I miss Ho Chi Minh City. It has been over a year and a half since I left Vietnam but I still think about it all the time. There is no doubt that the time I spent in Southeast Asia will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s hard not to get nostalgic about it. I’ve experienced those inevitable challenges of living abroad and have felt devastating symptoms of reverse culture shock since returning to New York City. But despite all that, it’s an experience I don’t regret. Here are ten things I miss dearly about living in Ho Chi Minh City.
1. The discoverability
Ho Chi Minh City, or Sai Gon, is a dynamic city with a lot going on. Initially, immersing myself in an unfamiliar environment was frightening. Once I let go of my judgment and expectations, however, I experienced the city in a way that kept me engaged. I never got bored. Every day was an adventure. I met new people, tried new dishes and had many questionable, yet delightful moments. Eventually, I stopped questioning the absurdity of things because it was beyond my comprehension. Even up to my last day, I continued to discover new things about this place and the joy I felt was priceless.
2. The food
My first meal ever was com tam (broken rice) for breakfast with Hien, the director of my program. I remember having my first bowl of pho and sweating profusely. I had my go-to stalls for banh mi (sandwiches), banh trang tron (rice paper snacks) and bun bo hue (spicy beef noodle soup). I recall many wonderful conversations I had while enjoying meals. Food is always an incredible way to bond with others and talk about things you normally wouldn’t dare explore. If you end up living in Vietnam, lucky you. Their food culture is incredible. Here is a food guide to help you out.
3. The culture
I don’t understand Vietnamese culture and I probably never will. But I didn’t need to get it to love it. Vietnamese culture doesn’t wait to grab you in. It’s incredibly welcoming and open, but also leaves a sense of mysteriousness. At first glance, it appears that people live very simply and peacefully. Beneath those shining smiles, however, are stories of suffering, confusion and betrayal. And despite all that they have experienced, their brave approach to life is beautiful and inspiring. Thank you, Vietnam for embracing me and allowing me to immerse myself in your world.
4. My students
Teachers always talk about the profound joy they experience from being surrounded by eager learners. Count me in. I admired how hard my students worked to absorb the world around them. Being a teacher kept me humble and taught me the importance of compassion. I wasn’t easy on my students. But I made sure they knew it came from a place of me believing in their potential. My students took so much leadership in their own lives such as seeking out opportunities to better their English and supporting their classmates. This made me one proud teacher.
5. My colleagues
I had the fortune of working with some of the most dedicated, empathetic and tenacious people, both expats and local Vietnamese. I relied a lot on my fellow ESL teachers for innovative solutions when I had difficult students or a confusing topic. My TAs (teaching assistants) were all full of grit and never let any obstacle stop them from reaching their dreams. My managers always put their wholehearted trust in my work and continued to provide me with the support I needed to overcome challenging situations. It’s definitely a privilege to say that I loved where I worked.
6. My friends
Ho Chi Minh City had a magical way of bringing remarkable people together in my life. Living there meant that my friends came from all over the world. They took me to non-touristy parts of the city so I could experience HCMC authentically. They invited me over to their homes during Tet (Lunar New Year). We took an 8-hour road trip (via motorbikes) to the Mekong Delta. I hosted sushi night for them. I had a lot of philosophical rooftop discussions over cheap beer until the morning. I cried on some of their couches. These are moments I treasure because they gave me wonderful lifelong friends.
7. The travel opportunities
Living in HCMC was great because most places I wanted to go were just a couple of hours away by bus or plane. I wanted my passport to be filled with stamps. I remember telling my Malaysian roommate during freshman year of college that I will visit her country one day. And what do you know? At the end of my time in Vietnam, my roster of countries that I visited turned out quite impressive. I traveled to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. And if we’re talking cities, that list is even more extensive but I’ll cut the pretentiousness here.
8. The financial stability
Expat ESL teachers in Vietnam get paid generously and it’s amazing. I had two steady jobs that allowed me to pay student loans, live comfortably and travel often. The cost of living was incredibly low so money was one thing I never worried about. That’s not the case now as a New Yorker where even the rich complain about things being too expensive. In HCMC, paying $5.00 for a meal was too expensive, for crying out loud. Whenever there were emergencies, I didn’t worry about about finding the funds to cover and that was definitely an expat luxury that I miss.
9. My motorbike
I don’t miss the traffic. But I did love my motorbike obsessively and miss it dearly. Living in HCMC gave me a unique opportunity to own a badass vehicle and freely explore the beautiful city on my own terms. My 2013 Honda Air Blade, (a/k/a my “baby”) was with me every step of the way. We experienced every kind of weather imaginable (think, Southeast Asian downpours), got stopped by the police twice and I fell down a few times. But it was definitely thrilling to channel my inner speed demon and travel around the city the way locals do. (Don’t worry, I kept it safe and wore a full-faced helmet.)
10. The struggles
No one likes struggling, I know. But there’s something special about encountering struggles when living abroad. I had great moments but I experienced challenges that forced me to grow a thick skin and stand firmly on my two feet. There were moments when my health was in jeopardy. I also learned that I may never be able to live in the United States again. Being far outside of my comfort zone was terrifying but I appreciate those opportunities to grow tremendously as a human. Ultimately, those are the struggles that made me the strong woman I am today.
There you have it. Ten out of a million things that I miss about living in this charming corner of the world. Ho Chi Minh City is one of those places that can be a hit or miss, depending on the type of person that you are. As a native New Yorker, the rapid pace of life and abundance of food choices kept me excited. If I had the opportunity, would I go back? Probably not. I am ready for the next chapter. I love what I do now: eat, run and design. But give me any excuse to visit and I’m there.