Of the many questions I get asked, the one I get most often from Vietnamese and foreigners alike is why I want to live in Vietnam.
It is one that I find difficult to answer, even to myself sometimes: I know I want to be here, I am happy here. But how do I explain, especially to Vietnamese, that I prefer to be in a developing country, dependent on a temporary residence card, where I cannot own property, with a so-so job and low income, not being able to speak the local language, while I could be back in London, where I have a lovely two-bedroom apartment in the center, used to have a very well paid job, free healthcare? Difficult, that is probably why the first word I learnt in Vietnamese was ki cuc (weird), which is what I was told by now a very good friend when we initially met.
Last weekend I went down to Sa Dec in the Mekong Delta, to spend the weekend with the Kieu family, my girlfriend's parents, and there I was reminded of why I want to live here: Vietnamese people!
Regardless of the obvious communication problem, every time I go to visit my future in-laws I am treated like a king: always smiles from all of them, and ensure that I have enough food and drink and all what I like most. What is more I am astonished about their memory to spot what I really like, and they ensure that there is plenty around me.
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This has its dangers though:
My over 100 kilos in weight can give you an idea of how much I eat. At the Kieu's I am always overfed with amazingly lovely home cooked fresh food, so this time I managed to gain two kilos in two days.
But that is not the only danger. Although my girlfriend has assured me her family does not drink and I have only seen them drink on special occasions they really can! Last Sunday around 14 of us gathered for lunch, and food and beers were flowing (I have now kind of managed to survive drinking beer with the Vietnamese, the ice is my ally), however after so many beers the first bottle of Napoleon XO brandy was opened... and I was proved that I cannot compete with Vietnamese in drinking!
I am always treated so well by each and every member of the family and extended family, never asking for anything in return. Happiness flies all over the family, where life is simple but happy. There is respect, there is willingness to help, there is union, there is simplicity but above all there is happiness and that is why I want to live here because I came in search of happiness.
I have found it, not only with the Kieu's but with Vietnamese society in general, and with my lovely students in particular.
By Alfredo De La Casa
The writer is a British expat who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City