We think we can have it all, especially once we have children and we wish they could have the closest to a perfect life. Then we get a call from the universe through many signs that we ignore until one day we wake-up and are forced to do a reality check.
When you teach overseas you get a housing allowance. Other schools set you up in their own hosing. The school in Vietnam gave us an allowance, and since we had been homeless before moving to Hanoi, we thought it was imperative that Gaia had a proper home as soon as we got there to avoid more changes. We contacted a very nice and trusted realtor and looked at apartments (online) for several days before making a decision. We got an amazing condo close to our school in a so called compound, called Ciputra International City.
When we arrived in Hanoi we where taken to a hotel in the Old Quarter (or downtown as we know it). It was a great way to see the exotic city and a super intense taste of Asia within a few hours of jet lag. But in a couple of days, and considering Gaia’s needs, we were ready to move into our fancy condo.
The place was great, on a 13 floor which on the elevator read 12A for “luck” purposes, like you can lie to fate… it was all good until we realized 120 square meters were too much for this family since Gaia slept with us and played in the living room. Then we got our first electric bill of about $200 us. Time to move out if we really want to save some money as we all do once we start this overseas deal.
So this is the first one of 5 homes in 2 years, let me (try) make the story short. After this fancy condo we settle for a smaller more Vietnamese style apartment on a top floor of a small building with no elevator. The location was amazing as it was in the Tây Hồ area were all the magic happens for expats. a couple of weeks later our bitter downstairs neighbor started complaining about Gaia.. Ok sir, we will keep the noise down. The less toys she had (because we put them up so he would not hear banging), the more he complained. This part ends in the landlord asking either one of us to move out. I volunteered since we had bats coming in our apartment at night and then chasing us in the bathroom. Additional to our nocturnal friends, there was a huge construction site right next to us. But that is another factor of a developing country; there is construction EVERYWHERE!!! you cannot get away.
Apartment #3 was amazing, by the lake, smaller, perfect size. We were behind the Phủ Tây Hồ pagoda, the most important one in Hanoi. What a landmark! Every full moon we were surrounded by most shop, restaurant, and business owners amongst many other ordinary people who came to pray for prosperity leaving fruits, incense and money in this legendary temple. It was all wonderful until I decided it was not local enough for me, and why not immerse completely while paying half of our housing allowance and saving the rest?
So house #4 happened in an alley in Lạc Long Quân, which was named (I believe) after the second Hùng king of the Hồng Bàng Dynasty of ancient Vietnam. This was in fact a VERY local area, 15-20 minutes away from our little expat bubble… A huge house where I could teach yoga on the third floor. But then the construction of the house in front became eternal, ongoing, unpredictable. Every week the landlord said one more,a nd one more. We learned then two things: 1. that Vietnamese people live with their family forever, and that when someone gets married the couple moves in with the groom’s family. The houses are added a floor when this happens. For this reason you see tall and narrow houses in Vietnam. They all go up to continue a tight family bond where grandparents raise grandchildren. 2. There is no rush because people have before Tet (new years, which is around January and February) to finish construction. In November, the culmination of this neighbor house ended with a new addition other than the marital floor, a dog kennel downstairs. This became disturbing due to the noise everytime a motorcycle entered our little alley, and possibly the idea that these dogs could potentially become produce (dog is in fact a delicacy).
I lost it and realized we could not go this local. My reality check came as a slap in the face for my landlord had already spent our deposit money. We left this house 7 months before leaving Hanoi and I came to peace with my ego, realizing that I was already living in the country with the locals, even though I was going back to my Tây Hồ bubble.
Home #5, the best for last. This cute, small and modern apartment was in the middle of an alley off of Xuân Diệu (pronounced zuan sio), which is the main street of Tây Hồ. Named probably after the prominent Vietnamese poet of the early 1900s. Our loved address 31/38 Xuân Diệu. This means the alley is 38 and then there is another little alley (wide enough for a Tuk Tuk) which would be 31. Everything was walking or biking distance. Since it was one apartment per floor, we almost had a 360 degree view of the area. We were on the 6th floor and this time, we did have an elevator. The highlight was that it was indeed very local, as the alley is surrounded by local people who at 5 am get ready to sell their products in the morning market. Every morning we heard the city rooster, and every morning I biked through the market with Gaia. Most days we got sticky rice (xoi xeo), which was her favorite.
I can say I wished this apartment had been there since the beginning, and our lesson learned was not to rush. But then again, all experiences are much needed and we got to learn a lot of Vietnamese living in two years. Change is good and it makes you strong, wise, and flexible. We know now to keep it simple, because when you want to do more, you do less.
We wanted stability for Gaia and we did the opposite. She’s fine, kids are resilient and they adapt better than us. We did not want her to go through so much change, and at the end, she lived in 5 different places. She loved all of them and felt at home, because home is where your family and your heart are.