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Leaving Vietnam

Leaving Vietnam was easy. Leaving my family behind was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

 

I’m living in conditions that are growing increasingly tiresome – staying in a four bed room that is part of a large hostel in Budapest. But, for now, it’s okay. I have an eye on Tirana, Albania and hope to be there soon. I will do whatever it takes to reunite with my family in Tirana and as soon as possible.

Hoi An was my home for more than three years. Before that, I lived in Hanoi and Hai Phong. It was my intention to visit Vietnam for three months or so, but it turned into five years – because I wanted to stay, and I met someone.

Pre-wedding photo shoot – Hoen Kiem Lake

Vietnam Independence Day in early September 2016 is when I landed in Hanoi. I stayed in a part of the Old Town that was one giant party for two days. I was already scheduled to move to Hai Phong – teaching as a volunteer in exchange for a free place to stay and some meals. Meanwhile, I enjoyed the packed streets and my cheap hotel. It was near Hoàn Kiếm Lake – where I would later spend quite a bit of time. Boys and young men were trying to get me to pay them to fix my shoes – even when wearing flip-flops. Tourists and expats were noticeably dotted throughout the Vietnamese celebration.

Angel of mercy on a Vietnamese train

After three days, I caught a train to Hai Phong. While boarding, the flimsy ramp between the platform and the train gave way and I nearly fell between. A bruised rib, some scratches, and additional dents on my bass were the result. A woman who worked for the railroad got some topical medicine for the damaged flesh around the rib and cleaned up the deeper scratches. The following spring I ran into her on the train going the other way – from Hai Phong to Hanoi. I was happy to see her and thank her again.

The volunteer place through ‘Workaway.info’ was a small teaching center in a house. I didn’t do much teaching, but made some friends through the school. I bought a motorbike and learned my way around the town. It was pleasant enough, but not much movement in those first weeks.

English Center Volunteers in Hai Phong

Hai Phong was easy to maneuver for foreigners at that time. Soon enough I was being flagged down in the street with offers to teach English for pay. Although I have a TEFL teaching certificate, white skin and blue eyes was enough to get work those days in Hai Phong.

My volunteering ended after about six weeks and I moved into a hotel room that had a private kitchen, balcony, and view of An Bien Lake. I enjoyed living there and got on well with the owners. It’s a family business. A couple with two boys.

First class in Vietnam

Suddenly, I was being paid pretty well and had little preparation to do for lessons. A lot of the gigs were little more than babysitting. Many of the English centers were disorganized madhouses that just ‘had to have’ a white person on the premises and with their customers’ kids. Teaching ability was below being white in importance. Often the Vietnamese ‘teachers’ were teaching kids incorrect pronunciation. I was uncomfortable taking the money at times.

Good students, and a little naughty

There were also some who worked conscientiously with decent methods. I found myself dealing with sailors, executives, and bright kids – with good materials and organization. I did some good work, had some great experiences, and had great relations with the students in these places. Memorable things happened with kids and adults. I was hired to teach without a degree, which is against government policy. Other than this violation of official code, they were straight-shooting organizations with interested and interesting students.

Organized, studious, and sweet

Hai Phong got to be too small. It felt like something was missing. The winter was cold and rainy. The pollution never went away. It smelled bad in many parts of town. I was seeing a woman in Hanoi – in the Spring when the air is clean. Visiting frequently while it was so nice enticed me to take a chance on getting a flat there. I found a small place near Tay Ho where it was good to get my foot into the city. However, the employment situation was not so great. Rules were enforced. The lack of a BA degree was holding me back. Work was spotty. My longest gig was 10 weeks teaching VN army people. That was just two classes a week. I eventually got online work teaching mainly Japanese students for a Filipino company.

I dated some and then met my Vietnamese partner, Nga. She showed up and soon I didn’t want to date others. The connection between us was deep right away. We had to learn a lot about each other over time. We’re both stubborn, but can give. Definitely some cultural differences. Nga also came with a son, Hoang Anh, and I never lived with children as an adult. It hasn’t been an easy adjustment at times. Slowly things fell into place.

