Motorbikes, bubble tea, and monsoon rains have all become a part of our new normal here in Saigon, Vietnam. I can’t believe it has been two months since I first arrived here! It has been an odd mix of both slow and fast, from waiting through quarantine then jumping into my new job and everything that came after. We’ve had a wonderful time these past few weeks setting up house and settling into our new life here. Here are some of the highlights
At the beginning of September we had a day off of school for a local holiday. We joined some new friends at a fancy spa in our area for a day at the pool, and then went for dinner and some drinks in town.
While we were out that day I saw a family releasing fish into a lake. This is Buddist tradition that represents compassion and invites good karma.
I’ve had a fabulous time going to some different workshops over the past month. My friend Brianna and I attended a macrame workshop at a little tea house in our area where I finally learned the art of large-scale macrame by making a plant hanger. I’ve taken to this craft immediately and completed two more since then.
We also attended a candle making workshop. We learned about scents and waxes and mixed our own signature fragrance into our own candles.
Brianna and I also peeled ourselves out of bed early one Saturday to attend a traditional Vietnamese Opera. It was quite the experience trying to guess the storylines and adapting to the music.
We have wheels! One of Kim’s dreams has been to have a motorbike of her own to zip around town on so about two weeks ago we made it happen! Our new bike we are just renting for now. Some people rent the entire time they live here to make it easier for maintenance and repairs. We don’t have a plan at this point but are happy to just have a little red bike to take around town. So everyone, please meet Rizzo! On our first weekend of having her, we took her out around our area and ended up finding Kim's favorite Vietnamese breakfast dish:
A big part of this month has been in setting up our house. Our apartment came furnished so we haven’t had to buy many big items thankfully. But it was a big day when we got night side tables and lamps for the bedroom. There are so many little things that go into moving into a new space and I’ve been trying to be conscientious about what we are buying. I want to love every item in our home. I was surprised to discover that it is a big online ordering culture here. But somethings you just need to see in person. I was delighted to stumble upon this basket store while we were out adventuring the other day. It had the *perfect* laundry baskets that I was looking for.
I also might be a little obsessed with buying plants. All the plants. And gorgeous pots to put them in. The plant nurseries here are just endless jungles of greens. It feels like when I was adventuring through the Ecuadorian rainforest.
Speaking of adventuring, we’ve had a lovely time of it. Here are some spots we found while wandering around District 1 (the heart of the city)
And this past weekend we went to District 5 (chinatown), where we had hand-pulled noodles and found Bead Land. It is a small alleyway overflowing with beads, jewelry making supplies, every kind of thread/yarn/string/rope imaginable, and so much more! I am certain I will be needing to return to this area
One evening we were lucky enough to go on a mini-street-food tour with one of my colleagues. We tried a few different local dishes. I’ve been so impressed with the vegetarian options here! There are so many local vegetarian and vegan restaurants! It’s nice to be able to have vegetarian versions of the local dishes as well as some tasty fusion ones.
We’ve had more lovely gatherings with lovely people. Newbies brunches, double date nights, and even High Tea.
We went to the movie theater the other weekend and ended up in a "love cinema" where all of the seats were actually full sized beds! 🙈😂 We were the only ones in the theater at the time, not sure how I'd feel about what others would be getting up to 😬😉Don't worry, the mattress was plastic and looked very clean.
In other news, Kim got a badly needed haircut.
A few last snaps from the last few weeks.
It’s funny how quickly we adapt to changes. I feel so settled into this new life already. Sure, there are many areas to still sort out (like my home art studio) but in so many ways it all feels normal now. I’m deeply missing my friends from Istanbul and my family and friends back home but I'm glad to have found some fabulous people here in Saigon who are amazing additions to my expat family.
Kim is out of quarantine. Penny is with us. We are in our new apartment. I feel that I can finally say that the moving to Vietnam mid-pandemic is over. I’m so happy! The last few days I have felt an overwhelming sense of joy and contentment. We have had so many months of uncertainty and worry, with plans A through Z and then some, it is surreal to finally be on the other side of it all. And now, now we can go on with all the fabulous things that come with arriving in a new country. Setting up house, exploring all the areas, trying all the new foods, finding adventures in the every day, and enjoying the sense of newness. That is exactly what I am trying to do now, not rush through this special stage of aw and new. Like our first Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich) or exploring our neighborhood or getting to know new fabulous people.
