Category Archives: Life Overseas

Home Again, Home Again …

So, we’re back in Ha Noi having spent almost three weeks travelling the length and breadth of England – with a bit of Wales thrown in for good measure!

The three and a half months between arriving in Ha Noi, in March, and going on holiday seemed to fly past and we were just beginning to find our feet when it was time to go ‘home’. Which brings to mind the question about where is ‘home’? Being an ex. pat. you become a little confused I think – home is where we live and that is Ha Noi but it’s also where those we love live and in our case that’s the UK. When we were on holiday we found ourselves talking about Ha Noi as home, partly perhaps because all our possessions are here and Sally (dog) was in kennels. Is home then where you have roots or a tie, or people? If it’s people, is it where the majority of the people you care about live? Maybe it’s wherever your heart says is home. For me, right now I have two homes: Ha Noi because it’s where my husband and Sally are and the UK because it’s where pretty much everybody else that I love and care about lives.

Our holiday had been planned around my youngest sister’s wedding celebration (the original ceremony having taken place in Noosa ) and, happily for me this coincided with Bruce Springsteen’s tour of the UK with the East Street Band. Four of us went to The Etihad Stadium in Manchester on a very bleak, wet, grey evening in June to hear the band play their hearts out for 3.5 hours. Awesome and a lesson for many of today’s ‘celebrities’ on showmanship.

It is not unusual for there to be tension or under currents at family get togethers but, unless I missed them entirely, our day was fantastic – credit to the bride and groom for their thoughtful planning I think! However, in-keeping with wedding tradition, the bride looked absolutely stunning. They say that every girl wants to be a princess on her wedding day and my sister looked every bit like a fairytale princess.

We spent the next two weeks driving like maniacs around the country visiting relatives and friends and enjoying the cool weather (I know, I know, who’d have thought I’d enjoy cool rain so much but after the humidity of Ha Noi it was sooooo refreshing!). By the time we got back on the plane we were both slightly frazzled and ready to relax – thrilled though we were to have seen so many loved ones.

The day after landing back here, we were off again. This time taking up an invitation from some great new friends to join them on a week end cruise to HaLong Bay . It is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world and breathtakingly beautiful. I will try to insert a photo at the bottom of this post.

By the time we got home on the Sunday evening we were fully relaxed having enjoyed a great holiday and a great week end. Let me just tell you a little about the group we went to HaLong Bay with though because it reflects the whole ex. pat. experience perfectly. The man who invited us is Dutch (met hubby at a networking event) married to a Vietnamese lady from Saigon. They had invited us to dinner a few weeks ago and it came out in conversation that the week end we got back from holiday was our 8th wedding anniversary. Knowing that Kevin (hubby) had been having some challenges at work and we hadn’t been out of Ha Noi yet, they suggested we join them on this cruise. Seemed like a great idea and we gratefully accepted. Over the next few weeks it transpired that the trip had been organised to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Dutchman’s sister who would be coming to Vietnam with her two children especially to celebrate the birthday. Great, what an honour to be included. So, the 12 guests were made up of: the Dutch man and his wife and young son, his uncle who was born and brought up in the States, plus American wife, his father and cousin from Holland, his sister and two daughters who live in Curacao plus Kevin and I from the UK. Internationalism at its very best eh! Even if we return to HaLong bay during our time in Vietnam I can assure you we’ll never forget our first trip. And if you haven’t been – check it out and add it to your bucket list ūüôā

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The Borrowers

I don’t know why, it’s not as if the inhabitants are little people or anything, but this dwelling always reminds me of The Borrowers. Just before moving to Vietnam we watched a new BBC One dramatisation of Mary Norton‘s classic novel so maybe that’s why it’s near the front of my mind. Like many children I absolutely loved the idea that there might be little people living in our midst who ‘borrow’ all those things that go missing!

However, this picture is in some ways perhaps rather sad – this motley collection of cast offs and leftovers is someone’s home. From what I can gather a family of 6 live here, including two young children, but that could be more because Vietnamese families prefer to live all together and I often see an elderly woman emerging from the front door too.