Nga and Hoang Anh

Nga was working for a Korean hairdresser/Vietnamese nail shop run by a husband-wife team. She was good friends with the family and loved by their child – a spunky, funny little girl. Nga also sold clothes part time in street markets. Her eye for good quality and low prices makes her stand out, as does her demeanor. She’s a driven, lively, charming person. We’ve been together four years. After some bumps in the road, we’ve learned to work out how to deal with each other positively.

We moved together from Hanoi to Hoi An – to live in a better environment and have more space. Three in a one-room flat was a bit much. A two-bedroom house was a much better choice. Another problem about living in Haiphong and Hanoi was air and water pollution. It seems Hanoi tricked me with a fair Spring that became an asphyxiating hell by early summer. The stinking, polluted, stale ‘Tay Ho Lake’ was a mood killer. A stagnant black pool filled with trash and dead fish. It was the only place to walk nearby.

Fish die-off in Tay Ho Lake

Danang looked this good some days

Chronic bronchitis is common in Hanoi and Hai Phong and I had it. I was wearing a mask to keep some of the visible black gunk out of my lungs when riding my motorbike. (I’ve since had plenty of opportunity to read about how counterproductive my mask wearing was.) One of the first things I noticed when we landed in Da Nang was that the air was clean. The first maskless ride on a motorbike – taking in deep breaths of air – is sealed into my memory.

We were living in a neighborhood where there were people to talk to. Neighbors with dogs. Hoang Anh got settled into school. Nga started to sell clothes at a local market. Our house was small and no living room, but we had a garden and a patio. I knew the town in no time. Plenty of familiar shop owners. Good relations with our landlord/next-door-neighbor. It looked like there were opportunities to play music, albeit few. There were some annoyances, but overall we were happy there.

Grinch and Marcy

The three of us made a home, and soon adopted our dog, Grinch. We got Grinch from Nga’s former employer. I never had a fancy dog before. He’s a ‘Coton de Teleur’. Cute little grouchy white fluff-ball. They had named him Toto. I called him Grinch because of his underbite – and because it sounds tough – like a dog name should for such a face. Later came the cat, Marcy. Nga picked her up at the market later that year. I’m the one who talks to her and is always giving the attention, but she sleeps by Nga’s head.

Cop Acquaintance

Vietnam was known for being lax. Police announced when they’d be handing out tickets for things like helmet violations. There was also some blatant and clumsy corruption. Cops in Hai Phong liked taking money from foreigners. They’d set up an informal blockade and openly steal. They got me a couple of times. I found out from another American that I should just tell them no and they’d back down. It worked. Cops only got hard about something that would make the government look bad. Saving face and saving themselves from discipline and demotions seems to be their driving force. They didn’t hassle people indiscriminately without warning. 

There are things about the VN government I found to be good. If a person owns property, they can build without having to get tangled in bureaucracy. A negative side is the excessive amount of shoddy construction. It seems that people build houses to last 20 years. On the other hand, opening a business was fairly easy for locals and expats. Vietnam was humming with economic activity. The tradeoffs seemed worth it. Little government interference in people’s lives was the vibe back then – and what kept expats and tourists coming. Hoi An was a success story.

The beginning of the end

Everything changed before the Tet Holiday in late January 2020. The kids all had to stay home for the next two-plus months. Hoang Anh was around all the time and assignments were being sent or picked up by Nga, but with little follow-up. Nga became a tutor overnight as her business took a hit. Hoi An was not abuzz with activity as usual. We were under siege.

In the middle of the commotion, a friend from the US was due to come in and visit in early March. It was her third consecutive annual visit to Hoi An. We got to be friends the year before on her previous visit. She was in love with the town and had even spoken about buying a house there.

My friend’s empty plane

The thought of the visitor from elsewhere was a relief. When in strange circumstances, it’s good to connect with someone from outside, or from another angle of, the madness. My friend’s plane on the way over had six passengers.

