The last month or so has provided a lot of travel opportunities for me. Most have been on business, but I did get to squeeze a weekend in there for myself. Traveling in SE Asia has its good points and bad points. Let’s start with the good…In less than an hour I can be in either Vientiane or Luang Prabang, Laos. In two hours, I’m in Bangkok. In just fours hours I can make it as far as Hong Kong or even Japan. Living in this part of the world where a bunch of countries are mushed together has its benefits. It’s one of the reasons I traveled through SE Asia last year. It’s super easy to get from one place to the next. And while there are some general similarities between Asian countries, an hour flight takes you to an entirely different culture. And I love that.
The bad part about this area of the world is that it is still behind more developed areas. Let’s take Vietnam for example…The Hanoi airport would be better off if they leveled the damn thing and put up tents. The building is old, the airline employees are not all that nice and the waiting areas are tired-looking and uncomfortable. Before you even get your boarding pass, you deal with people blatantly cutting in line, people who are standing so close behind you you can feel their breath on your neck (or smell their breath when they cough, as was the case on one travel occasion) and agents who appear that can’t be bothered to do their job. Never mind the ridiculous number of delays the airline experiences and the lack of communication with passengers.
I’ve likened Vietnam Airlines to being one chicken short of a local bus. It is probably the worst airline I’ve traveled with – ever. Not only for the lack of professionalism of the attendants – falling asleep in the jumper seat as the plane is preparing for take-off should not be acceptable in my book – but also for the condition of the planes. On one of my last fights to Saigon, I noticed that the hardware, like plastic coverings on some of the seat fixtures, were missing on several rows. I’m still shocked by how many people on board have probably never flown before. They have no idea that their ticket holds a seat number. Many people sit where they want and get bumped a few times until an attendant explains where their seat is located. Others walk aimlessly through the cabin and don’t know how to find their seat number, never mind figuring out if their seat is an aisle or window. I quite nearly punched a guy who kept pushing me when the row of people in front of me making their way through the plane stopped and he yelled, “Move!”
Vietnam Airlines also has a very strange way of seating people. If a flight is not full, they will clump people together in groups and leave several rows completely empty. As of lately, I’ve been involuntarily seated in the exit rows on most of my flights. I actually don’t like the exit rows. You are not allowed to put your items underneath the seat, and call me crazy, but I’m not willing to put all my belongings out of sight. The seat doesn’t go back, either. I’m not 6’5″ and I don’t think I look particularly helpful or someone who stays calm in an emergency. I have a feeling that in some training course, the reservation staff were told, “The foreigners like the exit rows.” And so now I am getting in the habit of asking to NOT be seated in emergency rows.
It’s kind of funny that everyday I’m learning something new about this country and about working in SE Asia. Everyday poses some challenge. I just never expected that I would learn so much while sitting in a plane so high in the sky!
On the Bright Side,
With this move back to the US, I really feel the weight of my decision to leave Asia. While I am happy to return and eager for a different kind of adventure, I know that I am really going to miss this extraordinary region of the world.
I fell in love with Asia when I moved to Japan in 2002. I traveled extensively through that beautiful country and learned to love the green of the rice fields, the change of seasons, amazing food, kind-hearted people, a healthy life, the beautiful culture which seeped into my heart and soul…so much.
During my days in Japan, I discovered SE Asia through Thailand and the amazing Nepal and Tibet trip. Thailand is an especially easy place to travel and makes for a great introduction to the region. Nepal and Tibet were just teasers for ridiculously unique and inspiring journeys.
And then in 2008, you’ll remember I traveled for four months through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia before heading to Europe. One only needs to browse through my Travel Blog to learn what an impression those experiences made on my life. I’ve recently enjoyed one last trip to Laos before my time in Vietnam ends. Laos may be my favorite.
It’s been a very difficult yet very comforting decision to leave Asia and return to the US. It took a lot of soul searching and I’ve written lots of pros and cons lists and used my own crazy system of practicality, motivation, logic and reason to come to the conclusion that my life will be better for spending some time in what I should call home. I have every desire to stay in the US for a bit, but I cannot imagine a life without travel, and one where I don’t ever come back to Asia. And I cannot promise that after a few weeks back in America that I don’t freak out and just hop on a plane to Argentina or something!
I leave Vietnam today, and while it is always difficult to close a chapter of your life, I have a sense that a very bright and wonderful future is waiting for me and I need to go and grab it with total enthusiasm. I’m ready.
On the Bright Side,
About the photo: I chose the window seat for this journey for some reason. I think I needed to visually depart Vietnam and welcome San Diego, as well as emotionally adjust! ;p
When I was a student as UCSB, I remember very distinctly how my life fit within the trunk and back seat of my Hyundai Excel. Every box and suitcase has its specific place, and I packed the car up the same way at the beginning and end of each school year.
