To Dana Filek-Gibson’s friends and relatives back home, life in Vietnam can seem like paradise. Why shatter the illusion?
Last month my grandparents, who are still afraid of the internet, wrote me a letter on what appears to be tissue paper. It was the usual update: blizzard-level snow, unchecked crime, the dangers of the Toronto transit system and the recent hijinks of a crack-smoking politician. Before you presume that my grandparents are cantankerous old people, you should know that at least half of these issues are currently receiving media coverage in Canada. When you factor in soaring gas prices, celebrities in rehab and the ongoing expansion of the Kardashian family, North American news is enough to break even the most fervent optimist’s faith in humanity.
Ask those same folks about Vietnam, however, and the response is considerably different. Of course, this country is no stranger to outrageous news — hand-fishing for catfish on the flooded streets of Saigon comes to mind — but tell that to the folks at home and they’ll hear none of it. In fact, the vast majority of my North American relatives endorse life in Southeast Asia to an impressive degree. “The sun!” they say. “The food! The motorbikes!” Every time we speak, I’m reminded that if they lived in Vietnam, they would have banh mi and iced coffee every day. They would wake up to the gentle thrum of motorbikes and the cries of women on bicycles selling sweet corn. They would walk the streets of this bustling city, inspired by its frenetic charm.
Flattering as they may be, my brain can’t help but paint over these idyllic portraits with the drab, weather-worn shellac of reality. Don’t get me wrong, there are many things to appreciate about Saigon. The sun is nice, when experienced between the months of November and February, or from an air-conditioned room. You can’t turn around in this city without discovering at least eight delicious and affordable food stalls, and the organised chaos that envelops every neighbourhood from here to Thu Duc means that every day is, at the very least, an adventure.
Even so, expats understand that our lives in Vietnam are no better or worse than the lives of people in other places. Yes, there are nights when the bia hoi stays open late just for you. There are also nights when the streets run thick with tepid, disease-laden canal water. And catfish.
But I guess that is no reason to shatter the myth back home that the grass is greener here. In the ongoing life-competition that is Facebook, residing in Southeast Asia can be a huge leg-up. All it takes is a change of scenery and suddenly your existence becomes a 24-hour version of the Travel Channel. Walking to the corner store assumes the status of an exotic, exhilarating cultural journey in search of — gasp— Diet Coke! You can’t mention the word “motorbike” without someone asking if you’ve seen that episode of Top Gear. Even in a fit of frustration, I complain about being overcharged by a xe om driver and my parents chuckle, asking for the billionth time how much VND 30,000 is in “their money”.
When I am wracked with uncertainty and questioning my life choices, it is comforting to know that there are people out there who think an Instagram of my breakfast is inspirational. Perhaps the decisions I have made were not in vain and life here is the sunny, blissful adventure described on the internet. For this reason, I encourage you to keep taking pictures from your balcony. Post that photo essay you made out of last week’s four-course lunch. Toss in the occasional rant just for variety, but remember that — at least in the virtual world — your life is a glamourous and awe-inspiring adventure, and by keeping it that way you open the door to a plethora of unwarranted support and encouragement. All you have to do is call out into the vast cyber-chasm of the internet and, lo and behold, you shall receive an uplifting response, probably with emoticons.