Saigon: Why A Year Here Became Seven

29356493_10155108030842364_7178033586010849280_oBy Harry Hodge

Saigon isn’t for everybody. Especially when they look at other cities in Asia to find their fortune.

Sexier destinations tend to be your classic “Rat Race” cities: Tokyo; Seoul; Shanghai. Gleaming glass towers and bankers and modern transit and Formula 1 races and the list goes on.

Saigon? Foreigners often wonder if it’s the same place as Ho Chi Minh City (which it is).

Yes, it’s disorganized; congested; muggy; prone to floods. There can be a language barrier sometimes. It has the traits and baggage that one should expect in an “emerging market”. Tried to do any banking here? Wonder why Facebook just stops working sometimes?

But despite all this, many see OPPORTUNITY.

Full disclosure: I came here more than seven years ago to: (A) Get employed quickly following my layoff; and (B) Avoid another Canadian winter. Being shown the door from my old newspaper gig in Edmonton made me consider: Stay put, collect EI (Employment Insurance) for six months and freeze my gonads off in -25C until March? Why not go “find myself” for a year? Unmarried, no major debts, 35. Why not?

I’ve met some expats here who had the same mindset: Just hang out for a year and play the old teacher/backpacker stereotype. Drink and smoke like it’s going out of style. Eat yummy/cheap pho. But I’ve also met another demographic who see this city and country as being ON THE RISE. If only I’d had this mindset when I arrived, but better late than never.

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No More Countdowns

There have been jobs I’ve had or cities that I lived in where I gave myself a “completion date” and would count down towards it. Dating back to the final months of my university degree in Montreal; the end of my one-year contract at China Daily; my final days at the Timmins Daily Press. All of those times when I could spit out the exact number of days at that lay ahead before I’d be moving on.

Vietnam? I honestly have no idea. I was supposed to be gone six years ago.

I can teach. I can write. I can do voicework. I can act, although it’s super-disorganized and the pay is crap. I can buy property (well, my wife can). We can afford to feed, clothe and school our two children, whereas daycare costs in Toronto are through the roof.

How can I enjoy so much “freedom” here compared to the “democracy” I left behind? At the moment, it’s basic economics.

Canada is headed for a major financial crash; its own media has been saying as much for ages. I believe that will come in the next three years or so. Meanwhile, Vietnam has been joining trade blocs with various partners, like the reworked TPP and the long-standing ASEAN group.

People may think I’m a caveman, but I like paying for things in cash and not “shutting my mind off” to the debt I’d pile up with a credit card. That was the direction I was headed in for the last six years I spent in Alberta and Ontario. And I was hardly a high-roller. Living on the fringes of Toronto with a roommate and in a (comfortable) basement unit in Edmonton’s best neighbourhood (my opinion), I still wasn’t putting much away. I took the odd trip abroad, but many of those were paid for; movie junkets to New York and L.A. A trip to Punta Cana I won at a CFL game (no joke!). I footed my own travel to Frankfurt, London and Vancouver, but each place I had free stay set up; ate street food and the like.

But I felt like I was the man! This delusion was from working at a newspaper and getting everything handed to me for free in the form of complimentary concert tickets (preview a festival), free beer (I had a beer column), NBA tickets (from advertising), and more. I’d usually get two passes and take a friend.

Still, I was treading water. Canada’s criminal phone and Internet monopolies; a money-pit in the form of a 2003 KIA Rio (which I eventually gave away to cut costs); and just plain old high income tax ensured I wasn’t really finding a way forward. But this isn’t a “feel bad for me” scenario. This explains why Canadians are some of the most debt-heavy citizens ON THE PLANET.

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Saigon Is Never Boring

I think a big part of why people choose Saigon is it’s so RANDOM. Like any given day you can see a guy walking his dog by PULLING IT BEHIND HIS MOTORBIKE WHILE HE SMOKES. Or an eight-year-old with a “RICH AS F#CK” baseball cap. Or the simple joy of a 50-cent banh mi sandwich from a lady who’ll also sell you phone credit.

I’m 43 in July, so my all-night bender days are behind me. But I did that stuff when I arrived. Meeting the woman I’d marry and starting a family with her was totally NOT part of the plan when I moved here. But I used to plan everything, and look where that got me.

Vietnam has given me everything the last seven years: I foresee spending at least a few more here.

CAM ON NHIEU VIET NAM!

 

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About hodgedude

I'm a Canadian journalist and teacher, most recently living in Edmonton and Toronto, now located in Ho Chi Minh City. Graduate of Concordia University in Montreal. I've taught English in S. Korea, pulled rickshaws in Canada, taught at a Taiwanese language boot camp, edited newspapers in China and played a French-speaking Spanish colonel on Vietnamese TV. I also play Australian football. Pick up a copy of issue one of my independent comic, "Getting Lucky," at Happy Harbor Comics in Edmonton, the Comic Hunter in Moncton, New Brunswick, and the Spotted Cow Pub, 111 Bui Vien, District 1, Saigon.
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