Category Archives: Living Abroad

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.

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Bits & Bobs & Observations

I’m conscious that it would be very easy when writing about a place where I am very much the alien, to sound like every comment I make is a judgement call. Let me clarify right at the start – the comments I make are observations and absolutely not judgements. Of course, I come from a particular generation, gender, culture etc. etc. and those give me a set of rules by which to live. If I am going to write anything about my time here I simply don’t have the time or energy to qualify every single statement and question whether I’m sounding too negative.

If I intend something to be overtly negative or critical, I will make this absolutely clear at the time of writing – otherwise please do not take offence at anything I am saying. My way of doing or seeing things is no better nor worse than yours or indeed the situations I’m observing. They are worthy of comment simpy by virtue of being different to what I know/expect or because of my reaction to them or whatever – they resonate for me in some way and I’d like to share them with you.

Okay, that’s the disclaimer, now for some of the observations:

Having been brought up as an expat child, moving to Kuwait when I was 8 years old (back in the late 1960s) I was perfectly comfortable with having domestic staff around – an aya (housekeeper/maid/nanny) and a gardener and various other people who seemed to work hard and always be smiling. It’s not a natural state in most British households however so I do have a slight aversion to paying someone to clear up after me. However, it is pretty much de rigeur here among expats and many Vietnamese so I jumped at the offer from a friend to “share her maid”.

I set off to meet said ‘maid’ (whose real name is Phuc but my friend has young children and they agreed it would be better to change her name to Chi) thinking that I was about to conduct an interview. Oh no, not a bit of it. A gruelling 20 minutes later when I had agreed to: paid public holidays, paid sick leave, overtime, a one month bonus at Tet (New Year), pay while I’m on holiday, an annual pay rise and a one month bonus for each year worked when I leave (all perfectly reasonable requests I thought) I found myself leaving with a housekeeper/cook who has agreed to take me on!!!!! I need to spend some time thinking through this interview because there are some serious negotiating/selling skills lessons to be learnt! Anyway, I’m delighted and Chi starts on Monday morning.

Most of the grocery shops that attract the expats have notice boards and they are often teeming with Situation Wanted adverts – predominantly for cooks. It is patently clear, with even the most cursory glance at these advertisements that the pinnacle of achievement for a domestic cook is: ‘Can follow Jamie’. Jamie Oliver, if this message ever finds its way to you my advice is to get yourself over to Hanoi pronto. Okay, Gordon Ramsay might have beaten you to it in television terms but I tell you what Jamie, you have the most loyal following out here – the mere mention of your name literally opens the door to peoples homes. I have applauded the school meal and other initiatives and would love you to know that just by being, by producing your cookery books and I guess by making the TV programmes you are enabling people to work who might otherwise struggle. How fantastic is that!!!

Staying on a house type theme, we move into our new house this Sunday and I am sooooo excited. We will move from a small apartment crammed with furniture to a huge house and barely any furniture. Because land is so limited here in Hanoi the houses tend to be narrow, deep and tall and every inch is used. We struggled to find anything that was built on a human scale – some of the rooms were just so big that even moving from a 4/5 bedroom house in the UK we would fit all our furniture in one room here.

Having been married for 7 years I learnt something new about my hubby during the househunting. Well, I learnt two things – he hates househunting and, more interestingly, he loves modern houses. I had no idea. This came to light when an agent managed to sneak in a viewing to a house that was totally unsuitable but he wanted us to see it – the most enormous, brand new, 7 storey extravaganza I’ve ever seen. I hated it and Kevin loved everything that was new about it. This made me re-think my viewing policy and I realised that earlier that week I had in fact seen a house that he might just love, but that I had discounted without a second glance.

I hastily phoned another agent and requested a second viewing and lo and behold – he absolutely loved it. Here was our dream home (apparently!). To any friends or family reading this – contrary to popular belief I obviously do not wear the trousers in our house because this house was most definitely not my choice. However, it wasn’t complete and we’ve had to wait 4 weeks before it will be ready for us. During this time I’ve walked around the area and watched the house progress and I must confess I’m really taken with it. It’s not a house I would ever buy or could even afford in the UK – 5 floors, a lift, a pool in the basement, a roof terrace to die for and the most enormous sun lounge and balcony. Now that I have Chi to keep it all looking pristine I can just relax and enjoy living in a space that’s completely different to anything I’ve experienced. I love home-making and am really looking forward to turning a relatively blank canvas into a welcoming sanctuary and haven from the madness that is Hanoi. See photo below of the green just beside the new house.

Just before I leave the subject of house hunting I was surprised by the ‘customer is king’ attitude of landlords here as in house after house I was told: we can remodel it for you. If you don’t like that wall there, we’ll move it, want a wall here? No problem, we’ll put one in. New kitchen? But of course. New bathrooms? No sweat. Anything you want, we can do it.

All I can say is that the experience is nothing like we encountered as landlord’s when renting our home in the UK. Everything was pretty standard and the agent advised us before marketing the property what we should and shouldn’t do and what was expected by most tenants. Also of course, the rent we could expect. Here in Hanoi the rent bares absolutely no relation to the size/style/quality of the house and Kirsty and Phil have no chance here – location is almost irrelevant too in setting the rental price. It is entirely dependent on the landlord/owner. They will charge whatever they want for their property – you pay it or the house sits empty. The Vietnamese are very superstitious and will not carry out important transactions on an inauspicious day. April 15th is a good day to move house – thankfully!

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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 🙂

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 🙂

TET Fever

Well, I’m not sure about the fever bit but from this distance the whole Vietnamese new lunar year is very confusing.  I guess it’s one of those where you really have to be there to understand it.

I thought it was one week long celebration with festivities and a carnival like atmosphere everywhere.  Reading Twitter posts and chatting virtually to a couple of friends out there – both expat and local – it seems that actually everything shuts down and the best way to enjoy Tet is to go away!

Next year I guess I’ll ‘get’ it a bit better.  Or will I?!

Procrastinating

Blimey, who’d have thought it was so complicated trying to decide what to do with various items of furniture and personal possessions?  First of all we decided (perhaps being a little cowardly) that we’d just ship most of it out to Hanoi and decide what to bring back when the time comes.  Then, after seeking advice from friends and people in the know, we decided to store stuff that we thought we’d definitely want back here at the end of our Vietnamese adventure.  And now …?

Well, the cost of storing it seems ridiculous and most of it is far too good to just give away but the second hand value of household things and furniture is almost zero and I can’t really be bothered trying to sell items bit by bit – surely life’s too short to go down that road?    I’m exhausted just thinking about it – mind you I am full of a cold and dosed up with Beechams Cold and Flu Remedy so that probably isn’t helping on the ‘clarity of thought’ front!

Think we’re going to end up shipping it out there and then deciding what to do when the time comes to return home – i.e. procrastinating 🙂

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