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Vulnerable in Vietnam: Inside An Expat’s Diary

I realized that I’d become accustomed to driving a motorbike in Vietnam once I started daydreaming.

As an expat, there’s a certain amount of diligence required to get used to a place, but the signs of acclimatization are often small. Some are met with immediate triumph, like a taxi driver understanding your pronunciation of your address in Vietnamese on the first try. Others come to full fruition only later, as in a successful trip to the bathroom a few hours after trying a new local dish (Note: Expats talk about bowel movements as much as old people do…or maybe that’s just my friends.).

I guess you don’t need this diligence. Expats can always avoid trying to get used to a place. Many foreigners in my city don’t know a lick of Vietnamese and eat pizza and burgers for most meals. They are clear — perhaps deliberate — outsiders.

Or, expats can become fully immersed, committing to language lessons, solely eating local street food, and living in a traditional Vietnamese house. These are often long-term expats. They are near-insiders.

inside out vietnam expat vietnam

Most expats I know (myself included) exist somewhere in between.

We eat pho for lunch and go to the Spanish tapas bar for dinner. We learn basic, functional Vietnamese — though our pronunciation is often lacking. We plan to be here for a year or two or four (Who knows?). We’re insider outsiders, and, appropriately, the vulnerability of this identity can make you feel like you’re walking around inside out, too.

My complexion is fair, and I have long light-ish hair, blue eyes, and freckled arms. I don’t blend in by default.

But when I’m on my bike — complete with helmet, sunglasses, a facemask, and long-sleeves — I’m in disguise. A temporary insider.

[Tweet “”Most expats I know (myself included) exist somewhere in between.””]

I’m not the first foreigner to marvel at Vietnam’s motorbike culture. Anthony Bourdain himself is a fan,
and he waxes poetic:

“One of the great joys of life is riding a scooter through Vietnam, to be part of this mysterious, thrilling, beautiful choreography. Thousands upon thousands of people — families, friends, lovers — each an individual story glimpsed for a second or two in passing, sliding alongside, pouring like a torrent through the city. A flowing, gorgeous thing.”

Sounds beautiful. The experience itself can be lyrical, yes. It can also be far more prosaic.

Learning to drive a motorbike back in August 2015. (I'm practicing on my boyfriend's bike on empty streets.)

Learning to drive a motorbike back in August 2015. (I’m practicing on my boyfriend’s bike on empty streets.)

It’s important to remain ever-present while driving here because the rules of the road — or lack thereof — make any journey far from predictable.

Cars frequently move into oncoming traffic to pass other cars, or they pass on the right, regardless of traffic. Slowing down is apparently not a viable option. And on a motorbike, you don’t want to play a game of chicken with a car.

Intersections are a free-for-all. Even if you’re on the main road going straight and someone is turning onto that road, right or left, it doesn’t matter. If they get there first they will go. And, most inexplicably to me, motorbike drivers often move to the far right lane to turn left.

I’ve begun to read body language. That’s one benefit of sharing the road with motorbikes — motorbike drivers are fully visible, unlike car drivers, enclosed within their vehicles.

A peek over the left shoulder by someone in front of me often means that the driver is considering turning left, regardless of the status of his/her turn signal. On routes that I take frequently, I know which intersections to be particularly cautious with, slowing down or looking up the road for potential merging traffic as visibility allows.

This sounds like a lot to keep in mind, and it is. But I still manage to daydream.

Back in the States, I got some of my best thinking done in the car.

It’s one of those activities that takes up just enough concentration to free the appropriate percentage of the brain for constructive thought. When I’m doing nothing, lying on the couch or in bed trying to clear my thoughts, there are often too many layers to sift through, voices and trains of thought competing like dorm room neighbors with different musical tastes.

This is common enough, right? It’s why people like to knit or garden or run or, more recently, invest in adult coloring books.

inside out vietnam expat motorbike 3

I drove from Da Nang to Hoi An by myself for the first time this morning, and was refreshed by the mental reset.

I know the way, having been a motorbike passenger or driven a buddy here quite a few times. It’s basically two roads, so there isn’t much to remember. I mean, I don’t know the names of these roads, but I know where I’m going.

The sun is intense. I got a tank top tan line from a 7-minute-each-way trip to and from the basketball court last weekend. Does sweaty skin attract the sun even more? An interesting thought to Google at a later point.

I’ve begun to take up the habit of covering up while driving around, as Vietnamese women do. I did forget to wear sunscreen on my hands on this trip though, and am dreaming of gloves. I put my left hand in my lap and experiment with accelerating underhand with my right hand.

