

If you are thinking of traveling alone, I invite you to embrace fear. Do something that scares you, something wrapped in uncertainty. Chances are, you will overcome it and be a better person for it.

Expat Life in Hanoi, Vietnam

I know it’s been a while since my last post but getting situated in Hanoi was more work than I anticipated!

 

17622263_1578184102192947_1518307075_oAs some may already know, most expats living in Southeast Asia take to teaching as their primary gig. Unless you speak Vietnamese or are a musician, artist, or work remotely, there isn’t a lot else. Although I wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of teaching kids, having no experience and always supremely hating speaking in front of groups, I knew I’d warm up to it with practice.

My first job was with Ms. Vân’s Outdoor English Club (OEC), which is a pretty sweet gig.

17157723_10208150386908356_4041139210502262024_oShe was a good boss– fair– who really cared about learning outcomes. Having studied abroad in Cambridge University herself, she had good command of English, real expectations, and had a constant stream of ideas. I would meet kids enrolled in the program at local parks, museums, and other outdoor getaways where I’d then lead a mix of games and crafts. The objective was simple: get these kids interacting with and using English in a fun environment, outside of the classroom. For me, this was great because I could build confidence interacting with kids and parents without the pressures associated with a classroom. Despite finding full-time work at a private school a few months later, I’d remain working with Ms. Vân until leaving Vietnam, almost two years later.

While working for OEC for 8-10 hours per weekend was nice, I began to run into some difficulty with the cover classes I’d get all over town.

For those who don’t know what a cover class is, it’s simple. Say you work teaching at a center but are sick. There’s a group set-up and ran by expat teachers; post in the group with the information, lesson plans, and materials, as well as the hourly rate. Boom! 21014127_10209435189587620_5766028895162967893_oNow you, the permanent teacher, have just set up a cover class for another expat. Basically, you’re a substitute. If anybody remembers how we treated substitutes in America, you can maybe see why it isn’t so fun. What I I found was that because of the money involved in English centers and ESL in Vietnam, a lot of centers are at-home, give little regard to true learning outcomes or objectives, and don’t provide the necessary environment for positive outcomes.

Working in “bad” centers can quickly suck the life out of you and cause you to dread going to work.

Because these centers don’t have no concern for learning outcomes as long as the cash keeps coming, I quickly  found myself feeling more like a babysitter than a teacher, lacking the framework for success. In Vietnam, they have a name for that: “monkey teachers.” It started to wear me down and eventually developed into a low-grade depression.

In fact, I contemplated taking the meager amount of money I had already saved and continuing on as a backpacker.

I told myself that I would wait it out, keep hunting for a good job– one that cared, regardless of their ability to pay the high wages typical of Hanoi (+20USD/hour). I told myself to ride the waves and reminded myself that life consists of ups and downs; all things arise, exist, then expire.

17571283_1578184012192956_191711479_oSo, what I did was submit my application to as many centers as I could, refusing to settle until I found one that worked for me. Eventually, I found an English center in Vân Quan, Ha Dong district. My demo lesson went well, the kids and staffed liked me, and the feeling was right– I could see myself working their. After a few weeks, I was offered to take on two more classes.

One year later, I’d find myself there in the capacity as Head Teacher working full-time and earning $25 USD/hour.

Below is a break-down of my biggest expenses:

Rent = 3.125 million VND/month+ 1 million VND for utilities (Roughly $190/month)

Motorbike = 300,000 VND/week or 1.2 million VND/month ($55/month)

 

Stay tuned for an in-depth breakdown of my costs in each of the four countries I visited.

 

Engine Trouble

I must have been there at least an hour drinking tea and trying thuoc lao as we laughed. They had a fire going to ward off the cold and ash rained on us the whole time as if it were snowing. Were it not for the Vietnamese faces around me, I could’ve sworn I was in Kieslowski film, in Poland or Russia. Meanwhile, the two shackled dogs barked and fought each other amidst the ash, smoke, and smog.

via Daily Prompt: Quicken

Today was supposed to be the day that I made magic happen: apply for (more) jobs, run some errands for the house to pick up things like a blanket so I don’t freeze again tonight, write, and begin learning the Vietnamese alphabet.

However, my efforts to quicken the pace were halted. My newly rented (think dirt cheap monthly lease) had other plans for the day, which consisted entirely in fucking with me. The Universe wanted to play games with me, apparently.

