I’m not leaving. But I’ve been thinking about it. Not just now, but over the past 16 years, ever since I arrived in Vietnam.
I never meant to stay here. It started off with a one-month visa back during the time when you had to state your port of entry and exit when arriving in Vietnam. Our port of entry was Moc Bai on the Cambodian border, and our port of departure was supposed to be Lao Cai way up in the north, but we never got there.
The first night in Saigon we met a Vietnamese woman who taught English.
“You’re looking for work?” she said. We nodded. “Then why are you heading up north? There’s loads of work here. English teachers get paid well.”
She was right. There was loads of work. But it did take a bit of time to get the good pay that she talked about. That was something I managed to achieve by 2002. By this time, one month in Vietnam had turned into six months (enough time to earn money to keep travelling), into a year and then into a relationship with the woman who was to become both my business partner and my wife, never the best of combinations. Not our marriage as husband and wife, but the joining of hands in a business partnership. Somehow we’ve made it through our worst patches of working together — when they were bad, they were very bad. And among all this, I lost two wedding rings, fortunately not in unfavourable circumstances.
Yet all the time it was in my mind that living in Vietnam was and is temporary, though by the point we spent a day getting the pre-wedding marriage photos I knew that wherever I lived with my family, and whatever happened with my marriage, I would have a permanent connection with this country.
Along the way you meet all sorts of people. That’s the beauty of living overseas in a place where people turn up looking for opportunities — your circle of acquaintances undergoes exponential growth. Mine certainly has.
There are some interesting cats along the journey, the kind of people you could talk to for hours. Then there are the dull people, the bullshit artists, the no-hopers, the serial corporate workers, the dudes, the people who have reinvented themselves from the ground up, the men obsessed with Asian women, the plethora of financial advisors (the ones who cold-call need to be shot), the do-gooders and the English teachers — like I once was.
Of all these people, there are always the ones who hate where they came from and are determined never to go back. They have genuinely left home.
When I first got to Vietnam they were usually Brits or French. Neither would have a good word to say about their countries, although they still took advantage of the passport, the cheap international school system (the French) and the consular services of their embassy or consulate when in need. Their vitriol for the past and their enthusiasm for the present was their way of justifying either their self-imposed or externally imposed exile.
I could never quite grasp these feelings, as I never meant to leave. I’m from London, and while I have my moments, I still love the place. And that’s even after realising how strangely inefficient the financial centre of the world can be. Believe me, things in London can be very slow.
Then there were the Australians and the New Zealanders. The latter had a simple reason to leave their country of birth — it’s isolated, just so far away from everything. They wanted to be a part of the world, not just of the huge but remote space inhabited by New Zealand, their Pacific Island neighbours and that place next door, Australia.
Australians were different. At first they would talk about how wonderful Australia is, to which I would always have the thought, “Then why did you leave?” Recently they too have become filled with cynicism about home. No longer is it a paradise, the golden land at the end of a long, unforgiving journey to the other side of the world. While the Brits and the French are more positive these days — the economy has looked up — the Australians are negative.
When you’ve lived 16 years in a country you only planned to visit for a month, you start to wonder how all this happened. What decisions did I make that caused me to live here so long? How did I never quite find a way to leave?
There’s an odd parallel with that 1977 Eagles song, Hotel California.
Fifteen, 10 or even five years ago you would hear it played over the sound system at least once a night in pretty much every expat bar in Vietnam. It was blasted out so much that it became nauseating. But one line always stood out for me:
We are all just prisoners here, of our own device.
Once you get settled in Vietnam, it becomes very difficult to leave. Those who do leave are taking a huge step, especially if they’ve got a family in tow.
In my case, the settling-in came about because I never really planned — I had goals and dreams, but I never quite worked out ways to turn them into reality. So, one thing led to another and the next thing I knew I had a family and a business and a good lifestyle. It’s very difficult to leave behind. People such as myself, although an immigrant here, are not moving from poor country to rich. We come from rich countries in the first place, which means we have options. We can move to and live in virtually every country in the world. Yet leaving the ‘not-so-rich’ country is tough.
I did manage it at one point — I moved to Singapore. The idea was to get permanent residency (PR) and then take my wife and kids over. It didn’t work, so I ended up back in Vietnam. That was the first time I thought I was trapped, that I would never leave.
I remember hearing Hotel California yet again one night, a song that by then I despised. I resonated with that one line; Vietnam is addictive, but being here is definitely of our own device.
My own challenge now comes from the city that I grew up in, the place I once called home, and the place that still tears at my heartstrings and screws with my sensibilities. London. I now have the opportunity to move back and leave Vietnam.
Will I do that? Will I actually leave? Will I overcome my addiction?
The answer is no. At least, whatever decision I make, never entirely.
Vietnam is in my blood. It’s given me my family, my business, the majority of my adult life. How can I ever quit? What can I dislike about the place?
That’s the real pull. Once you live somewhere long enough, submerge yourself in its life, its culture, its language, its food, its own unique set of problems, you can never quite leave.
This is the dilemma my life has brought me to. I have two places I can never quite leave, Vietnam and the UK.
It’s like another scenario sung in that most irritating of songs, Hotel California.
“You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave!”