A couple of months have passed since a rather unceremonious departure from my beloved Vietnam. The feeling I won’t be returning has slowly crept in, or if I do go back, it won’t be any time soon.
It wouldn’t be the same, it never is with a love affair. It’s like bumping into a former lover on the street – past feelings irretrievable, the sense of passion dulled.
My overseas living career has been a series of random twists of fate for the most part, sprinkled with the odd coincidence, and, behold, even a plan and schedule from time to time.
I developed a knack, a penchant for uncovering little gems of places all over several continents, envisaging short stays which evolved into years on end.
I went to Europe in my early 20s with a six-month stay in mind, one thing led to another, and I finally left 13 years later.
A stint in Thailand followed, which was planned for a few months but somehow mushroomed into four years.
And on and on it went in that spirit until I returned to Da Nang in early 2015.
It was magic right from the get-go as I was one of only a handful of foreigners living in Hai Chau District adjacent to the Han River and the epic riverside promenade Bach Dang.
In no time flat I met every vendor, cafe, shop, and beer joint owner, and had a bang-up time in the process.
I was still living a nomadic lifestyle, rotating between Bali and Borneo, but Da Nang soon unseated Bali as I spent increasing stretches in Vietnam, availing of a three-month tourist visa.
I found a great place to stay, stashed my belongings when I embarked on brief jaunts around my favourite haunts in the region, and was thrilled to return each time.
Vietnam was and remains somewhat feral, but had developed in leaps and bounds during the 25 years since my first visit.
Smitten with the energy of the people, I traveled to many of the obvious destinations in 2015-17, Phu Quoc, Ho Chi Minh City, Ha Long, Hoi An, Vung Tau, Ha Noi several times, then hit the jackpot – the double bullseye – when I landed in Da Lat.
I have Europe in my blood thanks to the lengthy stay years before, and my intimate knowledge of all things French just added fuel to the fire.
Da Lat, with its cafes and restaurants, everyone sitting around shooting the breeze, chummy, curious locals, stunning colonial architecture, and delicious cuisine was an absolute lock.
Within a couple of hours I decided I would live in there, but I had things to tie up in other locations, returning in late 2017 to hunker down and start discovery in earnest.
I had the confidence that comes with experience, so tossing everything into a small suitcase and knapsack, setting off for destinations unknown (which I’ve done eleven or twelve times over the decades – lost count) has become second nature.
Still it gives me a buzz, just like the first train and airplane trips I took, probably always will.
It’s my drug, my vice, what I’m here to do.
The key success criterion in any overseas living stint is the people we meet, and holy cow, did I ever luck out in Da Lat?
The city is remote and provincial, founded by the French about a hundred years ago, perched as if in a fairy tale at 1,500 meters above sea level on the Lang Biang plateau.
The location is conducive to a stable permanent community, to the extent that I know people who now live out their elderly years in the house they were born in.
I lived smack dab in the city center, which to my delight was largely absent of foreigners, most of whom pop in to town for necessities, then beetle back to their suburban cocoons to emulate a lifestyle mirroring what they purportedly escaped from in their home country.
That logic has always escaped me. The whole idea of overseas living is to roll up our sleeves, get down and dirty, and roll with the locals.
Oh, and I met a boatload in no time flat, language hurdles ignored, pantomime skills finely honed, and met with a warm and sincere welcome beyond what I had ever experienced elsewhere.
Often it was a challenge to keep up with the invitations to weddings, funerals, death anniversaries, birthday parties and random gatherings, until the Dreaded Plague invaded nearly three years ago, and all the socializing abruptly ended in a matter of weeks.
I had barely managed to sneak back to Vietnam, just making it under the wire in February 2020 after an overseas break.
Shortly thereafter I was forced out of the city center when authorities ordered all hotels shuttered because of COVID-19.
Discrimination kicked in – just as it did worldwide – and it became difficult to find a local landlord accepting foreign tenants, so I was forced to live in a huge villa full of white people!
The compound resembled an embassy, complete with an imposingly tall, locked iron gate to ensure segregation from all things local.
The only things missing were armed uniformed soldiers guarding the joint and our country flags blowing in the breeze.
The scene shifted a few months later to near Da Lat University, a smashing neighbourhood once again almost void of foreigners, crowded, and bursting with the churn and commotion I loved (and sometimes didn’t).
I can barely choke back the emotion reminiscing about it – the welcome was incredibly warm and the social scene flourished in no time.
Few locals could muster more than a phrase or two of English, and my Vietnamese was horrid, but that was enough and I was off to the races.
The neighborhood gang, like most Vietnamese, was animated, full of personality for the most part, so chemistry depended heavily on subtleties, gestures, and gesticulations, and much less on exchanges of words.
I escaped to a nearby locally owned and operated apartment between COVID-19 variants and all flourished.
In the summer of 2021, I got a call from my visa ‘agent’ (I use the term very loosely) informing me that the one-year business visa issued for several consecutive years was obsolete and I would need to leave Vietnam.
She had sold me the visa and Immigration issued it on the understanding that I would not perform regular work activities, which was ideal as I’m retired.
The charade that played out was silly as I was also entitled to a one-year tourist visa, which I would have taken knowing the hassle that would ensue.
By then it was moot because the borders were closed, so it was a one-way turnstile out with no way back in, the tourist visa not viable, with its status shrouded in mystery to this day.
It’s ironic that for two years random tourists who got locked in when COVID-19 hit were given free extensions, while those of us who contributed for many years were told to “hit the road, Jack, and don’t come back no more, no more.”
A year later, plans in hand, overstay fine paid, me and my VND30 million per month pension departed.
Apparently, tourism strategy going forward is to focus on high rollers (exactly the same ploy attempted by 100 other countries worldwide), and redeploy low-end workers on highly paid manufacturing jobs, which takes a very long time to implement no matter how quickly investment money flows in.
For me, it’s not about the money, rarely is, rather the friendships, great times, and lessons learned are invaluable.
Genuine satisfaction comes from expecting less and giving more, thus putting my living experience in Vietnam atop a very long list spanning a dozen countries over more than four decades.
I’ll never forget the mango vendor who picked through every damned mango in her pile to ensure the blind lottery vendor got the best.
Nor will the memory of my friend, the cafe owner, who often brought home-cooked lunches for me, knowing I was sick of restaurants, ever fade.
How about those spin-the-chicken-head games over beers that were rigged with the beak pointed at me so I’d keep guzzling?
What about the little old ladies crossing the street who grabbed my hand so I could shepherd them? Somehow they knew I was on the team, in for all.
Or how about – well, enough (I could go on for days), you get the picture…
When we move on, we take with us the sum total of what we gave, shared, and contributed, not the trinkets and other material crap we squirreled away.
My haul from Vietnam can’t be measured or quantified, but if it could it would be a mountain of indelible memories.