My First Travel Abroad: Vietnam
“This is my war. My Vietnam War. I think I can do it, I have to.” – These were my thoughts when I was aboard the plane to Saigon. Pale, nervous and no sleep at all, I was thinking of what the future lies ahead for me in a country I even have no idea about except for the horrifying war in the 70’s.
It was my first travel out of the country and actually my first plane ride too. I wasn’t even excited at that time. Just the thought of being away from my family and friends makes me dwell into melancholy. But then, I have no choice but to face all these fears and loneliness and experience the life of working in another country. After all, It was part of my bucketlist (work outside the Philippines), so why the hell not?
The year was 2011. I was hired by a Vietnamese company to teach SAP ABAP programming to their newly hired employees for 2 months (or so they say). While my colleagues are working in countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Australia, here I am, going to Vietnam.
The First Few Days
I arrived at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport around 1AM and I was greeted by a Vietnamese man with a blurry sign of my name in his hands. I moved closer to check if it really was my name and yes it is! It turns out that this Vietnamese guy is one of my students. He rode with me in a taxi to get to my Hotel without even uttering a single word. I told myself, what’s up with this guy? (On my last day in Vietnam, he confessed to me that it’s his first time to meet a foreigner so he is too shy to talk to me).
The morning after, I was introduced to my officemates and students. Some of them really had a hard time conversing in English so I thought this will be tough work for me. I just said to myself, enough of the excuses! Let’s get to work and finish this training in two months!
After work, the HR guys accompanied me to my home in Saigon, a flat type apartment rented out by the company. I was expecting a cozy apartment with decent furniture and all the necessary appliances I need to live but what I saw is the complete opposite. The apartment was a disaster! Things were all scattered, garbage everywhere and there was no water and electricity! Can you imagine that? Then I asked them, where will I sleep? They said, “Oh upstairs, you’ll sleep with another guy in a King size bed.” I was like, wtf? I will never, ever sleep besides a guy much more if it is a stranger in a King size bed! I don’t know what to react so I just told them I cannot stay here at the moment. Then I guess, they saw a sad look on my face and they decided to call a hotel for my temporary shelter and clean the mess in the flat. I was relieved.
I arrived safely at my hotel. The HR guys (actually, gals) accompanied me to my hotel with their motorbike. Yes, I am afraid to drive a motorbike (much more so in Vietnam for obvious reasons) so I was a passenger and rode at the back. A little embarrassing if you’ll see me as a motorbike passenger with a small lady driver in the Philippines, but not in Vietnam.
The hotel is good enough (around 250k VND a night, not bad) for a night’s stay though the door knob is a little loose, I didn’t think about it anymore as I just want to get past through that night.
Then it was dinner time. Afraid that it might be expensive to order food in the Hotel and being the cowboy that I am, I went out to look for food. A little stroll at the streets of Saigon (I was in District 9 by the way, very far from District 1), I found some vendors selling street food and rice meals. Because I was very hungry, without hesitation, I just pointed out to them what I like. I also bought this:
Up to now, I don’t know what that is. I guess it’s frog? I bought it for 10k VND which at that time I thought I was getting ripped off because of the ridiculous amount I was about to give lol. Due to language barrier, the vendor just picked the money from my hands and I was like, “Ok, I think I got ripped off”. Looking back, I was like the ‘Idiot Abroad’. The “frog” tasted like chicken though and it was ok :D.
It was really hard to adjust on the first few days or even on the first few months. You’ll miss your family and you’ll miss all the good times happening back at home. But you need to be strong and just hope for the best.
Besides being the trainer, I was also assigned to lead the ABAP team. It was my first time and it was no joke as I have to lead a team of 10 people. As I mentioned before, some of them have difficulty conversing and understanding English. I even saw some of them have a google translate page ready so they can translate what I’m saying. I think that’s the reason why they want me to speak slower.
My relationship with my students/subordinates has its own ups and downs. Some of them like me, some of them don’t. I guess that’s part of being a leader. You have to make the people around you better and you have to earn their respect. Since they are also newly grads, they feel they are still in school. They thought they are still listening to their teacher where it’s ok to play around and not listen.
It’s different with the Functional guys though. They were all friendly to me and they are very attentive when I once taught a specific course to them. I was very good friends with them, though after some weeks in Vietnam, I was also good friends with my own team.
Looking back, I think I’ve handled it fairly. I could’ve done more effort with the work and my relationship with my team. But overall, the environment in the office was very lively and fun. We even play counterstrike after lunch as a means of releasing stress on each other haha!