School has been going wonderfully. It’s a rush to get the year started and an adjustment to these new grade levels. I am teaching 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade which is a shift from Middle and High School that I’ve taught for the last few years. But I’m not a newbie when it comes to this age range either. I’m slowly rearranging my room and starting to get it set up for proper student agency. I’m so use to just focusing on having the right resources but now I feel that I can actually take the time to make my room a beautiful and inspiring place. No hurry though, I feel I’ll be here for awhile. Especially with the open-access COLOR photocopiers/printers ; ) This was the first week collaborative artwork that I organized with my fellow art teacher (grades 1-2), Nick. Each student drew themselves or something that represents them.
We had two more COVID tests, one and two weeks after our release. The last one was the absolute worst. The tester made me gag 3-4 times as he stuck the swab continuously down my throat. He was so rough with the nose swab that, for the first time in 8 tests, it continued to hurt for awhile afterward. I’m SO glad to be done with all of that.
On Monday I signed the lease to our new beautiful apartment. I absolutely love it! My top three priorities were a place close to school, that allows Penny, and is within our budget. This fits all of those while being nearly across the street from school. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to walk to school for the past five years and I didn’t want to have to deal with a commute. Additionally we were looking for at least two bedrooms and we got three! One master, one guest bedroom, and one art studio room. We wanted a huge kitchen for Kim with a nice stove and oven. This kitchen is so big and lovely, it has 3 gas burners and 2 electric ones, plus the owner bought us the biggest toaster oven I have ever seen! It also needed to have LOTS of natural light which is abundant in this apartment. It has the master bedroom on the backside of the building so it is nice and quiet and faces the sunrise where the rest of the rooms have glorious huge windows overflowing with light. Plus one whole wall in the living room is just a big glass sliding door. We were also hoping for wood flooring, check, and nice lighting, check check. There is also a perfect entry area with built in storage which I realized was important to me after looking at many apartments that opened directly into the living area. The place is fully furnished with a modern look (most had hideous furniture that we would have had to keep). In addition, we have a bathtub, two balconies, stunning molding throughout the whole place, a pool, AND the owner bought us a dryer! I seriously could not ask for anything more, we are so in love with this place!
Kim is so beyond happy to be out of quarantine. I took the day off from school to get her properly settled. It was such a joyous reunion!! To finally be here, all together, I just don’t have words. We spent the day walking around the neighborhood, buying pillows, trying some different foods, and wandering for hours around various grocery stores.
Penny has been enjoying our new place and neighborhood. She is pretty hot so we take her for a walk early early in the morning and later in the evening when the sun goes down. I’m happy to be in a quiet area where she can wonder off-leash without any problems. We've spent a chunk of change at the vet already for a gunky eye and getting her regular meds (heartworm, flea, tick, etc). We decided to become "members" at the vet which means for a fee we get unlimited consults for the year - I'm certain we will get our moneys worth. We did get caught in our first monsoon the other day. Penny was very unimpressed.
Over the weekend we ventured out of our area, District 7, for the first time. Friday night we went to a kitchen store about 15 minutes away and then walked around. We found a bustling street lined with food and drink stalls, produce sellers spilling out into the road, fish and meat sellers cutting up their goods (including plump still-hopping frogs), and so much more. It was rush hour which means there were motorbikes coming from every direction like a swarm of bees. It was insane and a bit much right off the bat. I was happy to return to our quiet, clean, open area of Phu My Hung.
Saturday we went off to another area, District 2, which had a fun hipster vibe to it. We searched a few boutique house-goods stores for the perfect dishes. I’m hoping to take advantage of this opportunity we have to set up a home completely from scratch by being very conscientious of what we buy for it. I intend to curate our home carefully and make it a beautiful, inspiring, and lovely place. Which means we are on the hunt for beautiful, inspiring, and lovely things. It was fun meandering around and looking through the shops. We bought some dishes that I’m happy with but I might just have a hand at making my own as well. Later on, we stumbled on the American style diner and had our full of milkshakes and burgers. Kim was super excited to get a stack of pancakes (something she’s been craving for weeks).
One of the fabulous things about Saigon is that you can get anything delivered. And I mean ANYTHING. It has become part of the culture here and is so convenient. We just got a beautiful new bed set delivered yesterday. Kim also picked up a big selection of plants for me and a new watercolor. I’m excited to start nesting and making this our ideal home.
As I mentioned in the last update, it was a struggle to do everything without Kim. But she managed to find a way to order me flowers and get them delivered to school even before she was out of quarantine.
Saw a rainbow while walking Penny and video chatting with Kim (while she was still in quarantine)
Went plant shopping and found this cutie straight out of a Dr. Seuss book
Breakfast time has been yogurt with mangos served in our drink glasses because we have not yet gotten any bowls. Plus a new notebook and pen for my morning pages.