I recall my friend looking to book a room for a two-week stay. By this time, tourism was already severely reduced from the ‘pandemic’. Businesses, especially hotels, were suffering. Although lacking tourist money, many hotels put up ‘Chinese Not Welcome’ signs. Panic and mean-spiritedness reared their ugly heads. As coronavirus spreads, so does anti-Chinese sentiment”

Hoang Anh

Nga, Grinch, and me in the background

We managed to have a good time, although things were strange. The town was dead. I never saw that before except on holidays. I took my buddy by motorbike for tours around Hoi An to things she wanted to see and to show her places I knew. She took Hoang Anh out to fly kites. Nga and I had her over frequently for dinner. Nga got a better understanding of me through my friend’s and my discussions about music. My buddy is a very special bass player in one of my favorite bands – and we have a lot of mutual friends/acquaintances to tell stories about. Through the interactions, Nga understood better how music is a big part of my make-up.

Rum and tonics on the beach with my friend

The camaraderie was interlaced with the Covid madness – messing with what was closed in Hoi An and my friend’s plans to return to the Bay Area. She returned to California after dealing with airline cancellations and worries about if she would even be allowed to go back. She messaged me with regrets about going back after being kept inside during California’s strict lockdowns. At the time, she wished that she never left. “Governor Gavin Newsom Issues Stay at Home Order”

I don’t believe my friend will ever see Hoi An again. Not because she doesn’t want to. It will have too many strings attached. The government seems to have no intention of ‘going back to normal.’

How many people touched that mask?

Vietnam just dragged on. People started getting weird about masks. Expats and locals alike were harassing people on the street to wear masks to which I would reply with knee-jerk irritation. Nga’s business wasn’t doing well at all, so she started making and delivering spring rolls to expats. She also took on a house-cleaning job. We were getting by, but there was nothing good about Hoi An anymore. Not allowed to exercise or visit the beach. People were defensive and nasty – other than a few workers where I shopped and most of my neighbors.

Lockdowns would ease up and the pressure would release. Lockdowns would come back and bring the insanity back with a vengeance. It went on like this for the remainder of my stay. I had a few expat acquaintances. Just people who I ran into regularly. They started disappearing – moving to their home country or moving on. The feeling of the disintegrating community gave me pangs every day. “Hoi An Town downcast and despondent without foreign visitors”

 

Vietnam’s government cancelled tourist visas in mid-March 2020. But from the get-go they made exceptions – pretty much for anyone bringing corporate economic activity, politicians/bureaucrats, and Vietnamese who were stranded abroad. “Vietnam suspends visas for all foreign arrivals to limit Covid-19”

Our Little House

I was there on a business visa and allowed to renew for a year that ended at the end of May, 2021. We kept an eye on things. It seemed more and more expats were leaving. For rent signs popped up on both commercial and residential properties. Nga convinced the landlord to lower the rent, as our incomes had dropped. This would happen a couple more times. We could not justify staying there, without a rent decrease, as we both had less income and cheaper houses were showing up all over the place. But I loved the neighborhood and the garden, so we discussed together and then bargained with the landlord. This went on for a year. The rent is now half of what it was.

Time was bending under the strains. The year went fast and slow. We thought I could easily renew my visa again. This was not the case. I had a business visa but no business. Something that happened frequently in corrupt old Vietnam. I had no idea that I was in jeopardy, but the government was cracking down hard on visas suddenly – right as mine was coming up for renewal.

I had to book a flight and had no idea where to go. I looked for countries that would allow me without sticking me, and I was also unwilling to take PCR tests. My former home, Hungary, was not a good place to go as the restrictions were awful. Serbia was not requiring a PCR test at the time, and it borders Hungary – where I stored my belongings five years before. I bought my ticket. My world was shattered – as was Nga’s. To be in a state of grief, while with someone, looking at the impending and imposed separation, is one of the most difficult states to endure.

We exhausted all the possibilities we could think of – trying to find a way for me to stay. We finally resigned ourselves to the fact that it wasn’t possible.

Because I had so little time to get a ticket, I got an emergency ten-day visa extension. I was happy for every hour more I could get. Looking at everyone differently. Saying goodbye to shop-owners, neighbors, and friends.

Then I found out that I had to get a PCR test after all. My flight started in Da Nang and went to Ho Chi Minh City(HCMC) and from there to Dubai and finishing in Belgrade. I looked at the rules, and it seemed I would have no problem getting a test within time constraints. The timing was tight, due to the hours the testing center was open, but I read and re-read the rules and was sure I was okay. Serbia also seemed to be flexible, and it’s a country where an American passport still gets one good treatment. I got the test in what I can only describe as a dirty alley in Da Nang in a parking lot. It was administered by a young dude who looked a little scared and pretty scary due to his unsure demeanor.

