Riding a Belorussian motorbike, teaching English, avoiding expats, enjoying the crazy street life in Hanoi…Luke Dale-Harris describes his life while working in Vietnam.
When I was 22 – not very long ago – I joined an odd, small but growing wave of migration. It involved a few thousand people a lot like me: young, mostly middle class Brits who had recently graduated from university to find ourselves in the middle of a recession, with no job, few prospects and little to go on but a degree in something arty, a head full of modernist literature and a strong sense of entitlement. So, on the back of a few pub conversations, I moved to Vietnam.
I’d like to write that my reasons for heading east were more adventurous, that I had dreamt of visiting the old, exotic and troubled nation ever since I read ‘The Quiet American’ as a teenager. That I sat on the airplane, dreaming of a life of beautiful women, covert conversations in dark rooms with political dissidents and opium fuelled visions. But that would be bollocks. I went for the money.
On paper it makes little sense. Just 50 years ago, Vietnam was coming out of a long and gruesome war against America, having lost millions defending their country against the western imperialism that had dogged them for centuries. Now, the country is one of the five remaining communist nations in the world. Hammers and sickles symbols hang on almost every street, often rimmed in neon. Billboards display proud looking caricatures of Vietnamese labourers – father, mother and children all working together. Yet if you are literate, native English and own a passport, there are few easier places to get a well-paid job in the world.
In the first few weeks after I arrived in Hanoi (the countries northern capital), I hung out in expat bars, meeting people who – just like me – had come to Vietnam with few qualifications and great expectations. There was the chippy who’d landed himself a job managing an architecture firm. There was the utterly unqualified but well-dressed white guy who had found work attending high profile business meetings, getting $50 an hour to sit quietly at the head of the table while men in suits discussed finance in a language he didn’t understand (they think I’m American. Just by being there I lend the company credibility’ he told me, smugly). Then there was the legion of English teachers;
Brits who, through huge perseverance, had mastered the English language and were now receiving $25 an hour for reading out of a textbook. I became one of these.
Teaching English in Vietnam leaves you bottom of the foreigners social ladder. Above you is a whole world of aid workers, businessmen, diplomats and more aid workers, all luxuriating in the conviction that they are doing the world a service just by being there, referring to themselves as expats while ignoring the fact that they, too, are economic migrants. But being and English teacher does mean that you can live remarkably well off about 8 hours work a week. With this out the way, you have $200 in your pocket and 6 days a week to explore the amazingly beautiful country that is Vietnam.
The first thing I did was buy a motorbike – that seemed to be the done thing. So, after 2 hours of looking, and against the better judgement of the 3 mechanics I spoke to, I bought a Minsk. The Minsk is an old soviet bike, imported into Vietnam by the millions from Belarus in the 1980’s, in an attempt to modernize the agricultural sector. The Vietnamese call it old buffalo as it is supposedly the animals equal in strength. It is loud, smelly, slow and an absolute nightmare to run. But it looks cool as hell and it’s a lot of fun to ride. These were the most important things.
Over the course of 8 months I spent my time zooming around the countryside, soaking in a landscape unlike any I had ever seen. The greens were greener (literally), the mountains more jagged, the seas bluer than anything in Europe. The chaos of Hanoi’s streets also suited me – I liked the random logic that governed the city, how on each street it manifested in different ways. One street would serve only soups and sell only baskets; turn the corner and all you’ve got is shoes and dried fish.
But, slowly, a kind of inertia began to set in. Life was too easy (yes – poor me.) I felt like a memsaab – a colonialist wife in 19th century India – living a life of luxury and leisure off the back of a global political system that had been rigged decidedly in my favour. It feels ridiculous to say now, but I was bored.
So, given my boundless amounts of free time, I decided to learn how to do something, properly this time. I chose writing, partly it was all I was really qualified for and partly because my mum had always said she enjoyed my emails (which maybe I took a little too literally, in retrospect). I wanted to be an investigative journalist and Vietnam was the perfect place to do this. An authoritarian, communist government with a cutthroat capitalist agenda was busy selling off anything and everything to the highest bidder. All too often, these were western companies, masquerading under a ‘development’ banner. The country was knee deep in muck to rake.
When I left, 14 months after arriving, I had saved next to no money and proved, without doubt, that I make a terrible teacher. But I had learnt a little of journalism, enough to stutter my way towards something resembling a career a few years later. More importantly, I had a lot of fun, learnt what it is like to try and learn a language, and realized, conclusively, that England is not all it’s cracked up to be. What more could you ask from a year on earth?
Luke Dale Harris currently lives in Transylvania (Cluj Napoca) and makes his living as a freelance journalist. Photo taken by Luke.