Bubble tea and pedicures is my new weekly ritual.
I can finally say that the saga of moving is finally complete! Kim and I have begun the new chapter of our lives in Vietnam. I can’t wait to continue sharing all our adventures with you all. I want to thank each and every one of you who have reassured me over the last few months, who have listened to each and every part of this saga, and who are rejoicing with us from afar. I love you xoxo
Freedom never felt so good! The day we were released from quarantine was such a celebration! We all staggered out of our rooms, squinting from the sunlight that we haven’t been exposed to in two weeks. And it couldn’t have come sooner because we were all starting to feel it, slowly becoming one with our beds and loosing all semblance of motivation to do anything. It hasn’t even been a week since then but it’s been a whirlwind of getting acclimated to the neighborhood, starting school, and enjoying social time that doesn’t involve a screen.
When I first left quarantine and arrived at my airbnb I nearly had a breakdown. The security guards checked my temperature on the way into the building but it came up as 99.5* F (37.5*C) and they wouldn’t let me in the building. I tried to explain to them that I just came from quarantine and I just had a COVID test the day before, but they weren’t having any of it. No way were they going to let this strange foreigner chance infecting their entire building, even if it was only because it was my first exposure to SE Asian heat after 15 straight days in an air conditioned room. This was my first experience after the long long wait to get here and it was going horribly and I was about to break down when right then the new-teachers liaison called to check in. She arrived by my side within minutes of the call with a triage of help including the school’s head nurse. It took a few calls, the production of my quarantine certification, and a few more temperature checks, but finally they let me through.
After I dropped my bags and opened my welcome grocery bag from school, I joined the other new teachers in the area for my first real food out of quarantine, a veggie panini. Then I met right up with my real estate agent to see an apartment that was about to be snatched up by someone else. Afterward I headed straight over to the pet boarding house where Penny was waiting. Our reunion was as expected, without much excitement but with a lot of joy. The people who looked after her were so so sweet, one of them cried when we started to leave. But we made it back to the Airbnb fine and I took Penny on her first walk around the neighborhood. She was all about exploring her new turf. Although she is still just as stubborn about being on leash and has proceeded to lay down in the middle of the road while passing car drivers laugh at the two of us.
By the time I got back from the walk I was beat! I had only walked a mile or two but it was more than the last 15 days combined. I met up with my new friend Brianna for dinner at a craft brewery in my building before we did a quick shopping trip. I hate grocery shopping on a normal day, put me in a new foreign grocery store when I’m exhausted and the results equal two pints of ice cream, cereal, a dragonfruit, yogurt, bananas, water, and goldfish.
The next day I got to go into school for the first time. I met my new team of elementary specialists, along with a couple dozen other wonderful people. This is the largest school I’ve worked at with about 1200 students. I am one of three elementary school art teachers! It is fabulous to be a part of a team of teachers rather than the lone wolf tucked in a distant corner of the school that no one even knows where it is. And folks, brace yourselves, because I. HAVE. MY. OWN. CLASSROOM. Eeeeekkkk! For the first time in six years I will be able to take full ownership of my classroom space, get ready for a rainbow fiasco!!
It was a day chock full of meetings, greetings, and HR presentations. So many forms to sign. It was no wonder that all of us newbies ended up at a Kim-recommended Mexican place with pitchers of margaritas, telling stories and laughing away. But seriously, my new school is all sorts of amazing. Not only does it value innovation, but it expects it. I can finally teach the way that I know is best and have full support to push the boundaries of the current practice of Art Education. Plus I’ve fantastic colleagues that are doing the same and keeping the expectations high. I feel that this is a place where I will finally be able to reach my true potential as an educator while being fostered and encouraged.
Kim arrived early early on Wednesday morning. She is quarantining at the Holiday Inn and my school is doing an equally fabulous job at taking care of her, showering her with welcome baskets and fulfilling any requests she makes. We video chat every time I take Penny out for a walk so she is starting to get familiar with our neighborhood as well. I even took Kim on a long neighborhood walk the other day where we checked out the local restaurants and shops.
On Thursday we had student orientation during the day, and at night, a fabulous social for the newbie teachers with the admin at a local pub owned by a former student from school. Friday was go day, the official first day of school. I haven’t been in front of students for FIVE months, but as soon as they came in the room I snapped right back into my teacher mode. It was invigorating having them there and so so nice starting to get to know them. By the end of the day I was so energized that I rearranged my whole room. I can’t wait to see what it will look like in a month or two from now!