When I moved to Japan, I was only allowed two large suitcases and a carry-on. At the end of five years, I sent home 10 boxes and took back with me those two large suitcases and a carry-on.
Before I left for Vietnam, I sent 10 boxes ahead and then packed up those ridiculously large suitcases again, for one final trip. I paid excess baggage fees for having super heavy bags…I don’t know what I was thinking….why did I need all of that stuff with me? I packed my clothes, but mostly my treasures from Japan. Little trinkets I had collected over five years and felt an essential part of my daily existence. Some of those items never even made it to a shelf.
I threw away a ridiculous amount of toiletries. When I go to Bangkok, I usually go to Boots and stock up on all sorts of lotions and potions, soap and scents, creams and cures. I’m embarrassed to say how little of those things I actually used!!!
I prepared my items for the movers in just a few days time. I sorted things out between clothes and materials, artwork, breakables, bedding and then the dishes and kitchen ware. Five guys packed up my stuff in little over 30 minutes and 15 boxes. The move will cost me about $2600. (Yeeowza! OUCH!) I’m thankful I have not a stick of furniture!!! I can only imagine the cost then!
One thing has been constant in all my moves overseas…my journals. These are the books of my life, since the time I was eleven. These journals are so special to me, they go with me on the plane. It makes for a heavy carry-on, but I don’t care. I always feel like I can close my eyes and remember certain snapshots of my past. But when I spend time at the end of the year to read through a lot of entries, I’m surprised by how little I actually remember. I’m in a constant stage of “Oh yeah! That one!” So I remember once I’m reading it, but initially I feel like I’m peeking into someone else’s life.
One of my projects when I’m in San Diego (and before I am employed) is to get a scanner and make a digital copy of my books. That way, the next time I move I can access my writings on my computer and not have to lug a bunch of books about. Although if I do move “for good” the next time, then I may just have to take the colorful stories of my life with me on the plane one last time.
What treasures do you have that you would take on your carry-on if you were moving overseas?
Today is Thanksgiving and I am in Vietnam, far away from family and friends, on a work assignment, no less. When I booked the press trip for the Emeraude, the Thanksgiving holiday didn’t even jump out and say “Hey, what are you doing? It’s Thanksgiving!” And so I find myself on a boat in the middle of Halong Bay. There are worse places in the world. I am feeling grateful for my life.
In the two years I’ve been employed with Apple Tree and living in Hanoi, I’ve been privileged to partake in any number of adventures and travels under the auspices of “work”. Here in Halong Bay alone, I have enjoyed the annual Wine & Dine Cruise Classic and dined in formal attire within a setting straight out of a fantasy book; a large cave in the bay, bathed in candlelight. I’ve rocked climbed, getting up close and personal to the limestone rocks which make up thousands of islands in the bay.
In Hanoi, I’m thankful for my lovely apartment and the kind and caring family who own the building and live “with” me. Without them, I would not have had my little sanctuary to return to after a long and stressful day, after traveling on a street full of honking motorbikes and lost taxi drivers. My apartment could be anywhere in the world, and it is because of them that I could feel that it served as my retreat and “home”.
At the Press Club, I’ve enjoyed countless meals, excellent dinners and some absolutely fantastic parties. The location alone is prestigious, across from the historic Metropole, near the Opera and within a short walk from Hoan Kiem Lake. Every ride into work provided any number of sights, from barbers setting up their shop against a tree trunk, to buffalo and pig legs sticking out of a box on the back of a motorbike, a rare sighting of an entire and dead pig on top of a trash pile, numerous children riding squished between parents on motorbikes, and the numerous women who are hauling anything from fresh veggies to a small restaurant on two baskets slung over their shoulders. The sights, tastes, and sounds of the streets of Hanoi will live within me forever. It’s impossible to forget and one small aspect I know I will miss very much when I am sitting in a car, behind a steering wheel stuck in traffic on the 405.
I traveled to Laos on a handful of occasions, this last visit being just for fun. And over two years, with each visit, this landlocked country with the mighty Mekong running through it as its main artery has become one of my most favorite places in Asia. The people are gorgeous, the pace is slow and if you don’t walk away from your experience there feeling spiritual, at least humbled, then you have not experienced the real Laos. I can never forget being blessed by a monk, my friend’s father, and then being in a tiny village to receive blessings from the community. That touched my heart like no other experience in my life.
My business travels have taken me to Berlin, Singapore, Bangkok, London and even the exotic in Marrakech. I’ve made friends in each place and have been treated to the local perspective. In a place like Marrakech, that’s especially fortunate. I love traveling, as you all know, and I feel so lucky that I have visited these terrific cities not just once, but a few times. Many people never travel outside of their hometowns, so I am appreciative of the opportunity.
