There were several things that we expected to happen when we arrived in Vietnam. We expected to be met with sweltering heat the second we stepped off the plane, we expected to have our taste buds explored with an explosion of flavors, we expected the crystal blue sky and the shimmering sea to form the most beautiful, inviting horizon we had ever seen. What we were really greeted with was crippling food poisoning, gray drizzly skies and empty sad streets. We weren’t naive, we knew we were moving to a developing country and that we would need to get used to a new way of life, but this was not the Vietnam we had been pining over for so long.
From the relative comfort of our home in Portland, Oregon, we had trawled through job adverts and after countless cups of coffee and mountains of Mexican food we had decided on starting our next chapter in Da Nang, Vietnam. We knew what we wanted in a new home more than anything; to be by the ocean. For those who don’t know; that is Da Nang, an increasingly large city stretching along the coast of Central Vietnam. For years it has been overshadowed by Hoi An its charming and more historic neighbor; however the sleeping giant is waking; it seems to be getting more popular with tourists, businesses and expats every month. A perfect time to move, to experience this authentic city before it becomes the Ho Chi Minh City of Central Vietnam.
We had many skype interviews and finally we accepted a job at the same school in Da Nang. Perfect! We signed a contract and our tickets were booked. Now we simply just had to send our passports to San Francisco to get our visa and we would be on our way. One small problem… Alana got a call from the Vietnamese consulate saying they received our applications in the mail but the package had been opened and the passports were missing. 6 days before we were moving to Vietnam and we didn’t have passports. 6 DAYS. Alana was probably on the phone for 5 hours straight after that trying to get to the bottom of what had happened. We had sent our passports via fed ex to San Francisco. Fed Ex was quick to shift the blame on the Vietnamese embassy. “Oh they must have lost them” “anything could have happened in the mail room”. Many many calls were made and at that point Alana had cancelled her passport, obviously assuming it had been stolen. Finally after being on hold for many hours and talking to about 20 employees all trying to shift the blame someone admitted the passport had “fallen out” in Nashville but they found them. Can you please tell us how 2 passports just fall out of a package and no one notices? So it is now just days before we are leaving for Vietnam and we have nothing. I can’t get on a plane to the nearest British embassy because I don’t have a passport. San Francisco was the nearest city with a Vietnamese and British embassy so we had to make the 11 hour drive south to get a visa. Not exactly how we wanted to spend our last few days in America! Alana had to get an entirely new passport then we had to run to the Vietnamese consulate and finally get our visa. Funny enough, Alana met a women getting a new passport also because hers “fell out” in Fed Ex’s care. If you take one message away from this post it is that you should always avoid sending your passport in the mail, we were never offered any compensation, explanation of an apology. After further research we found out that we could have sent a copy of our passports to the embassy for the visa, always call and check before!
We couldn’t find a wealth of information online about our new home, but 2 words kept cropping up. Authentic and Tet. Tet is the celebration of the Vietnamese lunar New Year, its timing coinciding with the Chinese New Year, with celebrations apparently lasting a whole week, and hotels being impossible to book, we were rubbing our hands in excitement. We should have taken notice of the other word. Authentic. Tet is more than anything, a family holiday, a time for families to gather, for people to return home from wherever they are and to enjoy each others company. People stay in, cook homemade food and for a few days shut out the world. This was the scene that greeted us when we arrived in Da Nang.
All of our assumptions were wrong, there weren’t any street parties, bars weren’t staying open all night, this wasn’t going to be anything like the full moon type party we had envisioned. It was impossible to get a room at a hotel, not because they were all booked up, but because the owners had shut them down to go home. “Is this really what our new home is like?”
“No, no of course not, the sun just needs to come out and then everything will change”, with this thought in our heads (that neither of us really believed) we set out to explore our new city and especially the beach that had drawn us there. That stroll to the beach was a sobering experience, derelict and abandoned buildings lined the roads. As we walked down an empty quiet street, past a dead kitten in the misty rain we looked at each other and asked if we had made a huge mistake(hello darkness my old friend). We had travelled here for blue skys and blue water; the grey scene that greeted us at My Khe beach made me feel like we had been tricked.
Admittedly we stayed in our room most evenings during Tet looking up flights and researching a new place to move.
Nevertheless, we had spent too much time and money in getting here to give up that easily, we had a job, at least that was something! Next we set about finding a place to live. We assumed this was going to be a great challenge during Tet but our real estate agent was ready to meet us and had many places available. After 2 days of looking at apartments next to half finished building sites, we wearily followed our real estate agent so a house a little out of our price range. When we first saw the house we assumed that there must be 2 apartments inside, there was no way that the money that he was asking for could get us this place. Yes it’s old and needed some TLC but to be a minute from the beach, to have a garden and live in a big pink house… We could never get a house like this in the UK or US for this price. He was asking for $450 dollars. Alana and I have…different..ideas of budgeting. She wanted to spend no more than $300 a month whereas I thought for only a bit more we could have a garden and garage and fish pond! How could we say no? We played it cool and said we would think about it but the rest of our conversations that day all revolved around our life in the pink house. Through a combination of negotiating and the fact that our landlord wanted to get the deal done before he went home for Tet, we were able to get the price down to something we could afford. Then came the sucker punch, it is standard practice in Vietnam when renting a place to pay one months rent as a deposit, and three months rent up front. Ouch. The pain of giving up that much money all in one go was made worse by the fact that you can only take out 90 dollars per ATM transaction here – and we all love those foreign transaction fees. Still after handing over an envelope of money we had our keys! We had a house! In Vietnam!! That morning we sat on our balcony and actually watched the sun come out from behind the clouds, we heard the tell tale sounds of engines and horns from the countless number of motorbikes here. Tet was winding down, people were emerging, restaurants were opening. We looked at each other and smiled, half with happiness, half in relief. Things actually were looking up, it was time to get a bike and hop into the madness, it was time for our adventure to begin!