The Fun Part (Travels and bonding with the team)
It’s not all work there. The Vietnamese also has a laid back attitude on work like Filipinos. They even chip-in a certain amount of money for their team building every month (The more highly paid employees give more). I remember, they even held a welcome party for me! No one has ever done that in my life! Haha! That’s how great the people there are!
Every year before the Tet Holiday (Vietnamese New Year), they also have this annual company-wide gathering called Sum-Up. It is like a big team building where the company treats their employees to a vacation place nearby. It is also where the company relates to its employees the state and progress of the company as a whole. When I was there, we went to Vung Tau, a coastal place west of Ho Chi Minh City.
The company schedules some fun activities like tug-of-war, dance competition, cultural shows and the most important of all and what I love the most, eating and drinking. We ate authentic Vietnamese dishes, seafood and had lots (and I mean LOTS) of Sabeco and Heineken along the way. Almost all of us are wasted (and puking) but hey, it was so much fun!
The parties never end in Vietnam. From what I recall, every 2 weeks our team organizes a team building. As I mentioned before, every team member chips-in a certain amount of money for this team building. We went to many places and one of them is in Vuon Xoai (www.vuonxoai.vn) where I rode (and ate – I’m sorry) an ostrich.
The format of our team building is simple. Chip-in money, choose a nice place, bring delicious food and lots and lots of booze. I can’t remember how many Mot-Hai-Ba-Yos (Translated as 1… 2… 3… Yo! It’s their version of cheers in drinking) we cheered on the sounds of clinking beers. Of course, aside from drowning ourselves from beer, it was also a great time to try out different Vietnamese dishes. I had the best foodie time of my life when I was in Vietnam. I actually gained around 10lbs in my 3 months of stay there and it’s really hard not to pass up when the food that they’re passing is always great. What I’m also most impressed about the Vietnamese is their ability to stay thin and healthy. I mean they got all these delicious food and they still manage to maintain an ideal weight? That’s unfair! Lol. On my stay there, I seldom saw overweight people. I guess aside from the fact that the Vietnamese loves to exercise, their cuisine are mainly healthy. They always put lots of veggies and less oil (sometimes none). So why did I gain 10lbs? I just overate.
One of the main reasons why Vietnamese people stay thin and healthy is their love for their sport, Football. Football is the main sport of the Vietnamese people and wherever you go you’ll see people playing even in the remote streets of Vietnam. In our office, we have a football field where employees compete with each other after work. I didn’t play football back then but they gave me a uniform for free which is totally cool. They also have a basketball court where fortunately in these lands, I was a star since many of them don’t really play basketball. 😀
My teammates also toured me around District 1 as they see that I don’t go out of my flat at all. They always pick me up in my flat even though it is too far away from where they live. We went to the War Remnants Museum, the Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral and I was very much craving for Western Food, I suggested we eat Pizza. I was glad they agreed.
I hate wars, but at the same time I love the fact that they teach us great lessons. Lessons that I hope the human race will learn. As the Scorpion song goes… “We all live under the same sun, We all walk under the same moon… Then why, why can’t we live as one”.
There is a park besides Notre Dame Cathedral where we chat and ate authentic Vietnamese street foods. In one of our topics, I learned from them that they were only taught English in schools starting 5th grade. But times is different now as some schools teach Vietnamese children English as early as kindergarten.
While we’re on our way home from shopping TNF knock-offs, I accidentally found the park and the site where Thich Quang Duc performed his self-immolation as protest to the South Vietnamese government’s persecution of Buddhists.
It was really a humbling experience to be on the site where one of the most symbolic form of protest was done.
After 3 months of work in this beautiful country, it was time to say goodbye. It was really hard to bid goodbye to my friends whom I shared good memories with even in a short span of time. Much harder when I have to leave at a time I was already liking to stay more. I have still so many places to travel, food to eat and memories to cherish. But I’ve to step aside and surrender to reality.
I’ll always miss buying fresh banh mi in the morning from the nice middle aged lady near my flat. I’ll miss the laughter and crazy stuffs my teammates and I shared. I’ll miss my friends, the people who welcomed me in open arms and showed true Vietnamese hospitality.
Of course, that wasn’t my last visit in Vietnam as I went back to Saigon for a vacation last year (2014) and met one of my teammates. I’m still longing for more in this beautiful country. I’m sorry Vietnam that I judged you badly at first, but I have come to realize my mistakes. Please forgive a first timer Idiot abroad as he doesn’t know what’s he is missing. You are magnificent. You are beautiful. You will always have a special place in my heart… Vietnam.
Looking for a nice place to stay in Ho Chi Minh? Try Bich Duyen Hotel!
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