It was 2016. I sat in my office in my home country of Austria, writing small pieces for the online edition of a regional newspaper. And to be honest, it was a pretty sweet gig. I came in for 8 hours a day, wrote some articles on everything ranging from US politics to farmers being crushed by their own tractors (which happened disturbingly often). In fact, I was head of my own department, writing reviews of video games.
Now, when I say that, I mean that I moped until my boss let me write a review of a video game and then I just kept on doing that. So it really wasn’t a department as much as it was me, on my own, playing games and writing about them occasionally. For me, being a major nerd and enjoying games as well as writing, it was as close to being a dream job as it could get.
At least, it was for a while.

Losing my passion

Now, this may be looking a gift horse in the mouth, but I found that I didn’t enjoy playing games as much when I had to do it. Since I was building a cooperation with some game publishers, they expected me to publish something on their games soon after they were published. When a big game came out, I had to grind through it as quickly as I could and then write a comprehensive review of it. In my free time, I might add. My boss’ indulgence didn’t go as far as letting me play during working hours, unfortunately.
So, over the 7 years that I worked at the paper, my passion for what had once been my favorite hobby was fading quickly. It became a chore, something I had to force myself to do. My shrink put it quite bluntly. “You turned your hobby into your profession, so now you don’t have a hobby anymore,” she said. And, well, she was right.
I tried to diversify my work into writing more about politics, which was also one of my big interests, but the opportunities were limited, the politics department was full. This coincided with several of my friends leaving the city I lived in to either move home or find new opportunities elsewhere. Overall, it was a dark year for me.
So, I get back to me sitting in the office in 2016, finally coming to a realization. The kind of fulfilment I was looking for wasn’t going to find me in here among the sterile lighting and the air conditioning that was always just a little bit too cold. It was me that had to take the first step.
I had to get out of there.

Looking for a way out

I quickly decided that not only did I want to leave my hometown, I wanted to leave my country. I needed a real change of scenery, something completely new.
I started by looking at places in Europe first. Some of my first choices were Sweden, Ireland and Spain. I checked the possibilities for finding work there as a foreigner, spent hours looking through the EU’s job mobility database and actually found some quite interesting positions. Would I have gotten any of them? Probably not, but who knows.
I read online articles written by people who had moved to different countries – the issues they had faced, the opportunities, the endless possibilities for getting diarrhea. Weeks passed without me getting anywhere closer to deciding where I really wanted to go.

The fateful kebab

Until one day when I decided to talk to my coworker Anna about it.
We went out to lunch, as we had done countless times before, and I opened up about my plan to leave. Knowing that I’d been unhappy for a while, she wasn’t surprised by the news.
“So what do you want to do?” Anna asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just know I want to go somewhere else. I’ve lived in this town for more than 10 years. I need a change.”
“Do you have an idea about where you want to go?”
“I mean, kinda,”, I replied. “Maybe Ireland. Or Spain. I really like Barcelona. My brother went to University there for a year.”
Anna looked out of the window for a moment, absently chewing her kebab. Then she turned back to me.
“You could go to Hanoi,” she said.
I laughed.
“Yeah, right,” I said.
Now, it’s worth taking a moment to explain why Anna would mention Hanoi of all places. Her then-husband had lived in Hanoi for 6 months a few years prior. In fact, she had met him when she’d taken a vacation to Vietnam. She came back after two weeks in Vietnam and flew there again a month later. A few months after that, he came to Austria. Hanoi seems to be fertile ground for relationships.
Woosh, back to me eating a kebab (a sight you don’t want to visualize, trust me).
I thought about it while I finished my lunch in silence. Hanoi, huh?

Making a decision

I did know some things about Hanoi and Vietnam as a whole. My father had taken a trip to the country a few years before and had really liked it. My brother had also been there. And of course, I’d seen the Vietnam Special of Top Gear about a thousand times.
I began doing some research. Well, first I watched the Vietnam Special again and then I started doing some research. Those guys kill me with their antics.
I spent the next few days furiously reading articles about living in Vietnam, almost soiling myself watching videos of the traffic and imagining what it would be like. Hanoi… It sounded so exotic. It sounded completely different than anything I had experienced before. It sounded… perfect.
The deal was sealed one afternoon in a café in my hometown. Anna had arranged for me to meet her husband Alex, a Turkish guy my own age. We had some cappuccinos and he raved about what he clearly saw as the greatest city in the world.
“It’s so alive,” Alex said, his eyes lighting up as he reminisced. “It’s a place where people don’t just exist, it’s a place where people truly live. People take life as it comes and don’t worry as much as Westerners do.”
Now, even though I didn’t 100% understand what he was on about and his experience was clearly heavily colored by hanging out with expats in Tay Ho most of the time, he hit a nerve with me. As we left the café and said our goodbyes on the pavement outside, Alex said, “You should really think about it. I think you’d like it.”
I didn’t need to think about it. I had already decided.
I went home, turned on my computer and began to search for flights. I bought a ticket to Hanoi via Qatar and Bangkok that same evening. Just two weeks had passed since my fateful kebab with Anna.

No regrets

Now, I won’t bore you with telling you how hard it was to tell my family that I would be moving to the other side of the world or how amazing the reactions and support of my friends were.
What I will say is that I had chosen a song that symbolized this change in my life. I had loved it for many years and I had always wished that I had the courage outlined in those lyrics. “Do anything you wanna do,” it said. “I know I must be someone, now I’m gonna find out who.” And boy, did I find out.

It’s been more than 3 years since I first came to Vietnam and I still don’t have any plans of leaving. It didn’t exactly turn out as I had expected when I had bought my ticket. However, in hindsight, I think it turned out better. I’m now a married man, for one thing. And a Vietnamese wedding is probably worth a post of its own.
Overall, I think my experience has been vastly different from Alex’s. I don’t hang out a lot with other expats, I usually prefer the places frequented by the locals. Let’s say I like bia hoi better than craft beer – and not just because of the price.
So, while I’m still far from a real Vietnamese person, I’m still more than the classic Western tourist. I’m no tay ba-lo. I’m a tay va-li.