I can still remember our first extended stay in Vietnam. My husband, Tim, and I were living in Haiphong, a city in the north of the country which had very few tourists or expats. I was planning to teach English for the very first time and anxiety levels were high. We had no idea what to expect. Were the locals friendly? Would they laugh at my clumsy attempts to speak Vietnamese? Would we get ripped off at every turn?
My worries soon disappeared as our new world expanded. The school was supportive, the students appreciative of my efforts and the locals were more than helpful. On the very first day, we met two other newbie expats and every day became an adventure as we shared our experiences, discovered new favourite foods, sought out a surprising number of leisure and entertainment options and got involved with a small, but very active, expat network.
Tim and I are not extroverts by any means. In fact, I’d argue we’re both quite reserved. But we’ve always found the locals in Vietnam to be welcoming. Now living in Ho Chi Minh City, I head to the same little street stall for a hearty bowl of pho for breakfast most days. Within my first week here, my new friends were greeting me with big smiles, shuttling me into the shady seats and introducing me to other regulars. They barely speak a word of English and I don’t speak Vietnamese, but that doesn’t seem to matter one little bit.
Sure, you’ll probably get stared at when you first arrive, after all, everyone wants to know about the new kids in town. But if you stay a while and make an effort, the barriers soon come down. Your attempts to learn their customs and language will be appreciated and they’ll be proud to help you discover the best their city has to offer.
Ho Chi Minh City has an abundance of opportunities to connect with expats and locals alike, from networking events, sporting associations and personal development clubs. One of my favourites is Toastmasters. I always wanted to develop my public speaking skills but never had the time or the courage back in Australia. Being overseas removed any self-imposed constraints and last August I took the leap and attended a meeting for the first time. I figured if I made a complete fool of myself it wouldn’t matter, nobody would know me. I could just put it down to experience and never return.
To my absolute delight, it’s been one of my best decisions so far.
I’ve met over 100 motivated, enthusiastic and friendly people, my confidence has soared and those connections have led to even more opportunities and friendships. I’ve been asked to be a mentor for a new Toastmaster’s branch and people tell me they get excited if they see my name on the agenda as a speaker. If you’d have said that would happen 10 years ago, I would have laughed at you.
Toastmasters is an international network of almost 16,000 clubs in 142 countries. As we travel, I now have another way to tap into local knowledge and meet even more new friends.
We also have a big group of friends from among the expat community. Together we share cultural evenings, each of us taking turns to present our countries or cities to the others. And we’re always welcoming new people to our circle…like Jenny, who has recently arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. “Don’t you miss your friends and get lonely with just the two of you?” she asked. She was a little anxious, wondering if she’d made the right decision to move here. It was her first time living overseas, I could remember those feelings well.
Of course, I miss our friends back home. But to be honest, I’ve never felt lonely. If anything, we have a more active social life than we ever did stuck in the 9-to-5 grind back in Australia.
I told her she would have an abundance of opportunities to make new friends, learn and grow—if she wanted them. Sure, life might get a little strange and crazy now and then, but that’s all part of the fun. Most of all, I would be there for her as she started her journey, as others had been there for us.
And I know it won’t be long before it’s her giving the advice. In my experience that’s the way it works. We’re all out here happy to support others in their quest for a new life overseas. So don’t let fear hold you back from joining in the fun.
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