I started the weekend off by getting a very thorough two-hour long health check that included everything from a stomach ultrasound to teeth and eye checks. Then I went shopping for a care package for Kim. I tried to find the most strange and unusual foods I could which resulted in me getting seaweed Pringles, chicken nugget shaped chips, a Japanese poofy cheesecake, chicken flavored cheese spread, and ramen noodle snack bites. Plus a large range of ramen noodles including cheese flavored and a spaghetti version. Also a variety of local beers so she could have a little tasting party.
We had another social Sat night at the craft brewery again. I brought Penny down to meet the crew since everyone had heard all about her long journey getting here. She convinced many people to give her pets and belly scratches.
Sunday was all about apartment hunting and I’m so excited to share that I found a place that I LOVE! It fulfills all the requirements that we were looking for and more. It is only about 3 minutes from school and it is gorGEOUS!! We are working with the Realtor now to finalize the negotiations and will hopefully be able to move in next week! It also resulted in me taking my first motorbike ride with the landlord in between apartment buildings. It went well and was not scary at all! I think there is hope for me yet. I can’t wait until Kim can get a bike that we can take on all sorts of adventures.
It’s been a lot this week. But all good things. I’m just not used to landing in a place by myself. Usually Kim takes care of the home stuff so I can focus solely on work but I’m currently doing it all (well, doing as much as I can) as Kim waits eagerly to join. But I’m managing just fine and I’m simply glad that we are all finally in the same country. It has been such a long time coming, so many months of uncertainty and worry. And we are on the other side, nearly completely to the end of this insane journey. And you know what? I couldn’t be more glad. I am SO excited for this new adventure. (PS Here are a few extra snaps from the week)
I’d like to tell you what day of quarantine this is but honestly I’ve lost count, maybe day 10, or 11, or 32, or 87?? What I do know is that we are nearing the end and I am so grateful for that. I wouldn’t want to admit to you how many hours of these days I’ve spent in front of a device and I’m honestly a little worried about my transition back into the real world. But I’m excited, that is certain.
Week two of quarantine has been filled with meetings for school, binge watching Shark Tank (I have no idea why, I’ve never been into the show but apparently it is my quarantine companion), and trying to figure out where I will live when I am released. The days are blurring into each other and this strange life I’m living is starting to feel normal - which is concerning because it is anything but.
My school continues to care for us in so many ways, like delivering these potted flowers to brighten up our rooms and celebrate the second week of quarantine. I’ve started ordering a few meals in to change it up from the fried rice and noodles. I’ve had delicious pizza, some vegan food, and tasty Indian food. I’m excited at what the city has to offer not only for Vietnamese options but International cuisine as well. I’ve also been able to order in a few ciders which have all been sooo good! International food and ciders were pretty rare in Istanbul (surprisingly) but seem to be readily available here.
Virtual orientation started on Tuesday, which was a welcome event. I got to meet my new Elementary Specialists Team and talk with some of the colleagues I’ll be working with. We had a great PD session about Assessment that challenged some of my past practices and gave me some food for thought on what I want to change in the future. These have been so helpful to get me into the school mind-set. It’s a strange mix of trying to prepare for only a few days from now, while it still feels so distant. Thankfully, each administrator at my school has made it abundantly clear that our wellbeing is their top priority. Because as we all know, we cannot care for others if we have not first cared for ourselves. They often use the analogy of putting on our own oxygen masks first. They have really gone out of their way to live the values they believe in as a school community.
Fabulous news: Penny arrived safely to Saigon on Friday! We had to hire an international pet transport company to move her from Istanbul to Saigon. It cost us an arm and a leg but I’m so glad that it is done and it all went smoothly. She is now enjoying her time at a highly recommended boarding house where she will be rolling in the mud until I can go get her. She also has been barking a lot at the dogs who are playing, she prefers them to settle down and behave, so she has been moved to the small dog play time where she runs around with little old dogs. A huge stress has been lifted for us and I’m so glad that 2 out of the 3 of us are in the same country.
Kim is set to fly in within the next couple days. We are hoping that none of the flights get cancelled like last time, and that she will be in Vietnam before the week’s end. She is saying her goodbyes again and taking a few last trips around Istanbul. For me, I’ll have my final COVID test on day 14 then will (hopefully) be released when the results come in after a day or two. When I do get out I’ve rented an airbnb for a few weeks to give me time to look for a permanent apartment. The start date for school is on Thursday the 13th so I’ll be hitting the ground running for sure. Wish me luck!