Like many thousands of Vietnamese people, this family make their living from collecting, sorting and I guess selling on somehow, other people’s rubbish. Their house happens to be on a piece of wasteland where I walk Sally sometimes so the family now recognise me and wave or say Xin Chao (hello). The children – under 6 years of age – are both fascinated by and terrified of Sally but they do seem to enjoy watching her frolicking around off lead and throwing/catching various bits of ‘treasure’ like an empty drink bottle.

Not usually one for facts and figures I can tell you that the minimum wage here is (supposedly) 2 million Vietnamese Dong (Vnd) per month Рroughly £60 and very roughly £2 a day. Sure many things are very cheap here but even so, that is not a lot of money. A paper collector can earn 3 million a month while a surgeon will earn 30 million (an amount that only 2% of the population generate).

The observant amongst my readers will have noticed that there are a) not a lot of photos and b) none showing people. It’s not that I’m not interested in people, quite the opposite in fact, I’m only really interested in people. It’s because I have an absolute horror/dread/fear of taking someone’s photo without asking them first. Yes I have some hang ups about having my own photo taken and yes it stems from my childhood and yes Dad, I forgive you honest I do! There are some stunningly beautiful, tender interactions between people here where the lines between public and private are very blurred.

Many people live out their lives on the streets, in public and the opportunity to observe or bear witness to all of life’s interactons is all around you. When my hubby walks Sally last thing at night he never ceases to tell me how many of the cars and motobrikes were ‘rocking’ on the waste ground which doubles as a spot for young lovers under cover of darkness. (Isn’t that illegal in the UK by the way?!)

Maybe one day I’ll pluck up the courage to ask The Borrowers if I can take their picture outside their home but then how could I explain that I don’t want the picture to gloat or show the world how dreadful it is here – but to show you how happy they seem, the level of teamwork displayed with every single family member pulling their weight and mucking in and how ingenious is their house which withstands the truly awful weather in Hanoi. I couldn’t explain it and have them understand and I don’t want to steal from them so I’ll have to try to capture them in my mind and the occasional furtive picture and hope that that’s okay with them.

A Fruity Rock God

I alluded in my last entry to things here not being as they first appear and that doesn’t only apply to the shops.¬† When Chi arrived one morning with these fruit I was particularly delighted because they are everywhere at the moment – every fruit barrow worth it’s salt is laden with them.

Unfortunately I had no idea what they were or even if they were sweet or savoury – the lines blur in this respect here too in Vietnam I think!¬† Anyway I was just on the verge of buying some to experiment on when a bagful arrived with a grinning Chi one morning.¬† “You lie dese, yes I tin so madam” she declared cheerfully and I was able to match her enthusiasm whilst still admitting to my own ignorance.¬† She was completely taken aback that I’d never had them before and declared that in English they’re called Mangosteen.

My enthusiasm, already pretty high, ramped up a level – Mango; my (until that moment maybe?) favourite fruit; and Springsteen; my rock idol.¬† Could things possibly get any better?¬† Oh yes my friends – the taste.¬† Sublime and all the other superlatives you can conjure.¬† Now I don’t know about your household habits but in ours, and thinking about it in my childhood home too I’m pretty sure, there’s an unwritten rule which states that any fruit that needs peeling, cutting or preparing in any way can only be done so by me (or my mother when a child).¬† I don’t remember quite where this rule came from and have always found it rather irritating – come on guys those ‘easy peel’ clementines aren’t hard for heaven sake.¬† Anyway, the world order continues in Hanoi where some form of payback has been achieved.¬† I know what the outside of a Dragon Fruit looks like, I can distinguish between sweet and sour mangoes and yes, I recognise (and know how to ‘unlock’) a mangosteen.

As I prepared our post-evening-meal bowl of fruit, with hubby distractedly playing word games on the computer, I remembered Michel Roux Jnr. exhorting the Masterchef contestants to: ‘Always taste your food.¬† Never serve food you haven’t tasted.’¬† Who am I to argue with the great man?¬† So I tasted the first mangosteen.¬† Yep, it was delicious.¬† I tasted the second mangosteen, equally gorgeous.¬† Nine mangosteen later, realising I was down to the last fruit a dilemma seized me of epic proportions.¬† Do I: a) eat the last one and hope hubby doesn’t notice, b) declare it unfit to eat, c) put it back in the fridge for later and peel a couple of oranges instead or d) dutifully share ‘my’ last mangosteen with my husband?

