“I know myself, and I know the depth of my selfishness. I cannot be at ease (and to be at ease is my chief concern) if someone else is in pain, visibly or audibly or tactually. Sometimes this is mistaken by the innocent for unselfishness, when all I am doing is sacrificing a small good (in this case postponement in attending to my own hurt), for the sake of the greater good; a peace of mind, when I need think only of myself.”
Graham Greene, ‘The Quiet American’
Like the protagonist in Green’s novel, I come to Vietnam for purely pragmatic reasons and unlike his nemesis Pyle (the ‘Quiet American’), there’s nothing idealistic about my decision to come here. There’s no escaping reality and the reality is I need to work. Since I’ve left Ireland, I’ve mingled with anarchists in Greece, sought PKK rebel camps in the mountains of Kurdish Iraq, criss-crossed Iran in search of adventure, and traversed the Indian Himalayas in an attempt to connect to the wilderness; all done with some vague idealistic intention to do something meaningful without ever really succeeding. Now I’m back to square one, making money for others while I toil (I consider teaching toiling) for the crumbs off the table. All high idealism and romanticism a distant memory as I’m plunged headfirst back into the world of full-time employment. It takes the greater part of a month to get used to this new situation. A week after arriving at the coastal city of Vung Tau (2 hours ferry journey from Ho Chi Minh), I begin teaching classes at a private language school, with a full weekend schedule. I begin at 7.45 and finish at 7pm and ask myself on this first day if it’s really worth it. I’m exhausted and with all of the next day’s lessons still to plan, I wonder how I can escape this. I don’t sleep that night as there’s an overload of thoughts going through my head about how the day’s lessons went – as someone who’s spent most of the previous year alone, it’s too much to take in. I call in sick the next morning, unable to face another full day in the classroom. Luckily I have the following weekdays off to take stock and as the weeks roll by things gradually become easier. It’s still a challenge and all I seem to be doing is working and recovering from work (even teachers who have been here months find the marathon teaching sessions at the weekend utterly exhausting).
Over Christmas, an American friend of mine Josh and his wife Martha from Brazil come to Vung Tau for a few days and I’m very glad to have the company. They’re traveling around SE Asia on their way to China and I promise to visit them once they’ve settled there.
I’ve yet to properly explore Vung Tau and its environs. After two months here it feels like I’ve only recently began to settle in. I’m still only beginning to know the Vietnamese and their culture. Their tonal language seems impenetrable but over time I’m sure I’ll pick up the basics. I go through phases of wanting to leave as soon as possible and wanting to fulfill the year’s contract I’ve signed with my employer. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been traveling; culture shock can hit any time and I’ve felt it most acutely since I came here. Still, I reckon I’ll be here for the greater part of 2014 and look forward to getting to know more of Vietnam and other parts of Asia before I return to Europe.