Travelling, working abroad and getting home


PARADISE Christine Lyons pictured in Ha Giang in Vietnam.

Christina Lyons from Killawalla spent 18 months travelling before Covid-19 forced a return home

‘Then it seemed to me that in those countries of the East the most impressive, the most awe-inspiring monument of antiquity is neither temple, nor citadel, nor Great Wall, but man’ – William Somerset Maugham, The Gentleman in the Parlour (1930).

Where Maugham’s chapter ended a hundred years ago in Hai Phong city, Vietnam; my own began. I can’t say for certain what had drawn me to a city of which I knew very little. I also can’t say for certain why, when all of my peers had shifted their focus to Canada, mine instead turned East. Vietnam has a history of resilience in the face of adversity. Conflict after conflict, war after war the country maintained its individuality and I felt inspired. I figured that a country so intent on preserving itself would be an interesting place to live. A good friend of mine was an ESL teacher in South Korea and he had spoken very highly of his experiences. As a recent graduate, I felt burnt out and wanted to see more of the world. Now felt like an opportune moment for adventure.
If you ask any expat who has lived in bustling centres like Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, they would admit to knowing very little of Hai Phong despite it being the third biggest city in the country. In its day, it was once a strategic port for naval conquests during both the French colonial era and also the infamous ‘American war’ as it is known by the Vietnamese. It is situated in the north-east and is often described as a gateway to Cat Ba Island, whose rugged terrain and jungle-clad limestone peaks bring hundreds of travellers year after year. Hai Phong is constantly on the cusp of change. When I arrived in late 2018, construction work and impeding skyscrapers were ubiquitous. Now most of those buildings are completed and there is a clear distinction (and wealth gap) between different parts of the city. Vinhomes, a huge pristine white housing estate shot up, alongside a massive shopping centre and a riverside stretch of bars and hotels. This stood in stark juxtaposition to the unembellished shopfronts and homely coffee shops of the other side of the river. Streets thrived with local commerce such as street food and tailors and it gave a strong sense of community. It was as if the soul of the place lingered among its plastic outdoor seating and the sweet smell of Bun Cha. Hai Phong was abundant in character. Secret cocktail bars and random garden cafes were tucked beneath its surface and it was difficult not to fall in love with it. As I left, I felt melancholic knowing that the city would be unrecogonisable by the time I’d return.

Traffic in Vietnam is animated with a cacophony of beeps and the frantic tuttering of engines. According to statistics in 2016, there are over 37 million motorbikes registered in the country. It’s practically impossible to live an independent and comfortable life without learning how to drive one. I was apprehensive. In my first three weeks in Vietnam, I could only muster the courage to drive my motorbike in circles around vacant parking lots. However, if I were brave enough to move here, I thought I should be brave enough to live here too. On my first long distance trip, I drove to the local supermarket only to fall at an intersection less than 100m from where I started. I emerged from the cartoonish disaster with nothing but a bruised ego and a small burn on my arm which I have since affectionately christened my first ‘Hai Phong tattoo’. I got up dusted myself off and continued on my journey.
Sometimes it takes a fall for you to realise your own potential and oftentimes fear can hold you back in ways that only seem obvious to you much later. I was afraid of falling off my bike and I was afraid of failing as a teacher. On one hand, living abroad can be an all-consuming adventure but it comes with a lot of stress too. You are miles away from people who know you well, you are adjusting to a new job and crossing a Vietnamese street can be anxiety inducing to say the least. Teaching is challenging and it takes a lot of time and patience to find your momentum. It is difficult to accept that sometimes classes don’t go as well as planned and that it is important to forgive yourself for being human. A year after my first fall, some great friends and I embarked on the famous Ha Giang motorbike loop in Vietnam’s most northerly province. With passes etched into mountains high above roaring rivers, and back-roads threading through forests of limestone pinnacles, the Ha Giang loop has mystical and legendary status among travellers. It is also famous for its challenging road conditions which make it the ideal terrain for adrenaline junkies. By that time, I had grown into a more than competent driver and a respected teacher by students and peers alike. I had successfully zig zagged through personal doubts and had emerged triumphant overlooking the majestic beauty of Vietnam.
I consider myself very lucky to experience as much as I have in the last year and half. Not only have I travelled in Vietnam but I also saw Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Nepal. I am also very privileged to have marvelled at some of the world’s most treasured possessions. However, the greatest gift has been the many friends that I have made over the course of this time, many of whom I hope to keep in contact with for years to come. Places are only a canvas upon which people paint. The students I have taught, the coffees that I have shared and laughs that I have had, have etched meaning into the infrastructure of Hai Phong. I am so grateful for all of these memories and I find it remarkable that I now have an address book that reaches around the circumference of the globe. Most Vietnamese people are some of the strongest and hard-working people on the planet. Everyone has a smile for you and people generally want to help you as much as they can. I can’t count the amount of times the charity of strangers has helped me out. I’ve had someone help me fix my bike in the middle of the road, I’ve had a stranger give me a lift to a nearby bus station and I’ve had a woman call a taxi for me when I had no credit, all with barely a few words passed between us. This isn’t even to mention my many Vietnamese friends who have been there for me in both times of joy and peril.

There is a motto I always live by when it comes to teaching: ‘A great teacher walks into a classroom expecting to learn something new.’ My teenage classes were always a source of amusement whether it was talking about pop culture or the trials and tribulations of adolescence. You find yourself forging little inside jokes with your students, even habits. One shy boy in my favorite class used to quiz me on capital cities at the end of each lesson. In my school, students were often allowed to take an English name and I had one unforgettable experience with a five-year-old who wanted to be called ‘Family man’. Although I appreciated his enthusiasm at his ability to correctly pronounce and identify the meaning of this word, it seems a little absurd as a name. I have to say, there is something very insightful about a child recognising the value of family and wanting to imprint this meaning onto himself. Family, where ever it is, is something to be appreciative of and being home right now is priceless.
In the events of the past month, I was travelling before abruptly coming home due to the Covid-19 crisis. My parents are immunocompromised so I had to self-isolate away from them for 14 days and thankfully, two girls responded to a plea on Facebook offering a place to stay. Once again human kindness had come to the rescue. In the lottery of life, I know how fortunate I am to be able to speak English, teach and have lived abroad. I can’t be grateful enough to the people who have made these experiences so memorable with their kindness, humility and respect. Nothing in this world is permanent, all we ever have it appreciation for when it lasted and the promise to appreciate it even more when good fortune comes around again.