the little things

When I decided to move to Vietnam, I had a lot of questions. I made lists and lists and lists.

Could I bring my knife kit? and will customs take it upon arrival? or will I have to pay a bribe at customs?
Can I ship things to myself from the US to arrive after I get there?
Does social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc) work there?
Should I get shots?
Will I get malaria or dengue fever?
How easy will it be to find a job?

Every day I would add to my list of questions. I went online and read expat blogs, which were less than helpful. One American living in Hanoi had created a downloadable Excel spreadsheet of all the things expats moving to Vietnam ought to bring with them. A friggin' Excel spreadsheet of nonsense. Things that she deemed the most important items were a cast iron skillet, cast iron Dutch oven, horse riding gear, pizza stone, metal cupcake trays... and the list went on.   Though she did have some helpful items, but those were rather common sense stuff (like feminine type things, which I won't get into for TMI reasons).

I really didn't know what to bring with me, so I figured I'd pare my life down to two suitcases and one carry on.  And I was most certainly not going to pack a Dutch oven; as it is my two suitcases weighed 71 kg and 75 kg respectively. That's 156.5 lbs and 165 lbs, for those of you who don't do metric. No wonder every single hotel porter has given me dirty looks.  When checking in at Delta curbside at the Atlanta airport, the baggage handler picked up one of the bags and blurted out, "What, you pack a dead body in here?".  After a while I started telling people I packed rocks. At least the humor diffused their surprise and irritation for a bit.

No, I didn't pack dead bodies. I packed clothes (a lot of the wrong clothes, mind you) and cookbooks. Some of those suckers weigh a lot. Out of a massively growing collection of almost 300 cookbooks back home, I brought 20 of them. Two of them are by Thomas Keller, and if anyone has copies of The French Laundry or Ad Hoc at Home, you'll know they weigh 5 lbs each at least. I got dinged on Vietnam Airlines twice for having overweight luggage and had to pay fines. But these were the things that made me comfortable, that would remind me of home, and that will get put to good use. Eventually.

I reached out to Beth from Wander for Life, since I knew her when she lived in Atlanta. Beth currently lives in Turkey and had spent a few months living in Bien Hoa.  She had some helpful suggestions. I had also made a local contact through one of my clients back in Atlanta, and I had a Skype call with him. Both of them suggested to keep small bills around; that bribery was common; to not lose patience; and should I do get an offer of bribe, to negotiate. Beth had issues shipping boxes to herself, though they did arrive; so I tossed that idea of shipping things to myself out the window. 

In the end, I did pack my knives in my checked luggage, and upon arrival at Hanoi's Noi Bai International, the customs officials looked so bored they didn't even blink or check through my bags as we walked confidently through the line.  They're looking for drugs and money, and can't be bothered with just another jetlagged expat rolling off an airplane.

Social media works here. Some of it may be temporarily blocked, so I took advice from Brandon, who runs the Ticket Saigon website and opened an Unlocator account. This small monthly fee is totally worth it. In fact, Brandon has a ton of advice for expats moving abroad, what to do with your mail, etc, and worth a good look.

You don't really need shots if you're staying in one of the larger cities. There are no really big areas of stagnant water - even when the city floods during the rainy season, it drains off within hours.  And about the job thing... well I've written about that. I'm trying to not get depressed about it, so patience is key.

One thing I can tell you all though, in case anyone is interested in coming to Vietnam and staying for a bit, is about visas. Something you won't find online and I had to find out the hard way.  We flew into Hanoi first and took a tour down the coast before settling in Saigon.  I've renewed my tourist visa twice now in Saigon, and both times the visa brokers were pretty upset that we arrived in the country through Hanoi. I've had to pay double for the visa renewal. The first broker we used was through a friend of ours, so I just figured it was a one time deal and forgot about it. This last guy we used, through a very reputable source so I know he's legit, told me the same thing. 

"You shouldn't have come through Hanoi", he said. 
"Why?", I asked. 
"Because you have to pay double now." 
"But WHY?"
He shrugged his shoulders and his eyes got wide. "Because that's the law. Hanoi is the law. We don't question it".
Oh. Kay.

So the best advice I can give you if you're traveling on a tourist visa and want to live here with a tourist visa:  If you plan on staying in Hanoi, fly into Hanoi. If you plan on staying in Saigon, fly into Saigon. In fact, because of this little irritant, I can't renew my visa in November in Saigon. I have to go on a border run to Cambodia - basically, exit the country and come back in. Then apparently all will be kosher. I think.  I guess there's only one way to find out.  But hey, i've never been to Cambodia before, so at least there's that.

And i'm sure there will be times when I wish I had a cast iron Dutch oven, but i'm not losing sleep over it. But I do wish i'd brought a wooden spoon.  That, I really do.


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