At first I thought it was just my inexperience with carburetors– “should the choke be up or should it be down? I don’t know but it’s freezing. Let’s try both.” Neither my Yamaha R6 nor the Honda CRF 250 had carbs. After fiddling with the choke in different settings, I at least got the bike to turn on, stay on, and not die when in idle. “Eureka!” Or so I thought. “Nope!” I leave the cafe in Tây Hồ and head towards my apartment in Ba Đình. Out of nowhere the bike simply turns off despite being in fourth-gear, cruising. Confused, I try giving it gas to no avail. Still coasting, I try to start the thing while in motion using the electric starter. I pull over, thinking I simply ran out of gas. The bike felt as if it wasn’t getting enough of something. Eight hours later I still don’t know what that something was because it wasn’t gas; I digress. I pulled over to the side, checked the gas levels since I have no fuel gauge. “It’s got gas,” I thought to myself as I jiggled the bike and had gasoline splash around the floor, lightly, leaving a urine-colored blotch on the pavement. For the next twenty minutes I fiddled around with the choke again just to try and get the damn thing to start. However, the things I did before did nothing.

After trying unsuccessfully a little longer I felt silly. I was stopped right in front of  a car-wash and the people kept looking over, exchanging glances with one another, and speaking in Vietnamese, laughing.

I don’t speak Vietnamese. I bet they were commenting on how I had probably never ridden a motorbike before; “silly tourist”. I played with the petcock again, looking busy and telling myself their bikes probably break down as well. One of the workers comes over and I presume he asked if I needed help. However: language barrier. Also: masculinity. So, I politely declined and hopped on the bike. I pushed it a friend’s house about 2-km away, arriving sweaty and gross, simultaneously freezing and over-heated from pushing the bike. He wasn’t home but his roommate let me in. Waiting, I fall asleep on another friend’s bed. When I wake up an hour and half later he still does’t seem to be home. Nobody is. Feeling like I should give it another go, I fiddle again with the stupid nobs: what I believe was the fuel ratio knob, the choke, and engine idle RPM speed. At that point, I don’t even know what I did but it worked. I left the house, eager to get home and begin my day.

The plot thickens. I pass the round-about, wait at the same light, and take the same turn to the main road to my house as the bike stutters again, stalling and slowing.

I finish coasting and realize I am in front of the same place– again! At this point I could do nothing but laugh as I make eye contact with the same individuals from a few hours earlier. This time I don’t even pretend to know what I was doing. They invite me into their little outside waiting area; it was made of bamboo and covered with tarps, featuring a bong for thuoc lao, a table and a tea-set. They invite me to sit, where they give me seemingly endless cups of tea. One guy in particular seemed to understand English quite well although he either couldn’t or wouldn’t speak English. However, he understood that I needed to call my rental guy.  I show him my phone, which is at 2% as it always seems to be when I need to make calls. He lets me use his. After I hang up with the rental people he texts them the address. We wait.

I must have been there at least an hour drinking tea and smoking thuoc lao as we laughed.

They had a fire going to ward off the cold and ash rained on us the whole time as if it were snowing. Were it not for the Vietnamese faces around me, I could’ve sworn I was in Kieslowski film, in Poland or Russia. Meanwhile, the two shackled dogs barked and fought each other amidst the ash, smoke, and smog. The guy sent over by the rental company finally arrives, smiling. He fiddles with the same damn knobs I fiddled with it. However, maybe he actually knew what he was doing. It’s possible. Although the bike still didn’t feel 100% as it had a few days before, it got me home. I hadn’t eaten so I parked my bike at home and left the maze of alleys to treat myself a little; today was a little stressful.

Perhaps tomorrow I will have more luck.

Center of Gravity

I won’t even mention how fresh everything feels outside the confines of the apartment; the sea of motorbikes, chickens everywhere– living, dead, or somewhere in between– a symphony of honks, dogs barking, roosters crowing, and construction. So, if ever it feels like things have gone back to what they were, all the new things I am experiencing and will experience flood into my head. I welcome the madness that is Hanoi.

Today marks the end of my fifth day in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Traveling with limited funds has forced me to postpone my backpacking travels and return to a somewhat civilian life– at least in the sense of routines, a room to call my own, possessions beyond what I can carry on my back, etc. I can’t deny that it all feels a little contradictory. Originally, I set out on my journey to ditch the very things that I now find myself searching for in Hanoi: a job, a motorbike, work clothes.

While backpacking, I felt like a meteor floating through space. At times, I’d crash into something or the gravity of something else would pull me this way or that. I enjoyed having no plan. Now, as resident of Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, I found myself searching for the very things I ditched three months prior.

At first, I worried that life was doubling back on itself, about to revert to the status quo.