Papers please!

Getting in and out of Da Nang also required registering at road blocks. ‘Show me your papers!’

Really! Papers! We mean it!

On my flight departure day, Nga rode with me to the airport and we said our goodbyes. She ran off quick because she didn’t want me to see her being emotional. I was all broken up and in survival mode.

Empty DaNang Airport

The first flight from Da Nang to HCMC was easy, and not so long a wait until boarding my second flight to Dubai. When I went to check in, I was told my PCR test was not new enough – that I would go past the 48-hour time limit – which in reality was 72 hours. I argued that the Serbian government made provisions for long airport delays and other circumstances out of my control – like the testing center hours. The agent then started making stuff up. She said I needed a return ticket before boarding for Serbia. An outright lie. They weren’t going to let me board.

Valentine Hotel

A Saturday night, in HCMC, with no way to leave. I booked a hotel room on my phone with Booking.com and took a cab. When I got to the hotel, they told me the price wasn’t daily but hourly. It was a hooker hotel. But they knew a hotel down the street that was legit and sent me there. Not a bad place for a low price.

HCMC was under strict lockdown. Mask wearing on the street was mandatory – unless eating or drinking. After getting hassled by cops, I found myself with a water bottle or cane juice all the time while out – wearing a mask under my chin. I went to an Indian restaurant and was the only one there. The owner and I had a long discussion about how Covid devastated his business. Once the owner of two restaurants, he was going broke – down to one failing restaurant. It was a miserable time. The city was bleak, dank, polluted, and an air of toxic minds running things. People were trying to deal with it, but the underlying fury and/or despair of being masked on hot days was palpable. Looking for normalcy where there was none. Luckily I found my way to the roof of the hotel and hung out there – free of the street.

Up on a roof

I contacted the airline and my bank. My bank issued me a temporary credit for the amount of the ticket. Eventually, the airline paid me back. But there was no flight out to book. I flew back to Da Nang – and was told everyone on the flight had a three week quarantine when they landed. Home quarantine was considered good enough.

I got home to Nga. We had no idea how long it would last. The next morning I had to report to health authorities and the police. I got registered as quarantined. I had to stay in my little house or in the garden for three weeks. My visa had a few days left on it. The bureaucracy of the Immigration Department provided a solution by using a different visa vendor giving a different kind of flimsy, shady visa. They back-doored me in so I could have my quarantine. Then the visa company let me stay on a month-to-month basis.

Our Garden

I was back home for awhile.

Breathable Mask

While under quarantine, I worked on the garden more. I was happy for every moment with my family. I settled into working on my guitars and started setting myself up for work doing transcriptions. The quarantine ended and within days another lockdown came into existence. More aggravation. Technically, I wasn’t even suppose to walk my dog without a mask. I walked Grinch early in the morning and late at night – when the snitches were asleep. I also bought lace masks, so when I had to wear one I could breathe. Seems few normies noticed them, and there were plenty of jokes.

Every month when visa renewal time came up, I wondered if I would be kicked out. But it seemed to be that I was locked in. But for how long?

Nga and I talked about marrying. I asked my ex to send me an official copy of our divorce decree. We’re still thinking it over. For me, it’s no question that I want to stay with Nga. It just seems wrong to marry to get something from a government. I can’t speak for Nga’s thoughts on marriage, but she’s indicated in every way that she wants to stay with me.

Over the summer, the lockdowns kept getting extended. In Hoi An, promises that ‘next week the lockdowns will end’ were followed by yet another extension – cancelling the promise – week after week. It went on for months. The VN government was being openly destructive to HCMC, Hanoi, and Da Nang. People there weren’t allowed out of their houses and the army was delivering food.

More and more stuff started coming out of the media concerning the arrest and sentencing of people for ‘fake news’ and other Covid-related charges. I started to feel unsafe and more than a little paranoid. I’m vocal about the whole thing being a scam and nothing but a scam. There are a lot of finks in Vietnam. Could a casual conversation lead to an arrest? People will sell each other out for a little money and to gain favor. Was I being too paranoid? “Vietnam’s Government Is Using COVID-19 to Crack Down on Freedom of Expression”

It felt like time to go. Instinct drove me. It seems that Vietnam was making examples of people. Being creeped out all the time on top of being incarcerated was becoming too much. I asked money from family members, got a ticket, and made arrangements that wouldn’t be so easily thwarted by the airlines.

