Elka: Elka Ray
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Vietnam, etc.
On New Year’s Eve 1994 I moved from Canada to Vietnam “for one year”. Eighteen years later, I’m still living here. I trained as a journalist and held various jobs related to the media and communications. Today, I spend roughly half my time editing and the other half writing fiction.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
When my first novel, Hanoi Jane, came out, the publisher encouraged me to get a website. Blogging about life in Vietnam isn’t hard—there are plenty of strange, funny and thought-provoking moments.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
I think this very short post from November 2010 sums thing up: Cure Me
Tell us about the ways your new life in Vietnam differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
I arrived with $500, a new university degree and a backpack. I knew no one. At that time Vietnam was much less developed than it is today, and people were unused to Westerners. I actually lost strands of hair because people snuck up behind me and snipped bits of my long blonde hair as souvenirs.
It was winter when I moved to Hanoi and the city looked grey and grim—it felt like industrial revolution England. I cried every day for three months but was determined to stick it out. Either it grew on me, or I succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome. Hanoi’s Old Quarter is one of the most densely-populated places on earth. Coming from Canada, I found the crowds disconcerting. But as a writer, Vietnam is fascinating. Life in Vietnam is lived outdoors and there’s always something new to see.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Vietnam? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
Today, thanks to the internet, relocating is much easier. You can research your destination, find expats online and ask questions, and set up job interviews before you arrive.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
The Vietnamese language features six tones, which change a word’s meaning. Many years ago I proudly asked a xe om (motorbike taxi) driver to take me to the “Nha Hat Lon”, the direct translation of which is “House Sing Big”, ie. The Opera House. Unfortunately I mispronounced the word “big” and asked to go to the House of the Singing C—t (insert the rudest term for female genitalia you can come up with). At least fifty people were doubled over laughing at me.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Vietnam?
- Vietnam is not for everyone. If you value order and predictability, you may be in for a rough time. If you appreciate the unexpected, Vietnam might keep you engaged. Be clear about what you need in order to feel happy and secure, then do some research to see if Vietnam offers those qualities.
- Bring earplugs. Vietnam’s cities are incredibly noisy. Even in the countryside, celebrations are noisy affairs, with sound-systems cranked to the max and karaoke blasted through the whole village. In the North and Centre, government loudspeakers crackle to life before dawn.
- According to the World Bank, Vietnam’s per capita GDP in 2012 was $1,596. This might lead you to think that living in Vietnam is cheaper than it really is. In Saigon, the average international-standard apartment rents for around $1,000 per month. For expat families, one of the biggest costs is schooling, with tuition at international schools averaging around $15,000 per year.
How is the expat community in Vietnam? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
I spent nine years in Hanoi and have now been in Saigon for nine years. Most of the expats in Saigon are businesspeople. The city is more developed and more cosmopolitan. Hanoi attracts less businesspeople and more NGO workers, diplomats, journalists and academics. As a generalization, the Hanoi expats are less conventional.
Both cities offer all sorts of expat clubs, groups and lessons that will help newcomers to make friends.
How would you summarize your expat life in Vietnam in a single, catchy sentence?
After eighteen years in Vietnam I still see things that surprise, bewilder, infuriate and inspire me.