Deciding to live on the other side of the world for four months with 17 strangers is a big leap. There’s a lot of preparation beforehand to get you ready for it. However, you can never really 100% plan for something like this. I thought I had done everything right, but once I landed in Vietnam, I was sorely reminded that I had no idea what I was doing or getting myself into. After the 27-hour excruciating journey there, 22 hours of that being squeezed into a metal tube, you’re just happy to be on the ground. The visa line was actually fairly short in Vietnam and I had no issues whatsoever getting into the country. I was happy for that. I paid extra to have my actual visa sent through FedEx to me so I didn’t have to get it on arrival at the airport. Yeah, it cost me more money, but it was worth my sanity. So I went right through with only two people in front of me, down to grab my bags, and I was on my way to my new apartment in Hanoi!
As soon as I arrived at the apartment, I was greeted by the friendly staff who was still there waiting for my arrival at midnight. All I wanted to do was go to bed and sleep since I could not at all on my three connecting flights from Florida. I was actually surprised at how cute the place was. I honestly had no expectations. I partly thought I might be sleeping under a mosquito net in a hut lol. However, I soon realized that would have come in handy as my apartment was swarming with mosquitoes. Great, I’m going to die of Malaria before I even unpack my suitcase. That was the one vaccine I did not get before leaving. But I did become very proficient in killing those little buggers. Finally, after unpacking and getting the bug population down, I was able to sleep. I had a queen-size bed in my little efficiency as well as a kitchen, full fridge, bathroom, and washer and dryer. I highly recommend this place. It’s called 22 Residences. I did have a small balcony but no view. https://www.22hanoi.com/
The next day as I awoke in Vietnam, excited to take on the day and meet my new travel family, I realized my T-Mobile iPhone only worked in the apartment when it was connected to Wi-Fi. Well that’s not super helpful as I’m trying to navigate these foreign streets, jam-packed with motorbikes and no sidewalks. I mapped out where I needed to go to find our workspace that we were all meeting for that afternoon. I thought I had it figured out, but once you leave you’re basically walking blindly. Not to mention it started pouring rain when I was getting ready to leave, so yeah, you are definitely blind now. So I put a message out on Slack, the service that we all use to communicate during our trip, to see if anyone wanted to walk to the workspace together. Thankfully, my flat mate Jeff said he would, so together we navigated the wet, crowded streets of Hanoi to find the building.
After meeting all the other remotes and chatting for a bit, we were off to lunch with the group. Thank goodness because I was starving! I hadn’t eaten anything except the snacks I had brought on the plane ride for the last 24 hours. My debit cards that I thought would work here did not. The one I was planning on getting cash with kept getting denied at the ATM. So now I’m phone-less and cashless. Let me tell you that is the worst feeling to have when you are out of your element. I felt naked in a cloud of smog.
We go to lunch, and I have no cash to pay. Everyone is paying in a large group so I can’t use a card at the restaurant. You can normally use a card at a big restaurant, but not at the street food vendors. Which honestly I was too scared to eat at anyway. I had no idea what the food was because I don’t understand Vietnamese. So the first week we had lots of lunches and dinners planned with our group and our program leaders who live in Hanoi. So that was awesome. You just show up at the office and they take you to the place and order the food for you. If this wasn’t set up, I probably would not have eaten the first week. Thanks, Cam & Trang! Great weight loss program though. I would call the diet, “Too scared and cashless to eat.” I was able to borrow dong, the local currency, from other fellow remotes to get me by until I could get cash. Helping out your fellow nomads is essential because you never know when you’re going to need that help in return.
I did find a grocery store in the bottom of our office building which I could use my card at. So that was a bonus. I could buy food there. If I could figure out and read the labels of what I was buying. Thankfully, I had visited Japan 20 years previously, so I did recognize some of the packages. Although I couldn’t read it, I at least knew what kind of food was inside.
Food options somewhat figured out, score! Now I can eat more than once a day. I squared away the ATM by calling my banks back home when I was on the Wi-Fi to avoid international fees. I got one card working for the ATM and another for just using at the store without more fees. The ATM did unfortunately have a $5 fee from BOA and then a $3.50 fee from the ATM. So it was pricey to take out money. But that’s the only way to survive in Hanoi. The good thing is most stuff is fairly cheap. So, for example, I took out three million dong—which equals about $130, which lasted me the first two weeks. Not bad for food, drinks, etc.
Now to figure out the phone issue. I was on with T-Mobile tech support for an hour and they had no idea why my iPhone was not working like it should. So they gave me a 24-hour free international pass. So they obviously have service in Vietnam, but they wanted to charge me an extra $5 per day for that! No way. So I got with my awesome program leaders of Remote Year, the company I’m traveling with, and got a local SIM for $30. Then my phone worked great. However, then you get a new Vietnamese number and you can’t text back home. So then you need to use Slack or Whatsapp. I just put my family in my Basecamp, which is a project management tool I already use for work. I also just messaged friends via Facebook. Their calling feature actually works pretty good too.
I think the first week is the most hectic once you arrive in a new country. Trying to figure everything out and just getting all your “normal” stuff to work normally is chaotic enough. Then throwing in the different language, culture shock, 100% humidity, and new people, it’s a lot to take in. I had a breakdown the first week and thought I wasn’t going to make it the entire four months away. It was too much being thrown at me at once. That feeling of leaving your safe comfy home, your friends, your bubble of sanity that you have kept yourself in for so long, to be busted and thrust out into a new world. It’s fun, exhilarating, and nerve-racking as hell all at the same time. You don’t even really know what emotion you are feeling. Or maybe it’s all of them at once? During this discovery of a new country, you are also shedding your ego and identity of who you were before. All of your friends or social status back home is gone here in Vietnam—you’re just another American trying to navigate this crazy city.
By the second week, you are starting to settle in. Hopefully everything is working normally like logging into websites for work. Some sites will block you because the IP is now coming from a different country. I’ve been blocked on a few. Most I just have to redo an authentication to get in. But you are starting to get more comfortable with your surroundings. You start to recognize places. Walking around without fear of what’s going to come around that corner.
By week three, you feel like you’ve lived here for months already. You know the streets where to go for the best foods. Your haggling skills are top notch. Nobody is going to rip you off. You start thinking in dongs instead of dollars. Grab motorbikes start becoming fun instead of being a death wish. (Grab is their version of Uber, and you can opt for a motorbike to take you to your destination or a car.) Motorbikes are actually much faster since the traffic is hectic here. Those little bikes can twist, turn, and fit down any alleyway.
By the fourth week, you’re wondering how time went by so fast. Wait! You haven’t seen that temple yet or tried out that jazz club someone recommended. Now you’re so comfortable you’re eating street food, even buying the raw meat at the outdoor market and not getting sick from it. Most likely you’ve already been sick by now and built up your immune system. But how did this go by so fast? First, you thought you couldn’t survive here, now you’re wondering when you can come back? You’re going to miss how restaurants bring food out in under 5 minutes. That you can buy groceries for about $4 at Circle K. You might even miss the old Vietnamese lady who keeps trying to sell you mini donuts outside your apartment and follows you until you do. Or jumping on a guy’s random motorbike when you’re too hot ‘n sweaty to walk back and maybe a tad buzzed from wine. Feeling the smoggy breeze blow through your saturated hair, as you weave in and out of loud horns blaring at you until he drops you off and he tries to haggle you for too much money. But you know what the going rate for Grab is now. So you confidently give him what he earned and walk away with your head held high, knowing he didn’t con this expat.
*Look for the book coming out soon on how you can run your business while traveling abroad!