When I left Australia for Hanoi, Vietnam, I was in desperate need of a change. I’d lived in the same country for 53 years, the same city for 30 years, and the same house for almost 20 years. I’d been in the public service for almost 10 years, albeit in different roles. My life was routine: running a few times a week, sometimes socially, sometimes not; the odd Friday night drinks with work colleagues; trying and failing to get my publishing and freelance career off the ground. My relationship with my daughter wasn’t the best. My sister lived a few hours’ drive away so I didn’t see her often. Ditto my niece. I hadn’t talked to my mother in years. I’d not dated properly in a decade, not for want of trying. My only constant companion was Bella, my beloved cat.
I needed an adventure. A big one. So, I took myself off to Vietnam and had one. It’s an adventure that involved near death twice, and an emotional unravelling across 12 months. I’ve softened around the edges, and developed grit and determination and tenacity that I didn’t know I had. I built my freelance portfolio. I overcame highly stressful visa issues. Ditto banking, which gives me hives. I started a company, namely to deal with aforementioned visa issues. I learned Vietnamese. Got four more tattoos. Had guitar lessons. Stopped drinking. Worked out regularly. Discovered Vietnamese music. I volunteered and gave blood and made lovely friends, and lost them to the vagaries of expat life. I’ve spent a shitload of my freelance income on lawyers because it’s the only way you can get things done in this country.
And this time last year, I proudly held my Vietnamese Temporary Residence (TRC) card in my hot little hand, relieved that my living situation had been sorted and was more stable thanks to my company, at least for the time being.
The thing about a temporary situation is that it’s just that: temporary. Forever has a shelf life, as it turns out. And for me, it’s three years. In three years, I’ve gone from wonder and excitement to despondency and despair. Not quite in depression territory, but almost. And I’ve never been able to get back the original sense of joy and awe that dominated my being here in the first year. In fact, I feel more stuck here in Vietnam than I ever did in Australia.
The one thing I’ve realised, and it’s been a slow awakening, is that I didn’t understand or appreciate how good I had it in Australia.
After having to deal with all sorts of shit with my company — taxation, banking, accountants, government departments, lawyers and more lawyers because nothing bureaucratic is simple or online in English here — I asked myself what the hell I was doing all this for? And the answer was: a visa. I was doing all this for a visa, to live in a country that I like but that is uncertain and difficult and stressful — as I’ve discovered the longer I’ve been here. Yes, there are nice things about living in Hanoi — cheap rent, a cleaner twice per week, flexible lifestyle, low cost of living, village vibe — but the strain and pollution outweigh the charm. I don’t need to deal with this — I do have somewhere else to go. Somewhere else I can be. I’m not stateless*. I don’t have a shitty passport.
So one year after I received my hard won TRC — and making a resolve I never thought I’d make after an awful experience with an incompetent and unethical lawyer — I have decided to come home. To Australia. As soon as I made that decision, I felt lighter, happier. I was unstuck. Free. I had a way forward. I don’t want to have to worry about complying with a fuck tonne of regulations to keep a company afloat that I have no real passion for, just for a visa. I don’t want to always be on edge, wondering if I’ll be deported at a moment’s notice, which has and does happen. As a foreigner, the threat of Immigration police knocking on your door and ignoring your papers is very, very real.
I would have gone earlier, but Bella. It’s quite the process — and not cheap — to bring my beloved cat back to Australia involving rabies testing and quarantine and import/export regulations of Vietnam and the European Union. But organising this is still easier to deal with than the Vietnamese banking system and, for example, getting a bank statement printed or trying to pay cash into my account, which is nigh on impossible without a shitload of paperwork and half the day gone.
The one thing I’ve realised, and it’s been a slow awakening, is that I didn’t understand or appreciate how good I had it in Australia. Not really. Breathing clean air. Drinking water from the tap. Going to the bank without needing an epi-pen. Being able to walk on an unobstructed footpath. Travel without panicking about re-entry. Doing transactions online. Service providers that aren’t scammers. Not facing imminent death crossing the road. Excellent healthcare. Animal rights. Free speech. A postal system that works. Ebay. An oven. English, because some days I can’t even.
Yes, I’m aware that Australia is not perfect. No country is.
But I’m grateful and humbled that I can go back.
Not everyone is so lucky.
*I’m not stateless, but there are millions of people around the world who are. Please take action to give people citizenship. And hope.