Chi:¬† “I like these, yes I think so”¬† (and so does Kevin!)

Shopping

It is no exaggeration to say that I can spend all morning shopping here in Hanoi. Pause a moment while I wait for friends and family to¬†process what I just said. Karen shopping? It will seem unlikely I know but ….

I haven’t yet found a shop that sells everything that I want for a meal so I end up going from shop to shop buying meat here, vegetables there, condiments from a third and bread from – well, the bakery of course! Things aren’t so different here.

Or at least that’s what happened before the fabulous Chi took over the running of¬†our household. Now, at least some of¬†the traipsing around¬†can be alleviated by telling her in advance what I need and waiting for her to arrive¬†for work, happy, smiling and¬†bearing gifts! Well, fruit, veg and/or meat to be accurate but it feels like a gift because the quality and price are far superior to¬†anything that¬†I can manage to buy and I’ve had to make so little effort myself.¬† When I complimented her yesterday on the quality of the Dragon Fruit she’d bought me she replied, with a totally straight face: “I am a Vietnamese woman.¬†I know how to shop”.¬† Well quite a few of my friends know how to shop Chi but trust me, they couldn’t buy fruit at the absolute peak of perfection quite like you do!

In the UK I would often¬†trek around¬†one of the big supermarkets, aisle after aisle searching¬†for a product that eluded me only to ask an assistant who pointed to the very shelf where I was standing¬†(who does decide where all those products go by the way?).¬† Out here my inability to find items is greatly simplified by the clever Vietnamese grouping all their shops by item, especially in the Old Quarter.¬†¬† Therefore if you need paper you simply go to Paper Street, if you want bamboo furniture head over to Bamboo¬†Corner.¬† However, even this cunning strategy falls down, from my perspective, when it comes to two particular items:¬† nappy sacks and tea towels.¬† I absolutely can’t find them anywhere but I love the idea of Nappy Sack Street so am not going to give up.¬† Without wishing to further worry my family with talk of all things baby related I was thrilled to find, after only an hour’s searching,¬†Paddling Pool Lane.¬† The dog (nappy sacks are the perfect receptacle for taking out on¬†dog walks) is in danger of over-heating out here and absolutely refuses to go near water unless it’s a muddy puddle or Westlake where the only steps in and out are about a kilometre from the house and it’s too hot to walk there.¬† Hence the need for a paddling pool!¬† Tea towels?¬† I’ve no doubt I’ll find them when I least expect to and no longer want them.¬† Until then, I’ll make do with the one that I packed (accidentally I admit!) and await my furniture¬†shipment from the UK.

Overwhelm

Having been here for three weeks now I fully intended to write once or twice a week but this has been wildly unrealistic.  Why?  Because there is so much to see and take in as a newbie that just living it is enough without re-living it by writing about it all!!!

I have one of my son’s with me for a couple of weeks so, in addition to acclimatising and finding us a house, supporting my husband when he comes home totally exhausted and trying to get to grips with having a dog in a city that neither of us knows and she hates the constant stream of scooters whenever we set foot outside the apartment – I just don’t seem to have the energy to write.¬† I don’t want to write when I’m too tired because I don’t want¬†a negative or low-key blog – I’m loving it here and want that to be reflected in what I write.

I have been keeping a list of things I want to write about and I hope to get around to them all at some point but for now I’m going to share with you one note I made that seems to make perfect sense but I can’t for the life of me remember exactly what I intended to say about it!!!¬† The note reads:¬† Often messages misleading.

When I work out what I meant by that I’ll share it with you¬† For now though I’ll just make a couple of comments.¬† My son and I have just come back from a fabulous street foods tour with Tu from Hanoi Street Food Tours – check out his blog at vietnamesegod.blogspot.com¬†and had an amazing time.¬† What I felt really strongly though is that I need to start learning Vietnamese ASAP because I’m going to miss so much of what’s happening around me if I can’t converse properly.¬† Food is a passion¬†and I really want to buy¬†locally and eat seasonally – for that I need at least some words and phrases.¬† So, top of my To Do list is to get some lessons!!!