However, this wasn’t the case. Stepping outside my room on the fourth floor of a five-story house, everything felt fresh despite the pollution– the sea of motorbikes, the chickens and loud dogs, the labyrynthian maze complex within which our apartment was situated. So far, I welcomed the madness that is Hanoi. Amidst all of this, I was soon afflicted by the prospect of having to find a job in a foreign country. The beat of the new few days would consist of cover-letters, resumes, and demo classes.

This is a balancing act, albeit a new one in a very different environement. In trying to find balance. This is exciting as hell as it gives me the chance to pick and choose what I want in my life again.

Land Crossing: Vietnamese Border

When getting to Hue, they yelled at me to wake up, shouting”Hue! Hue!” while poking my shoulder. The other passengers laughed and in a sing-song manner, semi mocking the Vietnamese music they played throughout the entire ride, I reiterated “Hue! “Hue!” as I got out of my seat and grabbed my bag. They dropped me off at a gas station, opened the compartment and put my bag on my ground as I struggled to put my boots on. Before I even accomplished this, the guy ran back to the bus, which had already started moving and hopped inside. I looked around and realized I had no idea where I was in Hue and had no battery on my phone…

This is a continuation of the following post: Pakse ⇒ Hue

 

As we all began to rise with the sun, I stiffled a laugh at the absurdity of the bus ride thus far.

Perhaps I should’ve saved my laughter for later though because as we approached the border via bus, I piece together the driver’s broken English infused with exagerrated gestures. It seems that he wants me to leave the bus, leaving all my stuff stored in his compartment space, to go get stamped in. He points somewhere in the distance, maybe a kilometer away: “Walk there, I pick up.” I was cautious yet hopefull that they weren’t about to run off with all my stuff. All in all, I’ve proven to be a good judge of character and this time was no exception. Still, I took a small bag with me (laptop, camera, expensive stuff) and left the big bag.

The border was easy, taking me ten minutes. In line, I was entertained by four UK travelers who showed up drunk on motorbikes just before I did. They didn’t have the right paperwork and it was barely 7:30 in the morning. Oh, and they were driving motorbikes. The guy in charge let me go ahead of them and ushered me into Vietnam as he stamped my passport.

Photo Feb 22, 7 25 11 AM (1).jpg
Guy on left was struggling the most

The driver was waiting where he said he would be, standing outside with my bag.

He communicated that I would now change buses and get on the sleeper bus. We said our goodbyes. I made it a point to shake his hand and wave to the ladies. Overall, I left that bus feeling quite alright, tired physically but invigorated mentally.

 

The sleeper bus was nice and I thought to myself, “here’s the VIP I had expected.” 

Realizing the situation, I couldn’t help but laugh again: out of the twenty-odd hours I’d travelled, my last hour and a half would be spent in comfort. I knocked out, wondering if I had been scammed after all or not? I still don’t really know! In Hue, they yelled at me to wake up, shouting”Hue! Hue!” while poking my shoulder. The other passengers laughed and in a sing-song manner, semi mocking the Vietnamese music they played throughout the entire ride, I reiterated “Hue! “Hue!” as I got out of my seat and grabbed my bag. They dropped me off at a gas station, opened the compartment and put my bag on my ground as I struggled to put my boots on.

Before I had the laces on one boot tied, the bus had already raced away.

I looked around and realized I had no idea where I was in Hue with no phone and no indication of where the train station was.  I asked the guy at the gas station where the train station was and he motioned behind the shop. Confused, I walked to the back and found nothing but a filthy toilet. Continuing my walk in search of the trains, I fended off a constant stream of motorbike taxis trying to give me a ride, telling me the train station was far, etc. I embraced what I was doing and took my chances. Within 15 minutes of walking I sighted the train station, bought a ticket to Hanoi (another 13 hours), and proceeded to find a way to spend the next four hours until departure time.

I killed time by taking  a moto-taxi to Ho Thuy Tien, an water park project that was abandoned due to being grossly over budget.

The size of the place, which was pretty much empty of any other people, game me a slight chill– the same I experienced in the city-wide blackouts in Brazil– a sureal, unnerving feeling. The park’s center-piece was a dragon that stood towering over the park as if keeping guard; a spiral staircase granted one passage through his throat, to his mouth, which served as a viewpoint.  Checking my watch, I realized I should probably get going to the train station.

For the next 14 hours, I shared a room with three young, female monks.

They were an absolute joy and we laughed and interacted despite the language barrier. After waking up from a few hours nap, they were inviting me to do something but I couldn’t figure out what. Then they showed me a packet of Ramen Noodles, beckoning me to go with them. Finally, one of them just takes my hand and we all go to the employee area to heat up the noodles. As we ate, we showed each other pictures of our lives.

At five in the morning, I arrived to a rainy Hanoi clueless yet again as to where I’d go next.