(According to my weather app, it’s 100° F right now, but feels like 117. What Michigander dreams of gloves in that weather?)

When I arrived last August, I thought I would never get used to this heat, but I have. I sweat, yes, pretty much all the time, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. At least not as much. I still drink copious amounts of water, and I seek out the shade and good airflow. It’s just part of life now.

inside out vietnam expat motorbike 2

Near Marble Mountain, the traffic lightens up.

It’s about 50/50 motorbikes and vehicles, the latter half split between taxis and big trucks.

Once I get near the golf courses on the beach road, I pass a man who is pulling three giant plastic barrels behind his motorbike. A brownish liquid sloshes out the top of one when he hits bumps. I give him a wide berth and can’t help but chuckle into my face mask as I notice his straight face. What the hell is that guy doing? What is that liquid, and where is he taking it? It’s just another day for him.

Not far past that, single-story, countryside homes line the main road. This is the bit where you have to be careful of kids on bicycles and motorbikes merging onto the road directly off the sidewalk.

[Tweet “”The vulnerability of this identity can make you feel like you’re walking around inside out, too.””]

I think about how there really isn’t that much roadkill in Vietnam. Well, that’s not entirely true. There is roadkill here, but it’s often rats, not deer or raccoons.
What would I do if a deer crossed in front of me on my motorbike? I wonder.

At this part of the road, because traffic is lighter, the drive can drag. You notice your fellow drivers, and your mind wanders (mine is, clearly).

I pass a motorbike driven by a man with a woman on the back. She’s wearing a lightweight jacket to protect her from the sun. It has a pattern with pictures of something and the word “sport” written underneath each image.

Half a mile later, they pass me again. Then I pass them.

Hoi An.

Hoi An.

Some people entertain themselves in Vietnam by taking road trips. I think that’s cool, but I also wonder about the environmental impact of frequent pointless travels.

I drive by a house where someone is burning their trash. I send out a wish that they don’t have any styrofoam to toss into the flames.

Turning into Hoi An, there are more white people, many on bicycles or on foot. I give them a wide berth if they’re on motorbikes, stereotyping their driving skills as I know others do to me.

I drive through rice paddies and look at the water buffalo gathered there. I consider stopping to take a picture, but think about how touristy that is. It’s the iconic image of Vietnam, trite but beautiful nonetheless. I think about how my perspective varies from the other white people I pass, obviously tourists, sweaty, not wearing hats, holding giant plastic water bottles.

Am I judging them?

There is a Facebook group for expats in Da Nang and Hoi An that has over 7,500 members. Newcomers are often ridiculed or subjected to their posts being hijacked by veteran expats who have too much time on their hands and find themselves funny with their unhelpful inside jokes. I often feel sorry for people who post on that page and are hoping for something useful in response. But I don’t do anything about it because I know how trolls can be.

I get into Hoi An and the traffic picks up a bit.

A photo by Peter Hershey.

An older man is driving with a boy on the back of his bike. I’d guess he’s 10 or so. I want to pass them, but he’s in the middle of the lane, and this is a two-lane road. I consider passing on the right, then check my rear view mirror and notice there are no cars behind me, so I pass on the left.

As I come even with him, he shoots snot out of his nose in a move I know as a “farmer’s blow,” to the right, straight onto the road. He doesn’t slow down.

I’m glad I chose to pass on the left.

I find my way to the place where I park my motorbike in Hoi An, the place where a friend parked hers when I rode with her, and that I always use now. $0.50 for the day. I take off my disguise and the guy who collects the money, noting my blue eyes, uses his fingers to assist in his explanation of the fee.

I walk into one of the nearby alleys, feeling the full force of the day’s heat without the wind provided by my motorbike’s speed. I’m still immersed in some lingering thought from the solo drive when it dawns on me that, unlike the daydreaming I’d do while driving in America — when I’d think about what I needed to buy at the grocery store or if I’d paid the cable bill yet — the daydreaming I did on today’s trip wasn’t about the future or what I was planning to do next. It was about things around me, my current state, my malleable insider outsider identity.

As cheesy as it may sound, I realize that this experience of living overseas has changed me.

Maybe you’ve had a moment like this, too, during your travels.

inside out vietnam expat rosies cafe

Rosie’s Cafe.

The vulnerability of living “inside out” has taught me how to be fully present in a way no amount of yoga or meditation or alcohol consumption ever has. I can handle both sides of this dichotomy simultaneously. I’ve learned that my roots aren’t tied to a place; rather, that I can and should be grounded in myself, wherever I go.