The second thing I wanted to share is how tough it is when you first arrive if you have family ‘back home’ because I find myself living in two time zones.¬† Everything gets translated back into UK time so that I don’t miss speaking to the kids or my parents because I’ve got the time wrong.¬† Also, I’ve kept a client in the UK so have to make sure that I keep to the deadlines – in UK not Vietnamese time.¬† This so far has involved me living a full day here in Hanoi and sitting down to ‘work’ at about 7p.m. knowing that I’m still well on target for the UK working day.¬† That’s not sustainable long term as I’ll be exhausted but for now well,¬†….

So, all good, more tiring than I expected and things move at their own pace which is as it should be but takes some getting used to for a controller like me!

Have an ace week end everyone and I’m off to sit on the sofa and stroke the dog’s tummy and we can reassure each other that all’s well with our world ūüôā

Where do I begin, to tell a story of how great a love can be …

Having been in Hanoi since Saturday (at silly o’clock in the morning) today is the first day I’m on my own as hubby has gone off to the office. It felt like sending your kids off for the first day at school and hoping they don’t bully, get bullied, that they make friends and enjoy themselves, but not so much that they don’t wan to come home!

My head is buzzing and I want to do everything at once but also want to stop and savour every experience as I never want to forget the feeling of being completely dispensable to a place. I don’t have a circle here that I belong to – no friends, relatives or acquaintances that I need to interact with. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love having a strong set of relationships with those around me but this feeling is very alien just now – my phone has barely rung for days and I keep checking it still works!

There’s so much I want to write about that I don’t know where to start. I’m going to begin by admitting that although I’ve taken some photos I haven’t worked out how to get them off my lovely new iPhone4S and onto the computer. Perhaps that would be a good place to start!

Okay, off to upload photos (remember that confidence as it might well be misplaced!) whilst listening to my wonderful compatriot, Miss Shirley Bassey singing the theme from Love Story, hence the title of this post ūüôā

Keep Your Word

Last night was an important event in our family’s journey. ¬†My husband’s firm hosted a Bon Voyage cocktail party for him at the fabulous Bridgewater Hall in Manchester which was attended by clients, contacts, colleagues and his family. ¬†Our boys ages range from 25 – 17 years and their experience of ‘public’ events of this kind has been, not surprisingly, rather limited. ¬†They did us and themselves proud though – networking and chatting like professionals.

As with so many social events of this scale, we all came away regretting not having had more time to talk to more people but in full agreement that the night had been a great success. ¬†It was lovely for the boys to hear people talking about a man that they only really know of as ‘dad’ in such glowing terms and with obvious regret that he’s leaving Manchester coupled with admiration at the adventure we’re embarking on.

As we settled down together for the night and reflected on what a great evening we’d had, my husband became very quiet and started to list all the people who hadn’t made it, some of whom had accepted and not then sent any apology for their absence. ¬†Oh how human – why do we so often reflect on what we don’t like or what didn’t happen?! ¬†I made the usual platitudes about how many did come (far more than didn’t) and how we hadn’t managed to speak to everyone anyway so more guests would only have exacerbated the situation. ¬†He was slightly mollified but still a little upset by some of the ‘no shows’.

This got me thinking though. ¬†Hand on heart, not one of those people meant him any harm by not attending. ¬†Some will have had cast iron, genuine reasons for their absence. ¬†And for many they simply won’t even have thought that their presence would be missed.

What I’ve taken from the evening, in addition to the friendship and support of so many guests and a great sense of pride in our boys, is a reminder to Keep Your Word. ¬†I am as guilty as the next person of saying I’ll do something (and meaning it at the time) and then changing my mind, often due to tiredness or lethargy rather than anything more acceptable as an excuse. ¬†So, one thing I want to take to Hanoi next month is a commitment to keep my word. ¬†If I commit to something, business or social, my aim is to keep that commitment and not assume that my absence won’t be noticed or missed.

Right, back to sorting the cookery books into piles to either ship or store!