I’ve learned a lot in the last two years. Living and working in Vietnam has been one of the biggest challenges of my life. But with each daily hurdle, came tremendous personal growth. If Vietnam didn’t kill me, then I don’t think anything can! ;p
I owe these two great years of experience in my life to my friend and my manager, Kurt. You’ll all remember that when I traveled to Vietnam in 2008, I stayed with he and his family for a few weeks and that they were such gracious hosts. Once I returned to the US after my travels, it was Kurt who pushed for my return to Hanoi and for me to fill this role. He’s lent an incredible amount of support and provided such a wonderful opportunity for me to grow professionally. He’s often referred to He, Marcel and me as his “Dream Team” and you know, we are. The three of us work so nicely together and are really a powerhouse. For this I wish I could remain longer in Hanoi, so that the three of us could really gel and continue on our path of success. Both Kurt and Marcel are Swiss German, so I’ve been exposed to a “unique” style of management (that’s a positive comment) which is efficient, productive and completely straight-forward.
I can never express in words how grateful I am to Kurt for bringing me on board, for continuing to be my cheerleader and biggest fan, for pushing me to be better and grow professionally. As I come to the close of my contract with Apple Tree, I’m super happy I took the offer to live and work in Vietnam and will always be thankful for this chapter of my life.
When I first moved to Vietnam, I anticipated staying for five years, as I felt I needed to give it as much of a go as I did my time in Japan. If I look back at my Japan experience after year two, I think, “Wow, I would have never come back with the appreciation for Japan after year two as I did after five.” Naturally, of course, but also because I hadn’t really fallen into my pace of life and routine which allowed me to flourish in year 3 – 5. BIG difference in my work and lifestyle in those last three years than the first two.
As the end of my contract in Vietnam was approaching, and Kurt and I were having some discussions regarding the owners plans for the group, I sat down with myself and re-evaluated my situation. Our discussions were sort of a wake-up call for me and I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing by renewing my contract.
Vietnam is a much more intense city than Shizuoka, Japan or San Diego, California. Everyday poses some challenge, whether in a taxi ride or with work or even establishing a social life in what turns out to be a small town, Hanoi. I considered the direction of my career, having made a conscious decision to return to sales and marketing after a six year break with teaching and traveling. I have really missed teaching over the last two years, despite rising to the challenges of a much more demanding job. There was something very special about walking into a classroom full of fifth graders and teaching them to connect via a language that was not their own. There was something so utterly delightful about playing Simon Says and singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” with kids who never got tired of the program and who participated with a ridiculous amount of enthusiasm. Dare I say that a classroom full of eleven year olds is much more my element than an office with a computer and a very long TO DO list.
At the same time, I am a creative person at my core, and working in sales and marketing allows me to tap into these qualities on a much higher level. And I’ve loved working with my sales teams to push their own boundaries of creativity, to help them to think “outside the box.” For these two years, I have very much been a teacher, but on a much more complex topic than getting my audience to understand the meaning of, “How old are you?” I’ve had any number of a-ha moments with my staff, and when a certain point or message hits home with them, I am also deeply satisfied.
I’ve had to take another look at my personal life, which was the biggest factor in my deciding to return to the States for now. At 40, I’m still an independent woman. And while my spirit of independence will always remain, I do have the desire for a partner and family. As I’ve said to some, “I really want to find my dude.” And I don’t think that is really possible for a Western woman living in Asia. Most definitely, the men who come to Asia are interested in Asian women or come to work with their families in tow. Many of the single men I’ve met are a good decade younger than me. And while a little rendezvous with a twenty-something can be a heck of a lot of fun once in awhile, I never can take the encounter seriously.
With my window of time to have a child closing, I need to put myself in a better and, shall we say, more productive environment. And so my decision to move back to the US is largely a personal one. I’m not at all ashamed to say that…I believe a healthy personal life makes for a more enriching professional one.
There are a lot of huge question marks in front of me. Kurt and I haven’t even decided the day I will return to San Diego, although it won’t be later than the 15th. Once I land, I’m mostly interested in enjoying the heck out of the holidays, however I plan to squeeze in a bit of business before too much holiday cheer. I know I will insist to squeeze my niece to death as I have missed her so much and wish I could reach through the computer screen when she’s on skype with my folks.
And once I return, I’ll do a lot of thinking. What do I really want out of my life. Where do I really want to live and what kind of life do I envision for myself??? Those are pretty hefty questions and I’m at a point in my life where I need to find the answers. A new chapter is about to begin…
In 1976, America celebrated it’s 200th birthday. I was just six at the time, but I remember a few things from the occasion. I remember wearing red, white and blue in our school picture, at the request of the school (we also said the pledge of allegiance in “those days”). I remember being down by the bay and lots of flags and the Star of India sailing for the first time in 50 years.
