When we moved here to Ho Chi Minh City seven months ago, we found a house to rent in a Vietnamese neighborhood half-way between downtown Saigon and the international airport. This neighborhood is not on the list of fashionable places for expats to live, nor is it in an area frequented by backpackers or travelers. We didn't select this neighborhood because there was an absence of expats or foreigners in the neighborhood -- we did like the idea of living among Vietnamese on the level of the Vietnamese economy rather than the much more expensive expat-level economy.
We have certainly enjoyed living in this neighborhood, and we are learning a lot about Vietnamese daily life. I especially enjoy the breakfast soup stand down the hẻm (lane), and the cafés in the afternoon. Hien enjoys the close-by open-air market, the food vendors walking by the door everyday, and the inexpensive hair and nail salons. Since none of these services or shops see many foreigners, there is no need to have English speakers on staff.
But I have been feeling uneasy lately, and it has taken me some time to figure out why. I think that I have now realized that I am missing close friends and conversations.
We have plenty of friends around the neighborhood, but I can't communicate with any of them. I can sense the level of frustration in the breakfast soup vendor every morning that we can't communicate with each other, and I would love to be able to chat with the other regulars at the soup stand. I can sense that there are some very interesting banter and conversations, but that is as far as I can go.
The same frustration applies at the cafés. Vietnamese are very sociable people and gather in the cafés in groups to relax and converse. I go there by myself and can't strike up a conversation with anyone close by like I used to do back home.
Even in business, I deal solely with Vietnamese business people, so Hien has to do the translation. This works fine for business, but is a barrier to social interaction.
I know there are solutions to this angst -- I need to redouble my efforts to learn Vietnamese, but it is becoming even clearer that this is going to take a long time. I also need to break out of the neighborhood once in a while and head down to areas and cafés frequented by expats and make some new friends.
But I really want to meet some Vietnamese who are comfortable speaking English in social settings. I have met several young people on the street who want to practice their English skills. I will be thinking about ways now to put a group together to accomplish these mutual objectives.