I stopped at a a Circle K to use Wifi and see if there were any hostels nearby. There were three and, eager to rest, I walked to all three of them only to find them locked and unnattended. So, I went back to the Circle K and had a strong coffee as I postponed finding accomodation until the sun was up and the rain gone.

As morning came about, it hit me: I made it to Vietnam!

 

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The dragon’s mouth.

 

 

 

 

Pakse ⇒ Hue

My legs were cramped. I really needed to stretch! Thanks to the rice bags, my own bag, the women’s bags, and bus driver who was sleeping on the floor along the walkway, stretching was literally impossible. So, I ended up falling asleep with my legs on the top of the headrests of my own seat, upside down. To anybody who saw, specifically the lady to my left, I looked insane…

On my way to Vietnam from Central Laos, I wasn’t sure if I’d make it or expire on the way.

So far, this trip was most difficult. However, I had already preppared myself based on the information given to me by an expat and long-time resident of Pakse. He owned a motorcycle-rental shop and sold bus tickets to tourists. I asked him how much to get to Hue, Vietnam, and he laughed a cynical laugh practically right in my face. He told me that the trip from Pakse to Hue was notorious for being absolute shit in every way imaginable. The only thing worse than the buses and drivers going on 14+ hours on the road, he told me, were the roads themselves.

After handing him 220,000 Chickens (Kip) for the ticket, he bluntly told me this is probably going to be the “worst ride” of my life.

Holding my gaze, he went on to say that he’d rather not even sell tickets for this route but that if he didn’t somebody else would. I told him it’s fine and thanked him for the words. In my head it didn’t matter much as long as I made it alive. After all, it would just add to the experience.

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Distance to the border; from there lies Hue some few hundred kilometers away

Having spent the past week on an island showering with Mekong Riverwater and swimming in it daily, I eagerly took to finding a shower in a hostel where I’d stayed previously.

After eating, I played with his little daughter before hopping on a tuk-tuk to the bus station. As I approached my “VIP Bus,” two phrases came to me. First, the famous Thai mai pen rai, the Thai equivalent to “it’s OK” in English; in Laoatian, the corresponding phrase is bor pen yang . As I approached the the bus, those two phrases reverberated in my head like a bird flitting about in a box. I was the only person on the bus and four hours later, hanging in a hammok I put up in the back of the bus, I would find out why.

As I hopped on, he motioned to me, implying that I should eat as he told me the bus leaves at eight– it was five.  

At this point, already aware of scams in the area, I knew I was in it and had to find a way to dismantle the situation, figure out what’s what. . The guy who sold me the ticket from downtown Pakse said the bus left at 5:30. As the scam goes, you pay for a VIP bus and instead you get…what I got. An old, broken down bus outfitted to be stuffed with cargo. I walked around, asking the ticket booths and other bus drivers which bus was going to Hue. They all pointed to the scrap heap. I asked everybody I could and did everything short of calling a spade a spade to their face. I sucked it up, wondering what kind of experience I was about to have. I walked back, drank a beer and had some soup to regroup.

Getting on the bus, I perked up, realizing I could make better use of the seats by avoiding them altogether and stringing up my hammock in the back area of the bus.

The driver laughed at me with a snort when he boarded and saw me suspended in a bright-orange hammock at the back of his bus. Crazy foreigner.While the hammock was great, swinging back and forth with the sway of the bus, it was short-lived. Photo Feb 21, 6 32 26 PM.jpgOur first stop was just forty minutes from the bus stop, whereupon the driver and few guys filled up the entire back of the bus with goods. I was asked to move to one of the six empty seats. For an hour they loaded hand-woven baskets, red bags, blue bags, and green bags– oh, and bags filled with charcoal, which left a dark mist in the air after a bang would land on the floor. Within the next six hours we made five more stops, each to pick up more goods. I had no idea a bus could be packed so tightly. The bags contained flour, sugar, and rice. Mind you that each time they stopped to load the bus, I was asked leave and wait outside. For a lack of better English, the driver would wake me up, loudly exclaiming “You! You!” Yes, that was my signal to get up so they could load. Mai pen rai, I told myself.

 

By the end of that last stop, I was practically in a permanent squatting position.

There were bags in between every seat and under every seat, in every compartment including the roof, and my seat no longer had space to recline–or space for my feet below.We slept for a few hours on the bus just outside the border, waiting for it to open.

Follow me as I cross the border into Vietnam and kill some time in the abandoned water park in Hue as I await a train to Hanoi.

**Below is the little girl from the ticket office in Pakse, who reminded me of my little sister, Isabella.

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Cutie!