When time is up for expatriates in Vietnam, they usually leave with mixed emotions and life-long memories.
”There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit’. It begins with the vision to recognise when a job, a life stage or a relationship is over and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out.” – Pulitzer Prize winning American columnist Ellen Goodman
Leaving somewhere, or someone, is never an easy thing to do. It also does not necessarily get any easier the more frequently you do it. The very nature of an expatriate community means that the people within that group are more familiar with packing up their lives and saying goodbye to friends, family and the countries they are leaving behind.
There are many wonderful aspects to living in Vietnam, from the people to the food and the pretty reasonable cost of living. However, most expats will move on from here at some stage, and each will have their own reasons for taking the decision and will carry with them a host of thoughts and emotions surrounding that choice.
Making the move
One person who knows a thing or two about the process of leaving is the country manager for relocation outfit Crown, Jamie Rossall. He oversees hundreds of moves, mostly out of Vietnam, each year.
He says the business has its cycles, with May, June and July being the peak times. This is closely related to families with children timing their moves to the end and beginning of the school year. There is also a slight jump in December and January for those trying to catch the start of the southern hemisphere school year.
Some of the main reasons people relocate, from Rossall’s experience, are a job transfer or promotion, the cost of raising children (particularly for education), divorce or death, and those that simply feel it is time to go or they never really settled in the country.
The process of moving can also take quite an emotional toll. “It is quite a stressful process, particularly if there are children involved,” Rossall says. “Closing up the house and getting set up at the other end.”
The key in his work, he says, is to understand the reasons why people are leaving so his organisation can offer the services people need. This can include packing and transporting belongings, finding accommodation, schools and even intercultural training.
“It’s really important to empathise, and sometimes you can feel part counsellor. You have to take people by the hand and lead them through it,” he says.
The cost of an education in an international school can be staggering, with some of the top-tier institutions’ fees reaching $25,000 a year for the final years of high school. Even at the other end of the scale, international kindergartens and pre-schools are out of reach for many.
Australian woman Allyson Keane left with her young daughter Baillee in 2011, after more than eight years in the country. She says education played a major role in her decision.
“Oh it was definitely one of the main deciding factors. I wish there had been a more affordable option available,” Keane says. “But I had ambitions to study again too, so when we got back to Brisbane, Baillee did six months at an Aussie kindergarten before starting primary school, and I went back to full-time study to do a second Master’s degree.”
English teachers Vi Phan and Michael Kleibscheidel have been in Saigon for four years, but are preparing to head back to the United States to begin a family. They have discussed having a child in Vietnam, but for Phan having the support of her parents is important to her.
“Having someone that you trust and loves you and knows what to do is such a huge help and so reassuring,” she says.
While excitedly preparing for their new life, they are still leaving Vietnam with mixed emotions. “It’s really bittersweet,” says Phan. “I’m glad to go home and start a family but saying goodbye to our life here is going to be difficult because life here is like a playground.
“We’ve gained a lot of friends and lost a lot of friends. It’s a hard life with that here. You get really attached to people and you always have to say goodbye,” she says.
Kleibscheidel also admits to giving a lot of thought to the choice they are making. “If we made a pros and cons list, the reasons to stay would be a lot longer than the reasons to go home. But family is more important,” he says.
In through the out door
Irish expat Chris Connaughton landed in Ho Chi Minh City in November 2010, and was joined a few months later by his American girlfriend, Aimee Enders. Both well-qualified teachers, they set about finding work and soon settled into the rhythms of Saigon, made friends and explored the city.
However, as their first year in Saigon drew to a close, Enders and Connaughton had made a few decisions about the future and settled on South America as their next destination.
“The last few months we were very, very bittersweet about Vietnam, thinking ‘Oh, I’m going to miss that, I’m going to miss that’,” Connaughton says. Their original departure date was in December 2011, which then became April the following year. By July, they’d finally gathered everything together and set off for a new adventure in Argentina.
But while Buenos Aires turned out to be a beautiful city, working conditions in the new country left a lot to be desired. “We knew that the standard of living was going to be drastically different,” says Connaughton. “But we’d both lived that way before so felt we’d be used to it.”
The long hours, however, and tedious trips back and forth across town to meet different clients at different locations soon took a toll on the pair’s enthusiasm for South America. “We were out of the house a good 10 to 12 hours a day and only managing to teach three or four,” Enders says.
In the end, it took about a month for the pair to realise that a full year in Buenos Aires was not going to happen.
“[We] called back our jobs in Saigon and asked if we could come home,” Enders says. “Even my visa was still valid, so it was just the easiest choice.”
Upon their return to Vietnam in November 2012, setting up again was a breeze. Their work permits were still valid and jobs were waiting as were a few close friends who were quick to say ‘I told you so’.
However, as much as they have enjoyed their second stint in Vietnam, the pair now plans to head to Barcelona this month where Enders will begin a Masters program in Linguistics. “We’re happy to be back,” she says. “But at the same time it’s like we’ve already mentally transitioned.”
Much like their last goodbye, the same nostalgia is there. Both have appreciated the perspective this country has given them but are ready to move on to new adventures.
“It’s bittersweet knowing that we’re leaving,” Enders says. “Going back to school is going to be a big challenge.” Though being a student means the next few years are spoken for, neither she nor Connaughton know what the future will hold after Barcelona. One thing, however, is for certain: “We’re not allowed to say we’re not coming back,” Enders says.
Your time is up
Sometimes the clock just runs out for people. Andrea Berg came to Vietnam from the USA via a teaching stint in Korea. Though she lingered six months beyond her original plans for a year-long stay, she knew it would not be forever.
“I loved my time in Vietnam, but after I’d been there for awhile one of the major things was I felt disconnected with home,” she says. “I was missing out on things like weddings and important family events. I wanted to be closer to those things and it was hard being so far away.
“Then I also just kind of felt that sometimes, especially the expat lifestyle, it’s a little like neverland-esque and I felt like I wasn’t really laying down serious long-term roots. Friends would leave and I felt like I was never making a permanent life there. I felt like more of a permanent lifestyle where it wasn’t always changing.”
Now living in San Francisco, she says she does miss friends, the food and certainly the cost of living in Vietnam. “I would 100 percent come back for vacation but I don’t think I would ever live in Vietnam again. I don’t think for me it was the right lifestyle,” Berg says.
‘Life is a-moving on’, Arthur Miller wrote in his play Death of a Salesman. How we handle that move, be it graceful or otherwise, is up to each individual. What can safely be said, though, is that each person heading for the exit door out of Vietnam will always have a special connection to, and indelible memories of, this place.
by Brett Davis