Later, I sit in a new favorite cafe, Rosie’s, where the young Vietnamese women who run it speak English and play Western music to complement their delicious cold brew coffee.

They tell me I look pretty today, and ask me how I got here. When I tell them, they warn me to be careful on my motorbike.

I assure them that I will.

I’ve grown, inwardly, enough to take things as they come — no matter who got to the intersection first.

[Tweet “”As cheesy as it may sound, I realize that this experience of living overseas has changed me.””]

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Vulnerable in Vietnam: Inside An Expat's Diary | WanderfulWhat’s your experience been acclimating to a new place while traveling? Share in the comments!

Sarah Aldrich
Writer, editor, marketer, PR professional, and literacy advocate with international awareness. An open-minded word person in pursuit of learning and new experiences. I quit a job I enjoyed at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and left my family, friends, and beloved dog to join my boyfriend in moving across the world, in search of adventure and new experiences. I arrived in Da Nang in August 2015.

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    1. Visit my friend Duc Tran, he has restaurants in Hoi An and one in Da Nang. He graduated as a c.e. from Texas A &M University and the rest is an adventure.

      1. Hi Blair,

        I’m lucky enough to call Duc a friend, too, and actually just enjoyed lunch at his beautiful home yesterday! I manage the Facebook pages for his restaurants. It’s not a bad gig 🙂

    2. Great writing. And yes visit Duc in Hoi an at Mango mango. He s got stories to tell….

      1. Hi Cyril! Thanks for the comment, and yes, Duc has some great stories. He’s currently working on a renovation at, to be reopened in mid-September, that you’ll have to check out next time you’re in Hoi An.

    3. Love your article, however I do take minor umbrage at the following, “Newcomers are often ridiculed or subjected to their posts being hijacked by veteran expats who have too much time on their hands and find themselves funny with their unhelpful inside jokes.”
      Keep in mind, “Half the fun of the travel is the esthetic of lostness.” – Ray Bradbury
      The idea behind hijacking as you refer to it is not to ridicule more recent arrivals as much as it is to encourage them to interact more with the environment. Many folks that have lived here for a number of years found that the experiences they encountered while trying to find “the best whatever” in the area is the real reward. The website you refer to is not for tourist, who do have a limited amount of time. The local websites are for people who are residing in the area for either a short or longer period. And finally many people who have lived here for some time, are probably not here by accident. They probably love the people and the culture and they have decided to live here because they grew exhausted with wests self-centered view of the world. This is often displayed with a tendency to take oneself way too seriously. If you take yourself too seriously here you will probably get very frustrated. Which is demonstrated by taking offense when someone fucks around with you by giving a ridicules answer to a sincere question. A good number of the people who receive those responses will be giving similar responses to other newbies within a short time.
      Life is good and living here is the good life.

      1. Thanks for the comment, Larry. While I understand the mindset behind encouraging people to discover a place on their own, we may have to agree to disagree that hijacking threads on an online forum is a good way to accomplish that. To use another “university” analogy, it’s like seniors making fun of the freshmen on campus who have to whip out their campus maps or ask for directions on their way to a new class. Laughing in their faces is really mocking their vulnerability, no? And so much of face-to-face conversation (especially sarcasm) is easily lost in digital conversation. There’s an element of laziness to some of the questions posed in the expats Facebook group from time-to-time, yes, but ridicule doesn’t help anyone.

        However, I agree that one of the benefits of living abroad, and particularly in Vietnam, is learning not to take oneself too seriously. That’s part of what I’ve discovered in my time here, and something that’s hopefully reflected in the above post.

        Life is good. Cheers!

    4. It’s interesting I should stumble onto this particular post of yours today. Last night I had discussed on my podcast (I live in the Philippines, 4 years now).. how being and expat over time changes us. It’s not that ‘back home’ changed any.. we ourselves see life differently after spending so much time in another culture.

      To me, that’s a growing thing, not a bad thing at all. Getting a larger picture on life is a big part of travel. I’m looking forward to an indefinite stay in Vietnam beginning first-quarter of 2017. I may visit Cambodia and Thailand for a visa-run.. but my main interest is in Vietnam, checking out both the cities and provinces.

      1. Sorry I’m seeing your comment late, Reekay! I absolutely agree with you that the changes we experience in ourselves as expats is part of our personal growth. Sometimes I worry about not being able to relate to people back home–non-expats–but then I remind myself to stop being such a worry wart. Not having this experience would have been a far bigger loss than whatever “relatability” I may have lost.

        Let me know if you make it to Da Nang and perhaps we can meet up!

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