Every Thanksgiving, our little community of El Cajon rang in the holiday season with the Mother Goose Parade. We’d listen to the local high school bands, wave at the B-list celebrities who agreed to be in the parade and eagerly await the last float…the one with Santa Claus on it.
In Siena Italy, I was in town between the two Il Palio races. One evening I was sitting on the steps writing in my journal when the piazza started to fill up and a festival ensued. I stood with a group of people who started singing when their flag was dropped out the window, announcing that their horse would race in the August Il Palio. It was at that moment that I fell in love with festivals.
In Japan, I participated and attended my fair share of festivals and celebrations from sports festivals at school to fire festivals to celebrate a good harvest. I have been dressed in yukata to walk WITH my Japanese friends in the parade. I have sat under the sakura WITH co-workers friend and the like to marvel at delicate pink blossoms and drink a decent amount of sake. I have sat beneath the dark sky WITH my Japanese teachers and friends to watch a two hour fireworks show, part of a regular summer celebration. And I have poured beer WITH my friends to celebrate comings and goings, birthdays, wedding and sometimes no reason at all. I was included in those occasions and I loved them all.
So when I knew that I would be in Hanoi during it’s 1000 year anniversary celebrations, I was naturally excited. I’ve already expressed my disappointment leading into the celebration, the lack or organization, the lack of inclusion of the foreign community, both locally and internationally. And in this past week of celebrations, I have grown even more so. Some would say that the expats are being too negative and looking for bad things to say. But I’ll tell ya…when a city turns 1000 years old, and you don’t tell anybody how you are planning to celebrate or what festivities they can attend, when you don’t even tell them what days they may not be able to get to their place of work due to road closures or close so many streets that the already insane traffic becomes monstrous, well then…I don’t have a hell of a lot of sympathy. It’s poor event planning and it’s laughable.
Mette and I did venture out yesterday to see what might be happening around Hoan Kiem Lake. We saw lots of people making laps around the lake. We saw lots of people wearing “I ♥ Hanoi” t-shirts and red ties around their head. One vendor put a sticker on our faces, unsolicited, and then demanded that we pay him 10,000VND. He wasn’t too pleased when we peeled the sticker off our faces and stuck them back on his sheet. We didn’t appreciate the raised voice, nor him pointing at us like we had stolen the stickers.
Lots of people in from out of town sat around the park areas and watched any number of the jumbo TV screens, programmed to tell the story of Hanoi. I did take some pictures of some funny and rambunctious boys, but that was only after their parents called for me to take their picture when I was actually trying to get a picture of the crowds gathering lakeside. Mette was asked to take a picture with a girl, who motioned for her boyfriend to make sure to get all of Mette in the picture (Mette is a very tall and gorgeous Danish gal). We left the area just in time, before the real crowds descended. We went past the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum on our way home to see the set up for the big 10.10.10 parade site.
And so this morning, I watched on TV the ceremony, the parade of military and cultural troops and birds on roller skates, dragons and flags and flowers moved and shaken for the sake of pageantry, big colorful floats depicting moments in Hanoi’s history, and I’m not sure how many of the same exact picture of Ho Chi Minh. One of the most enjoyable moments on the TV program was the last 15 minutes where they showed numerous old photos of Hanoi. That was really interesting and culturally appealing.
And so now that the celebration is nearly over and it is assumed we will all go back to our normal lives tomorrow, I have to wonder what everyone in Hanoi, in Vietnam thinks of the overall celebrations? What will people here remember? What will they take away from this? I can tell you that while initially I was super grateful to be here on this momentous occasion, I really have nothing to boast about. I didn’t celebrate WITH you, Hanoi. And again, that’s such a shame, because I really wanted to.
NOTE: My previous blog post “36 Days to Go” was mentioned in an article in The Economist. Not a super positive article about Vietnam, but I’m pretty happy to have On The Bright Side mentioned in such an establish and respected publication. Imagine that! My little blog made it into The Economist! (The link will no longer work, as my blog has been moved to WordPress now.)
I remember L.A. traffic very vividly. In your car, inching along the 10, not letting the guy who wants to cut in front of you into the space because he didn’t plan ahead….the people who stick their arms out the window to signal a sense of panic that they “really” need to get into the lane they are trying to merge in…merging onto the 405 and hoping like hell you can make the Santa Monica Street exit? Sound familiar?
All I have to say is this…at least there are lanes on the freeway and for the most part, people stay in them. In Hanoi….it’s utter chaos! L.A. drivers wouldn’t have a chance here! It would be road rage central! Look how close that motorbike on the right is to the taxi! If that were your BMW or Mercedes, would you not freak out?
I think it would be hilarious to begin a reality TV show of rush hour commuters swapping modes of transport and cities to see who survives the best and which people are truly the best drivers in the world. Hmmm…thoughts?