A Paperless World

I applaud the move to a paperless world (except where novels are concerned and much as I love my e-reader, there’s nothing quite like holding a book in my hands) but …

We’re at the part of the process of becoming expats where we have to notify everyone of our change of address and/or cancellation of whatever service we previously bought from them. ¬†Having enjoyed the benefits of being able to conduct my own transactions and manage my accounts on line, I’m now paying the price as I try to make changes remotely too. ¬†Nearly everyone wants confirmation in writing, fair enough it is no doubt as they claim ‘for my additional security’ but boy oh boy, I’ve spent hours trying to find exactly who to write to and where and running off letters with all the correct references and account numbers on. ¬†And these are just the accounts, services and utilities. ¬†Direct mail is a whole other category.

Despite starting months ago and dutifully notifying Saga (I know, I know, I’m way too young but their stuff automatically kicks in on your 50th birthday), Pia Jewellery, Charles Tyrwhitt shirts and a zillion a.n.others I still get mail from 90% of them. ¬†Once you’re on their database there is no place to hide.

Which leads me to my next gripe. ¬†Health Insurance/Medical Cover. ¬†Having been cossetted by the National Health Service in the UK, not perfect I know but has always done me very well, I now find myself needing private health cover as an expat. Trying to compare the Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum levels (or whatever equivalent title they’re given) with USA cover or without, with evacuation or without, with or without dental … ¬†I don’t even know how to begin to decide. ¬†But that’s not my real issue. ¬†My real issue is with the brilliance on the part of all these environmentally friendly companies who no longer need to send a brochure. ¬†Simply email the pdf and some poor sucker at the other end has to either print the whole thing out or spend half a day sifting through the pages that are actually needed in order to make an informed decision.

I’m exhausted and my head’s spinning. ¬†Maybe it will all become clearer after a glass of wine? ¬†Will I have to declare it on my medical application form?

Whole new Vocabulary

Well, I’m learning a whole new vocabulary. ¬†Words like ‘relocation agent’, ‘work permit’, ‘DEFRA’, ‘pet taxi’ and ‘non-resident landlord’ are now entering my world. ¬†Some are obvious and easily dealt with where others appear deceptively simple whilst actually being a portal into a whole other world of complications!

Even trying to find out from the Vietnamese Embassy in London which sort of Visa I should apply for and what’s the longest duration I can apply for at a time – i.e. 6 or 12 months perhaps – becomes a little tedious when you realise you’re in an automated reply loop that it’s impossible to break free from. ¬†Will resort to the telephone between the hours stipulated online.

So the news is semi officially announced at hubby’s work – some people know and some don’t yet. ¬†This can be tricky unless you just forget all about it and wait for the other person to raise the subject.

The reaction of family has been interesting – generally incredibly positive and supportive with the occasional touch of petulance that we’re leaving them behind. ¬†Who’d have thought a soon to be 17-year old who’s still at grunting stage conversationally, would have been all that concerned.

I think maybe what we’ll need to manage over the coming months is the perception and expectations around our move, rather perhaps than the reality. ¬†Change is often uncomfortable, particularly for those left behind and I guess doubly so when you’ve had no say in the change that’s taking place.

I’ve started to make lists of things to consider, think about, action over the coming months and this week will begin to fine tune it and try to work out a calendar/schedule that I could put on my home office wall to track progress (or otherwise!).

Starting with a conversation with a relocation agent sounds like quite a good idea – will probably unearth a whole load of other stuff I didn’t even know I didn’t know about!

Right, where’s that number …..?

First post after Hello World!

I’m not completely convinced I’ve done the Hello World post properly because I wrote it a couple of days ago and it’s showing as having been written in May but I guess that doesn’t really matter.

Our dream of moving abroad as ex pats moved a little closer today when my husband did a deal with his firm – still only verbal so it could of course go pear shaped but we’re one step closer.

Over the next few posts I’m going to share my thoughts, history, expectations, concerns and excitement – highs and lows – as the experience of moving to Vietnam next year slowly comes to fruition.

I’ll also talk about my expectations regarding the experience of being an ex pat wife and again, a bit of background into my own personal history in this regard.

Before I go, just let me say, we are both 50 somethings who are ready to have an adventure before we’re too old/tired. ¬†Or we’re in the midst of a mid-life crisis – depending how you look at it!

So, until next time,

Smiles