I’m laughing right now as I read over words that I wrote at the start of this year. I wrote them in a little printable booklet called The Year Compass, that I use to reflect on the past year and write down my hopes for the year to come. I found the booklet as I was leafing through my art journal yesterday and couldn’t help but burst out laughing when I got to the section about my wish for this year. I optimistically wrote “I wish to leave Istanbul feeling grateful and not stressed. I wish to land in Vietnam gently...” Bahahahaha If only I had known.
But in all seriousness, I’ve wondered on more than one occasion in the last few months if I still would have chosen this path had I known the immense hurdles that I would be facing along the way. Although there are many times that I have wished for a time machine to share these struggles with my before-signing-my-contract self, the truth that I cannot deny is that I know I am where I am supposed to be. I can feel it in my bones. I feel it so deeply down in my knowing that I want to question where it came from, but instead I am trying to sit with it. To listen to it. Trying to trust it.
Trusting this knowing was especially difficult when we got word that Kim’s flight into the country had been cancelled by the Vietnamese government. She was told last minute that she would need to make a flight this weekend and it was a furry as she packed her bags and said her goodbyes. Then, less than 24 hours before she were to fly, it was cancelled. It is unclear exactly why or what happened but it was so very disappointing. I’m trying to lean into gratitude, knowing that if anyone has a chance at remedying the situation, it will be my school.
Kim had already handed Penny over to the pet transportation company when we got the word of the cancellation. We decided to let Penny move forward with her journey since it was already under way. She is set to fly mid next week and, upon arriving to Vietnam, will stay in a boarding facility that we have arranged until I get out of quarantine
Other than the stress of Kim & Penny’s situation, I haven’t minded quarantine. The room I have is lovely. Big enough for what I need. I can squeeze my yoga mat in by the door for my morning sun salutations, spread out my art supplies and notebooks across the desk area, and take meetings on a padded bench - just to change it up a bit.
The three meals a day I have been getting are quite tasty. There is an entire vegetarian menu that is comprised of Vietnamese inspired dishes with a few western items thrown in here and there. The regular menu gives a choice between meals but there’s just the one option for vegetarians. No complaints here though, it has been more than satisfying the majority of the time and it is fun to try out a bunch of new Vietnamese dishes. I am starting to feel like one of Pavlov’s dogs though, for whenever I hear a rustling in the hallway my mouth starts watering (thinking that it just might be meal time). I do fear that I will be over rice and noodles by the time I leave.
My school has been so kind at delivering necessities as we request them. The day after I arrived I received my school laptop. Following that we were given cleaning supplies (laundry soap, dish soap, spray cleaner, masks, hand sanitizer, etc). Plus we have had the opportunity to request items throughout the week that were shopped for and delivered by some colleagues that are already here. I feel so well taken care of.
I have begun the apartment hunt as well. SSIS is the first school I’ve joined who does not have school housing and instead gives a housing allowance (my last two schools you had a choice between living in the housing or accepting the allowance). Thus, my first time apartment hunting in a new city. Actually, my only time apartment hunting abroad, for when I moved off school housing in Myanmar, the apartment found us rather than the other way around. For now, we have decided to find a temporary place to stay for a few weeks while we get our bearings and so we can see apartments in person. This will be especially important I’ve realized, because one thing that is different here is that apartments can only be listed with one real estate agent, thus you most likely need to work with multiple agents in order to find what you are looking for.
I had my second COVID test yesterday. We will continue to have them every 4 days or so while we are here so they can catch any positive results as soon as possible. Thankfully the test is a quick throat and nose swab that is done in seconds.
We had been enjoying being able to go in the hallway on our floor the first few days we were here. I learned during the weeks I spent staying at home when Corona virus first hit Turkey, that having some sort of movement every day was important. So two or three of us would get together and do a workout or yoga in the small area near the elevators. However, after a few days some new people moved onto the floor to quarantine. We realized then that it was too risky being out in the hallway. No way would I want days added to my quarantine if there was a potential exposure to these new people. Thus began the full isolation.
So my days are filled with working on my Istanbul memories mini-book, browsing curriculum documents, talking with friends and family, searching for apartments, reading (currently Then She Was Gone), bits of yoga (and hall-walking if I’m feeling brave), waiting on word about when Kim will be able to come, taking my temperature every morning and evening, and listening for the rustling of lunch/dinner arriving in the hallway. Next week I’ll begin virtual orientation for school so I’ll have that to keep me busy for sure. In the meantime I’m sending you well wishes from a little hotel room in Vietnam.
Alisa & Kim
Two expats living, teaching, and eating their way across this beautiful world