Michael: Along the Mekong
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Vietnam, etc.
My name is Michael Tatarski, and I am from New Orleans, in the USA. I moved to Vietnam, Saigon to be specific, in September of 2010. I am the Contributing Editor at AsiaLIFE magazine.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
I decided to start blogging basically as soon as I decided to move to Vietnam. I knew I would have stories to share, and I wanted to keep my family and friends up to date without having to send out mass emails. I also wanted to keep an electronic record of what I did here, and a blog served as the perfect way to do that.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
I do have a few favorites. The first discusses tourism and the perception of Vietnam overseas. The second talks about how expats in Vietnam think; and the final two are travel-related: one covers the first part of my ascent of Mt. Fansipan, the tallest mountain in Vietnam, and the second covers one of the most difficult days of a bicycle ride from Hanoi to Saigon that I took part in.
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’m sure almost everyone experiences culture shock upon moving here, and I was no different. Two of the most noticeable differences are the traffic and the vibrancy of street life. Traffic in the U.S. is almost entirely car-based and very organized, while the roads in Vietnam are chaotic messes of motorbikes, bicycles, trucks, buses, etc. There is also food and other goods available on nearly every corner, whereas in the U.S. almost everything has been moved indoors for various health and safety reasons. Cost of living also presents a huge difference, as most meals in Vietnam, even at nice restaurants, cost a few dollars, and rent is incredibly cheap. I don’t think I had too much trouble adapting to life here, but obviously there were difficulties: the language barrier, learning my way around, learning how simple tasks like paying bills worked, etc.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Vietnam? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
I wouldn’t say I was fully prepared, because there is no way to be sure of what you will have to deal with until you actually get to a country. However, I think I was somewhat prepared, and I have an open and adventurous mind so I wasn’t too terribly concerned by things that I had never encountered before. One thing I would have changed in my preparation would be to have learned more Vietnamese before moving out here. In Saigon many people speak at least basic English so you can get by without much knowledge of the local language, but it would help immensely to be able to converse in Vietnamese.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
This is rather job-related, but when I was teaching at a school where I had one class of four kids, the nine-year old boy in the class asked me to explain what condoms were. After 20 minutes of struggling to describe birth control as delicately as possible, I gave up and told him to ask his parents about it.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Vietnam?
- Expect the unexpected. Every day here can turn into an adventure, since something completely unique can happen when you least anticipate it.
- Have an open mind about the food. Many people back home will probably warn you about the safety of street food, but the fact is that most food here is incredibly safe to eat. I’ve never been seriously sick in my 20 months here.
- Embrace the insanity. The pace of life in Saigon is incredibly fast, the streets are amazingly loud, and there often seems to be little semblance of order. All of those facts make life here much more interesting than it is in the West, and give the streets a crackling energy that is unlike anywhere I’ve been before.
How is the expat community in Vietnam? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
The expat community, particularly in the biggest cities of Hanoi and Saigon, is great. There are a wide range of people pursuing a wide range of careers and ambitions, so there is surely someone that has compatible interests to you. Making friends and meeting people is a rather easy task.
How would you summarize your expat life in Vietnam in a single, catchy sentence?
You’ll meet people from all over the world, from all walks of life, and have a great time with them since food and drinks are so cheap.