All good things must come to an end. After a very privileged four-and-a-half years of slumming it in a lake-view apartment, eating out every day, taking multiple holidays and working a back-breaking two to three weeks a month, it’s time to go home.
The initial clichéd year of teaching English abroad/putting off growing up was thrown into the air after meeting someone who gave me a reason, other than bacon, to get out of bed in the morning.
After more than three years together, neither of us can tolerate Hanoi’s pollution, unsanitary cuisine, or daily dicing with motorised death any longer. Plus, I miss Greggs, proper queuing and place names like Pratt’s Bottom.
Moving to the UK is something both my wife and I had wanted and planned for over a year, but when the time actually came around, it hit us very suddenly.
In the time it takes to open an envelope, we went from not knowing where we’d be spending Christmas, to having just over three weeks to shut down our lives in Vietnam, and get on a plane to London; all thanks to the limited entry window on the visa vignette.
The ensuing rush of preparation and planning meant that we would spend the first couple of weeks focussing on looking ahead, without fully considering what we were leaving behind.
But then it hits. For my wife, Huong, the obvious one is family, friends and a career she’s given over six years of her life to.
“It’s making me appreciate even more what I’ve got now; seeing loved ones, enjoying cheap Vietnamese food,” says Huong, 28. “This is a huge change. Career-wise, I’m scared I’ll have to start again from the bottom.”
For me, I’m saying goodbye to a country that has given me far more than I’ve given it. Our weeks of preparation include goodbye dinners with all of our favourite people, but my hardest goodbyes remain unspoken; those things which tipped the balance and made the annual decisions to stay for just one more year so easy.
Huong’s family have been incredible about the whole thing; at no point did they try to demotivate us or change our minds. Huong’s dad even coughed up the cash for the visa application. That kind of support is priceless.
“It feels great,” Huong says, “but I was quite surprised. In the beginning, my parents didn’t like this idea much.”
“What? Dating me or moving to England?”
“Both. Now they’re so proud of us, and supportive of our life choices. They understand it’s a good opportunity,” Huong says.
Over recent years, the UK hasn’t had a comfortable relationship with immigration. One side effect of this, which had a direct impact on us, was reported by The Independent in July 2017, several months after we had submitted the settlement visa application.
“Producing new rules has triggered a backlog of 5,000 applications from foreign spouses,” the article said.
Combined with plans to hike the required income threshold for the applicant’s spouses, the Conservative government is making sure things will only get harder for anyone who fell in love abroad, to come home with their partner or family.
However, we were in the lucky group. After months of waiting, and more application forms, tests and fees than you can shake a stick at, we got what we wanted.
The next step involves even more admin. CVs which haven’t been used for years need to be updated. Online job search accounts and LinkedIn profiles need to be made.
Vietnam is a country where positive prejudice goes a long way; being young and beautiful, or being white, is often all it takes to get a cushy job. That won’t cut it any more; two weeks before we take our flight, and we’ve already applied for a dozen jobs each.
As I write this, there are only a couple of days left before we leave. We’re already Googling potential new favourite cafés in what will be our home for at least the next few years.
Repatriation or a fear of reverse culture shock are not really issues for me. I know full well how intolerable British people can be, and how differently certain aspects of society operate, compared to Vietnam. I’m easy.
Even leaving Vietnam isn’t really that difficult; I know I’ll be back again someday, definitely to visit, and maybe even to settle down; just not in Hanoi. Vietnam will always be in my heart.
For Huong, however, settling in to life in a foreign country will be a much more complex process.
“Blending in is so important,” Huong says. “I don’t want to be considered as an outsider. I want to be a part of British society, understand it, and contribute to it.”
In Hanoi, most foreigners gravitate towards Tay Ho, and the established community of foreign workers living there.
“I feel like I don’t need to be near a community of Vietnamese expats,” says Huong. “I have a good support network already, from my husband and in-laws. Even being near a Vietnamese restaurant is not necessary; as nice as it would be.”
A new Vietnamese restaurant has in fact just opened up quite near our new home; only VND250,000 for a bowl of pho.