Albanian Flag

At this point, the Da Nang airport was closed. There would be no flying out of there. It turned out that the only way to get to Hanoi to catch a flight was to hire a car. The fare for the car was $500 and it was a twenty-hour drive. My new pick as a European landing point, Albania, was not requiring PCR tests when I booked the flight. As in my previous try, the rules changed. I was better prepared this time.

My driver was a pro and had made this run several times. He provided a doctor who made the time of the test as close to flight time as possible. The driver also had the checkpoints worked out. I wouldn’t have to get out of the car and fill out exhaustive paperwork. As the checkpoints numbered somewhere in the teens, that was a big plus.

Nga and Hoang Anh

The family went through the same pains as the last departure, but it was better understood. Every time I walked Grinch I felt everything slipping away. Seeing my loved ones at home and knowing I’d be gone soon, while staying on point about leaving, had me feeling frozen and tied up in knots. I became an automaton, burying my feelings. Nga thought it best I leave as well. We had a discussion. She understood I could never be like most people who lay low and go unnoticed for ‘safety’ and comfort.

The Neighbor’s Shop

Our goodbyes were different this time. The driver picked me up about 11:00 pm in front of my neighbor’s little convenience shop on the corner of his property. A goodbye from the airport was not possible. I had a twenty-hour ride before checking in the next evening, September 10. We hugged and kissed. Nga ran back for one last kiss. Then I was on my way.

The drive was long. I slept some, but not well. A million thoughts going through me. Everything was pleasant enough between the driver and me. I wanted to sit up front with him, and he pointed out that he’d have to wear the cheapie hazmat suit looking blue coverall for that to happen. I stayed in the back. Nga had packed food for me that I ate along the way. We were so rushed at the end that she packed everything for me to make coffee, except the coffee. She was so sweet, how she apologized about it the next day. I only smiled. She’s always so together, doing things so well. One of her shirts protected my little French press. There was honey from the market. I finished it in Tirana.

When I got to the airport, I was still paranoid. I knew it was irrational at this point. Nobody in Vietnam wanted to stop me from going. But I didn’t relax until I had my boarding pass. Masks were mandatory in the airport and I had my black lace mask – mocking the requirement. Nobody said a word to me or looked at me funny. I bought six of those masks and changed them when necessary. But I ducked the cabin crew by putting my hat on the side of my face, looking out the window – maskless, and breathing freely. I had no problem in the Doha or Rome airports with my unconventional mask.

When I landed in Tirana, people were mostly not wearing masks in the airport. By the time I got to the city center of Tirana, it was all but completely maskless. It brought on a sense of relief that offset the grief somewhat. The tension-of-tyranny boot was off of my neck.

Since I’ve been gone, I haven’t missed a day of messaging with Nga. What I want more than anything is to be back with her, Hoang Anh, Grinch, and Marcy – working at building our life together. That doesn’t seem possible in Vietnam. Their government would have to give up their hold on the country for me to go back. That doesn’t seem like something that will come about soon.

In one of our recent messages, Nga informed me that the Vietnamese government is requiring all foreigners to register for vaccination. They still have a choice not to get it. A friend and former neighbor informed me in the same week that the unvaxxed foreigners aren’t allowed to leave town.

It’s now more than two months since I last saw and held Nga. We’re hoping to get back together. I spent a few weeks in Tirana. I made friends with my AirBNB host. The city is good. Plenty of walking to be done – and things to walk to. Cyclist are treated well. Prices of everything seem reasonable. Food is good. The sea is nearby. Best of all, the tyranny seems far less than most places these days. I didn’t have a hint of it.

By the end of September, it was becoming evident that I needed my warm clothes. I made my way to Hungary – hoping I could find a way to move my things with me back to Tirana. Since early October, I’ve been in this hostel, doing what I can. Looking forward to moving, and asking for a helping hand from relatives, friends, and strangers.

When I get settled in Tirana and have privacy, my mission will be to bring my family to me.